Morton: Moving Up without Losing Your Way

Welcome to our book forum on Jennifer Morton‘s new book Moving Up without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility. Below is a brief introduction to the book by Jennifer Morton. As a reminder, you do not need to have read the book to participate; feel free to ask about any aspect of the book or discussion below.

From Morton:

Upward mobility has been an article of faith for generations of Americans. Many philosophers are well-versed in the philosophical problems with some concepts in the neighborhood—meritocracy, desert, equal opportunity, etc. Social scientists have provided us with plenty of data to be skeptical that upward mobility is a common or a viable path for most children who grow up in impoverished communities. And yet, the narrative of upward mobility has a peculiar hold on the public imagination. The stories of Sonya Sotomayor, Howard Schultz, or Colin Powell inspire and promise to lay out a path for those born into working-class families. In fact, the goal implicit in much of the broader debate about educational inequality is that we should alter the educational system so that we give more children the opportunity to be the next Sonya Sotomayor. But we rarely talk about the costs of upward mobility for those who make it (or for those who stay behind). That is the topic of my book. I’m concerned with the ways in which success on the path of upward mobility often comes at the expense of maintaining close relationships to family, friends, and one’s community. These are what I call the ethical costs upward mobility.

Before I describe some of the main themes of the book, I should make it clear that this book is written with a broader audience in mind than academic philosophers. My goal was to speak to students directly and to those working in higher education who are concerned with the experiences of first-generation and low-income students. I develop a philosophical framework for thinking about upward mobility that I hope will be of interest to philosophers, but there are questions, which I will highlight in what I say below, that would deserve much more careful treatment if this book was written with a philosophical audience in mind. I hope that our discussion here will help me think through some of those questions more carefully.

Note 1: Method. In the process of writing the book, I decided to conduct interviews. I’ve discussed why elsewhere. The stories are interwoven throughout the book. Sometimes I use them to make concrete abstract philosophical ideas, while at other times I use them to tease out aspects of the lived experiences of strivers that I hope will resonate with those who are reading the book.

Note 2: Some of what I say below is drawn from pieces I have written and interviews I have given which have been published at The Atlantic, Inside Higher Education, The Chronicle of Higher Education, New York Daily News, Vox, and Princeton University Press Blog.

What are the Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility?

This book focuses on the experiences of strivers which I define as those who are the first in their families to go to college (first-generation students, as they are known) or who come from low-income backgrounds and who are seeking a path to upward mobility through education. Strivers I argue are caught between two worlds—the one in which many of them have their most meaningful and valuable relationships to family, friends, and communities and the world of educational opportunities and well-paying careers. I suggest that joining the communities in which opportunities reside often involves the distancing and fraying of those meaningful, early relationships.  I call these costs ethical because they concern what, for most of us, are central sources of meaning and value. That is, they undermine areas that are critical to flourishing. It is important to note that, though I focus on the experience of strivers, these ethical costs are borne not just by the student, but also by those with whom they have those meaningful relationships. When a relationship is frayed or lost, both people lose something of value.

It might be tempting to think of the ethical costs of upward mobility like we think about college debt—an up-front investment that is offset by the gains that come from obtaining a degree. But this ignores two important aspects of ethical costs that fundamentally differentiate them from financial costs—they are particular and they are irreplaceable. I suggest, following the literature on valuing and love,[1] that much of what is stake for strivers are particular people or communities which are not simply replaced by other people or communities that have similar qualities. Unlike financial costs, these ethical costs are not fungible. That means that when a striver’s relationship with a family member or a friend deteriorates, the striver is not made whole even if down the line she makes new friends or has her own family.

Why are the Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility different than the Ethical Trade-Offs non-strivers maker?

Once we recognize the ethical costs of upward mobility, the question naturally arises, doesn’t everyone make trade-offs of this kind? Don’t all college students lose friends and distance themselves from their family and communities? Is the difference between those costs and the ones strivers bear simply a matter of degree?

The answer I give in the book is that the ethical costs of upward mobility are different because they are unjust in so far as they depend on background structures of injustices. Chapter 2 of the book is devoted to making this case by showing how three features of the background structure—socioeconomic segregation, the inadequate safety net, and cultural mismatch—lead to the sorts of ethical costs discussed in 1. This chapter is the most social science heavy and tries to show how understanding the context in which strivers face the ethical trade-offs they do allows us to see that they are the result of background structures of injustice. I’ll briefly give two examples here.

