Latino Scholars in Higher Ed: Musings On Listening to Marketplace Report

This evening Marketplace Report had a segment on " A push for Latinos to pursue education". It's a great segment, based on a report from the Southern Education Foundation. (Possibly this one; four page summary of the report, A New Diverse Majority: Students of Color in the South's Public Schools is here.)

The Hispanic College Fund started out funding college scholarships, but found that wasn't sufficient; now they are reaching out to the high school level, as early as ninth grade, to encourage young Latino kids to pursue a college education. Many of these kids are from low-income families with parents who do not know how to navigate the college application and financial aid application processes.

This especially caught my attention: an early marketing strategy was to pitch the kids on how getting a college degree would vastly increase their earning potential. But this didn't have much impact. Apparently the kids listened to that pitch, looked at their parents working their asses off at two or more jobs to make ends meet, and experienced the "college will let you make more money" pitch almost as an insult to their parents' lives - as if the college recruitment crew were saying "strive for more and better because your parents aren't good enough." So they changed the pitch to "college will enable you to give back to and improve your community" and that met with greater success.

This is very interesting to me in several regards.

When my parents were encouraging me to go off to college, it was with the explicit notion that a college degree would enable me to escape the narrow life choices available to me in our small hometown, and provide me with financial security. (Thus, no consideration of majors like English or history - this is probably one of the major reasons I ended up in engineering.) We thought of college as a way to move up and out, and we did not consider how a college education was going to separate me from the fabric of our community. I gained everything my parents hoped I would from college, but much was also lost. College threatens community connections for poor and working class people in a way it does not for more financially well-off families.

People may be coming in from outside and saying "let us show you how to have this life that we have" and maybe that is not necessarily what is wanted. Maybe what is wanted is to keep the good parts of community life and the connections, and improve what needs improving. Looking back I see my family and I were striving to purchase for me a version of educated upper-middle-class success, which I got. Given the system we were operating in - the whole way of life I grew up in has been swept away anyway by forces beyond our control - maybe it was the best of a bad bargain. But I can see wanting to resist that choice.

I have been reading Pythagoras's Trousers by Margaret Wertheim and she makes an argument near the end of the book that physics needs to become a more grounded discipline, dedicated more to the service of the needs of humanity, and less obsessed with transcendence and the desire to build ever larger and more expensive particle accelerators that yield esoteric knowledge of no real practical value to human lives. I am grossly oversimplifying what she says, but she makes the point that one of the reasons physics as it is currently practiced is less attractive to members of underrepresented groups is that it is irrelevant to our lives.

If you were encouraging young Latino students to stick with their studies and pursue a college education, would you steer them to physics? If I had majored in physics in college, I could possibly have gone back to my high school and taught physics there and encouraged other students to go on to college. But there is little else I could do with a physics degree. With engineering or accounting or nursing or an MD or forestry or a number of other majors, I could have gone back to my general area and found some sort of employment in the community, if I had wanted to. What positive arguments can be made for encouraging Latino students to study physics? I'm curious to hear what you think.

What about getting a PhD? It was great for me personally. I was able to live overseas, travel Europe, work at many interesting jobs, and ultimately end up with a very lucrative job in industry that came with great perks, including an extremely generous disability insurance that continues to cover me and will do so until age 65 or until I can go back to work. Your average job just doesn't provide that sort of thing. But my job and my job experiences gave back absolutely zero to the community I came from. All of it took place far, far away from southwestern Pennsylvania. Not that there's much left back there now. Hollowing Out the Middle, indeed.

People are right to want to protect their communities, but it comes at a personal cost. It stinks that many of the things kids want to go back to their communities to do, to make those communities better places, are not well-paid kinds of jobs. I don't think, however, this is an argument for saying that kids from poor communities should all be encouraged to get their education on the cheap. As a rule, I don't see people with lots and lots of resources sending their kids to community college because the education there is such a good value for the dollar.

Mind you I am not saying community colleges are no good, that you can't learn anything there. I'm just mindful of the guy I once argued with, who proclaimed that you couldn't solve education problems by throwing money at them, and that he could teach any kids with just a blackboard and some chalk. I asked him if he would be happy, then, knowing that his kids were going to a school that did not have enough textbooks for all the students, since all that was needed was a blackboard and some chalk. Would he be willing to send his kids to that school? Um, no, he was not.

