Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hockey and the Myth of Meritocracy

I have just finished reading one of the latest additions to our WCSU library, Outliers: The Story of Success. I highly recommend it, especially to anyone who is interested in thinking critically about the process of social order and deeply imbedded cultural legacies and how they are related to social class.

Author and reporter Malcolm Gladwell details the intricacies of several well-known success stories – Bill Gates, The Beatles, John D. Rockefeller, and ultimately, his own – to illustrate how a fortunate series of unlikely opportunities are key to each example’s success.

He is not dismissive of hard work, genius, or talent; he simply makes the case that there is more to success than those elements. To start, he points out that 40 percent of Canadian hockey players were born in January, February and March.

There is nothing about being born in those months that innately makes one a superior hockey player. But when pre-adolescent players begin to be divided up by their ability, the arbitrary, bureaucratically imposed cut-off date of January 1 for age-class hockey gives the oldest players a built-in advantage over those born in October, November or December.

Six or eight months is not much time in the course of an adult’s life. But when we’re considering developing youths, that six-to-eight months is crucial. Gladwell argues that if the cut-off date were May 1, 40 percent of Canadian hockey players would be born in May, June and July and opportunities would be opened to a completely different – yet equally qualified – group of hockey players.

This arbitrary date assignment that has no reflection on ability squanders the talent of countless athletes, Gladwell writes, and gives the older players opportunities that will later have financial rewards – such as college scholarships or the money and celebrity that comes with being a pro hockey player in Canada – partly on account of their birth date.

Later, he argues that simply being born in the right time and place were key parts of the successes of Microsoft founder Bill Gates and oil baron John Rockefeller.

This book is an important addition to the WCSU library because of its insight into social organization and Gladwell’s assertions that there are unseen obstacles and advantages deeply embedded in our systems that affect individuals’ success.

One of our most treasured national narratives as Americans is that of individuals “pulling themselves up by their bootstraps.” This frame allows us to ignore the nuanced experiences of the individual and not acknowledge the benefit and pure luck of being in the right place at the right time. Gladwell uses well-known cases of success stories to convincingly deconstruct the myth of meritocracy.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Check My Math

Following the announcement that the regents are once again recommending a 5.5 percent tuition hike, the local media contacted our outgoing president Chynna regarding WCSU’s position on the increase.

I’ve grown accustomed to seeing the complexities of Chynna’s experiences reduced to a narrative of “$22,000 in debt despite working three jobs.”

The same general frame was used in a Daily Cardinal article at the end of last semester. Commenting anonymously, one reader said “the math doesn’t seem right.”

It’s difficult for some students and other members of the university community to imagine what a working class experience is like if they have not lived it. Unfortunately our experiences here are often generalized by our relationship to the financial aid office.

I disagree with the comment about “the math” of a student’s effort to self-finance their education – numbers tell the story quite easily. The financial struggles that working class students face in trying to pay for their education can be illustrated by using Chynna’s situation as a model.

According to information from the Office of Admissions, tuition alone in 2006-2007, Chynna's freshman year, was $3365.12 per semester. Even without accounting for tuition hikes, that number times eight semesters equals $26,920.96. On top of that, students must pay for housing, textbooks, and food.

That doesn't include any extra expenditures, for example, car insurance, gas, football games, spring break or block parties.

According to University Housing, the cost of housing and food is $7400 for the upcoming school year. Lets round low and say that a student attending from 2006-2010 had a cost of $6,900 a year. That's $27,600.

So roughly, tuition + food = $54,520 for four years, meaning Chynna paid $34,520 out of pocket for school costs after the loans. Divided by four years, she paid $8,630 per year with out any help from her parents.

Remember that number does not include items not related to tuition, food or housing.

I don’t know Chynna's hourly wage while she worked. But minimum wage in Wisconsin is currently $7.25 an hour and many student jobs at the UW hover around $9 an hour.

The university recognizes that work interferes with a student’s ability to be successful and there are institutional barriers to a student working more than 20 hours a week at a campus job.

Working 20 hours a week at $9 an hour, a student makes about $180 a week. A student enrolled for two semesters would earn about $5760 at this wage. This leaves $2870 to be earned during the summer months.

Again, these numbers are just to break even for tuition, fees, housing and food. It does not include any other necessities or entertainment.

Hopefully that helps anyone who has trouble with the math.