  1. Strivers often find that they have to distance oneself from their communities in order to access educational opportunities. In most cases, this is the result of the concentration of educational opportunities in some communities at the expense of others. As Raj Chetty’s work shows, the zip code a child grows up in plays a critical role in how likely they are to move up the socioeconomic scale.[2] Comfortable, upper middle-class families might choose to send their child to a school outside of their community, but they need not. The opportunity to have their child attend a school with neighbors and friends that also offers a good education is one that is available to those who are better off, but not to many low-income families.
  2. Many of the most painful ethical costs I see my students confronting involve being torn between wanting to support their families and investing in their own advancement. These situations are in most cases directly the result of how the inadequate safety net impacts students. In my 9 years teaching at CUNY I have seen students face these choices daily—babysitting for a cousin who needs childcare or coming to class, studying for a test or working to support their families because a parent is disabled, and so on. In most of these cases, the lack of quality, affordable childcare or of financial support for a disabled parent is falling on the student’s shoulders and creating an ethical dilemma.[3] These burdens are less likely to fall on students whose families are wealthy enough to access such support.

Though I think it is true that the ethical costs of upward mobility are tied to structures of injustice and this is in part what makes them unjust. I am not entirely satisfied with this answer. I think the deeper answer, which I cannot currently defend, is that some ethical trade-offs are themselves inherently unjust. I believe that part of teasing out a concept of justice is figuring out exactly which trade-offs are just and which are not. And I suspect that figuring that out requires us to work bottom-up starting with non-ideal theory about particular cases and developing a theory of what structures would give us the right set of ethical trade-offs. I would love to hear more about what people think makes the ethical trade-offs strivers face distinct (or not).

What is a clear-eyed ethical narrative? And why does it matter?

A central part of the book is spent arguing that we need a new narrative of upward mobility that is honest about the ethical costs strivers will incur. I model this narrative on the immigrant narrative which I think does a somewhat better job of making ethical costs and trade-offs explicit and central to the immigrant experience.

However, one might worry that if strivers know what the costs are, some might decide not to pursue college. The traditional narrative of upward mobility is aspirational; it is meant to motivate students to pursue an indeterminate better future. For many first-generation college students, that goal is quite hazy. Many of the people they grew up with might not have college degrees or the kind of jobs that those degrees make possible. Hearing about Sonia Sotomayor might be exactly the kind of positive story they need to stay motivated. Perhaps, it is better for the students not to know the full extent of the sacrifices ahead of them.

I disagree. I think it is important for strivers have an honest narrative. In the first instance because, as a philosopher, I care about truth for its own sake, but also because I believe that being clear-eyed about the ethical nature of the path ahead of allows students to make choices that speak for what they value and care about. What I try to show in the book (using examples drawn from my own experiences as a first-generation, Latina immigrant) is how easy it is to succumb to social pressure that distances one from what one values. I suggest that having an honest narrative of the values at stake in the path ahead offers students a tool to resist sacrificing ethical goods that they do not wish to give up on, and also to take the first step to resist becoming complicit in unjust social structures. Finally, I do not argue for this in the book, but I also think that giving students a false overly-optimistic narrative of upward mobility is a form of hermeneutical injustice.[4]

Some other central questions I have not discussed here but that are discussed in the book: How can one codeswitch with ethical integrity? What obligations do strivers have to upend and resist unjust social structures? What can colleges and universities do to mitigate and minimize the ethical costs of upward mobility?

Very much looking forward to this conversation!

 

[1] Frankfurt, H. G. (1988). The importance of what we care about, Cambridge University Press. Jollimore, T. (2011). Love’s vision, Princeton University Press.

[2] https://scholar.harvard.edu/hendren/publications/effects-exposure-better-neighborhoods-children-new-evidence-moving-opportunity

[3] https://www.amazon.com/Paying-Price-Financial-Betrayal-American/dp/022640434X

[4] Fricker, M. (2007). Epistemic injustice: Power and the ethics of knowing, Oxford University Press.

 

 

 

26 Replies to “Morton: Moving Up without Losing Your Way

  1. This is super interesting. I’d really love to hear more about one thing you said above (which you also said you can’t currently defend): “that some ethical trade-offs are themselves inherently unjust. I believe that part of teasing out a concept of justice is figuring out exactly which trade-offs are just and which are not. And I suspect that figuring that out requires us to work bottom-up starting with non-ideal theory about particular cases and developing a theory of what structures would give us the right set of ethical trade-offs.” Even if you can’t defend this, can you say more about what you have in mind?