So: I don't want all our new majority minority kids, who are rapidly becoming the future of this country, to have to pick up their learning in the classrooms with just blackboards and chalk. I want at least some of them to get their own shiny new textbooks. And that means we, as a society, have to pony up some cash to pay for that. I just don't see any other way around that.


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I was also listening to the program and exactly the same statement caught my interest. You have a very good discussion of it here. Thought-provoking. Thank you.

Leaving family and community behind, forever, leads to a sort of mental illness, my opinion, and there are many ways to do this, of which an alienating career is one. The Latino children are wise; there are ways, they need help on how, and details.

So we can identify persons on line, bloggers or commenters, who are seeking a friend. They are likely to be alienated from their old community as you describe and need not be Latino. At times when truth seems more important to us the temptation seems urgent to tell them, tell them that if they want a friend get a dog. Thanks for the reminder who they might be.

FGI the American Chemical Society has a sponsored high school text in its 5th edition called Chemistry in the Community, ChemCom for short, which deals with how the subject is used in the community, addressing part of the problems you identify. About one hundred dollars per book. Takes money. Equipment for labs needed is not so dear, usually available at grocery store.

Now Physics, your example. Oh, gosh, Physics is so sweet I hate to see it take the rap. But there it is. And you are right about it, unrelated. We might state, it's not the subject that's unrelated but how it is taught. If we get an old physics book from the 1850's, it will start with the laws of motion, order unchanged today, for rich kids then and for rich background kids now. The Annenberg Foundation does a good job with 'The Mechanical Universe,' which see, but it is not what is needed to keep a relation to community and family.

I think Zuska you will have to go on the attack to make much difference, and first you will have to decide who, yes 'who,' not just what is irresponsible. Specificity coming? I don't know how you would do it, but good luck. The Texas school board would be an easy mark to hit, but the targets to be identified are located in every state.

"What positive arguments can be made for encouraging Latino students to study physics? " is a fantastic question. The "obvious" and politically correct (and, also importantly, completely true) answer is "physics needs them". But we also need to be able to answer why they need physics. And honestly that's harder. I think you might have to ask someone who majored in it and is pleased with how things turned out. I can certainly tell them why they should major in biology. Healthcare for one. But also food and nutrition, and the environment. Biology matters on a day to day basis.

That said, on your other key point, I have some caveats. Expecting to solve education problems *solely* by throwing money at them is like expecting to solve healthcare problems *solely* by throwing money at them. The US does not have notably efficient systems for either; money will generally make a positive impact, but there are many places where you do not need money [or need fairly little] to have a positive impact.
Furthermore, as someone who was educated at a community college, and who identifies with it far beyond the BigTen RahRah BS, I've got to say that I think you can make an enormous improvement with "just" community colleges. (of course, a two year degree in an allied health field is a surer bet than a two year degree in physics)

Something I wonder about. You hear a fair amount of 'it's not so much what you major in, the fact you have a college degree per se will help you get a job'. But most of the people I've heard that from have been upper-middle class or above. I'd love to see actual statistics for whether you have to major in something 'useful' for college degrees to lead to upward social mobility.

she makes the point that one of the reasons physics as it is currently practiced is less attractive to members of underrepresented groups is that it is irrelevant to our lives.

If I sound a bit ranty in what follows it's because this topic touches on ongoing frustrations at work. I think it was a great post.

We physicists are told this all the time. A similar version of the "Make it relevant to human needs" speech is given when explaining what it takes to get more domestic students (of any race or gender) because there are "too many foreigners."* A similar version of that speech is made when talking about how to get more students of, well, any background, because physics departments worry about low enrollments in the major, and in hard economic times low-enrollment majors are on chopping blocks.

So we hear that lecture all the time. And it makes so much sense. In fact, as a physicist who works on all sorts of important applied things that will hopefully make an impact on curing disease some day, I deeply believe in the ideals behind that speech.

The only problem is that the ideals don't seem to match up with experience. It seems that astrophysics and particle physics just have this draw...

