Moving Up without Losing Your Way
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Moving Up without Losing Your Way

The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility

Jennifer M. Morton

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eBook - ePub

Moving Up without Losing Your Way

The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility

Jennifer M. Morton

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The ethical and emotional tolls paid by disadvantaged college students seeking upward mobility and what educators can do to help these students flourish Upward mobility through the path of higher education has been an article of faith for generations of working-class, low-income, and immigrant college students. While we know this path usually entails financial sacrifices and hard work, very little attention has been paid to the deep personal compromises such students have to make as they enter worlds vastly different from their own. Measuring the true cost of higher education for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, Moving Up without Losing Your Way looks at the ethical dilemmas of upward mobility—the broken ties with family and friends, the severed connections with former communities, and the loss of identity—faced by students as they strive to earn a successful place in society.Drawing upon philosophy, social science, personal stories, and interviews, Jennifer Morton reframes the college experience, factoring in not just educational and career opportunities but also essential relationships with family, friends, and community. Finding that student strivers tend to give up the latter for the former, negating their sense of self, Morton seeks to reverse this course. She urges educators to empower students with a new narrative of upward mobility—one that honestly situates ethical costs in historical, social, and economic contexts and that allows students to make informed decisions for themselves.A powerful work with practical implications, Moving Up without Losing Your Way paves a hopeful road so that students might achieve social mobility while retaining their best selves.

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Recognizing the Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility

Sandra* rushes into my office 15 minutes late for our appointment. Her hair is wet from the rain. She starts apologizing profusely before she even sets her bag down. I smile and try to reassure her that I’m not upset; I know that the 1 train is notoriously dreadful on a day like this. Sandra is nervous, and she has good reason to be. Her tardiness and absences are starting to become a serious problem. When she does come to class, though she tries hard to keep up with the conversation, she can barely keep her eyes open. She hasn’t turned in a few of the weekly reading responses, and the due date for a major paper is fast approaching.
At first, she tries to convince me that I should accept her reading responses several weeks late. She tells me that she really meant to turn them in, but she was running late, and the train, and work 
 Her voice trails off. I have a reputation for being strict about deadlines. Sandra knows there is little she can do to convince me. I’m sympathetic but explain the rationale for my policy clearly and firmly. She might not recognize it, but this is probably for the best. I can already see that if she were to try and “catch up’ ” by making up missed work, her prospects in the class would be even worse. Each individual reading response does not make up much of her final grade, but the grade she receives on the upcoming paper matters. That is what she needs to concentrate on.
As we talk, a larger story emerges. Sandra tells me that she’s been dealing with a lot of “family drama” back home. This is a catchall phrase for the situations many of my students confront: sick siblings or children, parents who need help with childcare or chores, relatives who are in legal or financial trouble. I listen sympathetically, but I don’t ask for more details. My focus as Sandra’s professor is on making sure she does well in class. I need to encourage her to turn her attention to the upcoming assignment. My pedagogical goal is to have her walk out of my office with a mental outline that breaks up the task of writing the paper into smaller, less daunting steps. I know from the first few weeks of class that she is a smart student and a strong writer; now I must convince her that her skills are up to the challenge of this assignment, regardless of what else is happening in her life.
