One of the biggest challenges that I faced in helping students to think critically about pop culture and the world around them at large was helping them to think through the role that anecdotes played in their thought processes. “To what extent,” I would ask, “can or should a personal account constitute proof and how many data points are necessary to make a case?”
The answer was always, “It depends.”
A story can be a form of qualitative evidence but the question is always “evidence of what?” What I tried to convey to students was that what counts as evidence depends on what question(s) you’re asking: arguing that something can occur, does occur, and consistently occurs are all very different propositions and students would often conflate the three.
It is with this background that I considered Kevin’s blog post for today along with the larger story that it gestures toward. It comes as no surprise that various entities are using the story to meet their own ends, often employing it in order to confirm what they already know about the world but yet I am worried about the same thing that troubles Kevin: I fear that students and families will confuse what is possible with what is probable.
My worries about Enin perpetuating the model of the all-star student aside, I have spent some time thinking about the invocation of race in response to the original stories. I have not yet delved into the bowels of College Confidential (because that takes a special kind of fortitude and I might need to go wine shopping), but the comments on Reddit have been rather interesting to follow. Indeed, it is sort of difficult not to think about how discussion over Enin comes to stand in for a larger set of issues that surrounds race given the temporal proximity to the controversy surrounding #CancelColbert.
Without taking anything away from Enin or his achievement, I am saddened that the media coverage of the media coverage of him has focused on this case without largely incorporating the ways in which the story is already being invoked in conversations about affirmative action (see, for example, the comments of Valerie Strauss’ “Can we stop obsessing on the Ivy League?”). More importantly, how do we read this story against items like a recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation that confirms the continued existence of the achievement gap? Or the way in which “black” and “male” intersect with education in America? Additionally, even if we were interested in limiting the scope of our inquiry to a sample that looked at high-achieving black students, how does the focus on this one part of Enin’s story override the very real discussion that need to happen about the experience of minority students in these settings? Or the challenges that Enin might face in college, at a school like Harvard?
Ultimately I think that this story can be used to think through the ways in which dominant American culture can work to cultivate aspirations while systemically undermining those hopes. In recent years, I have been influenced by Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism to think through the promise of higher education in America and the connection between structures of hope and political passivity.