    One other note about the material in chapter 2. I’m curious about how we should cash out the relevant principle at play when we say that some things are unjust because they [causally?] depend on background structures of injustices. One interesting point I took from Wallace’s ‘The View From Here’ is that lots and lots of things probably causally depend on background injustices (including, I think, structural injustices). I don’t think this means we have to junk the kind of principle at play here (which plenty of other people appeal to, I think; e.g., Anderson in ‘The Imperative of Integration’). But I don’t know how to finesse it, so I’d be curious if you have thoughts on that. (Apologies if this is taken up in the chapter!)

  2. Jen, thank you so much for this post, and thank you especially for the book. I am reading it now and finding that it really resonates and helps to clarify some of my own experiences, and the experiences of people close to me. I wanted to invite you to say a bit more about the parallels between the experiences of the strivers you describe, and the experience of first or second generation immigrants. I think a lot of children of immigrants experience some of the same kinds of alienation and trade-offs that you describe. They go to college and come out feeling distanced from, and maybe unintelligible to, their family and community. But often this isn’t because of the financial costs of upward mobility but because of the cultural changes it involves. To succeed in an academic context involves becoming fluent in a culture that might be very different from the culture one was raised in. And once you’ve spent long enough in a college culture, it becomes harder and harder to do the sort of code-switching involving in being back with your family and community. The way you describe the background structures of injustice seems to focus on the financial costs to strivers, and the choices they are forced to make in light of those costs. Do you think there are similar unjust ethical costs faced by foreigners/immigrants, even if they don’t face the same financial burdens?

  3. This is a good time to have this discussion. Universities are recruiting and admitting more diverse classes than ever before, and, as evidenced by the outcome of the Harvard lawsuit, the federal courts have strengthened their resolve to protect American universities’ right to pick diverse student bodies. However, Jennifer is right to question whether this arrangement (e.g. Harvard gives special access to its university for strivers and strivers get special access to the highest economic classes) is always a net good for the strivers!

    I remember reading “A Hope in the Unseen: An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League” as a high school student. It was an inspiring book for me as a striver. But I distinctly remember that some of the successful whites in the book who were trying to help the main character, Cedric Jennings, get out of his circumstances and into the Ivies were talking among themselves once when he wasn’t around and commented that he’d almost certainly need to give up his conservative Christianity to make it, and maybe even religion altogether. I was shocked when I read that.

    Both Cedric and I are African American (AAs), and, according to Pew, 8 out of 10 AAs are Christian. In fact, 9 out of 10 are religious, with most of the rest being Muslim. Also according to Pew, no other racial or ethnic group in the US comes close to the religiosity of AAs. But the book was right. In order to excel in science and the humanities, especially at our elite universities and colleges, you need to relax your conservative interpretation of Genesis and many other parts of the Old Testament.

    For example, when I arrived at Cornell, I was challenged with Darwinian biology and Kantian ethics, both of which problematized how I was taught to understand and respect the Old Testament. Moreover, the culture was such that atheism or at least being nonreligious was the default. You were weird if you were Christian, esp. of the conservative ilk like most AAs are. Eventually, I eliminated the tension by giving up Christianity for agnosticism. I thought that’d be a suitable compromise, but let me tell you this, one of the hardest things you can do in the AA community is give up Christianity. It’s a social taboo. It will forever change your relationship with your family members, childhood friends, and most other AAs. I hear it’s similarly problematic for Hispanic strivers and Catholicism.

    In any case, that was a huge trade off and an ethically relevant one! It’s simply a fact that the more educated you get the less likely you are to be religious, and the correlation is causal too because of the tensions between what we’re taught as true in higher education versus what we’ve been taught as true in our religious institutions.

    So my question to you Jennifer is whether you spend any time in the book discussing religion as a trade off for strivers. If so, I’d be delighted to hear your thoughts. If not, why not?