Lurking beneath this exchange is a larger, more difficult conversation about how to confront conflicts between her education and those other important, yet competing, concerns. Finishing college, my colleagues and I regularly tell students like Sandra, is of crucial importance. If Sandra drops out, she is much more likely to be unemployed. Even if she finds a job, the odds are that she will make significantly less money than she would have if she had completed her degree.1 If she accumulates debt while attending college, as many students do, she may end up worse off economically than when she started. But though she might understand this in the abstract, what is more difficult to contend with is the reality that to successfully complete her degree, she will often have to prioritize her education over her family, friends, and community. Sandra is doing everything she can to fulfill all of those obligations, but I can see that it is too much. The stress is visible in the way her shoulders slump and in how her voice breaks during tense moments in our conversation. If she is to succeed in college, she will have to learn to say no to those for whom she cares. This will involve making difficult sacrifices in areas of her life that she finds valuable and meaningful, perhaps even central to her sense of who she is. And it is this difficult conversation that faculty and administrators so often skirt around when addressing the barriers to graduation that students like mine face.
Many disadvantaged students frequently confront the sort of situation that Sandra finds herself facing. Their path toward upward mobility is beset with conflicts and sacrifices. It might seem obvious that, as her professor, I should advise her to prioritize her education over those competing concerns. Though such advice is well meaning, it often disregards the painful reality of carrying it out. What would it take for Sandra to really follow that advice? What sacrifices would she have to make in order to graduate? How will her relationships with her family change when she starts placing a higher priority on finishing her degree? It is crucial that those who want to support students on this path—teachers, professors, mentors, families—fully appreciate what they are asking students to do. And, as I will suggest throughout this book, it is extremely important that strivers—those disadvantaged students who are on the path of upward mobility—recognize the nature of the sacrifices they will have to make.
It is widely accepted that strivers must make difficult sacrifices to transcend the circumstances into which they are born. What hasn’t been adequately appreciated is that some of the most important sacrifices strivers make are ethical, that is, they concern the most meaningful and valuable aspects of a good life. What is potentially on the line is not just money, time, or hard work, but their relationships with friends and family, the bonds they have with their community, and sometimes even their sense of identity. In order to distinguish the ethical sacrifices strivers make from other costs discussed by economists and social scientists, let’s call these goods ethical goods and the sacrifice of them ethical costs.
The central idea of this book is that just as we take into account other costs of going to college for strivers—money, time, effort—we should consider the ethical costs as well. We turn to ethics in order to understand these costs because it is the study of precisely that which makes life good and valuable. In this chapter, I argue that understanding the nature of these ethical goods moves us well beyond the cost-benefit analysis that might be appropriate when thinking about money, time, or effort. The ethical costs of upward mobility are particular and not easily offset. Consequently, their loss is felt keenly by those who succeed even if they ultimately have much to gain from the sacrifices they have made.
This book is aimed both at those who want to support strivers in their path through college and at strivers themselves. Those who are concerned with the challenges faced by first-generation and low-income college students often fail to appreciate the significance of the potential ethical costs that strivers encounter in pursuing a better life for themselves. And though strivers know these sacrifices intimately, I hope that a thorough discussion of their nature can allow them to articulate more clearly the challenges they face.