I teach at a school with a large population of ethnic minorities, as well as first-generation college students and low-income students of all ethnicities. By the admittedly abysmal standards of physics, my department has a decent enough contingent of women and minorities (the 4 most recent hires include 2 women, 1 male of color with a disability, and 1 white male). Most of the faculty, including all of the females, work in applied areas of physics. All of the faculty working on applied topics, including a significant contingent of women and minorities, frequently promote their research to undergraduate science and engineering students in the freshman classes (to try to recruit majors and minors). And they have some success.

But by far the biggest success in undergraduate recruitment comes when we bring out the astrophysicist. (A white male, FWIW.) We can move heaven and earth to promote seminars and elective classes on all sorts of applied topics, and we can get a few students. But when the topic is astrophysics, the room is packed with students of all genders and ethnicities, and from all income backgrounds. We got a massive bump in majors and minors (of all ethnicities) when we started highlighting astronomy and astrophysics in our undergraduate recruitment efforts.

I don't know how to explain it. Astrophysics and particle physics just have this draw. The fundamental, the awesome, the mysterious. Freshman science and engineering majors, and non-scientists on the street, will start asking about particles and quantum mechanics and black holes as soon as I tell them I'm a physicist. (This is quickly followed with "Sorry, not that kind of physicist.") A few months ago, while getting a haircut, I mentioned I'm a physicist and the stylist started talking about reading "The Tao of Physics" when she was younger because she wanted to understand the meaning of life. This happens all the time.

It's interesting to note that astronomy and astrophysics actually do somewhat better than the rest of physics on gender diversity**. OK, damning with faint praise, and maybe the reasons are due to accidents of history, the right role models being in the right places and setting things in motion. Still, even if applicability to daily life is a factor, it clearly isn't an over-riding factor.

Now, I'm not saying that the other sub-fields should throw up their hands and give up because astrophysics is beating us in getting women and minorities. Far from it. We should work twice as hard to emulate the success of astrophysics. But because of the demonstrated draw that astrophysics seems to have across the board, and because it is doing better than the other sub-fields in recruiting women, I am dubious on theories and analyses that insist that astrophysics is part of the problem. It certainly doesn't seem to be, both in the bigger picture (comparisons with other sub-fields) and the local picture (our efforts to recruit a diverse group of undergraduates).

I haven't read the Wertheim book, but I will work on remedying that deficit. Maybe she addresses all of this, or points out dimensions that I'm missing. But from where I sit, and from what I see in my work with undergraduates, de-emphasizing astrophysics and particle physics would probably hurt us on recruitment across the board. The applied physicist in me would love to agree that de-emphasizing these fields in favor of more useful things (like the biomedical applications of my own work) will save the profession, but experience is not backing that up.

*Yes, there are plenty of important people in the community who worry about that. I've been a fly on the wall and heard people stereotype foreign students, and earlier in the day, before drinks, they were saying great things about diversity.

**In grad school, a female student actually complained that when she was trying to decide on a grad school, every department that she visited would schedule her for visits with astrophysics faculty, even though her application made it clear that she was not at all interested in it.

Less ranty:

Physics majors actually can get plenty of good jobs after college besides high school teaching. They tend to get hired into a lot of jobs that would also consider engineering or computer science majors. Physicists have seen most of the same things that engineers have seen in college (even though the level of detail is often less) and have decent technical skills (at least if they work in a research lab or pick the right electives) but have a broader perspective, problem-solving ability, etc. Not so different from the case that liberal arts colleges and liberal arts programs of every sort make for themselves.

The American Institute of Physics has plenty of salary data. Physicists seem to do pretty well. Lots of stuff here:

Of particular interest is this recent data:

In agreement with Alex, I'd like to add that one of the ways that a physics degree was sold to me was the employment prospects, which are very wide.

For example, I was offered a job designing electrical systems for a company that makes satellites. The ideal candidate would have been an electrical engineer, but they interview a lot of physics students in practice because they have a not-so-different set of skills and can pick up the job with some specific training. Ditto the financial and legal professions (patent law is popular), who consistently hoover up UK physics grads looking for a large salary.

