Windows and Mirrors - Upwardly Mobile? - Florence Sprague - March 2022
It sounds so easy, so straightforward. Give someone who could not otherwise afford college a
scholarship and you give them access to a better life. But that transition is not always so easy or
straightforward. Listen to the stories of first-generation college students stumbling through school
unaware of the unstated “rules” and expectations of college. What are office hours? Where do my
parents belong in my life now? How do I socialize with classmates who have so much money?
Listen to the pandemic stories of students trying to study from home, without internet, with younger
siblings needing school help, with no private workspace, with demands from family for emotional
and financial help. Think of the stories of students going away to college, who, not surprisingly, were
the problem solvers for an extended family which still calls upon them relentlessly, pulling them
away from their studies. Imagine going home at break to see loved ones still mired in poverty and
perhaps dysfunction and standing out like the proverbial sore thumb, triggering resentment and envy.
OUCH!! Who am I and where do I fit in?
Surprised? Surprised that education might not be an undiluted good? In Moving Up Without Losing
Your Way, philosopher Jennifer Morton exposes the “deep personal sacrifices” that students often
make while striving for upward mobility, and the often difficult ethical and moral conundrums of
opposing pulls. She then encourages the creation of strategies to help these strivers make informed
choices and help educational institutions provide resources to enable students to minimize their
In an episode of the radio program/podcast Hidden Brain titled “Between Two Worlds,” Morton and
host, Shankar Vedantam, sensitively discuss the issues her book raises. (Listen or read the transcript
at https://hiddenbrain.org/podcast/between-two-worlds/.) Morton observes that “it becomes very hard
for them [the students] to navigate both trying to succeed in college and…carrying sisters, sons,
daughters, friends, or community members.” The rest of us “often… don't …think about ethics as
playing a role here, but I think whenever a person is caught between trying to figure out what the
right thing to do is…to help somebody that they love…[or] to succeed in their own path, they're
balancing and trading off against each other two important and valuable dimensions of what a good
and flourishing life would entail.”
One student Morton mentions used the analogy of crabs in a bucket—as one crab tries to climb out
of the bucket, the others are pulling it back down simply by their own struggles. As much as family
members may want a student to succeed, the needs of the family may often operate like those other
crabs, pulling the students back down.
This article cannot reflect all of the nuances of that conversation, or of the challenges strivers face.
Nor can it capture the compassion Morton expressed for those on this journey. But it may be enough
to begin the rethinking we all need to do. From remembering that a scholarship alone is not enough,
that “orientation” for strivers needs to be different, that if we want to support students, we need to
support their families. No problem as big as this can be solved just by throwing money at it.