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Sandwiches, Social Capital and Barriers to Mobility

Image: studiogabe via flickr

One of the aspects of American life that has benefitted many generations of Americans and made this country so attractive to immigrants has been a high degree of social mobility.  Through education, hard work and fluid social structures, birth typically does not determine economic and class destiny.

In recent decades, however, there has been increasing debate about income inequality, both in absolute terms and how it might affect social mobility.  (See here  and here.)  Does increasing income inequality and more highly concentrated wealth lead to less social mobility across generations?

If social mobility has declined, and it should be emphasized that not all economists agree it has, it is important  to understand why and to consider policies that might increase opportunities for those born into disadvantaged economic circumstances.

In a recent column, New York Times writer David Brooks was reflecting on these issues.   In “How We Are Ruining America”  Brooks examines the structural barriers to mobility, like zoning and the college admissions process, but ultimately concludes that informal social barriers may be even more important in limiting social mobility.  He writes of an experience with such informal social barriers:

Recently I took a friend with only a high school degree to lunch. Insensitively, I led her into a gourmet sandwich shop. Suddenly I saw her face freeze up as she was confronted with sandwiches named “Padrino” and “Pomodoro” and ingredients like soppressata, capicollo and a striata baguette. I quickly asked her if she wanted to go somewhere else and she anxiously nodded yes and we ate Mexican.

American upper-middle-class culture (where the opportunities are) is now laced with cultural signifiers that are completely illegible unless you happen to have grown up in this class. They play on the normal human fear of humiliation and exclusion. Their chief message is, “You are not welcome here.”

Interestingly, in the comments section after the op-ed, Brooks is mercilessly mocked by many of his readers, a number of whom find the story silly, trite or condescending, though how they know what Brooks’ friend was feeling better than the author is unclear. Whether the specifics of Brook’s Sandwich Shop story resonate or not, it is hard to argue that there are not significant cultural differences across classes which potentially affect social mobility.

For many of us in higher education there is a tendency to focus on structural barriers like the college admissions process or financing education after a student is admitted rather than cultural signifiers that can prevent some first-generation students from taking full advantage of their education.

At Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s, as the number of first-generation students has grown, we have worked hard to lower the structural barriers by working with organizations that help with the college admission process and through generous financial aid packages.  But we have also tried to address some of the real social barriers that might affect the educational success of our students.  Among the issues that we are attentive to are:

1. Help seeking and mentors.  Not all new college students are comfortable with asking for help and this impedes their ability to form the mentoring relationships that are so central to college success.

2. Dress for success.  Students from professional and middle class backgrounds usually have some experience with the white collar job market, but not all first generations students do.  They may not know what is expected in an internship or job interview.  Is a jacket, tie or suit expected?  One small thing we have done at SJU is to gather suits donated by alums and make them available to students who may not have one of their own.

3. Fancy dining.  Meals are often part of the professional world and all that cutlery and glassware can be intimidating to the uninitiated.  We offer “etiquette dinners” (one of which is taught by the indomitable Sr. Colman O’Connell) for students who want to prepare for such culinary encounters.

4. Cover letters, resumes and thank yous.  Professional communication is often a challenge for millennials and Gen Z students, as they are used to social media and texting but less certain about when to put pen to paper.  Faculty and the Career Center work to guide all students in how to best present themselves in professional settings.

5. Living abroad.  Many middle class students come to college as world travelers, but first-generations students don’t always have that experience and may be hesitant to take that step into the wider world.  Our many study abroad programs are designed to meet the needs of both our more worldly students and the first time travelers.

This list is certainly not exhaustive but gives a flavor of the kinds of knowledge and experiences that are not automatic for many students and are especially likely to be familiar among first-generation college students.

While some of David Brooks’ readers might want to downplay the existence or significance of such social barriers, those who work with first-generation college students would not be so cavalier.  Certainly some individuals move over and around these barriers with ease, but not all do.

