Friday, April 15, 2011

Can low income students afford to be untalented?

So, I haven't posted in a bit and have a ton to catch up on with this blog, but I'm up late waiting for a brisket to cool and reflecting on my day, and here are some thoughts.

Right now our students are applying for summer enrichment program- basically any program of any length over the summer that will keep them active mentally or physically, help them explore an interest, aid in developing college related skills, or give them some experience on a college campus. One of my students is applying to do a summer program at a local art school- a 2-week pre-college program on comic illustrations. Anyone who applies to the program has to fill out an application with the basic types of question about parents and emergency contacts and a brief statement of interest, and most students pay an application fee and a multiple hundred dollar tuition, though there are scholarships available. However, to apply for a scholarship, students must not only fill out the regular application, but they must also submit a portfolio of 10 of their pieces of artwork. When I learned this it started to rub me the wrong way: basically students who could afford it could just sign up for the class, but lower income students have to prove their interest and talent in ways that wealthier students do not. In some ways, it makes perfect sense. How could anyone expect to get free money without proving some level of skill or talent? Scholarship money, of any sort, should go to students who truly want and need it- and in this case, to students who show an active interest (and probably talent) in art.

So, despite the fact that this policy does make sense to me, I continue to feel kind of icky about it, especially when I think about my childhood experiences. Growing up, I would be the kid who decided two days before the due date that I wanted to do a program like this art program. I would write a little paragraph about how great art is and how learning blah blah blah would help me develop some skill or understand the world or reflect on blah blah, my parents would write a check, and I would be set- excited to try something new and my parents happy to have something to entertain me over the summer. I was a child of many extracurricular activities. Seriously. I took lessons on 3 instruments, ice skated, horseback rode, played 3 racket sports, and did gymnastics. In fact, the only activities I can think of that I never tried are organized field team sports, speech or debate, and karate (or similar combat sport). And, for the most part, I was/am terrible at every activity I tried. In fact, I'm actually best at making fun of myself, shopping, baking oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, and arguably writing- and I learned none of these things through private lessons over the summer or school year. Despite being terrible at every activity I tried, I still had the opportunity to try many new activities and meet a lot of different people- gaining a large amount of cultural and social capital along the way.

My students, for the most part, do not have the opportunity to explore activities the way that I did and that's because, for the most part, they have to prove an actual talent or incredibly strong interest in something to make a commitment to it. Their families require this proof in order to legitimize dedicating their time, effort, and sometimes money to this activity for their child and the activities themselves require it to allow fees or tuitions to be waived or subsidized.

This whole phenomenon is mirrored perfectly within college as well. I have written a number of times about my privilege to be able to "tool around" in my elite liberal arts school majoring in religion and taking courses like "Jewish Ethics"- a path that is somewhat impractical but interesting. Many of my students, on the other hand, are incredibly focused on finding schools with the pre-professional programs they think that they want. Because while I had the luxury to try out a number of activities, classes, etc, with the hopes of finding my "calling" or interests, many low income students must find the most direct and practical path that draws on their strengths and talents.

To end this babbling I have two big questions:
- First, does this phenomenon of low income students having less opportunities to explore areas where they have yet to develop any particular talent only contribute to the lack of socioeconomic mobility in society? I ask this because it seems that having the ability to explore a number of paths or activities connects someone with many people, ideas, or organizations that will ultimately be helpful in the future. For people without the access to such resources achieving the same types of mobility may be difficult.

- Second, I wonder if any studies have been done on the success or achievement of low income students in various extra curricular activities versus their wealthier peers. I would hypothesize that low income students in such activities are often better at them than their wealthier peers because they often have to demonstrate a talent in order to become involved instead of simply signing a check.

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