I was inspired by this video where J.K. Rowling, the author of Harry Potter - who was living off of government welfare when she wrote her first book - explains the benefit of personal failure and disadvantage.
I've often had mixed feelings about academia, which seems to, on one hand, be a noble realm of liberalism and ideas, designed to encourage our brightest minds to collaborate for a common good. On the other hand, academia is full of institutions of privilege that are designed take smaller distinctions in competence and intelligence on admissions requirements, and make them big distinctions through opportunity and prestige by the time of graduation.
It seems that the ultimate goal of presidents and faculty members who aim to make their academic institutions "prestegious," is to aid and increase social inequality and stratification. They want to give their graduates the best footing compared to everyone else, and the differences between the Ivy Leaguer and the non Ivy Leaguer are much greater after graduation than before.
That's hardly the utopian aim of bettering society, and hardly makes education "the great equalizer."
My personal experience colors my mood towards academia. I don't think I lacked the intelligence to go to a prestegious out-of-state school; teachers and counselors pointed me in that direction from an early age and insisted I was sufficiently talented. I think that I didn't have that opportunity because it was too expensive and because personal burdens I have faced made a single-minded quest for success impossible. My dream was to go to NYU, and while my high school grades and test scores were sufficient, I realized it was out of my price range by a factor of five. Similarly, I think that the privileges I have had by being white and middle-class and male are unearned, and I don't know if I could get even to where I have gotten if my background was different.
These are all questions we have to face living in a society that deems itself a "meritocracy," that still holds a comparitive model of success even as it attempts to develop a fair and coherent system for evaluating success.
Those feelings really come to a head when it comes to my thoughts an institution such as Harvard, which, as a liberal person, I want to defend from the irrational hatred of the Right, yet I have seen much conceit and privilege come from there, as well as ideas that are much less than progressive. How does one, then, gracefully address the unearned privileges that go unrecognized in Harvard's student body, and yet honor the hard work and merit that its graduates have invariably accomplished?
I think that J.K. Rowling, who saw some period of despair after she graduated from college, does a brilliant job of putting the culture of success in privileged academia in proper context without making assumptions or rabble-rousing.
Harry Potter is often slighted by elites in literature and art as being unintellectual and phillistine; I had plenty of English professors who reflected that sentiment. But she is also the person who made writing - a traditionally poorly-paying profession - into the most lucrative, as she is the richest person in the United Kingdom today. It is hard to say her interpretation of literature is less valuable or prestegious than theirs in light of that, and it's hard to knock on her in light of a speech that is similarly nuanced and insightful.
This video is two years old, but I stumbled upon it today and had to pass it on.