(In contrast, when I was looking at university I considered a course in German language and culture; a careers advisor from the language faculty struggled to move beyond interpretation/translation and teaching.)

Perhaps the problem is selling to underprivileged communities the idea of studying a non-vocational degree - in which you study something abstract because you find it interesting, but the skills you pick up are transferable to other professions which are more relevant to our lives.

What can you do with a degree in physics? A lot. I've made a very good career in engineering based on the physics and math I learned forty years ago, and my sons on their way to do the same.

Even the engineering professors we interviewed before enrolling them said the same thing: you can never get too much physics or math. The service life of the applications is short, but the math and physics will serve you for a lifetime. Works for me.

As for the Hispanic kids ...

That's a puzzle. One of the reasons I want to retire in Socorro is because of the opportunity to work with kids there. In the same town you have a top-notch university and lots of kids who go on to advanced degrees -- plus a lot of bright kids who can't imagine bothering past high school. The second group includes at least some whose parents work at the University and certainly want their children to learn more, but the message isn't getting through.

IIUC one of $DAUGHTER's cohort is researching the sociology of education and the cultural traps minorities get into. I wish him well in cracking this nut, but my story comes down to:
1) Living almost all of my life in the city I grew up in, and
2) Having an absolute blast doing it.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 08 Jan 2010 #permalink

You hear a fair amount of 'it's not so much what you major in, the fact you have a college degree per se will help you get a job'. But most of the people I've heard that from have been upper-middle class or above. I'd love to see actual statistics for whether you have to major in something 'useful' for college degrees to lead to upward social mobility.

That was what a recruiter for Motorola told me in '73 [1] -- and I know that Motorola backed it up by hiring English majors as line supervisors (with an engineering title.) I suspect that some of it was the same thing you saw in the military: college as a proxy for upper classes, thus keeping the officer classes from pollution by hicks and minorities. At Motorola it also served to keep "engineering" wages down by dilution.

Fact remains, though, that checking $EMPLOYER's open reqs (such as there are) specify a four-year degree for a lot of non-technical jobs -- you can't get into sales without one.

[1] A sign on his wall read "A four-year degree means a man is trainable." He explained it as meaning that someone who would put up with four years of undergraduate BS would have the patience and persistence to learn useful skills. Today the term "delayed gratification" is more popular.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 08 Jan 2010 #permalink

I'm Hispanic and I have a B.A. in languages. I also teach school. In my experience the biggest reason Hispanic (Mexican-American specifically) students don't go on to major in science or engineering is because they are small-minded and narrow-minded and their parents and the communities they live in are the same way. The Hispanic community in which I grew up was extremely parochial. Most parents just simply couldn't understand any kind of career beyond the quickest work you could get that would pay something. My own family has difficulty understanding any kind of career that isn't super practical, blue-collar physical labor or that isn't in a bank or a store. To them money and the kind of car you drive is the measure of everything. Too many Hispanics donât choose careers in science not because science is irrelevant to their communities but because their vision and understanding of the world and of the community is so small it doesnât include science.

Recently I read about a young man who had found the footprints of an early tetrapod. He found these footprints by looking in a place where he didn't expect to find them. In that sense science is much like art. You can't always know where you're going. In fact, some of the best science and art comes from just exploring and taking intellectual chances and being curious and asking questions. These qualities are not seen as being valuable by too many parents and too many students that identify themselves as Mexican-Americans. To them, doing these things is a waste of time. Parents will tell you that you're "perezoso" or "flojo" (both mean lazy). When you ask lots of questions they tell you "Que no sabes hacer lo que to dicen?" (Don't you know how to do what you're told? )Or they call you a "rebelde" (a rebel) or âtercoâ (stubborn). Or if you're a girl and you ask lots of questions and show lots of curiosity and read books, they tell you you're a "machetona" (a tomboy or in some cases a lesbian--this is harsh criticism in a culture that places heavy emphasis on traditional gender roles).

In addition to these kind of attitudes that hold Hispanics back there is the unwillingness of Hispanics to even acknowledge that this kind of narrow-mindedness even exists in their community and that it could be part of the problem. Therefore it never gets addressed and nothing gets done.

