In Response to Eboo Patel

On 9 January 2018, Eboo Patel’s “Attending an Elite College Is an Identity, Too” appeared in the online Inside Higher Ed. After opening by relating a passage from Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, Patel notes the rarity of understanding college attendance as constituting an identity, tacitly calling for more such recognition. Patel goes on to note that elite colleges are more prone to the lack of recognition than are less prestigious institutions and sketch out some of the parallels between elite institutional privilege and white male cishetero–including their social construction. The article continues by pointing out parallels to other systems of valuation and the consequences of the exercise of elite institutional identity in the current economy before reiterating (explicitly) the wish for more recognition of that identity. It ends with a reminder that working with people of diverse experience and identity is a key component of the collegiate experience.

I think Patel is correct in the claim that college attendance is an identity, and I believe the assertion that more needs to be done to recognize the identity and its socially constructed nature than typically is is similarly correct. But I would like to expand on the point Patel makes, if backhandedly, that students at colleges other than the elite are more likely to recognize college attendance as identity than their counterparts at more prestigious schools. I attended such programs, and I have taught in them, and my experience is that those who attend the schools both make much of having attended college and of having attended the colleges they have.

Sometimes, the awareness of attending college has been a good thing. I have had many students who were the first in their family to go to college (and some who were the first to have graduated high school or its equivalent), and most of them have been keenly aware of the privilege commensurate with that attendance. They have seen how much they work who do well in life without having attended or completed higher education, or they have experienced first-hand life in the lower reaches of the underclass–no few of my students have been ex-cons–so they have a keen idea what college can mean. They value it, and so they tend to be among the more diligent and devoted of my students. It tends to make them my favorites, for, having come from a similar background–as I write, neither of my parents has completed an undergraduate degree, and my father still works in the trades–I am sympathetic to their situations and appreciate hard work in itself.

Sometimes, the identification is, if not good, generally harmless. When I taught for a Big 12 school, for example, much was made of having attended the institution, of participating in its traditions. While some of those traditions have unfortunate overtones and undertones, and I found many of those traditions decidedly annoying as an instructor expected to conduct classes among them, they were largely benign, allowing the students a sense of community extending back from themselves and, presumably, forward to students yet to attend the school. Many involved athletic and academic rivalries with other schools in the conference, particularly the other such school in the state, but, as encounters with populations from those schools was relatively rare, the rivalries little mattered. (Little, of course, because there were always some who used the rivalries as excuses for all manner of bad behavior, although rarely so bad as I have seen in Texas, when the Longhorns and Aggies still faced one another.)

In no few cases, though, the identification becomes outright problematic. I have long since lost count of the number of times I have been told by students at state schools and two-year schools and schools of last resort that they are “only” at such institutions. Term after term, year after year, institution after institution, I have heard students say that they are “only” at the school where they study, as if earning a spot in a program is not itself a worthy thing, as if the learning they are doing does not matter because it is not done at some fancy place where more is made of who a person’s parents are than the effort they expend to achieve–or the results of that expended effort. Some try to use the “only” to excuse their own non-performance, but more say it with a certain tone in their voices that bespeaks their having accepted a lesser status for having gone to less prestigious schools. When they say “only” to me, they are saying that they believe themselves less than, something I know not to be true but which I have yet to be able to convince more than a handful of my students that is so. It grieves me that they accept the identity which has been constructed for them, that they have internalized being less than for the schools they attend, and while I do everything I can to ensure that what they get is of value, because of such identities as they and I have, there are barriers that I know not how to surmount.

So, yes, Patel is on to something, and the article is correct in its assertions. But there is more to explore on the matter, and there are many more than might be expected who would benefit from that exploration.


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