College and Class: Observations from a First Generation Grad By James Bruno

College and Class: Observations from a First Generation Grad By James Bruno

I texted my daughter, a Tulane freshman, the other day: "I want to assure you that Mom & I did NOT bribe anyone to get you into college. Now you can sleep easily!" Response: "Ha ha ha!"

The explosive college admissions scandal this past week underscores again the expanding rot in our society emanating from growing wealth inequality. Members of the one-(and ten)-percenter class display an arrogant entitlement and corrupt behavior reminiscent of the aristocracy of Louis XVI's France. The scandal has sparked a national debate on just how much, or little, merit has to play in gaining admission to university.

Steve Brill, in his book Tailspin, explains how American meritocracy has perversely created an entrenched elite that has built a moat around itself to the exclusion of the working and poor classes, thus limiting upward mobility and increasing in them a sense of alienation. In the Gilded Age, the wealthiest two percent of Americans owned more than a third of the nation's wealth. Today, the gap is even greater with the top one percent owning almost 40 percent of the wealth. 


I'll confess my outrage at the college admissions scandal is rooted in class. I was first generation in my family to attend university. My parents did not attend college. My father wasn't even able to finish high school. His mother was illiterate. Both sides of my family had been farmers. There were few books in our household. As with all parents, they were intent on ensuring a better life for their children, which included higher education.

But my siblings and I lacked the "cultural capital" others had. No mentors. No connections. No savvy high school faculty to speak of. At that time, our Upstate New York county was ranked second poorest in the state. It is no longer, but, drawing on U.S. Department of Education statistics, today grades my old school district a solid C- in academics. 

My cultural capital included the following: 

The pungent aromas of vinegar and cow manure in home room. Mothers applied the former to rid head lice from their daughters' hair. The latter suffused the atmosphere from farm boys' boots after milking the cows before coming to school.

A high school math teacher, impatient with my denseness in his subject, picked up my materials, hurled them into a wastebasket and yelled, "Get out of here! The only thing you're good for is picking berries on the mucklands!"

When I sought after-class help along with a female student, our smarmy chemistry teacher advised us to drop out of his class since we clearly lacked the brains to grasp the subject.

Beatings (this was before the 1970s reforms) from elementary school onward by teachers and principals. The middle school principal gave me ten thwacks with a planed club on my left hand for having thrown snowballs in the school yard, numbing and incapacitating that hand for hours. Our gym teacher was given to slamming miscreant boys against the walls and down corridors. It was not unusual for country boys to arrive at school with facial welts from their dads' beatings.

Dunce stools to humiliate misbehaving elementary school students (True!) 

A dyslexic senior English teacher who just couldn't plow through reading the ingredients on a corn flakes box much less Shakespeare. 

Guidance counselors who were better informed on local fishing holes than about out-of-state, non-SUNY colleges.  

I'll stop here. You get the general picture. 

So, when it came to college application time, my sister and I were flying blind, on our own. Going through the whole process was a high learning curve. We lacked legacy, big bucks donations, connections. Mentoring was nonexistent. Nonetheless, we got into good schools and had successful professional careers.

J.D. Vance

J.D. Vance

J.D. Vance and Alfred Lubrano brilliantly address the challenges faced by those seeking to climb America's social ladder in their books, Hillbilly Elegy and Limbo: Blue Collar Roots, White Collar Dreams, respectively. 

"White collar people just have the know-how, from their backgrounds, to get fellowships and other assistance on campus we didn't have," Lubrano quotes one "straddler" across class lines. "Because it's part of their class consciousness, second- and third-generation college students know how to manage their time, how to figure out what to focus on, and how to work their way through" - with a boost from their parents, he continues. 

Vance stresses the need for the upper classes to keep the door open for those striving to enter:  “One way our upper class can promote upward mobility is not only by pushing wise public policies but by opening their hearts and minds to the newcomers who don’t quite belong.” 

Those CEO's, top shelf attorneys, TV actresses and other members of America's elite in this scandal cheated the system and stole college placements that legitimately belong to kids like I was - honest, hard-working, yet clueless - and students of my children's generation.

They deserve what's coming to them. And those who follow the rules deserve better. 

James Bruno (@JamesLBruno) served as a diplomat with the U.S. State Department for 23 years and is currently a member of the Diplomatic Readiness Reserve. An author and journalist, Bruno has been featured on CNN, NBC’s Today Show, Fox News, Sirius XM Radio, The Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, Huffington Post, and other national and international media.  

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