O Yale…(Updated, Again and Again and Again)

A friend writes me that he just got a copy of the Yale Alumni Magazine and, well, listen to my friend:

The image: a clean-cut [WHITE] man in a [PIN-STRIPE] suit picking fruit from a large tree. The headline: “Reaching beyond the low-hanging fruit.” The subtitle: “Yale College seeks smart students from poor families. They’re out there—but hard to find.”

What was it that Brecht said?

O Germany—

Hearing the speeches that ring from your house, one laughs.

But whoever sees you, reaches for his knife.

Update (3:30 pm)

Tim Barker points out that if you go to the article itself, it has a dek that reads:

The families of Yale College students, on average, are substantially richer than the American norm. How much can the university change this? How much should it?

Next debate at the Yale Political Union: How much more money than God should Yale students have?

Update (3:45 pm)

Incidentally, if Yale is really having such a hard time finding smart kids from poor backgrounds, they should just come to one of my classrooms.

Update (January 23, 11 pm)

Much to my amazement, this story about the Yale Alumni Magazine cover has really taken off. Jon Pelto, a blogger in Connecticut, picked it up from here. And then Sara Mayeux, another blogger, picked it up from Pelto. And she alerted The Atlantic to the whole issue. In addition, Matt Bruenig blogged about it. The pressure has gotten so intense that the YAM was forced to issue a statement.

One of the claims the magazine makes in its statement is that Pelto and I “were gobsmacked by the cover but less specific about their objections.” It’s a complaint that Bruenig leveled against me as well. And it’s true. I wasn’t specific, mostly because I thought the objections were so obvious. But since apparently they are not so obvious, here’s what I said to Bruenig on his blog:

In my post, I was focused on the particular language and imagery of the cover. Yale is represented there as a human being — a white man in a pin-stripe suit no less — while poor students are represented as, alternatively, aliens or vegetation. Small wonder, then, that the dek of the piece goes onto raise the question of whether Yale even “should” strive to have more students from poor backgrounds, a question that the director of admissions seems to ultimately answer in the negative. If you see the poor as so alien and so other, you’ll probably have some ambivalence about recruiting them. Which might make the effort to recruit them more fraught and perilous than it needs to be. It was the clumsy class anxiety, and unintentionally revealing vocabulary, of it all that really caught my attention. Hence the Brecht quote.

In its response, the YAM claims that the “fruit” metaphor applies to all potential students, not just poor students.

We weren’t comparing low-income students per se to fruit, but applying the metaphor to all smart students—the low-hanging fruit being the well-off, many of whom apply to Yale and other elite colleges as a matter of course; and the hard-to-reach being the low-income, who, as the article explains, are less prone to think of the likes of Yale when they make their plans for the future.

A commenter there helpfully elaborates:

While the “low-hanging fruit” analogy was perhaps less than artful, the criticisms you quote seem rather petty. After all, you were characterizing ALL applicants as desirable vegetation — just that some are easier to spot and select than others, which is the point of the article.

I think he thinks he’s being helpful.

Anyway, one thing that has gotten lost in all this discussion is the article itself. Its author contacted me, urging me to read the piece. While Sara Mayeux, whose post I mentioned above, did in fact read the piece and offered up a critique of it, which went well beyond the cover that I focused on, I urge you all to read it for yourselves.


  1. s. wallerstein January 22, 2014 at 3:06 pm | #

    That’s very offensive. Incredible class prejudices.

    It’s frightening that the supposedly best education in the U.S. produces that kind of stupid biases.

  2. Roquentin January 22, 2014 at 3:12 pm | #

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what in particular constitutes bourgeois ideology in 2014. One of the most frequently repeated Marxist maxims is “ideology is the ideology of the ruling class.” What then, are the necessary beliefs and ideas which enable our current system of obscene inequality to sustain itself and flourish. The above article, in a subtly funny manner, falls into one of the most well-worn cliche’s: the illusion of upward mobility. I’d argue, contrary to what the people editing that magazine at Yale want you to believe and want to believe about themselves, that this has nothing at all to do with helping poor children. Instead, it has everything to do with making their current ideology coherent and even straight up narcissism. It is much easier to sleep at night at that level if you can make yourself believe that the playing field is “level” and if there was just a poor person with the right talent, they to could join you at the table. This is in no way whatsoever about alleviating poverty, picking a handful of token poor students to join you is absolutely a part of how this particular social constellation sustains itself. It’s not too far off from scratch and win tickets or the lottery, even the remotest possibility of winning big is enough to get many people to participate.

  3. jasdye January 22, 2014 at 3:37 pm | #

    And the War on the Poor continues through every fricking institution…

  4. Brian Wilt January 22, 2014 at 6:52 pm | #

    WTH?!?!?! Was this Yale publication hijacked by The Onion?

  5. Linda J January 22, 2014 at 9:29 pm | #

    There’s a wheel in a wheel, way up in the middle o’ de air.

  6. Blinkenlights der Gutenberg January 24, 2014 at 12:53 am | #

    The line to focus on here is “they’re out there.” Put away your preconceptions, fellow Yale grads! They _do_ exist! Really!

