Friday, December 3, 2010

Benefit of the doubt

This is to follow up on my post from the other day on college degree or pedigree.

A friend commented on Facebook that one of the social assets that is gained through attending an elite college or university is benefit of the doubt:

Sure, graduate schools may matter more, but going to an elite college makes it easier to get into a top graduate school. Having worked at two Ivies now, I've seen up close how this benefit of the doubt works in an almost talismanic way for those who graduate from these schools. Most interesting to me in the debate was the point that this benefit of the doubt can be especially beneficial to minority students.

This reminded me that as a child, my parents taught me, explicitly and implicitly, that in order to be considered "as good" as "other people" in the United States, I needed to perform "even better," as they perceived inequalities in the social order: Arriving as "guest workers," they felt keenly that they had a "place" that they were given in American society, but to this day, even as naturalized citizens, I think they lack of real sense of belonging. They still talk about "American people" as somebody else.

Performing "even better" to my parents signified speaking "good English" and academics. So, they stopped speaking Korean at home with me, and fairly aggressively encouraged my reading and writing with weekly visits to the public library. Some families take day trips and vacations to look at mountains and lakes: My parents took us to look at Columbia and Harvard.

So, I think the comment on benefit of the doubt raises points that I hope are being examined further: The experience of attending an elite college, and the "fact" of receiving a pedigree from one certainly benefit individuals, but they also benefits individuals differently. For students who become identified as "minority," it might represent simply gaining a foot in the door, which seems rather a modest aspiration.

Also, among "minority" students, there will be differences: The rates at which Asian-American students enter and graduate from college and university look staggeringly different from the rates for African-American and Latino/a students. In addition, "Asian-American" students can refer to the upper-middle-class children of professional parents who immigrated from Taiwan and then moved to Alpine, New Jersey - and to the children of refugees.

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