February 9, 2014

NG: Some People, Any Study

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“I had no idea that poor people lived like that,” the girl sitting in front of me said to her friend at the end of lecture. “This class is so eye-opening. I wish there were more classes like this.”

I disagreed silently. The professor simply delivered a broad introduction to the concept of income inequality. The professor’s ultimate message was that poor people exist and that poverty is a terrible thing. There was no in-depth analysis. Yet, this girl sitting in front of me was awestruck by that revelation all the same.

My story admittedly sounds too caricaturized to be true, even though it actually happened. Was it really possible that there are people so sheltered that they see income distribution in the United States as a revelation? And yet, every day a similar attitude manifests itself around the campus in subtler ways. One student, wearing Burberry rain boots, accused my friend of being elitist. A friend thinks poor people deserve their position, “because they are just not working hard enough.” Another friend tells me, “you are just my only friend that discusses what is wrong with the world.”

Something about all of these examples is universally frustrating, but translating that frustration into words is a struggle. The problem isn’t that students come from a comfortable background, or even that are sheltered because of that background. Nor am I dictating that everybody must talk about “what is wrong with the world,” which is silly (I talk about other things, too, like Beyoncé).The problem is cluelessness, and a lack of tact when discussing the lives of others.

Such cluelessness also transcends political and ideological boundaries. Indeed, what unifies these acts of cluelessness is an unwillingness to take those tools which we use to analyze other people — poor or otherwise — on ourselves. They have taken the first step to become aware of the world beyond the bubble, but are not aware of that bubble’s place in the world.

I don’t dislike people for being clueless; not only is it an unavoidable part of learning, but it naturally corrects itself as people absorb more experiences that are not their own. Rather, the problem is when such cluelessness does not change and becomes static. Regardless of whether people are sheltered or express an unwillingness to change, the result is stasis. And when college students in a class discussing poverty don’t know any poor people themselves, that academic experience doesn’t seem worth the tuition dollars we pay.

Could this be Cornell’s fault? It’s likely. Cornell doesn’t release many statistics of the economic makeup of its students, but no one denies that many Cornell students are well-off. For the class of 2017, only 54 percent applied for financial aid, in spite of rising tuition rates and record student debt. It raises the question of how similar the Cornell student body is to that of other schools. My professor, for example, pointedly asked people to not shop on J. Crew during lecture — not H&M or Gap.

To be fair, Cornell is not the only school that’s struggling with economic diversity. Broadly (and unfortunately), admitting too many students who need financial aid is antithetical to the college financial model: balancing the budget requires that a proportion of students pay full cost. For the 2011-2012 school year, 18 percent of all Cornell undergraduates received Pell Grants, which is a decent measure of the amount of low-income undergrads on campus. We’re doing much better than Princeton or Yale (12 percent and 14 percent respectively), but we also can’t compare to Columbia’s 30 percent or Berkeley’s 37 percent.

But these four schools don’t have as their motto, “Any Person … Any Study.” The Cornell administration does a great job touting its verbal commitment to racial diversity, though it admits it has a long way to go. I wonder, however, if we shouldn’t also focus on economic diversity. Economic diversity and racial diversity aren’t in opposition to each other — rather, by necessity they’re intertwined.

Here’s where I’ll ruffle some feathers: diversity initiatives are a good thing, but they only go so far. Admitting (not recruiting, but admitting) more people from working class backgrounds, so discussions on economic diversity are done by an economically diverse group, is much more efficacious. This won’t harm the quality of education, but will instead enhance it. Discussions on diversity will become far more organic than the top-down initiatives the administration has tried. In addition, the administration should publish the percentage of students belonging to different household income brackets. The results are probably not pretty, but neither is boasting that the incoming class is the “most diverse yet” with a whopping seven percent of African-American students.

When I first came to Cornell, I thought it apt that students self-described the University as “Far Above Cayuga’s Waters.” The song was written with a positive connotation in mind, but I thought it was a good description of the bubble many students live in. And when I read the lyrics seldom sung, “Far above the busy humming of the busy town … Looks she proudly down,” I couldn’t help but think of students derisively describing Ithaca’s residents as “townies.” But bubbles are meant to be popped, and we should endeavor to relentlessly expand our own bubble’s inclusivity until it finally bursts.

Kai Sam Ng is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at [email protected]. Cross-Eyed and Painful appears alternate Mondays this semester.