Jennifer Morton Interview Transcript

I'm Jennifer Morton. I am an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York and at the Graduate Center CUNY. I'm also a Senior Fellow at the Center for Ethics and Education at the University of Wisconsin Madison and my book "Moving up Without Losing your Way": The Ethical Cost of Upward Mobility will be out in September of 2019 with Princeton University Press. (00:35) The book really got started from my experience teaching at City College. A lot of the students I teach are what I call "Strivers". They're students who often come from low income backgrounds or who are the first in their families to go to college or are the children of immigrants and they really see going to CUNY as the path to a better life for themselves than their parents have, to middle-class professional life. And it was in teaching these students that I really started to see the impact of being a first-generation college student, the first in your family to go to college. And I myself was the first person in my family to go to college. So I relate with a lot of the struggles that my students go through, although I had many privileges that they don't have. And so it was in teaching the students at CUNY that I really started to think about what sacrifices my students were making in order to achieve a better life through education.

So let me just give you an example from my own teachings. Many of my students are balancing a bunch of different commitments both to their education and to their families and their communities. So a few years ago I had a really bright student who I will call Sandra and she came to see me during my office hours after she had started, not coming to class, missing assignments and so on. She initially wanted me to accept these late assignments, which I don't often do. And so we were having a conversation about this. And in the process, she said she was dealing with a lot of family drama back home. And this is a phrase that I hear a lot from my students and often it means for them that either they have family who's in legal or financial trouble, or they themselves have children, or friends who are going through something difficult, or they have to work to support their families.

So there's a lot of different obstacles that my students face outside of the classroom. They really impact your capacity to be in the classroom and to do what they need to do to graduate from college. And you know, Sandra and I had this conversation about what she needed to do to pass the class, not focus these assignments she had missed, but really focused on the kind of large assignment ahead of her, the final paper because this kind of for a lot of her grade. But really I think underlying the conversation that we were having was a much deeper conversation that at the time, I don't think I fully understood until I did the research for this book, which was about the ways in which she would have to draw boundaries with her family and have to say no to the people that she cared about in order to be able to do what she needed to do to get her college education and do well in the course and in her other courses.

And I could already tell from just talking to her and that she was really trying to do everything at once and that it was too much and that she was really stressed out by trying to be there for her family and, and trying to graduate from college. And this is the experience that many Strivers face. And that's the dilemma that I was hoping to capture in the book. In the book I call the kind of sacrifices students like Sandra make "ethical costs". What I mean by that is that Strivers are sacrificing and areas of their lives that are meaningful and valuable to them. So their relationships to their families, to their friends and through their communities. And these are areas that for most of us are really important to how we see our lives, how we see the meaning in our lives, how we think of ourselves.

They're very tied up to central aspects of our identity and for Strivers, those relationships are often on the line when they're on the path of upward mobility. So they're, um, it's not necessarily like they will lose those relationships. We'll though in some cases, drivers might lose those relationships as they make their way through college and, and, and if they succeed. Um, but sometimes it's also just that those relationships are weekend or strange or become a source of stress and those hurt the ethical costs that I focus on in the book. So one distinctive aspect about the ethical costs of upward mobility that I discuss in the book is that they're not costs that are easily made up by the gains that we get from a college education. So, for example, a student that is a financial cost and you pay interest, then it's stressful and difficult for students to manage.

But hopefully if all goes well and you've graduated from college, you will make more money than if you hadn't. And that will make up for the initial investment, financial investment that constituted. But ethical costs are different because when you lose someone that is valuable or meaningful to you, or a relationship that you care about is threatened by being on the path of upward mobility, those relationships are not easily replaced and the people in your life that you might lose are not easily replaced by just making new friends or finding a new community. However, um, I do think that there are things that the university could do to help Strivers mitigate some of those costs. So even though they're not going to be able to replace the losses the students experience, they can offer avenues for students to find new friendships, find new communities, find new relationships in their lives that are meaningful and valuable to them.

