Rational Choice, Anti-Harvard Deviance, and the Imperative to Aspire

A few days ago the sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) wrote a couple of tweets that resonated with my own work on community college students. She began by linking rational choice, college rankings, and white supremacy before following up with a comment about the relationship between aspirations and deviance.

I’m not entirely sure where her critiques are going to go from these statements alone. But an article I’m currently working takes up the matter of deviance from the other end, that of unmet ambitions. At least, it kind of does. Early research on community colleges by Burton Clark in the early 60s and later by Jerome Karabel and Stephen Brint in the 70s and 80s approached their subject from the general position laid out by Robert Merton in the 1950s: that ambitions much be managed if democratic societies want to avoid deviance and revolt. The community colleges, these sociologists argued, were the institutions of management ambition par excellence. This supposed management–supposed because these researchers rarely talked to students to find out if their ambitions had, in fact, changed or if they were simply being blocked from their goals and were not as prone to deviance as originally feared–affected mostly lower-class and non-white students and so could easily be characterized as part of a white supremacist mobility structure. But this literature made a lot of assumptions about what students were thinking, as I said, because they never spoke to them. However, recently researchers have begun to ask students what their ambitions are at more than one point in time. It turns out that most people, regardless of their experiences with college, actually hold on to the same goals. Even when students who expected to go to college in high school never actually enroll in college, they still expect to get a degree one day. And more kids than ever are planning on and expecting to attend and graduate from college.

In the course of thinking about this I picked up Stephen Morgan’s book On the Edge of Commitment. A highly technical book of statistical reasoning, On the Edge attempts to develop a model of status attainment in which the causal role of aspirations could be formulated. Throughout he develops a stochastic decision tree and uses the concept of Bayesian learning to explain how imperfect but continually changing information could lead to decisions that either lead toward or away from the aspiration of enrolling in college. Part of his goal is to explain the black/white gap school attainments. I’m still reading through this part of the book, but his model builds on the idea of stereotype threat and the disidentification with school that occurs over time as black students perform below their own expectations. On first thought, this rational choice model appears to account for white supremacy and anti-blackness by recognizing that the rational decision making that students make is based on the information they receive, which is ultimately conditioned by the internalization of racism. Moreover, it would seem to explain the lowering of expectations among community college students who are responding to the institutionalized mechanisms of a gatekeeping institution meant to keep the vast majority of poor and non-white students out of four-year institutions.

On the other hand, Morgan links the idea of disidentifying with school with Ogbu and Fordham’s arguments about oppositional culture. Although arguments about oppositional culture are often little more than attacks on a straw man, there is an abundance of evidence that non-white and disadvantaged students do not adhere in a widespread or consistent way to oppositional cultures. And, for my purposes, this idea does not help explain in any way the persistence of college degree expectations among marginalized, struggling community college students.

The question of why students persist in aspiring to college degrees, I believe, is not far from the reasons that aspirations to attend somewhere other than Harvard is viewed as deviant. There is an ambition imperative that links moral worth with college attendance and attainment. Generalized education has been linked to the productive capacities and overall well-being of society since at least the mid-19th century if not before. Eugenecists feared that people who failed to embark upon programs of self-improvement would exacerbate the overuse and exhaustion of resources and impede the development of more efficient modes of life. In other words, the abundance produced by the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution were threatened by those parts of the population that refused to educate themselves. Today, aspiring to and going to college is the floor of moral social belonging. It is repeated that jobs for people with less than some college are disappearing and won’t come back. And the unemployable are the undeserving and the immoral.

But do they need to aspire to Harvard? When I asked one woman in my study what came to mind when she thought of college she said Harvard; it was where perfect people went. If college is increasingly a prerequisite for moral status, then Harvard is the peak of morality. To not aspire, at the very least, to a Harvard education hints at a deviant streak. Maybe it even raises the possibility that they might consider not going to college altogether. And as the economy continues to grow sluggishly despite all the heroics of coders and tax cutters, we couldn’t possibly afford people who refuse to maximize their own self-improvement.

Update: A couple of additional thoughts come to mind. The first is that the linkages between college-going and morality were made clear when Mike Brown’s college enrollment plans were made central by some people who sought to point out the wrongness of his murder. As many people on social media pointed out, his college plans should have absolutely nothing to do with his humanity, his right to life, and the absolute wrongness of his murder. The fact that aspiring to college is widespread and durable may be very positive and some voices may put this to use in defense of marginalized communities. But it has a dark side, which is evidenced when worthwhile existence is linked to college in this way.

The second thought relates to William Deresiewicz’ article excoriating the Ivy League. If Harvard and its peers are at the pinnacle of a moral system built on educational attainment, then there is a contradiction at the heart of an institution that produces “little shits.” Somewhere in the process of aspiring to greatness and falling to the miserable ground, these kids’ moral status is called into question. And if they descend to the immoral depths of Wall St. meet-and-greets, then the transformation is complete. In any case, there is a morality play that can and should be examined more carefully.

Update 2: This tweet today by ghetto intellectual draws on the moral character of going to college from an alternative perspective, which is that of community uplift rather than an adherence to dominant concerns about productivity.

Update 3: Another phenomenon to consider is the anti-college rhetoric that comes from radically opposed directions. On the one hand, you have those who question whether college is “worth it” and usually rest their answer the on the tremendous growth in student debt and, in some cases, poor labor market outcomes for college graduates. In this case, to link morality and college you need the additional link of a mountain of undischargeable student debt and labor market uncertainty. Acting out the moral play is, in this light, foolish. On the other hand, you have those who claim that college is an impediment to the inventive faculties of bright youths. This is the hubris of the tech lord and the reflects the association between morality and perceived risk. There is, of course, very little risk for well-off intelligent young adults foregoing college for a short period to try their hand at entrepreneurship and invention. Moreover, entrepreneurial success brings its own morality along with it and can even undermine the moral drama of college. This is the framework with which people like Bill Gates are understood. For people who can change the world “without” a college education, college is a superfluous detour on the way to market sainthood.


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