The university is the great equalizer. More than any other institution, the university has the ability to take people in the lowest economic rungs of society and lift them up, providing social mobility, a rigorous education and a reliable network of connections. It is a funnel at the end of which exists a future where graduates’ incomes are more equal and the pool of professionals is more diverse.
The numbers look good. Though low income students still have a more difficult time securing jobs than students from wealthier backgrounds, and though there continue to be huge barriers to access in higher learning, recent research by Stanford economist Raj Chetty and others suggests that colleges do in fact have a positive and meaningful impact on social mobility and overall income.
The issue, it seems, may lie outside of statistics. Today, sociologists can predict students’ majors based on their parents’ income. Those from lower-income backgrounds are more likely to major in medicine, computer science, physics and chemistry, whereas those with higher incomes tend to study english, history or the performing arts. What’s even more surprising is that “students from lower-income households … tend to attend schools with less funding for the arts and humanities.”
The implications of this are bleak. Humanities programs are extremely important for defining the culture on campus. Students from the humanities are those who end up directing and writing plays, running on-campus publications, and writing opinion columns in the newspaper. When low income students are absent from the humanities, it means that their voices and distinct perspectives are absent from campus culture. It means that while one class of students is busy seeking financial security, another is creating the university’s identity. In the end, though economic differences might be equalized, the price of entering the funnel is being assimilated into a campus culture which on the whole lacks the insights and experiences of the low-income students in the first place.
This goes to show that, unfortunately, universities remain intellectually and economically segregated. And not only is this a detriment to low-income students. This is a serious loss for the future of scholarship in the humanities themselves. Administrators realize this. Strategies for increasing socioeconomic diversity in these fields range from scoffing at STEM majors who will never read Diderot to warning prospective chemists of the mundanity of organic chemistry to finally insisting that humanities graduates can in fact earn stable salaries.
Scholars of the humanities generally hail from more economically privileged backgrounds than scholars in other fields. Ironically, some of the most important philosophical critiques of modern capitalism came — and had to come — from its very beneficiaries; Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno, for instance, both sons of tremendously wealthy German industrialists. Though their ideas later become crucial to critical theory, I always wondered how their ideas would have differed had they been born to working class families.
It’s not that intellectual diversity in these fields is a new problem. It’s just that now, America faces a nation conflicted by unprecedented social and economic differences. The very fact that such extreme contrasts had gone unnoticed for so long is itself a testament to the structural problems and insularity in academia today.
It’s difficult to envision a future where all socioeconomic backgrounds will contribute equally to the study of the humanities. Perhaps it’s something that will only solve itself in future generations, or with significant changes in the job market. However, even at Stanford, there is a lot more that could be done to reverse this trend. For a start, the university could subsidize the cost of art and music classes for students, which can run up hundreds of dollars in additional course fees, and that’s not even counting the cost of art supplies. Furthermore, prize money could be offered to students who showcase their work at the Stanford Art Gallery, just as more funding could be offered to the Institute for Diversity in the Arts.
In order to ensure that universities offer a true circulation of diverse ideas and experiences, they first ought to ensure that the arts and the humanities can be financially viable for all students. If we are ever to enrich the culture on campus, improve arts scholarship or even better understand our nation’s identity, the university’s role in equalization must cease being its role in assimilation.
Contact Anna-Sofia at alesiv ‘at’ stanford.edu.