And we know that college is a time in which many young people actually do find those relationships and find those new communities. But the problem is that for Strivers often the college environment and the college culture is one that feels alienating and so it's difficult for them to find those friendships and communities and build those relationships on a college campus. And this is where I think professors and others who are working in higher education can really think more intentionally about what the college classroom looks like, what is happening there and is a college classroom a place where Strivers can easily find those new friendships and communities and relationships that have the potential to mitigate some of the costs that they experienced.

The audience for the book is first people who work in higher education, so that's both people who are thinking at the policy level about the challenges that are currently facing, the higher education system, but also just professors, deans of student life, people who are working with students that are not really seeing the population of students that they teach change and thinking about how to best serve those students. Now the other audiences, I hope first generation students themselves, the Strivers. And so it's important to me in writing this book that I felt like I was writing it in a way that one of my CUNY students could just pick it up and read it and, and see their experience reflected in the pages and that it wasn't only engaging with an academic community or the policy community, but it was something that could engage. Um, a student who saw often I think don't see themselves in the material that they read in a college classroom.

So the question of what the purpose or the aim of higher education should be is a very difficult one I think because on the one hand, higher education has these very lofty aims. We want to impart knowledge and skills. We want to make the students to walk into our classroom emerge better than they were before they entered the classroom. And, you know, we might define that in different ways. You might think they might, they engage emerge better citizens, more thoughtful people, more capable in some domain. But at the same time, higher education increasingly is the path towards middle-class employment and towards professional work. So in a way, we're kind of caught between two doing two different things, serving this kind of loftier educational purpose and also, um, a much more kind of mundane certification purpose of giving someone a degree that will enable them to get a good job and be able to support their families and so on.

And so I think we're often balancing those two aims against each other. I think a further aim that higher education should have is that it should be a place where students can find and develop new relationships that cross some of the boundaries of class and race that make it hard for them to find those relationships outside of the college classroom. I think college classrooms, like many classrooms can very easily replicate the hierarchy, some segregation than we see in society. And I think of a college classroom as having the potential to allow students to cross those boundaries and find friendships and meaningful relationships with people who come from very different backgrounds than they do. And so I think that's an additional purpose that higher education should have and that we should be more intentional about how we cultivate it in the classroom. One central claim I make in the book is that the ways in which we have failed Strivers is that I think we've offered them this narrative of upward mobility in which upward mobility is about their own individual achievement and that it involves this kind of continual process of gain.

As long as you're succeeding in the path of upward mobility, you're gaining education, you're getting skills, you're getting the opportunity for better employment and so on. And I think one of the points of the book is that there are a lot of losses in that path. But what I also wanted to offer was a different narrative of what upward mobility, one that was more honest about the cost that students would face. And that also gave students the critical resources to think about why they're facing those ethical costs and how those ethical costs connect to structural conditions that go way beyond their own individual choices. So one aspect that I thought was interesting in talking to the people I talked to for the book, the Strivers that I talked to, was that some of them had internalized these choices that they had made in choosing their own education or their own career trajectory over being there for their families and kind of internalize it as them feeling bad about the choices that they had made.

Though in some ways acknowledging that this was the only choice that made sense for them. And so I wanted to complicate that narrative by pointing out that often the choices the students make are really constrained by the structural conditions in which we live and that a student who can't offer elder care or child care for their family because they have to go to class and do well on their exams and study in order to get a college degree. It's not that they're a bad brother or sister or son or daughter, but really that their family situation is constrained by a lack of an adequate safety net in society. Thinking about the ethical costs that they bear and the choices that they make as situated in a social structure is both more honest. And I think it allows students to think about their own agency and the power that they have in changing those social structures.

So for example, if you have a student like Sandra who I talk about realize that, you know, she feels torn between providing childcare or elder care to her family and her own education instead of internalizing that choice as saying something about who she is as a daughter. She might think, okay, this choice is really the product that they're not being good elder care childcare in our society. And maybe in the future when she's thinking about either her own career path or who she goes for an office, you know, or what sort of policy she would support. She would think that that's something that our society could do better. I could provide childcare, I could provide better elder care. And so I think that gives the Striver a way of connecting their own personal struggle to these broader social and political forces. Um, and think about how they might play a role in changing it.