One New York Times Sunday Review

When I opened the September 13th NY Times Sunday Review recently, I found not only  a print version of Annie Paul’s blog featured in my last post,  Is There a Lecture Learning Gap?,  but three other articles on higher education as well. While Paul suggested we replace the Western cultural lecture that favors privileged white males with activity-based learning benefiting everyone, the others took an unquestioning view of American college culture.

In What the Privileged Poor Can Teach Us?, sociologist Anthony Abraham Jack talks about his research on black students in elite colleges. He compared the success of low-income black students who attended private schools (the privileged poor) with poor blacks who hadn’t. He found that the privileged poor had a great advantage because they were comfortable in the dominant American culture that permeates our elite colleges. For example, while the privileged poor will ask, even demand, extra help when they are confused or behind, non-privileged blacks are too embarrassed or uncomfortable to reach out to instructors so they will continue on a downward spiral.

Nicholas Kristof’s piece, From Somaliland to Harvard, is in sync with Jack’s observations.  Kristof highlights the journey of Abdisamad Adan, a poor African, to Harvard this year. Abdisamad attended a private boarding school run by an American, Jonathan Starr, in Somaliland. Forty-five students from that high school have already graduated from top US colleges. Kristof’s point in the article is that access to schools like Starr’s is the key to success for children like Abdisamad.

This “if you can’t fight them, join them” attitude when it comes to the prevailing culture in American colleges is assumed by Frank Bruni in his article, Measuring a College’s Value. He looked at data from the Gallup-Purdue Index which surveyed 30,000 college graduates. According to Bruni, the research shows that

….graduates fared better if, during college, they did any of these: developed a relationship with a mentor; took on a project that lasted a semester or more; did a job or internship directly connected to their chosen field; or became deeply involved in a campus organization or activity….

Developing a relationship with a mentor? Applying for an internship? Plunging into an extracurricular activity? It sounds like you would have to have the cultural confidence of the privileged poor to take advantage of those opportunities.

Bruni concludes that “what college gives you hinges almost entirely on what you give it.” “What you give it” isn’t neutral. It depends on who you are, the circumstances of your childhood, what culture is familiar to you. So is the student to blame or should we take a look at American college culture?

Before we give more support to elite schools mimicking a biased dominant Western perspective, before we try to make everyone conform to a culture that hasn’t always done the best for everyone, shouldn’t we question what exists and find solutions for change that support and encourage all students including those who bring diversity to the college campus?