Then there is the issue of reading. Hispanics don't read. They don't buy books nor do they read the way non-Hispanics do. If you're Hispanic and you read a lot people think you are really weird. I know. I lived it. I have a friend from Chihuahua, Mexico. When he was a boy he used to like to read. His mother got so angry with him for "wasting" time reading novels that she took his whole collection and burned them so he'd go out and work more. The first paying job he had was picking marijuana in the mountains. He was ten years old. He only finished 6th grade. He is 35 now and sometimes he says he was really a âburroâ (a dummy) for not going to school more. But what kind of messages was he receiving at home? Because his family couldnât see anything beyond the minimum he went to work as a child and his love of reading was stifled. What might he have done had he been encouraged to read?

Groups like La Raza are always claiming that Hispanic lack of educational attainment is the fault of the system and of white people and racism. But as an Hispanic and someone who did go to college and does have a degree I know the fault is not entirely in the system nor does it entirely have to do with racism. Too many Mexican-American parents and students just don't value school and learning and reading enough. They just don't. Instead of investing their time and money in reading to their children or taking them to the library theyâd rather spend their time watching telenovelas and piously going to churches that take money from them and do nothing for them but absolve them for the âborracheraâ (drunken binge) of the night before. For too many Mexican-Americans learning and school is just not as important as buying a new truck, new boots, or flashy clothes or getting pregnant while youâre a teenager and starting your "familia".

Until Mexican-Americans are willing to be ruthlessly self-honest and admit this, there will never be many Mexican-Americans in science, math or in any graduate programs. They just don't care enough and they're just too small-minded to even understand what they are missing and they are too narrow-minded to even understand that they are ignorant about education and what it's about and its value. Whatâs really sad is that many of these young Mexican-Americans have opportunities to learn and to read books, but they donât use these opportunities. They prefer to go to school to socialize and play with their cell phones. I know because I see it everyday at the high school where I teach. They all talk the talk about wanting to go to college but their behaviors are not the behaviors of people who want to learn and go on to college.

By Mex-Am Observer (not verified) on 08 Jan 2010 #permalink

Shorter #10: "nothing fundamental has changed since the 16th Century."

I don't pretend to be a scholar of Hispanic cultures but I do know plenty of counterexamples -- which suggests that you're describing the Hispanic counterpart of the US' movement towards yahooism [1]. Give us another generation or two, maybe another Bush administration, and the rest of the USA will be much the same.

[1] Yeah, I could have written "redneckism" but the bruises are too fresh.

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 08 Jan 2010 #permalink

@10 ... Generalize much?

By Tsu Dho Nimh (not verified) on 08 Jan 2010 #permalink

Mex-am observer:
Now come on.
You should know better than to comment like that on a blog where "allies" of "people of color" gather. You should know better than to think that such "allies" would take even one second to maybe get past the slight exageration in what you wrote to get to the kernel of truth laying there.

You should know better than to expect "allies" to do more than retort with some lame anecdote about "oh i know one mexican he likes philosophy so that *proves* that what you say about mexicans a group cant be true ".

Get with the program.
The reason hispanics and other POC(tm) aren't filling the physics classrooms is because of white privilege (tm).

Since physics needs diversity (tm) ( jews, east-asians and south-asians don't count as diversity btw ), physics needs to be less concerned about generality. Let's give up on that white priviledged deduction and induction stuff and let's just focus on very particular, specific problems, just like the babylonians (they were brown (tm) people, just like tarik aziz and saddam hussein, you see )did 3000 years ago. It doesn't matter how useful abstracting and generalizing and deducting is. It has to go.
Let's do the same with math too ! Too much abstract algebra, too much functional analysis and not enough word problems about how to "help out the community with mathematical critical thinking".

Funny enough, as a "person of color" I was always fascinated, even as a small child growing up in a POC country, by all kinds of topics totally unrelated to my everyday experience and the "POC community".

By ogunsiron (not verified) on 08 Jan 2010 #permalink

Family and culture are important structural variables, but what about the military? Surely someone has tackled the militaryâs impact on physics education for post-boom generations in the US. Among my peers (too young to protest or fear Vietnam), the military appealed to dreamers and doers who wanted to be astronauts or pilots or adventurers, but were not seeped in math and science from the beginning. And some might argue the US military has done more to prepare underrepresented minorities and the poor for meaningful jobs than our public education system.

