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I am not an economist by nature. I am not comfortable with acquisitive individualism as a model for human interaction. I like my “stuff,” but I don’t think “stuff” is a good measurement for human worth, success, or anything else. Likewise, I enjoy staying in nice hotels when the occasion arises, but as a student, I expected my accommodation to lean towards the monastic. Tour a contemporary American college campus and the guide will apologize for anything without the accoutrements of a yuppie condo. Stainless steel appliances and granite countertops became necessary to learning linear algebra while I wasn’t looking.
My parents described the interior decor of the house they bought immediately prior to my birth as “early American attic.” To be fair, they had acquired some pretty nice stuff from my grandparents’ attics. However, the mere fact the furniture had a history made it a treasured part of family life. Likewise, when I studied on scroungy old sofas in my first undergraduate dorm, I felt tied to the generations of women who had burnt the midnight oil in that basement before me. The upholstery was gross, but the atmosphere was rife with academic ambition. As a graduate student, when I did backbends with a rubber hose in order to rinse my hair in an archaic British bathtub, I considered it a necessary trial of my cultural adaptation akin the outhouse I checked for black widow spiders before use on the Navajo reservation.
As a parent perusing potential colleges for my precious offspring, I was far less interested in the quality of shower fixtures than the involvement of the faculty in undergraduate residence halls. My son couldn’t figure out why I kept asking questions about such matters period. He wanted to know the flexibility of the curriculum and the political involvement of the student body. I still wonder for whom the furniture style seems more important than the finals schedule?
I started asking my advisees more about their housing situations as I passed vicariously through my son’s selection process. One reported that he preferred showering in the newest dorm on our campus to his parents’ house. In this case, I knew the student came from the comfortable end of the socio-economic middle. As I stood looking at the gleaming kitchen in the same dorm, I wondered how it made students who had grown up in public housing while attending underfunded schools feel when they arrived in this new world of material opulence paired with academic rigor? Does it heighten their feeling they don’t belong? Does it make them feel more special for having “made it?” Has anyone bothered to ask?
Part of the conceptual precondition of monasteries was to strip the rich and the poor of their distinguishing characteristics and allow them to start anew on even footing in pursuits of the spirit. It seems we now attempt to do the reverse. We attempt to give everyone the same “stuff” the wealthy expect in their surroundings as a prerequisite for engaging in a life of the mind. I hardly propose hair shirts as university uniforms. However, I suspect a middle path is possible to even out the culture shock for those who arrive on campus from environments of less and more.