Recently, I took part in an initiative concerning first-generation academics. As I took it, the idea was that established professors take the lead in talking about their special experiences and career paths in view of their non-academic backgrounds. The idea strikes me as good and empowering. Although people from non-academic backgrounds have significantly fewer chances of upward social mobility, let alone landing a sustainable position in academia, it is not impossible. Given this, it makes sense to raise awareness for the specific obstacles and stigma, yes, stigma, and perhaps to encourage those sitting on the fence about giving it a try. All the power to empowerment, of course. But is that really the effect of this kind of initiative? Here are some doubts.
“Aren’t you mostly engaging in self-praise?” Thus spoke my interlocutor after reading some of the professorial testimonials showing that they “had made it”. I explained at length how I hoped that these stories would help starting a conversation, eventually empowering some people from similar backgrounds and enlightening those unaware of first-gen issues. What’s not to like? “Well,” my interlocutor retorted, “of course, these are good intentions. But who is the intended audience of these testimonials?” Initially, I took my interlocutor’s criticism of self-praise to be totally unfair. In my view, class separations had tightened rather than loosened, so what could be wrong about raising awareness?
Listening to myself, my answers began to ring hollow soon, though: Who would read this? And wasn’t my story really just like patting myself on the back. Would it not just come across like any old meritocratic hero story? ‘Look, I’ve made it, despite …’ The American Dream all over again. Of course, this sounds too harsh. Reading all the stories by others (and not just professors), there were lots of intriguing perspectives. So one effect of this initiative might be that of normalising talk about diverse backgrounds. That would be good indeed. But while normalisation of such talk might be desirable, it doesn’t shed any light on the actual mechanisms obstructing social mobility. Indeed, thinking back, what really made a difference for me was not the opportunity to talk about my background but the political efforts allowing for social mobility within schools and financial support.
Now you might object that I’m misunderstanding such initiatives. While social mobility is hampered by lack of political and financial support, it is also hampered by stigma and more subtle forms of social oppression. These issues are addressed by such initiatives. The situation for first-gen students and academics will not only be improved by throwing money at it, but by normalising such backgrounds. But will it really?
Looking back at the situation I was met with as a student, what helped me most was, among many other things, the then widespread idea that it doesn’t matter where you come from. This idea is ingrained in countless songs, stories, and pop culture at large that accompanied my youth. It carries an enticing promise: the promise that you can just invent yourself – irrespective of who your parents or your ancestry are. Rather than highlighting my background (which I didn’t feel very connected to anyway), then, I felt empowered by the assumption that my background doesn’t matter. When I say in my testimonial that I was lucky to have grown up in a politically empowering environment, I partly refer to this idea. The political birth of this idea is probably linked to 1968, stressing a cut with previous generations especially in Nazi Germany. By the 1970s and 1980s, it probably had taken some hold in educational institutions.
Now you might rightly object that this idea, while perhaps desirable, is not true of the class differences that now rule many educational decisions. To this I’d reply that even back then ‘when I was young’, this idea was not true of most political mechanisms. The ties to the Nazi past were not really cut and we still had strong class differences. The point of the idea that your ancestry doesn’t matter is that it was a normative idea. It shouldn’t matter where you come from, even if it still did.
But if your class or ancestry shouldn’t matter, then what good does it do to focus on the differences in backgrounds? Thinking about this, I realise I’m torn about first-generation initiatives. On the one hand, I really believe that normalisation of such talk might help individuals in navigating through their environments. On the other hand, I worry that I end up normalising meritocratic drivel instead.
Yet again, while class origins (and the meritocratic hero narratives about overcoming them) shouldn’t matter, they do make a difference. While good education should be available to everyone and not hampered by origins, educational paths are often construed as stories of overcoming one’s origins. The Latin roots of “education” in the verbs “educare” (“to train”) and “educere” (“to lead out”) insinuate as much. If this is correct, education means at least partly leaving behind one’s origins.
In this sense, stories about educational paths will probably remain, at least to some degree, stories about leaving one’s origins behind. The very term “first-generation student” or “academic” has this narrative baked into it. So yes, keep talking about origins, but don’t forget to fight for political and financial support.
Many thanks to Daniel James Țurcaș and Barbara Vetter for launching the recent FirstGenPhilosophers initiative of the Gesellschaft für Analytische Philosophie (GAP), and to Marija Weste for inspiring conversations on the topic. – As it happens, this blog is now nearly four years old. So special thanks also to all my readers and interlocutors.