Student inferiority and superiority

I was struck today by something Harry Brighouse remarked at Crooked Timber (drawing on his own graduation remarks).

An eminent professor at a well-known university on the East Coast once alerted me to two distinctions. First, between students who need to learn that they matter just as much as everyone else, and the students who need to learn that everyone else matters just as much as they do. Then, between students who are smarter than they think they are, and students who think they are smarter than they are. The joy of teaching here is that so many of our students are smarter than they think they are, and need to learn that they matter just as much as everyone else.

On a crude first approximation, these two distinctions could be glossed as “elites vs non-elites” and “narcissists vs self-deprecators.” One might of course guess that the two distinctions sometimes map onto each other, but that’s not what I wanted to say.

What I wanted to say is just that, in my fairly brief experience teaching, there is a weird problem with the first distinction — “between students who need to learn that they matter just as much as everyone else, and the students who need to learn that everyone else matters just as much as they do.” In brief: some non-elite students both don’t think they matter, and are curiously indifferent to the mattering of some further others.

So on one hand, my non-elite students typically haven’t had that sense of manifest destiny or at least ingrained self-worth that elite university students tend to get from their family trajectories, their educational consecration, and so on. “They know they aren’t the best,” one colleague told me laconically when I got to my postdoc. A lot of these students are destined for the less elite type of professional-managerial class jobs, like school teaching, social services, or regionally oriented business. (Gender divides emerge there, of course.)

This non-elite attitude extends moreover to their relationship to knowledge. A lot of these non-elite students don’t exactly think of themselves as mattering intellectually. They outsource a lot of their epistemic authority to professors or other authority figures; they tend to give in really easily in classroom situations if you challenge their views. I’ve tried to get them to question educational authority and to encourage them to develop their sense of intellectual self-worth, but that kind of pedagogy (in addition to being a walking contradiction) is still something I’m working on.

But in the meantime — and here we come to the problem with the initial distinction — I’ve often found that my non-elite students can themselves be curiously indifferent to the mattering of other social groups outside their own frame of reference. For example, I taught two years in a row on an intriguing paper on American Indian internet access in Southern California. And both times I found a remarkable indifference among my students towards this indigenous population, even though the sites in question are only an hour or two away from my classroom in Southern California, and thus one might think potentially part of our local space of social knowledge. One of my students, voicing prejudice in the guise of reading the assigned reading, went so far as to accuse American Indians of being “lazy.” In all cases, it was hard for my students to really take seriously the actual existence of the people in question. (I suspect that the same would be true for other ethnographic cases farther removed in time and space from their present.)

In short: it’s possible both to need to learn that you matter “just as much as everyone else,” and to need to learn “that everyone else matters just as much as you do.” Perhaps the elite-nonelite distinction that I introduced above is, in the end, a very poor gloss on a complex field of social hierarchy and recognition.