Monday, February 20, 2012

The Wake-Up Call

We have family friends whose older son started college this Fall.  Apparently, when he got his Fall grades last month, he had his head handed to him.  Having reeled from the shock for a while, now he’s studying much more aggressively than he ever has before.

The same thing happened to me in my first semester of college.  Having learned certain expectations in high school, the first semester at Snooty Liberal Arts College came as a rude shock.  Part of it was poor course selection, but part of it was simply not appreciating the level of effort that I had to muster.  

In my case -- and, I’m fairly confident, in the case of our family friend -- that first semester functioned as a wake-up call.  I raised my game after that, and the results followed.  

But for many students, a rough first semester doesn’t result in redoubled effort.  It results in a fatalistic shrug, and either an immediate departure or a de facto one.  

I’m not entirely sure what makes the difference.  

The literature on resilience suggests that expectations have much to do with it, and that makes intuitive sense.  I remember being sort of offended that other guys in my dorm -- most of whom were no smarter than I was, as far as I could see -- did just fine, and I didn’t.  It struck me as ridiculous.  If Lumpy could do well, I could.  I mean, jeez.  These guys weren’t mysterious beings with inscrutable superhuman powers.  They were relatively well-spoken jocks who liked to pour vodka on the linoleum and light it on fire. (True.)  If they could succeed, I thought, I’ll be damned if I can’t.

By that reasoning, a student who is the first in his family to go to college, who commutes from home and doesn’t hang around with strong students, and who has picked up some shaky academic habits in high school might well react differently to a rough first semester.  He might be more vulnerable to the impression that people who know how to do this are fundamentally different from him.  He might take that first negative report card as confirmation of his self-doubts, rather than as some sort of insult requiring an answer.  

To the extent that’s true, then there’s probably a direct academic consequence to the increased segregation by income that characterizes both our towns and our colleges.  If the first-in-his-family student had family friends with college degrees, and was exposed to other successful students outside the classroom, he might be quicker to decide that success is attainable.  After all, if his none-too-impressive classmates could do it...

But never having that exposure means never having that reality check.  

One of the unadvertised benefits of attending SLAC was seeing the sons and daughters of the elite up close.  Other than a sort of blithe weightlessness, they really weren’t that different from the rest of us.  Nothing demystifies like a shared bathroom.

To the extent that neighborhoods were once more mixed economically than they are now, it was once possible to get at least some cross-class exposure in the course of daily life.  That’s mostly not true anymore, which leads to a sort of narrowing of one’s sense of the world.  If the elite only ever see other elites, they can lose touch with reality pretty fast.  And if the working poor only ever see other working poor, a certain fatalism can come to seem like clearsightedness.

Colleges can be wonderful places for that kind of cross-class interaction, though it’s obviously harder when students live at home and commute.  

Our family friend has parents who went to college, and who are cracking the whip on him now.  (“Improve your grades or start paying rent.”)  I hope that’s enough to get him back on track.  But for the kids who don’t have that at home, I wonder.