I think more than just putting up money for books, we need to put up more money for injecting science stuff in the curriculum. Science seems to be getting phased out in the younger levels. At least in CA.

Yes, I made generalizations. But these are to highlight a point; that more often rather than less often I see Mexican-Americans engaging in behaviors that are educationally counterproductive. I see it everyday and I have seen it all of my life. And I have seen educationally counterproductive behaviors being common among Mexican-Americans not just in having worked as a teacher but in every area in which I have worked. I have also worked as a printer. I owned a wire transfers and check cashing business and I went to law school. And over and over again Mexican-Americans will more often choose the educationally counter-productive behavior than the behavior that allows them to grow and advance.

It is true that discrimination based on a person's appearance or perceived ethnicity or culture exits. But to blame the entire failure of Mexican-Americans in higher education on discrimination is simplistic. It is more complex than that. Mexican-Americans do themselves a disservice by always using discrimination as the explanation for educational failure. Many of the roots of that failure are in the culture itself and its values and beliefs about the world and what is important and in the child-rearing practices that pass on those beliefs and values.

Is it really discriminatory and unjust to use some generalization to encourage people to ask "What in my culture might hold me back from learning more and getting more education?"

To those of you who think I generalize too much I suggest you spend a good 10 or 12 years living amongst lower-class, working-class Mexicans and Mexican-Americans to see for yourself. And learn Spanish so you can really understand all that you see and hear.

I have often observed well-educated, middle-class people misinterpret the actions of poor people. The well-educated, middle-class person cannot imagine that anyone might not value books, or reading or thinking about science. But they might be surprised to find that for many poor and working-class people all three of those things are distant, meaningless and a waste of time. In an environment like that, how many children do you think are going to aspire to go into science or for that matter can even imagine that career or have the intellectual tools to get there because often they haven't received the intellecual stimulation or the nutrition necessary to even develop those tools. And often they don't receive that intellectual stimulation nor the nutrition because their parents don't think it's necessary. This is something I do see OFTEN--NOT ALWAYS--BUT OFTEN amongst Mexican-Americans and Mexican immigrants. I'm not saying every Mexican-American or Mexican immigrant is this way, but I see it often enough that it does cause me to wonder if this could be a problem.

By Mex-Am Observer (not verified) on 09 Jan 2010 #permalink

@17: more often rather than less often I see Mexican-Americans engaging in behaviors that are educationally counterproductive So what, if anything are you doing about it? Helping the parents see past the immediate day-to-day problems isn't something that an outsider can do.

One thing I see in the Phoenix area is that instead of staying in the old neighborhood, some Mexicans who do go to college and land a good job head for the 'burbs and a fancy house and there goes the role model they could have been.

Over the years I've been landlord to quite a few of the "lower-class, working-class Mexicans" you are complaining about (mostly excellent tenants, BTW), and they mostly had a very strong drive to make sure their kids did better than they did. How much better? Well, when you have a 4th-grade education, getting your kid through high school is an achievement. Maybe the next generation will take some college courses, or the kid's job will encourage them to get a degree.

By Tsu Dho Nimh (not verified) on 09 Jan 2010 #permalink

M-A Observer, what you describe seems to be much more how working-class folks everywhere think and behave, rather than specific to Mexican-Americans.

I experienced much the same in Pennsylvania Dutch culture, where children were expected to grow up to be farmers, tractor mechanics, food service workers, carpenters, where kids were routinely removed from public school in eighth grade and put to work on the family farm. Women were treated, frankly, like broodmares: my brother still remembers watching our aunt attending some family function with eleven kids in tow, the youngest ones barefoot and wearing ragged outsized hand-me-downs with holes in them. No one thought, "let's help aunt Anne, who wouldn't be overwhelmed with eleven small kids," or "gosh, Anne's husband needs to give her a break," or even "gosh, Anne needs a hush-hush ride to Planned Parenthood" they thought, "isn't it disgraceful how Anne lets her kids go about with no shoes, what kind of poor trash does that." You could do housework from can't see in the morning till can't see at night, it would never be enough to buy you time to read a book.

