Returning home this winter break, it appeared as though the people of my town had been transformed in my absence –– or more accurately, my view of them had been transformed during my time at Whitman College. And I wasn’t sure it was for the better. I caught myself feeling superior to the drug addicts in the streets, the middle-to-old aged cashiers at chain supermarkets and even my friends from high school who were either college dropouts or community college students indefinitely. I began to wonder: Had going to a liberal arts college made me a snob?
Reflecting further on this abrupt shift in my perspective, I questioned if these feelings were good or bad, right or wrong. However, since these polarized questions have a tendency to devolve into relativism, I found that I was more interested in why I felt this way and how I and others hold feelings of superiority while simultaneously believing in basic human equality.
As these feelings developed here at Whitman, I considered the values that this environment promotes. Of course, an academic institution presents education as a necessity to our lives. Our choosing to attend this institution reveals that the same belief has already shaped us, our families assured that higher education is valuable and worthy of great sacrifice. Most of us have always been taught that intellectual development and pursuit of our aspirations are essential to our success and happiness.
This assumes that someone who does not follow an academic path lacks that essential key to success and happiness, even though our more conscientious judgment reminds us of the relativism present in considering what “success” and “happiness” might look like on an individual level. But despite a great amount of relativism in our lives, it would be foolish to deny the existence of dominant, normative values.
At this point in time, education is one such normative standard. It is a social signifier of favorable qualities: intelligence, motivation and economic potential. The more education an individual has received, the more these qualities are enhanced. Less education and these qualities are either presumed to be lacking or must be proven by different, less common means.
Again, this seems to assume that those who received less education are less valuable or inferior to those who have. Along the moral standards that we claim to embrace, we know that this is not true: All human beings are created equal and should be treated accordingly. Yet we simultaneously cooperate with and embody a social hierarchy, denying its reality when it becomes uncomfortable to acknowledge. Awareness of this apparent contradiction is essential.
If a form of social hierarchy exists in any given society, and there must be normative values along which the levels of that hierarchy are signified, doesn’t education have the potential to be the most humane way to do so? Absolutely. Education is an essence of the American dream that I otherwise wouldn’t believe to be possible. When made available to all, education allows class mobility and a tangible opportunity to change the nature of the hierarchy itself. In this sense, education as a normative social measurement has the potential to complement and enhance rather than contradict our belief in basic human equality.
As all things, however, this is easier believed than embodied. When I look at the people from my hometown, I still get the snobbish feeling that I have moved forward and up while they have remained stagnant. Nor can I deny that my opinion of higher education is a product and affirmation of my own life. But education also has the powerful ability to both reinforce and deconstruct the values and hierarchy of our society. By ensuring access to education as a basic human right, as a realization of our equality rather than reproducing socioeconomic structures, we can begin to embody the beliefs we claim to hold.