Commenting on Brooks’ column and the resulting brouhaha, Rod Dreher writes:

The point is this: in our time and place — in liquid modernity — a man [or woman] who can make and accommodate those kinds of radical shifts in perspective is a man who is enormously advantaged professionally over a man who cannot. More prosaically, a man who can walk into a gourmet sandwich shop and roll with it is enormously advantaged over the man who cannot. This is the real meaning of the David Brooks anecdote. Don’t laugh at it.

To truly achieve a society with a high degree of social mobility we must lower or remove both the obvious structural barriers to mobility but also help individuals navigate the less obvious but sometimes equally challenging social and cultural impediments to social and class mobility.

Formal education can be a start, but a more nuanced and holistic social and cultural education, often occurring outside the classroom, it necessary too.  We, along with many other institutions, try to provide that for all our students at Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict.

Colleges Help Encourage Social Mixing*

The importance of a college education to the economic prospects of individual students has been well documented by social scientists. A college degree has been the ticket to the middle class for millions of Americans in recent generations.  As a result, there is a natural tendency to focus on the personal benefits of a college education that accrue to the individual student. Colleges and universities certainly encourage this thinking by providing data on how well their students do in the job market and their return on investment from a college degree.

It is equally important to remember that colleges serve a vital social function that extends far beyond the economic returns to individual graduates. Through social mixing and exposure of students to different ideas and experiences, society benefits from the existence of institutions of higher education.

Economists refer to such benefits as positive externalities — ways in which an educated citizenry benefits others beyond the individual graduate. Specifically, an important positive externality of a college-educated person is their exposure to ideas, people and experiences that are different from what they have previously known.

Educators believe this rich and varied educational experience will make students better people, employees and citizens. The ways in which a residential college experience broadens a person are especially important given the political moment in which we find ourselves.

We are living in an increasingly segregated society.

In the United States we have historically tended to focus on racial segregation, but segregation comes in many varieties. Social scientists are finding empirical evidence that we are becoming more economically segregated, which is leading to unintentional resegregation in primary and secondary education.

The election map from 2016 shows significant political segregation by states and within states. This political and policy segregation is mirrored in the electronic world where many individuals choose to engage only with those who share their political views, furthering political polarization.

Obviously, as Americans, one of our important political rights is the freedom of association, the ability to choose whom we wish to engage with and on what terms. Yet few would argue that our ability to engage with fellow citizens in civil and meaningful ways is important personally, professionally and politically.

How do we balance our important individual rights and choices with the need to interact with others in community — local, statewide and nationally — for the good of all?

Colleges and universities are among the most important institutions for encouraging the important social mixing that can be an antidote to our increasingly segregated lives.

At Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict, as well as at most schools across the country, we take it as part of our mission for generations to bring together students from different backgrounds.  On our campuses today we actively seek students from the Western suburbs of the Twin Cities to live and learn with Iron Rangers.  We devote significant financial aid so students from north Minneapolis will be studying with their peers from other parts of the country.

A college campus continues to be where many students have their first meaningful encounters with someone of a different race or religion or ethnic group.

This social mixing is not always smooth or easy, as we have observed political and racial tensions on campuses in recent years, but colleges and universities have long emphasized the need for uncomfortable learning by asking students to stretch themselves intellectually, politically and socially.  We actively encourage new students to seek ideas, subjects, people and experiences that are new to them and might even make them uncomfortable.

We remind students that there are real personal benefits of such learning because, once they graduate from college, these encounters with difference will serve them well in their personal and professional lives where they will meet and work with many others who are not like themselves.  These benefits are mostly individual as graduates will find themselves rewarded economically because of their ability to understand and work with those from different backgrounds and to embrace and use new and unfamiliar ideas.  But equally important, society also benefits from such individuals as we learn to legislate, govern and live together.  Our ability to understand and engage difference makes compromise, understanding and civility more likely and our public life more productive and successful.

Colleges and universities are not the only places social mixing takes place and certainly one does not have to be a college graduate to be thoughtful, generous and broad-minded.

