Having enormous amounts of money changes how a school does education, but it’s something we really don’t want to discuss in higher education. Being well-endowed, or just rich, is definitely a form of privilege, and yet we try not to talk about it. It’s education’s unspoken, unacknowledged, unchecked privilege in an era of ever-increasing educational oligarchy.
I’ve noticed this over the past few years in my work. Visiting campuses, consulting with organizations, and reading academics’ work, I see academics (professors,librarians, technologists, upper administrators) blithely describe projects they’ve implemented, without any sign of awareness that they could only do that work the way they did thanks to their institution’s privilege. They commend methods and practices to an audience that might not be able to afford them. They describe challenges that many in education would love to be able to face.
Item: Harvard staff complaining at a NERCOMP event a few years back that they couldn’t afford to do something. Because they had tight budgets, you see. Yes, Harvard. They actually solicited the audience’s sympathy.
Item: a teacher from a private high school in Massachusetts costing $41,000/year on average describing a digital storytelling effort based on every student having their own new Macbook Pro. And class sizes of around 8.
(To this presenter’s credit, when I asked her how other, less rich schools could implement this practice, she frowned and admitted it would be difficult. She recommended relying on students’ iPhones, because, I suppose, all students have iPhones in her world. I feared my question would be seen as hostile.)
Item: tenured faculty complaining about a local administration that doesn’t listen to them as they’d like, without mentioning that adjuncts – who can be hired and fired at will by those less than perfectly collegial administrators, on a semester basis – even exist. It literally goes without saying that adjuncts have no voice whatsoever in campus governance.
Item: Slate and a Stanford provost asserting that very rich students = typical students.
Item: faculty, staff, and journalists treating William Deresiewicz’s ur-Ivy League screed Excellent Sheep (2014) as if it was about the typical American college student. Or the typical American campus.
Item: the headmaster of an Austin, Texas private high school costing roughly $50,000/year exhorting teachers to set up lavish maker spaces, reboot curricula, and establish deep, individual relationships with students.
If academia is to avoid becoming split into an oligarchy and the rest, we need to stop doing this. We need to acknowledge that massive wealth disparities exist and have powerful impacts on our work at all levels. If academia is going to commit to social justice, those in the elite need to admit, and check, their privilege.
When the elite communicates to the elite (check the first photo, up above)… that’s not what I’m referring to. I’m describing academic communication among a general audience of educators. And that situation is increasingly normative, with the spread of mobile devices, social media, and web publishing.
I really hate the overuse of this expression, but the existence and implications of massive resource inequalities among institutions really is the elephant in education’s living room.