Three Miles

A couple of years ago I ran into a gentleman in the business section of Vroman’s.  He was looking for a copy of Adam Smith’s An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. We started a discussion about economics and inequality. A few minutes into the conversation he asked me if I ever listened to This American Life. He recommended that I listen to the Three Miles episode.

I listened and re-listened to the episode a number of times. The story involves a group of public school, University Heights High School, kids from a lower class neighborhood who visit an elite private school, Fieldston, just three miles from their neighborhood. What I heard sounded familiar. However, I was having a hard time analyzing the stories.

What initially struck me was this quote from Melanie, a University Heights High School student who disappeared after visiting the private school:

When we went there, we looked like a bunch of hooligans. I would say we looked like the goonies walking in a Wall Street building. I felt like you knew we weren’t from there. Like, who are these ghetto kids walking in? We just– we knew we didn’t fit in. We didn’t look like the rest of the students.

I recognized the signs of structural violence in the story. One of the most important ideas I have in analyzing structural violence is the economic concept of information asymmetries. Signaling, which is the idea that parties convey information to each other and screening, which allows one party to discriminate toward appropriate parties, are considered strategies to combat information asymmetries. They are also useful in imposing information asymmetries and conducting structural violence.

The private school, Fieldston, was certainly signaling class and status to the visiting students from the public school with its “18-acre campus on a hill” and “landscaped paths.” The screening is most certainly the $43,000 tuition. It was also noted in the program that Fieldston’s student body is 70% white.

The University Heights High School students were certainly signaling, going back to Melanie’s quote “we looked like a bunch of hooligans.” It appears that the signaling from Fieldston and its students was certainly overwhelming to the University Heights students based on another quote from Melanie, “I felt like a ratchet ass girl from the hood. I felt like I didn’t belong there. I just felt like I have no business in this building.”

The idea about signaling and screening is reinforced in this quote about Raquel, a young woman from University Heights High School who attended and graduated from Bard College, “Raquel has to not look at the mountain of evidence that what she’s working toward will not be possible, and instead has to repeat to herself, you do deserve this. You deserve this. You do deserve this.” Her boyfriend Jonathan suffered from a similar sense of self-doubt; his reaction upon learning of his acceptance into college, “My main thing was, who am I to be accepted into a college?”

There is also the implication of profound positive conditioning that affects the Fieldston students:

A lot of Fieldston students do go on to be politicians, and run Walt Disney and the New York Times, and host evening news programs, and design major American cities. And part of the point of programs like these that try to bridge the divide is– seeing as the private school kids will likely go on to be important, influential people, maybe write education policy or finance new businesses– it’s good for them to know not everybody’s life looks like theirs.

It has been difficult for me to understand why this profound negative conditioning has been so difficult for the University Heights High School students to overcome. I have had some academic success personally, so I found this story particularly frustrating; especially considering that I could not quite put my finger on why this was happening.

Then I found this quote from Dr. David Hernandez of Mount Holyoke College:

My first job was at UCLA and I remember one time we were talking with colleagues … about drinking and dive bars, and I said, “Oh yeah, I grew up in a bar. My dad was an alcoholic and so I spent a lot of time in this bar when I was a kid.” It completely changed the vibe, people looked uncomfortable, some excused themselves … It just felt like everyone was looking at me differently, like I wasn’t that same scholar anymore because I had this weird background that was foreign to them … It made me realize that my PhD didn’t level the playing field. Because it’s my pedigree that matters more.

I have visited elite private high schools here in Southern California. I have noticed that the students of these schools seem to be praised for even mediocre work. I graduated from a public high school in a poor neighborhood where it seemed that you could only win praise by outcompeting other students; only winners were celebrated. So the idea of pedigree is starting to make sense to me as an explanation for these phenomena.

I found an analog to this idea in the writing of William Deressiewicz. In his article The disadvantage of an elite education he writes:

In short, the way students are treated in college trains them for the social position they will occupy once they get out; At schools like Cleveland State, they’re being trained for positions somewhere in the middle of the class system, in the depths of one bureaucracy of another. They’re being conditioned for lives with few second chances, no extensions, little support, narrow opportunity–lives of subordination, supervision, and control, lives of deadlines, not guidelines. At places like Yale, of course, it’s the reverse.

I am starting to see the whys and wherefores of this conditioning I am writing about, and the role of pedigree. It will take much more research and analysis to truly understand. I will have to stop before I end up writing a preliminary thesis statement; I could go on and on.

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