  4. I really appreciated reading your rationale here for providing a new, albeit less rosy, narrative of upward mobility. Because I totally agree that something huge and positive that the book does is promote hermeneutic injustice. When I read the book with other education and philosophy students, all of whom are instructors, a common response amongst us was – “so, what are we going to do with all this new information! How can we help our strivers?” Although I think this is a real and important question, I agree that the real function of your book is giving strivers the language to make sense of their own college experience, to be able to situate it in a broader context of widespread social inequality, and to recognize too that their struggles aren’t a product of not, say, caring enough about their own education(!). I just think this is so important. Having someone come along and say “yes, what you’re going through now is a something genuinely tough and unfair” can, I think, be motivating in some contexts. At the very least, the recognition is important. At the same time, this new rationale is giving instructors the tools to be able to make sense of and empathize with the experience of their students.

    It’s interesting that you point out the worry that this less-rosy narrative might ultimately make potential strivers decide against college. In private conversations, I’ve noticed a similar kind of thought amongst instructors, in that they are liable to feel conflicted about their encouraging students to choose their education over family, etc. These instructors recognize that the sacrifices that it’s their job to ask their students to make are very real, and it’s just not always possible to succeed on both fronts — it’s just not always obvious, to instructors even, that getting that assignment in IS worth the ethical cost. I put this out there just as a comment, and because it’s a conflict I’ve felt at times myself. I guess one thing to take from it is just the observation that the background conditions of social injustice make it more difficult for educators to discharge their duties, as educators. The onus is on all of us to change those background conditions. But also, maybe the conflict/difficulties I’m describing here could be helped if we had a worked-out account of which trade-offs are unjust, as you mention you’d like to work out. I have nothing helpful to say here, but I agree it seems like we ought to be able to.

  5. Thanks for writing this, Jen. I’ve read the book and I think the project is really great. One of the interviews that you discuss in the book really stuck with me—the man who talked about “crabs in a bucket.” I take it (and tell me if this is wrong) there are some strivers who see their community in this troubled/problematic way. On the one hand, they see themselves as giving something up when they leave, but on the other hand they see themselves as having to leave–not just because of reasons of structural injustice–but because they see their communities as damaging to their flourishing.

    As a striver myself, this narrative was familiar to me. I never quite felt at home in the community where I grew up because I felt my values and aspirations weren’t respected there (girls weren’t supposed to be smart and they weren’t supposed to go to college). But then again I never quite felt at home in the communities I came to inhabit. I feel a loss of some of my community ties, but those ties were fraught and difficult to start with, so it was hard to figure out how exactly to feel that loss. It seems to me building an ethical narrative in these circumstances might require something different than in the cases where the community ties feel strong and healthy. Do you think that’s true?

  6. Really looking forward to reading your book, Jennifer!

    I too am interested in trying to understand which ethical trade-offs are unjust. I don’t have anything theoretically interesting to say about that, other than that an adequate account of it would be hugely helpful in thinking about a number of topics in practical ethics that involve power differentials. I have in mind occupational choices where it can often be true that (say) accepting a specific job involves trade-offs of other critical goods.

    That said, as one of your ‘strivers,’ I’d want to point out that not all ‘striving’ seems to involve very significant trade-offs. In my own case, striving was a way to *escape* unjust background conditions. And in a certain sense, I’m glad that I’ve become “unintelligible” to those in the community I came from; the mindsets prevalent there serve as barriers to personal and social development. Again, not meaning to deny that upward mobility can have the costs you are concerned with — only to remind that it does not necessarily have them.

  7. I see that Krista scooped me by a few minutes – she puts the points about alienation from one’s origins being welcome better than I did!

  8. Jennifer Morton’s superb book should be read and discussed by administrators, faculty, and students concerned about inequality, social mobility, and immigration. She highlights the importance of open and honest discussions on campus concerning values, ethics, and the consequences of social mobility. The book can form the basis for an expanded discussion on campus about class, race, ethnicity, and immigration status. It has led to much self-reflection about the trajectory of my own career, and the values that informed them, along with the challenges associated with code-switching.

