In a recent OpEd column in the New York Times (“College, the Great Unequalizer”), Ross Douthat discusses the book Paying for the Party by Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton. Armstrong and Hamilton’s years-long study followed a group of students at a Midwestern flagship state school throughout college and into their career lives, yielding, in Douthat’s words, the observation that the “American way of college rewards those who come not just academically but socially prepared, while treating working-class students more cruelly, and often leaving them adrift.”
For those of us whose classrooms are filled by working-class students, this observation that social background matters as much as academic background in preparing students to succeed in college feels, perhaps, intuitive. What might be done to push on the implications of this observation, however, is important.
Douthat chooses to see one of the most significant implications of the book as being one that will appeal to “social conservatives”: that the party culture that Armstrong and Hamilton examine reveals a central problem of moral laxity. Namely, the most successful people in college are those who have grown up in cultures of privilege in which partying without any sense that there could ever be consequences of any kind is apparently the norm. He writes:
[The study] is also a story about the socioeconomic consequences of cultural permissiveness — about what happens, who wins and who loses, when a youth culture in which the only (official) moral rule is consent meets a corporate-academic university establishment that has deliberately retreated from any moralistic, disciplinary role.
The losers are students ill equipped for the experiments in youthful dissipation that are now accepted as every well-educated millennial’s natural birthright. The winners, meanwhile, are living proof of how a certain kind of libertinism can be not only an expression of class privilege, but even a weapon of class warfare.
I cannot strongly enough reject his dual implications: that “experiments in youthful dissipation” are the motivation for most students attend college, and that the primary frustration of working-class students at select institutions is their inability to party as hard as their wealthier peers. In my experience (at a less selective state university), working-class students struggle in many ways–both academic and social–that have to do with lack of preparedness for what it means to “do” college successfully. But these struggles are far more profound, and subtle, than the inability to party hard enough. And though I have not yet read Armstrong and Hamilton’s book (it’s now on my list), I suspect that their arguments about the role of the social culture of college–what, of course, we once called the Old Boys Network precisely to signal how social networks enabled success beyond college–are more nuanced as well.
This, it seems to me, is the far more important implication of the party culture problem to examine: that even once working-class students make it past the barriers to entrance at select institutions, they often find themselves disadvantaged in persistently insidious ways that have to more to do with their social than their academic credentials. What we, as members of institutions of higher learning, can do about this problem is, of course, one vital reason to highlight its existence. And we do a terrible disservice to working-class students who would benefit from thoughtful mentoring if we characterize the gap in class privilege as creating in them merely a desire to reach some Xanadu of amoral libertinism.