Snakes and Ladders

By Zandy, Janet | Academe, November/December 2011 | Go to article overview

Snakes and Ladders

Zandy, Janet, Academe

Snakes and Ladders DEGREES OF INEQUALITY: CULTURE, CLASS, AND GENDER IN AMERICAN HIGHER EDUCATION Ann L. Mullen. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.



If higher education is the path to a better life in America, and if more people are attending college than ever before, why is economic inequality so pervasive and stubborn? That's the infrastructural question hovering over these two recent books on choice, circumstance, class, and the academy. Told from different perspectives, Degrees of Inequality and In the Basement of the Ivory Tower confront the ideology of equal opportunity through access to higher education. The authors create a space of doubt. Whether we enter that space through Professor Mullen's elevated research venue or Professor X's basement, we see a predictable pipeline: highly cultivated and economically privileged students go to elite universities where they pursue their intellectual interests; working-class and lower-middle-class kids go to more affordable, less prestigious institutions where they train for jobs and accumulate debt. Others, without the money, opportunities, social networks, parental support, and cushions for bad life choices, enroll in two-year colleges where, with luck and pluck, they may acquire the requisite credentials for better-paying, safer, and more stable jobs than they could find with a high school diploma. Many are ill prepared, likely working full time or caring for children, and face big obstacles to completing an associate's degree. They may encounter Professor X, who loves literature but despises his students' grammatical weaknesses and cheap shoes. There will be exceptions, of course. And in America, the rare exception, perched on the increasingly narrow success ladder, gets a lot of attention. But that is not the reality for most American college students. These books, albeit different in tone, authority, and readability, reveal the promises-true or false-of higher education.

Ann Mullen's Degrees of Inequality: Culture, Class, and Gender in American Higher Education is a comparative sociological study based on recorded interviews with students from two institutions, Yale University and Southern Connecticut State University, just two miles apart. An associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, Mullen (whose PhD is from Yale) begins by naming the paradox embedded in her research: although access to higher education has increased significantly, what constitutes "college," whether it is perceived as an intellectual journey or as vocational job training, depends on students' cultural capital-their family economy, level of education, academic and experiential preparation. In short, to draw on the language of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, as Mullen convincingly does, it depends on their habitus, that is, their socialeconomic status and the state of mind it produces.

Mullen's study exposes (despite the small sample) how the class-power-knowledge nexus reproduces itself. She acknowledges that her project makes scant reference to race, ethnicity, and immigrant status. She also excludes foreign-born students to ensure social-economic comparability. Buttressed by statistics and the sociological literature of higher education, Mullen moves from general observation to specific evidence by following the trajectory of Yale and Southern Connecticut students from the guidance and preparation they receive in their high school years, to their decision to go to college (an assumption, never a "decision," for the Yale students) and their "choice" of a college (a loaded word, since choices for the working class are very constrained), and on to their experiences attending college (either enjoying it or getting through) and their selection of a major. In her chapter "Majors and Knowledge," Mullen demonstrates how knowledge is not neutral but rather is reproduced along class and gender lines-that is, through the students' majors and the intersection of life experiences and economic forces. …

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