Op-Ed Submitted by Katy Montoya ’15
In the midst of our privileged surroundings, the perpetual dissatisfaction of fellow students blazons an uncurbed sense of entitlement. Yet I, too, have my earnest critique of Swarthmore.
If you can excuse the hyperbole that sometimes bubbles up and forgive my tendency to see privilege and elitism as two strains of the same phenomenon, I’d like to present this op-ed as an expression of my frustration with the elitist assumptions I see ingrained in this institution.
Most of us can admit to feeling like a dumbass as often as we’ve begun a complex explanation with “So, um.” I doubt anyone has avoided feeling under-cultured in social settings when hesitant to ask about a reference to a social philosophy or a British comedian.
On one hand, I find the level of comprehension tacitly assumed by professors in lecture and seminar encouraging. Yet moments I’ve experienced in conversations with professors have solidified my perception of certain institutionalized assumptions that contradict Swarthmore’s claimed dedication to diversity. Talking about socioeconomic class, race and culture till the sun goes down still overlooks variations in intellectual development and educational background on campus. And because I dread the next time I might face the assumption that I was raised a well-bred intellectual, I’d like to talk about broadening our conceptualization of the prototypical Swarthmore student.
Not all of us attended challenging private or even quality public schools. We just as certainly did not all come from intellectual homes. Admissions certainly prides itself in scoping out those who faced frequent challenges to their academic formations, those who struggled against the current of home and daily life to guzzle books and write poetry- those for whom academic success wasn’t a familial expectation to fill but rather an anomaly. I applaud and admire the few examples of this on campus. They are the desired poster children for Swarthmore-donor relations. If only they were many, they could easily subvert the concept of the Swarthmore prototype that comes from an elite school and intellectual family.
One good reason to refrain from “categorizing” myself as one of them is that I cannot totally relate to this experience. I wasn’t as successful overcoming what I’d call the counter-intellectual forces in my life- the apathy, clouded in dank smoke, that pervaded my home and school and social circle. I can’t claim that falling in love with an academic subject transformed me into a determined individual. Instead, I was transformed by the intense hope I felt that something far away from Kingwood would finally stimulate and inspire me, even if my low morale kept me from trying to create this for myself right then and there. Intellectualism, in the abstract, was an appealing way out.
I’ve had to rationalize to myself how it is that I could get into a place like Swarthmore without the rich history of academic pursuits that I know others here possess. So I contributed to the applicant pool’s ostensible diversity, yet I wonder if thorough look into the development of my intellect would have convinced my interviewer that I fit the perfect Swattie applicant paradigm.
But I was well-spoken and presented myself with confidence. And when it was up to me to decide to go to a school that I knew would be a bit over my head, I accepted these truths: I would play the catch-up-game, hard and fast, upon arriving, and the stark contrast between school and home would (quite accurately) be the hardest challenge to navigate.
Becoming acclimated with intellectualism has meant discovering the merits of having a wide breadth of knowledge and multiple points of reference for understanding my world. It’s involved breaking down the barrier of access to difficult subjects by learning the art of asking questions. So many here have presented areas of study to me in a manner that I had not yet encountered, making evident their important place in a network of concepts. This process would have been wholly agreeable had it not been for the the unreasonable pressure, the compulsion to prove my intellect and knowledge, even my place, at this school.
As though this wasn’t already intimidating, exposing how much I don’t know to professors has been much less comfortable. During office hours, I watched one drop the book she was referring to on her desk while asking, “How have you not heard of this?” Her incredulity left me feeling not just under-read, but out of place. Another professor followed up a similar scenario with, “What kind of high school did you go to?” before I confirmed his hunch. And when I asked for help with an application fee from a department, another professor was genuinely perplexed: “I’ve never dealt with a situation like this. How do you survive on campus?” he asked me.
These responses reveal different assumptions, yet are all reactions to a break from the expected. They manifest a narrow conception of academic merit, implying a specific, expected and accepted path to this crème de la crème school, and otherwise, the role of wealth in gaining entrance here. I would be more likely to see my first professors’ reactions as critiques of the general education system, if only I encountered them less often. Instead, it seems quite obvious after two years here that professors and students alike haven’t encountered many personal stories that contradict their assumptions. Merit is a sensitive aspect to explore, but I have to wonder, if individuals who get a late start to their intellectual journeys were truly considered and treated as deserving of an elite education, too, maybe the discourse on diversity would extend to individuals like myself. The willingness to dedicate four years here to cultivating one’s intellect could itself be the basis for being a valued member of our intellectual community.
The status quo is a culture that values progress from one starting point. If a certain background or level of intellect is the assumed point of departure, the many rates and paths of individual development are never celebrated. Anyone who’s walked a moon similar to mine is encouraged to bullet point obscure references and next time, nod a head at their mention, internalizing their importance only so far as this will keep them from looking ignorant. Professors might avoid promoting this kind of insincere intellectual curiosity by meeting students’ different needs with acceptance and individualized support. Swarthmore wouldn’t lose its rigor or its elite status, but it would encourage its entire population to truly engage in its intellectual ideals.