Todd’s and Henry’s Stories of Upward Mobility

Many of those I interviewed for this book shared inspiring stories of upward mobility. I heard from professionals whose lives are dramatically different than those of their parents or the friends with whom they grew up. They have college degrees. They own their homes. They thrive professionally. Not only are they financially better off than their own families were when they were growing up, but their lives are rich and full of those ethical goods that are important and meaningful—partners, friends, work they enjoy. And they got there through education and hard work. Todd* and Henry* are no exception.
Todd, a bright and affable African American man, grew up in a predominantly minority neighborhood in Atlanta with his grandparents, mother, and sister. As Todd described it, the neighborhood had experienced extreme decline in the 1970s, and when he was growing up it was “not the best neighborhood, a lot of crime, a few projects nearby.” Todd’s mother had been a drug addict. She had irregular employment with long stretches of unemployment. His dad was mostly out of the picture. Todd went to the local public school, which was, as he described it, “100 percent Black” and notoriously “crappy.” Since much of his extended family lived in the area, his cousins as well as his sister went to the same school.
Todd disliked the neighborhood school. He was teased by other students for “trying to be White,” which he interpreted as a reference to studying and getting good grades.2 After a teacher was stabbed at the school, his mother asked a friend of hers to let them use her address so that Todd would be eligible to attend a predominantly White, middle-class, suburban magnet school. As Todd pointed out with a hint of embarrassment in his voice, this was “technically not above board, but you know 
” Because his mother couldn’t drive him to school, Todd drove himself, despite not being a fully licensed driver. Again, this strategy was not legal, but, as he saw it, it was necessary to gain those educational opportunities unavailable in his neighborhood. Without guidance from his family, Todd managed to navigate the college application process and found a way to become the first person in his family to go to college. When I met him, he was pursuing a master’s degree at an Ivy League university after a few years working in the federal government. His prospects were bright. He is now happily married to a similarly well-educated woman and is pursuing a career in the foreign service.
Henry, now a successful White academic, grew up in the Pacific Northwest with his mother, brother, and sister in a working-class neighborhood. His mother and grandmother had grown up in extreme poverty, and Henry’s own childhood was also marred by poverty. His mother worked off and on at low-paying part-time jobs to support the family. His father didn’t play a significant role in his upbringing. The family lived in Section 8 housing—government-subsidized housing for low-income families—and received food vouchers, welfare, and free school lunches. Heat and hot water were scarce, as they are for many poor families. In the winter, the whole family relied on one space heater, which they called “the God.” Sometimes they had to heat hot water on the stove to bathe. They didn’t have a phone at home and for a year had to do without a refrigerator because the landlord refused to fix it. Henry described his memories of growing up as “feeling isolated and lonely 
 partly [as] a result of our socioeconomic situation, particularly, our lack of phone, my embarrassment over our living situation, and the fact that I couldn’t afford to do normal things like go to the movies with friends.”
Henry’s mother had a high regard for education. Throughout Henry’s childhood she slowly took the courses she needed to get a college degree, eventually earning an associate’s degree. Like Todd, Henry didn’t receive much guidance at home about how to apply for a four-year college, so he enrolled in the local community college that his mother attended. Eventually, he transferred to a four-year college away from home because he “worried that various problems at home would compel [him] to slow down [his] education or even drop out.” This was quite clear-sighted of Henry. I have seen how hard it is for many of my students to live at home and not allow what is happening there to negatively impact their college trajectory. Henry flourished in college, went on to a graduate program in philosophy, and is now an associate professor at a well-respected public university. He is happily married. He and his wife both have good incomes and own their home.
Todd and Henry, through hard work and education, managed to overcome their circumstances. Statistics tell us that these cases are anomalous. Todd’s mother and grandparents didn’t go to college, yet he managed to not only enroll in college but graduate and thrive afterwards. After he received his bachelor’s degree, the opportunities available to him far surpassed those that would be expected to be within reach of someone growing up in his neighborhood. Once he receives his master’s degree from an Ivy League university, his prospects will be even brighter than he could have imagined as a young boy. Henry also grew up in poverty, but still he managed not only to finish college, but to earn a Ph.D. and become a well-respected tenured professor.
These stories awe and inspire us. They also conform to a well-rehearsed narrative of upward mobility in which the sacrifice of time, money, and effort earns one a myriad of rewards later on. Todd worked throughout college and wasn’t able to partake in many social opportunities because of it. Henry lived very frugally on his student loans and saved enough money to start paying them off as soon as he graduated. These sacrifices are what we imagine it takes for a striver to succeed. What the narrative obscures is the ethical costs that are also a part of the ledger.

Understanding Ethical Goods

One of the ways in which we give shape to our lives is by investing our time and effort into activities, goals, and relationships we find valuable. Those projects and relationships end up giving a life its distinctive contours. Take a moment to ask yourself what you value in your life. Many of us will respond to this question by citing family, friends, community, projects or interests, and, if we are lucky, work. These are the aspects of life that I have suggested we call ethical goods. They are distinct from those other aspects of our life that are important—financial security, material goods, and time—but that generally matter to us because they enable our engagement with the ethical goods that are most meaningful to us.3
Ethical goods matter to us in and of themselves, but they also matter to our sense of identity. Most of us think of our identities as closely tied to those ethical goods in which we are invested. My relationship with my daughter is crucial to my identity as a mother. My engagement with my students is a part of what constitutes my identity as a teacher. My relationship, or lack thereof, with a Peruvian community informs my sense of myself as Peruvian. What this means is that a loss or weakening of those relationships is not only a loss of something that matters to me but a threat to my sense of identity.
Children and young people haven’t yet determined many of the ethical goods that will engage them and become a part of their future identities. For them, the future is open, full of possibility. As they become invested in certain activities, goals, and relationshi...