Phillipian Commentary: The Shame of Class Inequity at Andover

Andover is founded on the concept of intentional diversity. Our constitution dictates that we are responsible for bringing together the brightest “Youth from Every Quarter.” This commitment is clearly visible in the composition of the student body. About 50 percent of students are students of color, and about 50 percent of the student body receives some form of financial aid. The value that the institution of Andover places on an education with diversity extends past the admissions office—efforts to achieve equity and inclusion are ubiquitous and generously supported. We learn that listening to each other’s experiences is a way to gain empathy and to understand experiences outside of our own. Yet somehow, the issue of class disparity on campus continues to be minimized. The limited opportunities that financial aid students have to embrace their identity are sparsely attended and separated from the larger student body. Through both institutional and cultural choices, class is consistently made invisible at Andover.

The most visible[a] way that class disparity is perpetuated on campus is through the physical minimization of the issue. There is no space on campus specifically designated for discussions about class. Issues of race and sexuality are given a forum in CAMD: a homey space in the center of campus that feels like the closest thing we have to a student center. Gender issues have a home in the Brace Center. Issues surrounding physical and mental ability can be discussed at the Academic Support Center. But there is no space carved out for questions of class. Without a physical space, socio-economic status melts into other identities, becoming a secondary trait. A place on campus to discuss class could serve as an anchor, bringing the issue into the forefront of our daily lives. You cannot avoid a difficult problem if you walk past its physical manifestation every day.

Class, as a topic, is mostly excluded from the institutional narrative in forums like E.B.I., dorm talks, All-School Meetings (ASM), and orientation of new students. The structure of these conversations frames class as a secondary concern to race, gender, and ability. Out of all of the ASMs covered by The Phillipian in the 2018-19 school year, nearly half focused on race or gender as a central subject. Not a single one considered class with any more than marginal importance. Every Andover student has spent hours with trained and thoughtful faculty members in settings like E.B.I., M.V.P., and Out of the Blue talks discussing the nuances of race and gender at Andover and in the world. Yet in all of these programs, few meetings regard class as a central topic.

A lack of conversation leads people to understand class through the narrow lens of their upbringing and immediate society. In the 2019 State of the Academy, over a quarter of students whose family income exceeded 500,000 dollars per year classified themselves somewhere below the upper class. Even more shocking, the same percentage of students with a family income between 35,000 dollars and 60,000 dollars classified themselves as middle class or above. These classifications are clearly skewed. However, it’s not fair to say that they are entirely false—within some communities where the wealth disparity is particularly egregious, 500,000 dollars per year could feel like a middle-class income. In others, 40,000 dollars per year puts you in the top one percent. The way students categorized themselves in the State of the Academy isn’t incorrect; it’s simply too narrow.

Despite our lack of a global understanding of class, we still have a natural instinct to categorize ourselves by our socio-economic status. However, instead of understanding this categorization in an unbiased way, we make value judgments about each other based upon class. The lack of clear conversations about class has created a campus culture where social status is partially determined by the performance of materialism. The way that students interact with each other, both in real life and on social media, rewards the perception of wealth. We become categorized by our consumer choices: the brand of coat we own, where we go for spring break, the shoes we wear, and the technology we use.

Yet people’s perceptions of each other are also undoubtedly influenced by internal biases: in my experience, white students are often perceived as rich. The silence surrounding class makes biased factors like race and possessions the accepted signals of wealth at Andover, hurting every student on campus.

It is clear that there is silence around class on campus, and this silence is a problem. Now we must ask ourselves: why are we so scared of being honest about class? Is it possible that the silencing of class issues is a feature of the culture at Andover, rather than a bug?

A traditionally ‘successful’ Andover alum is powerful, well-connected, and wealthy. An Andover education is designed to produce students that aspire to rise to the highest ranks of our society. It is designed to make us aspire to wealth. And a culture that fosters that aspiration is directly at odds with a culture that allows financial aid students to embrace their identity. It is difficult to simultaneously embrace who you are and to exhaustively try to shed it. [b][c][d]The conscious invisibility of class is not an unfortunate side effect of the culture—it is an intentional way that Andover produces the leaders of society.

One of the greatest obstacles preventing upward class mobility is the narrative of shame imposed on those living in poverty. Andover graduates, in fulfilling the role of societal leaders, accept some of the responsibility for the construction and continuation of culture. This is why, institutionally, we care so much about conversations regarding race, gender, and sexuality. Part of an Andover education is learning to be empathetic. Part of it is understanding the role of power and inequity in shaping the narratives of culture. But it is necessary to broaden this understanding to include narratives about poverty. This must begin at the level of our campus culture. We must create a space exclusively to discuss issues of socio-economic status. We must demand conversations with institutional support that consider class as an independent issue. The incredible socioeconomic diversity on campus can be a starting point for this conversation. As a private institution with a public mission, we have an obligation to use the gift of our diversity to change the greater narrative around poverty.

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