  7. Elizabeth January 24, 2014 at 5:07 pm | #

    I actually thought that this article in the Chronicle was even worse, though its awfulness is similar in character.

  8. Aaron Evan Baker January 24, 2014 at 6:18 pm | #

    Since many of these low-income students will be black, I was wondering whether “hanging fruit,” high or low, wasn’t grotesquely inappropriate for another reason? I’m not saying, of course, that the people who produced this illustration were thinking along those lines at all. It’s just . . . rather thoughtless for more than one reason.

  9. harfe January 25, 2014 at 2:04 am | #

    I like the two comments at the end of the article ripping on the complacent tone. Yeah, if only Yale could do something about inequality. Those 10,000 mailings mentioned in the article are too much to handle for its $20 billion endowment

  10. Will Grannan-Rubenstein January 25, 2014 at 11:31 am | #

    If you cut through the veils of classism and elitism hanging over the story, its point is actually a fundamentally good one: that it’s incredibly difficult to separate the metrics used by institutions like Yale in determining “who will contribute the most, who will make the most out of Yale’s resources,” as the author quotes Yale’s own dean of admissions, from metrics of pure socioeconomic status. The author is simply too naive about the economic role of elite higher education to understand that this entanglement is quite deliberate, and that disguising class privilege as academic ability is a textbook example of the superstructure (in this case Yale’s role as an institution of higher learning) rationalizing and defending the base (in this case Yale’s role as a schmoozing-and-boozing ground for the once and future plutocracy). Of course the difference between the average Yale student and the average Brooklyn College student is more meaningfully expressed as economic background than as intellectual merit, but it’s critically important for ideologues of elite higher education not to understand this fact in the same way that it’s critically important for ideologues of “free-market” capitalism not to understand the fundamental logic of capitalist exploitation.

    • s. wallerstein January 25, 2014 at 3:01 pm | #

      Will Grannan-Rubenstein:

      It’s actually worse than you put it.

      The Yale article is not about “intellectual merit”, but about being “smart”.

      You can make a case that students from high income households have more highly developed intellectual skills because there were more books in their household, because their parents paid for expensive private schools, because they traveled abroad when they were young, because they went to museums, etc., etc., and with a bit of sophism you easily substitute “intellectual merit” for “intellectual skills”, especially since no one really knows what “merit” means or if “merit” even exists.

      However, to assert that students from low income backgrounds are less “smart” is idiotic. They may often use their smarts to deal with other life problems or to learn other skills than high income kids do, but there is absolutely no evidence that they are any less “smart” or that if given the opportunity, they cannot master “intellectual” skills as well as high income students can. In fact, given their greater experience of oppression and of the socio-economic facts of life, students from low income backgrounds often can make a greater contribution to advancing critical knowledge in many fields, especially in the social sciences and humanities.

      • Julia January 26, 2014 at 12:38 am | #

        There’s no question that the cover image (especially the dude in the suit) is poorly chosen. But to be fair, the cover does not say (or, to my mind, even suggest) that students from poor families are less smart, or that there are fewer smart students in poor families. It says that they’re harder for the university to find. That’s a pretty significant difference. I haven’t read the article but I’m guessing the thought is that they’re harder to find because (1) they don’t advertise themselves to Yale – most don’t even apply (for obvious reasons!) and (2) many of the tools Yale, like other universities, relies on to identify the most able students will have a high false-negative rate when it comes to assessing students from poorer backgrounds. So much the worse, of course, for those tools. But it’s not obvious what to replace them with. As to whether Yale should aim to increase the socio-economic diversity of its student body – of course!

      • Will Grannan-Rubenstein January 27, 2014 at 6:21 pm | #

        @Julia: “As to whether Yale should aim to increase the socio-economic diversity of its student body – of course!”

        Yale should aim to increase the socioeconomic diversity of its student body, just like capitalists should stop exploiting laborers and just like we should all get pie in the sky when we die — it ain’t gonna happen. The cost of operating an elite college/university is rising far faster than the rate of inflation, partly because bricks-and-mortar higher education has scant few ways to increase the value of each faculty/staff labor hour and partly because postsecondary education is less and less the province of the upper class, so colleges like Yale are increasingly pressed with existential incentives *not* to increase the socioeconomic diversity of their student populations. This is arguably one of the factors driving much of “leftist” academia to focus on liberal identity politics at the expense of Marxian theory: if a non-[white/male/American/heterosexual/cisgender/etc.] student can afford to fork over $60K per year, the institution he/she/ze attends can characterize his/her/zir presence as a laudable contribution to diversity even while growing ever more socioeconomically homogenous and drawing ever more tuition/donation revenue per student.

        If anything, the fact that an outlet like the Yale Alumni Magazine can be so staggeringly naive to the underlying economics at play is a testament to how successful these sorts of diversionary tactics have been. As a Marxist might put it, it’s all about the benjamins, baby.

  11. Jara Handala February 9, 2014 at 1:53 am | #

    Alien. Low-hanging. Strange.

Leave a Reply