Latino Scholars in Higher Ed: Musings On Listening to Marketplace Report
This evening Marketplace Report had a segment on ” A push for Latinos to pursue education”. It’s a great segment, based on a report from the Southern Education Foundation. (Possibly this one; four page summary of the report, A New Diverse Majority: Students of Color in the South’s Public Schools is here.)
The Hispanic College Fund started out funding college scholarships, but found that wasn’t sufficient; now they are reaching out to the high school level, as early as ninth grade, to encourage young Latino kids to pursue a college education. Many of these kids are from low-income families with parents who do not know how to navigate the college application and financial aid application processes.
This especially caught my attention: an early marketing strategy was to pitch the kids on how getting a college degree would vastly increase their earning potential. But this didn’t have much impact. Apparently the kids listened to that pitch, looked at their parents working their asses off at two or more jobs to make ends meet, and experienced the “college will let you make more money” pitch almost as an insult to their parents’ lives – as if the college recruitment crew were saying “strive for more and better because your parents aren’t good enough.” So they changed the pitch to “college will enable you to give back to and improve your community” and that met with greater success.
This is very interesting to me in several regards.
When my parents were encouraging me to go off to college, it was with the explicit notion that a college degree would enable me to escape the narrow life choices available to me in our small hometown, and provide me with financial security. (Thus, no consideration of majors like English or history – this is probably one of the major reasons I ended up in engineering.) We thought of college as a way to move up and out, and we did not consider how a college education was going to separate me from the fabric of our community. I gained everything my parents hoped I would from college, but much was also lost. College threatens community connections for poor and working class people in a way it does not for more financially well-off families.
People may be coming in from outside and saying “let us show you how to have this life that we have” and maybe that is not necessarily what is wanted. Maybe what is wanted is to keep the good parts of community life and the connections, and improve what needs improving. Looking back I see my family and I were striving to purchase for me a version of educated upper-middle-class success, which I got. Given the system we were operating in – the whole way of life I grew up in has been swept away anyway by forces beyond our control – maybe it was the best of a bad bargain. But I can see wanting to resist that choice.
I have been reading Pythagoras’s Trousers by Margaret Wertheim and she makes an argument near the end of the book that physics needs to become a more grounded discipline, dedicated more to the service of the needs of humanity, and less obsessed with transcendence and the desire to build ever larger and more expensive particle accelerators that yield esoteric knowledge of no real practical value to human lives. I am grossly oversimplifying what she says, but she makes the point that one of the reasons physics as it is currently practiced is less attractive to members of underrepresented groups is that it is irrelevant to our lives.
If you were encouraging young Latino students to stick with their studies and pursue a college education, would you steer them to physics? If I had majored in physics in college, I could possibly have gone back to my high school and taught physics there and encouraged other students to go on to college. But there is little else I could do with a physics degree. With engineering or accounting or nursing or an MD or forestry or a number of other majors, I could have gone back to my general area and found some sort of employment in the community, if I had wanted to. What positive arguments can be made for encouraging Latino students to study physics? I’m curious to hear what you think.
What about getting a PhD? It was great for me personally. I was able to live overseas, travel Europe, work at many interesting jobs, and ultimately end up with a very lucrative job in industry that came with great perks, including an extremely generous disability insurance that continues to cover me and will do so until age 65 or until I can go back to work. Your average job just doesn’t provide that sort of thing. But my job and my job experiences gave back absolutely zero to the community I came from. All of it took place far, far away from southwestern Pennsylvania. Not that there’s much left back there now. Hollowing Out the Middle, indeed.
People are right to want to protect their communities, but it comes at a personal cost. It stinks that many of the things kids want to go back to their communities to do, to make those communities better places, are not well-paid kinds of jobs. I don’t think, however, this is an argument for saying that kids from poor communities should all be encouraged to get their education on the cheap. As a rule, I don’t see people with lots and lots of resources sending their kids to community college because the education there is such a good value for the dollar.
Mind you I am not saying community colleges are no good, that you can’t learn anything there. I’m just mindful of the guy I once argued with, who proclaimed that you couldn’t solve education problems by throwing money at them, and that he could teach any kids with just a blackboard and some chalk. I asked him if he would be happy, then, knowing that his kids were going to a school that did not have enough textbooks for all the students, since all that was needed was a blackboard and some chalk. Would he be willing to send his kids to that school? Um, no, he was not.
So: I don’t want all our new majority minority kids, who are rapidly becoming the future of this country, to have to pick up their learning in the classrooms with just blackboards and chalk. I want at least some of them to get their own shiny new textbooks. And that means we, as a society, have to pony up some cash to pay for that. I just don’t see any other way around that.
Bunny Rock in Zuska’s Garden
Zuska is the kick-ass alter-ego of Suzanne E Franks. When not dispensing Zuska's wisdom, Suzanne can often be found gardening, reading, or having one of her thrice-weekly migraines.
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