  9. Thanks all! These are great questions. I’m going to take them in turn.

    @Daniel

    I agree that it is hard to defend the principle that x is unjust because it depends on background structures of injustice without more substantial work. Some of what I say in the chapter is that the sorts of costs that strivers face are more significant and costly, but I’m not entirely satisfied with that argument either. More recently I have thought that maybe we have the order of explanation wrong. In political philosophy, we often employ intuitions at the level of ideal theory (e.g. the original position) to guide us in coming up with principles that will describe the structures that we think are just. The critique from the non-ideal theorist is that this approach misses or distorts injustice in our lived non-ideal experience (and how to go about responding to it). But what if we start with our intuitions in particular cases of non-ideal justice and then ask: what sort of social structures would lead there to be less of these kind of cases. So in the case of higher education one might approach the project from the bottom-up. Let’s get as much as agreement as we can on what sorts of ethical trade-offs are unjust in these particular cases, then let’s understand what the causal relationship is to the social structures, and then let’s think about what sorts of alternative social structures would lead to fewer (or none) of those ethical trade-offs. I don’t know if this is a promising approach or even if it’s not something that is already out there. Sen has the intuitionist approach, but as far as I can tell doesn’t say much about what the process is by which these intuitions should guide the formation of a theory of just social structures. It’s all very hand-wavy at this point.

  10. @Sukaina

    I very much agree that there are similarities between the non-financial burdened immigrant and strivers. However, I think there is a key difference between those who choose to immigrate to another country (or even within the country to a very different place) and those who are forced to immigrate because accessing a certain basic set of resources to live a good life require it. I think giving a full account of this philosophically would require that I answer Daniel’s question–why is one set of trade-offs unjust and the other not? The intuition is that trade-offs that are made under conditions of relative freedom from the imperative of survival (to take a Marxist twist on this) are not unjust. Another way to put it is that the immigrant who doesn’t do it out of necessity and finds the burdens of immigration too costly can always return home, whereas the one that is forced to leave has no place to which to come back without significantly sacrificing her well-being. However, after an immigrant has settled somewhere for a while, it might be that the choice to come back is no longer less costly and so the dilemmas will have a similar force to that of the striver.

  11. @ Quayshawn

    Thank you for sharing your story Quayshawn. I stay clear of the issue of religion in the book for the most part, though I agree that it is fundamental to the alienation that some feel from their communities. The reason I do so is because I think many of the issues about tolerance for different religions (and beliefs) in the educational context have been played out in the literature, but also because that discourse often portrays the ‘conflict’ in a fairly simplistic way as if the only thing at stake was one’s cultural identity or religious identity. Rather, as you so eloquently point out, much of the role that religion and cultural identities can play is to connect as to others. So in the book I focus on relationships and communities as the bearers of value that are often sacrificed in the path of upward mobility. And I think this gives us a way of persuading even the most hard-nosed atheist who sees no reason to be tolerant of religion that the costs students experience are ones that need to be taken seriously. Education is supposed to change us. The difficulty of education in unjust contexts comes from figuring out whether it is the education itself (the books we read, the lectures we attend) that is doing the work or whether it is the social and cultural forces within the university. I think the first is a change that we need not worry about, but the second is one that serves to replicate and entrench unjust social structures.

  12. @ Shannon

    Thank you for this. I very much agree that the background conditions at play here make it harder for educators to discharge their roles as educators. I love Meira Levinson’s work on this.* Educators are also put into a dammed if they do, dammed if they don’t situation when they confront situations like this. I feel it keenly when I’m advising CCNY undergrads about whether to pursue graduate school, in particular when the students are members of underrepresented minorities. On the one hand, I want to encourage the development of their potential. On the other, I think that even if they get into a good graduate program, coming up in the profession might make them incredibly unhappy because of the nature of the sacrifices they will have to make to parts of their identities they hold dear.

    *https://hepgjournals.org/doi/abs/10.17763/0017-8055.85.2.203

  13. @Krista and Michael

    Yes, your cases involved the convergence of what I think are two distinct phenomenon: (1) distancing oneself as a way of rejecting the culture one grew up with and (2) distancing oneself to access educational opportunities that enable access to a career and a decent middle-class life. I think the first is a choice that even a student in more privileged circumstances could make and so is not, in the sense that I’m interested, the kind of unjust ethical cost we ought to worry about. Even under much more just conditions, some people are born into families and communities that they don’t feel at home in. The second is the central case I’m discussing because the choice is between distancing oneself from sources of value and accessing opportunities. But when these two cases come together is when things get tricky. The first reason is that I think there are cases in which (1) is often influenced by (2). That is, that a student sees the rejection of the culture they grew up with as key to their individual advancement. Of course, it’s very hard to figure out what is doing the causal work in these cases. The second reason is that I think there are often aspects of one’s community that are valuable and which a striver might mourn but that are so tied up to other aspects of the culture that a striver rejects the whole thing. And I think this is why reflection is important to really identify the sources of value that one wants to preserve and those that one wants to reject. This is not to say that there might not be strivers who reject everything they grew up with, but I think those cases are actually quite rare.