We are not perfect institutions, and, like individuals, we sometimes fail to live up to our stated principles and missions, as recent incidents at the University of California Berkeley, Middlebury College and Evergreen State College in Washington have revealed.
But in our increasingly polarized and contentious world, colleges and universities continue to be among the essential institutions that encourage individuals to understand other perspectives and to put themselves in the shoes of another, which will make a better society for all of us and our children.

*A version of this op-ed was recently published in the St. Cloud Times column, “To a Higher Degree” which is published the fourth Sunday of the month and rotates among the presidents of the four largest Central Minnesota higher education institutions.  http://www.sctimes.com/story/opinion/2017/06/24/colleges-help-teach-social-mixing/421573001/

Leaving a Mark, Making a Mark*

New York Times columnist David Brooks has long been interested in character and the process by which individuals develop their character.  He wrote a whole book on the topic called The Road to Character.

In a recent column, he explores the topic from a slightly different angle.  He explores the characteristics of institutions that, as he writes, “leave a mark on people.”  What kinds of institutions “become part of a person’s identity and engage the whole person: head, hands, heart and soul”?

Multiple Johnnie alumni sent me a link to this column, all saying that as they read it they had immediately thought of Saint John’s because it is an institution that left a mark on them.  In my job as president, I have had the opportunity and pleasure to meet many hundreds, maybe even thousands, of Johnnies.  What so many of these alumni tell me, either explicitly or through the lives they lead, is that Saint John’s left an indelible a mark on them—one that lasts a lifetime.

As you seniors get ready to finish your undergraduate experience at this rare and exceptional place, my fervent hope for you, and the wish of Johnnie alumni everywhere, is that this place has left a mark on you that will be a powerful part of your character in the years ahead and throughout your life.

Obviously each of you has had your own unique Saint John’s experience, but I would suggest that there are three consistent ways in which Saint John’s University marks its graduates, characteristics by which the world recognizes a Johnnie and maybe even expects from a Johnnie.

  1. Johnnies have each other’s backs.  This is probably the most well-known aspect of the Johnnie character and it is closely connected to the success of the famous Johnnie network.  With a mixture of wonder and respect, alums from other schools often remark on Johnnies’ loyalty to SJU and to each other.  At an admissions event, I asked the mother of a prospective student why her son was interested in Saint John’s.  She told me that she knew many Johnnies through her work and that they were all good guys that looked out for each other.  Her son wanted to be part of a community like that, and she wanted that for her son.
  2. Johnnies stand for something more than themselves.  This is not to suggest that Johnnies are purely selfless, but rather that they combine their own self-interest with a commitment to something more, something bigger.  It can be a commitment to their community, to their families, to their churches or even to their alma mater (as is true of so many alums in this room).  As Brooks describes it, those marked by institutions like SJU have characters in which “selfishness and selflessness marry,” to benefit the Johnnie and his community.
  3. Johnnies live out the Benedictine teaching of respect for all individuals.  The Rule of St. Benedict reminds us that we are to treat all as Christ—to respect the dignity and worth of every person.  On campus we famously hold doors for each other as a small, daily reminder of the value of every individual.  In the world beyond Collegeville, Johnnies treat co-workers, acquaintances and strangers with that same respect and courtesy that our shared humanity demands.  This way of being in the world is even more important in a time of political polarization, where we seem to have lost the ability to listen to each other and civilly engage on matters of politics and social policy.  Respectful Johnnies may, in some small way, help bridge these divides.

(courtesy of Sean Donohue)

Finally, as you leave Saint John’s as “marked men,” that is not the end of the story.  In fact, it is really only the beginning.  The faculty, staff, monks, fellow alums and your peers who all played a part in this process of making you a Johnnie expect one more thing from you.  We expect you to make your own mark in the world–to bring your Johnnie character to bear in all that you do, personally and professionally.

The world is a better place for having more Johnnies in it, and we look forward to seeing the fruits of the Class of 2017’s dreams, endeavors and successes in the years ahead.

Congratulations and Godspeed.

*A version of this was given at the 2017 Senior Dinner.