Children who, in high school, decided to go to college and/or be something outside their parent's ken (for example, a biologist or chemist), were ostracized for thinking above their station in life. Even little things considered within one's appropriate domain, such as women baking exceptionally good pastries, was considered worthy of only scorn, because by coming up with a uniquely good recipe, she had been "getting uppity" and "breaking up (community, family, church breakfast, whatever)." Conformity was enforced from birth.

How easy is it to escape from a life like that, when you've been out of school or else doing very badly in school for years because you've been working under the table 30-40 hours/week? Because since elementary school, you've had to help out your parents with their business for four or five hours every day after school, and missed some school when work got busy? By the time you're 18 and legally allowed to mind yourself, you've had so little education that would prepare you for college, it really is unthinkable that you should repeat most of high school in order to be ready for entry to the local state college. All the more so when a four-year degree, in your hometown with high unemployment and only a few factory-type jobs, is more likely to make you less employable, because now you're too uppity to work in a factory or shoveling horseshit.

There are plenty of examples of upper-class Mexicans doing perfectly well in school with full encouragement of their families. Same as everywhere, really.

This is obviously a site where most of the readers and participants will value upper level scientific and academic training - I do myself. But what struck me about the material Zuska quoted was the response of hispanic-american students who though that their parents' experience was being denigrated - that is, implied in the fact that they were offended by the idea that they could make more money or do better than their family is a very heartening fact - they think their parents are doing ok doing blue collar work. This is a subject of interest to me across communities, genders, etc... this question of whether we are serving people by trying to draw them into higher education.

Now I agree that the sciences and many other fields would benefit from greater diversity, but this does raise a question - should we be selling college and graduate school so hard for any community that finds blue collar life acceptable, honorable and valuable. There's a strong case to be made of course - we don't want to create a caste system, we don't want to deny those who would benefit from more education, and those of us who like that sort of thing really like that sort of thing. If you are fortunate and get a good job and good training, there's money to be made. There is also service to be had for the larger community.

On the other hand, except when heavy scholarashipage is available, we are also enticing young people into debt - often extreme and untenable debt. When done in the name of diversity, we are asking people often to enter into "can't go home again" situations - I know many academics from working class and immigrant origins who feel alienated from home and family and community. We're participating in many cases in creating brain-drains - rural areas send their kids away, low income urban communities send their kids away and most of them never go back. Moreover, we're participating in the oblique denigration of working class work and communities in many cases - often unintentionally. By implying that you are better off not working at working class professions, and that you "serve your community" by becoming a doctor or a physicist, but not so much by becoming a farmer or a cook - but one who actually stays in the community, we do contribute, if unintentionally, to the diminishment of other work.

My observations are not meant to suggest that diversity programs are bad, and I'm one of those people who came from a largely working class background. But there's a price to be paid, and it isn't automatically a path to happiness, or more wealth or entry back into the community, and those things need to be acknowledged in a whole host of ways. I'm not sure there is an easy way to navigate this problem, but I find it fascinating.


Sharon, part of the problem is that we've conflated "learning" and "making a living from your education." University as job-training program, complete with jokes about English literature majors.

You're perhaps familiar with the proscription against "making the Torah a shovel."

By D. C. Sessions (not verified) on 11 Jan 2010 #permalink

Related to what Sharon said, I have similar unease about some of the aggressive push to get more people from disadvantaged backgrounds into Ph.D. programs. Don't get me wrong, I will support any talented undergraduate who makes the informed decision to pursue a Ph.D., and I will do what I can to help that student get into graduate school and succeed. However, I don't know how ethical it is to say to the least advantaged members of society "OK, what the world really needs is for you to spend several years making less money than you would in the job market, pursuing a very stressful and uncertain path, and ultimately emerge very, very specialized, with all of the advantages but also risks of being specialized in a competitive market with 100 applications for every academic job opening."