  14. I might be a little late here, apologies!

    Thank you so much for writing this book. I want to ask a question based on one kind of trade-off you discuss early in the book. You quote a striver, Henry, who struggles with feeling both that his path as a striver prevents him from fulfilling obligations to his family and that his family would be no better off if he were around (pp.30). This leaves him feeling like he has ‘“no soul. I keep walking away”’ (pp.31). Yet you caution against thinking that his feelings are intrinsically misguided, rather than reflective of a genuine trade-off.

    My question is about a closely related scenario (related to the discussion of striving as rejection of community from Krista and Michael above). My experience as a striver was like Henry’s, except I also (and perhaps Henry too) often felt resentful of the ways that the community I felt I was failing also seemed to have a hand in perpetuating their own struggles. Some of these were structural (e.g., being unable to find a job with sufficient income, and so giving up the search), but not all of them were. Sometimes I felt quite taken advantage of and exploited. It’s a tough situation, for instance, when a striver’s family members live in urban poverty, but spend the money the striver sends home unwisely (like buying puppies or leasing a new car) instead of doing things like paying bills. I know some other folks from similar backgrounds who have said they’ve had similar experiences with families who live below the poverty line in various forms. So it seems like there’s a fine line between being supportive and being used that can come into focus in the context of a striver whose family experiences poverty.

    As an adult, I see now how complicated this situation is, and how much the sources of people having a hand in their own struggles are themselves structural and class-based forms of oppression. Of course everyone deserves puppies and adequate transportation! It really feels like classism to tell people that they should ‘spend their money wisely to get out of poverty’. But it can also be interpersonal exploitation for a striver in a situation like the one I described, despite these often structural sources. So I am wondering if you have any thoughts about this kind of situation and how it is part of the ethical trade-offs strivers have to make. Should we tease the special, unjust trade-off, apart from the non-structural, interpersonal wrong?

  15. @John

    Thank you for this very interesting and complex question. One of the running themes in my work is that when we properly understand the context in which people under conditions of economic oppression make choices, we can often start to see that the charge of irrationality is unwarranted. Often, we are simply not really understanding the various values at stake. In this, I take my work to be in line with work by feminist philosophers like Serene Khader.

    However, this isn’t meant to be a blanket view that prohibits all forms of critique. Sometimes people, poor and not poor, do behave irrationally and irresponsibly and as philosophers we want the best theoretical framework that allows us to distinguish those cases. And sometimes we might think they have a good excuse for doing so, but sometimes there isn’t any excuse and the actions they engage in really are harmful to themselves or others.

    What I think you framed so beautifully is how a striver takes on the burden of having to think through all of these dimensions because as a striver you (a) have much better acquaintance with the circumstance under which those people are making choices so might better understand how the choice is less irrational or unreasonable than what it looks like from the outside, but (b) have the perspective that comes from education and having distance from those situations and can see how the choices might be harmful and playing into structures of oppression that we all have an interest in changing. I think here too getting clear on what the value one is committed to preserving is important. So if the relationship is important, but not enabling or participating in further oppressing those with whom we are in a relationship is also important, we are going to get pulled in different directions. In some ways, this case is similar to one I discuss later in the book, where a young woman draws the line with her family at their racist jokes. She thinks that laughing along with them, though potentially a way to bond, leads her to cross a line that is wrong to cross. This is not say that drawing the line is easy, or that it doesn’t damage those interpersonal relationships, but I think as long as one is clear about the nature of the choice, perhaps one might be less liable to feel that it reflects poorly on oneself when one draws those sorts of lines with family.

  16. I taught the first chapter of this book to my Lehman College (CUNY) undergraduates this semester and they loved it—in fact, I overheard them saying that they would use the language of ethical costs in a letter to the Spanish department where they complain about next semester’s schedule being too inflexible. Might I have radicalized them by teaching your book?

    One aspect of Jen Morton’s book that I would love to hear more about is how thinking about ethical costs can influence our thinking about higher education policy at the macro level. With regards to funding, for example: if sacrificing place and community to go to college far away makes strivers incur severe ethical costs, then it seems we should also care about a more just geographical distribution of high-quality colleges and universities (which might mean changing current patterns of funding for educational institutions, developing something like affirmative action for research grant applications from certain institutions, etc.). Another thing that I would love to hear about is whether we should include in our metrics on the benefits of a college education the positive effects (or lack thereof) of the striver on their home community after getting a degree. How do you see this being connected to the measurement of ethical costs for students? And would this be too parochial a demand?

