Swagville

Crabby hates clutter…

maxresdefault[the King gestures to the window]                                                                                                 King of Swamp Castle: One day, lad, all this will be yours.                                                 Prince Herbert: What, the curtains?                                                                                           King of Swamp Castle: No, not the curtains, lad, all that you can see stretched out over the valleys and the hills! That’ll be your kingdom, lad.

–from Monty Python and the Holy Grail

What does it take to create a “college-going culture” for students who haven’t grown up in one? Classrooms and hallways with pennants and posters? Getting lanyards, buttons, pencils, and other tchotchkes from colleges and universities? Visiting college campuses…when they’re in third grade? Does the detritus of college marketing efforts truly inspire non-privileged kids to heights of achievement that will enable them to enter and succeed in college, or does it simply make them better consumers of the images and messages colleges want to project?

What does “creating a college-going culture” mean, anyway? At its best, it should mean building respect for learning, creating enlightened self-awareness, building one’s ability to read and write clearly and carefully, manipulating figures and ideas, and aspiring to always higher standards of achievement. It means questioning authority, looking at the world with a critical eye, making intelligent judgments, and being aware of one’s place in the world in order to act upon it. Being educated and college-bound also means always creating options for yourself, now and in the future.

A store full of college stuff

One day all this will be yours…          

These things cannot be communicated through college-branded objects or “let’s all be smart” exhortations, testing prep or test pep rallies, or being able to name colleges. Too many schools make the mistake of presenting the image of college as the real thing, inspiring a kind of magical thinking that makes a college-branded magnet a talisman designed to eventually get that student into the college it represents.

This kind of activity is shallow and circumstantial. While it may have the immediate effect of exciting kids (especially younger ones) the way Santa does, it doesn’t further their awareness of college as a place for continuing their educations. Taking third graders on a field trip to a lush college campus does little to help them understand what college is, nor does it provide anything but a “nose against the department store window” experience as they marvel at the lawns and the buildings. How will it serve them over time? Will they be better students for it?

The only way to create a college-going culture for students who haven’t grown up in it is to give them the kind of education that kids who grow up in college going cultures get. Pennants and posters and “faculty wear your college colors to work” days are decorative and may inspire curiosity and questions from students, but if you then return to classrooms where worksheets, deadly boring textbooks, following endless instructions, and test prep are the rule, you’re not helping. (For an eye-opening look at how classroom techniques differ among working, middle, and upper class schools, see Jean Anyon’s Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work.)

One of the things I notice most when I work with non-privileged high school students in community settings is how little they know about the idea of college or what a good college education is, even when they are clearly bright. They have workbooks that break essay writing down into a Taylorism-inspired nightmare, with each step so minutely described it would bore a sloth to death. They seem never to have been asked what they think about something or to discuss an idea or observation. Throughout their lives they’ve been told what to do and made to follow directions, and then they are introduced to “college” and asked to switch gears to thinking mode by being shown a pennant or a sweatshirt. This will not do, people.

In our rush to recreate the middle class’s immersion in college going attitudes for non-privileged students, we’ve adopted the surface, not the substance. College going attitudes play constantly in the background for middle class students; they’re there when parents bug kids about their homework and they sign up for AP classes. They’re there when mom and dad go to their reunions with the baby and kids in tow. It’s entwined in everything they do. But (ideally) it all promotes hard work and studying, aspiration and choice. It’s more than just a sweater with a College ® logo.

Acquiring college “stuff” without supplying the rationale behind it is really a type of consumerism training, not an expansion of students’ educational horizons. It also demonstrates an assumption we make as middle-class college educated people that college attendance is a good thing on its face. It doesn’t really need to be explained to our students. But it does. Over the last few years as I’ve worked with non-privileged kids I’ve learned not to ask where they want to go to college but what they think and know about college. Even those from “pennant academies” often don’t have a clue what it’s all about except that their teachers and principals want them to go there.

I currently tutor an African American junior who attends a Catholic school here in Chicago. He’s a smart kid and seems to be doing well, but his penetrating questions about college tell me that all the exhortation in the world hasn’t really helped him make the connection between where he is now and where he might be headed. “Aren’t there good jobs you can get without college?” is one question he’s asked; “Why did you go to college?” is one he surprised me with, before he then asked, “What did you get out of it?” That question, of course, contains the real question, “Why should I go to college?” Our discussions have been intense and invigorating. I don’t know yet if he’s had the academic preparation to get into a good college, but I know he has the potential, and I’ve never given him so much as a college pencil.

So look, everyone, go ahead and decorate with posters and wear your college colors, but don’t forget the substance of college preparation. If you want to teach your students how to write a business letter, have them research and write about issues that affect them and their neighborhoods and send the letter to their mayor, councilman, senator or representative. If you want your kids to be college ready, make sure they write and read a lot and have debates in class, and tackle tough problems in science and math. Develop their willingness to take positions and defend them and be sure they know how to do research and ask questions without embarrassment. Give them depth–have them do something substantial and meaningful instead of just grasping for shiny objects.

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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2 Responses to Swagville

  1. I really love what you say here and strongly agree that a culture that encourages college is one that values debate, inquiry, reading, writing, thinking and taking chances. My son is currently a junior at U of I and after a few missteps with fraternity life he is experiencing college in a way that I feared was over, being challenged, learning new stuff, getting grades he earned through working very hard and still not knowing if he’s pre-med or what. But then again he’s the third generation, Harvard-Harvard-Rutgers, PHDs and Masters and so what about those kids who aren’t given these insights? Take them to classes on campus, get college instructors to visit the school, even better, get current students to do so and talk about what they do and why. Teach in a way that encourages debate and risk taking in high school! Give them a vision for their future that is both concrete and open-ended.

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  2. Will Dix says:

    Exactly…Couldn’t have said it better myself. Thanks, Molly!

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