I got into a conversation earlier this week about the cultural capital of graduating students at elite universities.
What students learn in their coursework and from being in a college community builds some of the cultural capital that they will need to gain access to the careers and futures they (and their parents) envision. This is one of the difficult issues at the heart of current global struggles over higher education, difficult because so many uncomfortable issues are involved.
John Quiggan has an interesting post at Crooked Timber on just how small the share of the total population of college-age students are educated by the top-tier elite institutions, and not for the first time, this emphasizes just how perverse it is when debates about all of higher education begin and end with elite private institutions as the primary referent.
The commenters raise some sharp questions about whether it’s even true that an education from the top-tier elite institutions is a requirement for certain kinds of professional aspirations and achievements. I think it’s true that the number of professional worlds that define the entrance setting of “merit” exclusively or primarily as an Ivy League or Ivy-like education has shrunk considerably in the United States over the past forty years or so. But at the same time, there are plenty of fields and ambitions where the reputational value of certain big names still has a disproportionate payoff, and maybe a few where those names are very nearly a requirement at the beginning, middle and end of a career.
This is and always has been in tension with other representations of meritocratic social mobility (which is an increasingly old-fashioned idea in any event as wealth inequality continues to grow in the US), that the mere name of Harvard or Yale could be a key to some kingdom. The main defense offered by elite institutions for the value of their name is that their selectivity in admissions justifies that respect, the excellence of their education justifies that respect, that they pick the most meritorious people to elevate to the elite and that they hone and improve that merit with the best teaching, the most resources, and so on. There’s been more and more skepticism from many fronts about how true this is, and whether graduates of these institutions should just be evaluated as no better or worse on average than the graduates of many public universities or second-tier private institutions.
Obviously these are not issues that I deal with from a distance. One of the things that occurs to me about Swarthmore and colleges like it is that I’m really quite confident in the strength of our claims for “value-added” in the education we offer when our graduates are heading into careers that closely match or derive from the fields of study that we offer.
Things get a bit fuzzier when students go into careers that don’t have any direct connection to the curriculum, but I still feel pretty good about how we develop skills, and even about the ultimate in fuzzy, fungible concepts, “critical thinking”.
Still, I also know that one of the things that positions students for different outcomes as they prepare to graduate is their store of cultural capital: how they talk, how they self-present in letters and resumes and interviews, the kinds of interstitial things they know about the world and how it works. Whether they know the unspoken and unwritten rules of the game in whatever game it is that they want to play, and if they don’t know, how canny they are about watching and snooping and figuring out what the rules are. Whether they drop names, and if they drop the right ones.
Once upon a time, the content of an elite education was much more closely mapped to the cultural capital of the elite: this is precisely what fed the resentment of ambitious outsiders like Richard Nixon for the Eastern Establishment. It’s the sort of world that’s very well portrayed in the film Quiz Story, a world where knowing the right things authenticated you in the social world of a certain kind of elite, and not knowing those things made you an outsider.
Today, for a zillion complicated reasons, many of them having nothing to do with the academy itself, the discrete knowledge that constitutes meaningful cultural capital within various professional and social worlds is much more fragmented, as are those worlds themselves. If you’re aiming for a career at Google or its competitors, you might be better off watching Doctor Who DVDs than you would be reading Wordsworth. If you’re hoping to be at a think tank studying national security issues, there’s a particular canon of writing about policy, military history, and political process that would have the biggest payoff. Sometimes you’ll get this in college, sometimes you’ll get it from friends, and sometimes you won’t get it until later.
This is fine: I am not one of those pining for the ability to compress the culture back into a tightly canonical straitjacket. What I wonder about is whether we equip our students with the ability to rapidly read, interpret and synthesize the cultural capital of a given professional world, and whether we programmatically help incoming students who don’t already have some of the baseline skills of effective self-presentation develop them by the time they leave.
What I fear is that the students who come in understanding the hidden rules (of the college, of the professions, of bourgeois manners) come out with more polish on that understanding, but that students who don’t come in with that experiential knowledge only acquire it in fragments, often through negative or bruising experiences with peers or indirectly negative communications from faculty.
But if we don’t have more programmatic, focused attention to building up skills of effective self-presentation, to building up a practical map of how the world works, that’s partly because it’s very difficult to figure out how to do that. The Professor Henry Higgins schtick doesn’t work in the real world (and doesn’t work all that well even in the story). And yet, it seems to me that you have to be able to speak directly and honestly, uncomfortably so, to purposely build up someone’s skills in this respect. When I hear a student describing a post-graduation ambition and that student plainly doesn’t know anything about the real-world contours and character of the professional world that they aspire to, I really want to step in, but supplying that information isn’t a matter of a single remark or correction. When I hear a student make an appeal, try to persuade a group, talk with an interviewer and every moment is catastrophically miscalculated, tone-deaf to the circumstances, I want to say something to them later: but what? It’s hard to do anything interpersonally, and doing something institutionally is nearly guaranteed to be a horrific snob-fest like some of the weirder rituals of elite British universities.
A lot of universities and colleges have their pretentions as well as legitimate ambitions deeply entangled in this problem. Even if I want to smash the idea that a Supreme Court justice simply must come from an Ivy League school, I’d still want all my students (wherever I taught) to be able to quickly read, understand and adapt to the cultural particularities of any professional or social world, and those particularities will always exist even if we dethroned the most obnoxious forms of insiderism.