  17. This book sounds like a fantastic tool for self-reflection, education, and philosophizing about inequality. It went on the top of my reading list!

    Here’s my question: do you talk about the health costs of upward mobility at all? Strivers face stressors beyond those that other college students face, and that is associated with significant somatic and mental health effects.

  18. @ Polaris

    Thank you for your comment. The psychological costs are covered quite well by Barbara Jensen in her book Reading Classes. One difference between my approach and hers is that the ethical costs at stake affect both the striver and their community, whereas the psychological costs. though extremely important, fall largely on the striver.

  19. @Pedro

    Thank you for teaching the book and for your fabulous questions. If we look at the ethical costs at the policy level, I do think we should be concerned with the unequal distribution of resources in higher education across institutions. In Germany, for example, where institutions are much more on a par in terms of resources and status, students generally go to university in their home town. So one might argue that such a system entails fewer ethical costs.

    I would LOVE for a social scientist to look at the effect of the ethical costs (and positive benefits) on communities. I have asked a few social scientist who work on higher ed, but they don’t know of any work that has been done this questions specifically. I think without this data, it’s very difficult to think clearly about some of the questions regarding a striver’s responsibility.

  20. Your book is on my to-read list. My case a bit peculiar because I grew up in Belgium which has excellent social services, as a daughter of a homemaker and bricklayer (so not American social mobility per se). In any case, one aspect that strikes me as difficult and that must also affect people in the US is how you have to be prepared to physically move away from your social circle. Going to university as a first-gen college student it was not that big of a problem because I went to the local state school in the town near where I grew up. I could simply cycle or take the bus to the university. But as I went on the job market it became quickly clear that you have to be prepared to move anywhere. I moved to the UK, to The Netherlands, and now the US. I am leaving behind my parents and sister. I know that this dynamic is not unique to people who are first-generation or working class, but very often they have to be prepared to move further. It is still hard and feels alienating. I’m glad I’m not an only child, and if my parents’ health deteriorates, my sister is there for them.
    The feeling of alienation from everything you know and love takes a long time to recover from. I haven’t recovered all these years I lived in the UK, and certainly not now in the US. Being away from communities you grew up in also means you feel like it’s just your nuclear family in a big and scary world, navigating an incomprehensible healthcare system (in the US) or really weird social norms (in the UK).

  21. @Helen
    Thank you for sharing your experience. I share many of those feelings. Academia is it’s one particular sort of choice and I agree that the moving involves ethical costs that are similar to those that strivers experience. I guess the question is whether this is unjust in cases in which one is pursuing a passion but one could’ve stayed close to family and had a good job available. I’m tempted to say no, but this again goes back to the broader question of how to think about what makes some ethical costs unjust.

  22. Jen, this is an important topic, cutting across disciplines and lives, and I love it when philosophers challenge the conventional wisdom. When I read your precis I was reminded of RichardRodriguez’ Hunger of Memory which vividly showed the losses you referred to though RR certainly thought the gains more than compensated. Also reminded of Ed Bullins’ play I saw in ‘sixties (TheElectronic Nigger?) in which an upward striving scholarly black boy is pulled down by his peers. Also reminded Malcolm X’s high school counselor who advised him against law school, said carpentry might be a better fit.
    I had a couple of thoughts. 1. This is a case where the author’s biography seems to matter. If the book had been written by, say, Steven Miller, it would carry a very different message. 2. Being quite old now, I’ve learned that the world inhabited by my kids’ generation is very different from the world I lived in at their age despite the fact that our educational attainment is similar. 3. Not to deny the costs, there are also benefits to families of strivers: e.g. the pride parents or grandparents take in their daughter or son, the doctor or banker, … and the ability of successful strivers to not only help parents in their old age but to pave the way for other strivers, who work for a more just world. Indeed, my guess is that strivers are probably among the best fighters for justice. Haven’t read the book yet, but hope to soon. Happy Thanksgiving break. Fran

  23. Thank you @Fran for this. I will be teaching a first-year seminar for first-generation students next term and we will be reading Hunger of Memory. I wholeheartedly agree that strivers are in the best position to fight for justice. Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on the book. Happy thanksgiving!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.