Whenever we talk about inequality in my American Education seminar, many of us shift uncomfortably in our seats.
I think we’re torn about whether to feel ashamed or secretly grateful that not everyone can afford the credentialed success we’ve purchased. It’s easier to just believe we all earn our places in life. So maybe we’ll assume everyone who got better grades than us in high school went to off Harvard to become brain surgeons. And maybe, when we look at the people who clean our toilets or pick up our trash, it’s easier to think of them as being punished for something: probably they were the lazy dropouts, and these are their consequences for not working hard.
But when pressed to think critically, we might look back to our own process of “getting in.” Were we “accepted” on our own merits, or was it just that enough of the poor kids who’d outperformed us since kindergarten crunched their numbers and realized they couldn’t afford to take our spot?
Maybe we’ll dwell on that for bit (five-to-ten seconds, tops). We’ll sit there wondering what became of the poor kids we knew back in high school; those weird overachievers from broken homes who always aced the math quizzes; those quiet kids who wore uncool clothes and rode the school bus even as seniors. We’ll hope that Arby’s gig worked out for them, and that they saved some money while we were pledging fraternities and skipping classes at our manicured university. We’ll hope that eventually they even saved up enough to pay for college, even if its only part-time at some community school.
We make it a point to convince ourselves we’re pulling for them.
And then we push them out of our minds, because their reality absolutely does not belong in what we’ve been told is our land of opportunity, and because acknowledging their America makes it less fun to cheer for basketball teams in ours.