Yes, there are things that can and should be done to improve the climate in Ph.D. programs, but even in the best scenario a Ph.D. student will be forgoing some income in exchange for training. A Ph.D. will still be a somewhat risky path, due to the nature of the endeavor, and a person with a Ph.D. will be a specialist, which has its advantages but also some risks. This is a path that has to be chosen because the person really, really wants it, not because society really, really wants the person in there. If a smart undergraduate from a disadvantaged background is interested in the job market, urging him/her to consider a Ph.D. program may be in the best interests of society, but is it in his/her best interests?

Don't get me wrong, I don't think the rest of us should be deciding that the less advantaged are better off away from Ph.D. programs, but I also don't know that we should measure the success of an undergraduate program by how many disadvantaged people are sent to the high-risk world of the Ph.D. either. This one has to be an individual matter, no matter what the compelling social interest might be.

As a Latina who majored in physics, I could go on about this post/topic at length. But since Iâm facing a busy week, Iâll just comment on 3 aspects:

First, Iâm skeptical that the "college will let you make more money" campaign failed because students thought that it denigrated their parentsâ way of life. If said parents are working two jobs just to get by, living day-to-day without extra money for emergencies or vacations, perhaps not even enough for a down payment to own a home, I donât see how these parents would be âinsultedâ if their kids wanted something different â i.e., some measure of economic security. Growing up in a community of immigrants, my friends and I were often reminded of the many sacrifices that had been made on our behalf so that we could grow up in the Land of Opportunity. I find it hard to believe that parents who left their homelands and extended families looking for a better life for themselves and their children would not want their kids to leave home to attend college elsewhere in the US, so that they could more readily have access to that better life. Now, that they may not be used to this tradition (of kids leaving home to go to school), or may think that they canât afford it â thatâs another issue altogether. Had I listened to my father when I was applying to colleges, I never would have applied to the school from which I graduated, because he was convinced that financial aid did not exist, that in this country, there was âno free lunch.â

I wonder if the difference between the two campaignsâ success rate had to do with one providing more concrete examples of a better life than the other â i.e., âyou can make more moneyâ vs. âhere are some concrete ways in which you will be able to give back to your community.â Perhaps the kids were better able to envision themselves in those roles than in the ones associated with âyou can make more money.â

Second, as DC and Alex have mentioned, physics majors are qualified for a lot more than simply teaching high school. It can even be a stepping stone to a professional degree (e.g., law, medicine).

Third, the best reason to study physics is that you are fascinated by the subject. Often, people (including Hispanics!) are fascinated by those particularly âuselessâ philosophical questions that make astrophysics and particle physics popular. I think that trying to market physics as âusefulâ in the same way that farming or being a doctor or lawyer is âusefulâ is a mistake. If a Hispanic kid really just wants to go back to his small town and do one of these things, then he should not be talked into majoring in physics. What we need to do is make sure that the kids who are interested are not turned off by the thought that: (1) they just canât do it, because theyâve never heard of Hispanic physicists; (2) they will not be able to support their family while doing it; (3) the only job you can get will be teaching high school or college; and (4) the only jobs worth having are those that are âusefulâ in the sense that they have an immediate impact on the lives of others. It should be possible to make the case for #4 without denigrating other jobs.

A correction: It should be possible to make the case for #4 without denigrating other jobs should be:

It should be possible to make the case against #4 without denigrating other jobs

Two things about the phrase, "We can't solve the problem by throwing money at it." It often means, "We are going to ignore the problem." I have wondered how "they" know that to be true in reference to problems where the throw money tactic has not been tried out?

I have always disliked the degree will make you more money idea because it is not universally true. There are a fair number of unemployed and underemployed degreed folks in the world. I suspect they might be a little bitter if money was their only goal.

In the early 1980's the number of females receiving Bachelors degrees exceeded the number of males; and this has been true ever since. At the time there was a good bit in the media about how college degrees weren't really worth it. That a guy could make better money going to work out of highschool, etc. I discussed this with a couple of femenist colleagues, and we agreed there was more involved than just correlation.

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 11 Jan 2010 #permalink

If a smart undergraduate from a disadvantaged background is interested in the job market, urging him/her to consider a Ph.D. program may be in the best interests of society, but is it in his/her best interests?

If that smart undergraduate wants to do independent research, even if in industry, then he/she should be told that not getting a PhD can be a career-limiting move. But in general, Alex, I agree with your sentiments: this is an individual decision.