Overcoming Affluence: How Students of Modest Means Can Defy the Odds

Luxury apartments overlook Central Park.

I was walking around the Jackie Onassis Reservoir recently, taking an informal account of the skyscrapers rising above the southern end of Central Park, on an exquisite summer afternoon that later turned to rain. I passed by two girls in school uniforms. I figured they were in ninth grade or so, heading home early after a final exam.

Responding to a question I didn’t hear, one said to the other, “We have a house in the Alps…”

I bit my tongue and kept walking.

Given my profession, I naturally considered the advantages of such a vacation home. She gets to ski. She gets to encounter European history and politics firsthand. She can speak French, Italian, or German (or French and Italian and German) with the townsfolk. She gets to hang out with other privileged kids from places like London, Paris, Moscow, and, well, New York. She can tell them about the view from her penthouse.

By the time she applies to college, she’ll know more about the world than many people learn in a lifetime. Her grades, scores, and character are another matter. Regardless, within the quasi-meritocracy of college admissions, colleges will be loath not to regard an applicant as worldly as she.

Trips to Zermatt aside, we can imagine an avalanche of advantages that she and students like her have amassed by the time they apply to college. They attend elite high schools with the most erudite teachers. They suffer no financial anxiety. They can take lessons in this and get tutored for that. They can reach for the clouds, largely because they’re growing up in skyscrapers.

None of this is news, of course. Socioeconomic disparities show up in every hill and valley of American life. Higher education is no exception.

What’s a regular kid to do? She can’t get angry at the Alps girl. Nothing comes of anger. She can’t beat Alps girl — Alps girl will always fly higher and ski faster. But she can defy Alps girl. She can take all of Alps girl’s advantages and leap over them. She can neutralize every dollar and every plane ticket.

***

What does defiance in education look like? It looks like an open book. It looks like a library card. It looks like a TED Talk, a documentary, or a podcast. Most of all, it looks like initiative. It looks like desire. It looks like determination. It looks like climbing a mountain, not sliding down it. A dedicated reader who’s never left her home city can plow through three books in the time it takes a hedge fund manager to fly from New York to Zurich.

I understand that not every high school student has the time, wherewithal, or, indeed, motivation to educate him- or herself. Some students have to work part-time and others have to take care of grandparents. Some students have been so badly let down by the educational system, they can hardly read or write. Some live with the anxiety of poverty. Some have to contend with drugs, gangs, and urban decay. Some live in places that are marginalized or isolated (geographically or psychologically). Some must struggle against the inexperience, absence, and even discouragement of parents. To quote a politician with whom I don’t usually agree, some suffer “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

All of those impediments exist. I experienced some of them firsthand myself. Some of them hinder poor kids and affluent kids alike. Sometimes, even the most deserving kids cannot overcome them. And yet, with willpower and a little luck, some kids can accomplish things that the girl in the park can, for all her worldliness, literally never imagine.

The main branch of the New York Public Library.

Take the Alps, for instance. I know about as much about the Alps as I do about managing a hedge fund (i.e. nothing). But I know what to look for.

A search of Amazon for “the Alps” yields The Alps: A Human History, a National Geographic collection of “adventure maps,” The Geology of the Alps, and, naturally, Hannibal Crosses the Alps: The Invasion of Italy and the Second Punic War. After enough German lessons via Duolingo, a student who previously didn’t know schnitzel from schist can listen to Austrian podcasts.

To think more broadly about the relationship between geography and nation-building, there’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, in which Jared Diamond explains the world as comprehensively as any anyone else ever has. Then there’s The Bottom Billion, Globalization and Its Discontents, and Thomas Piketty’s Capital for contemplating the global divide between poor, rich, and uber-rich. We can add The Affluent Society think about what moral obligations the wealthy have to everyone else were they to acknowledge those obligations.

And let’s not forget a viewing of The Sound of Music. Singalong is optional.

Anyone who reads, watches, and thinks about all of those sources, even without ever leaving his bedroom much less the continent, can end up knowing more about the Alps than does some kid who flies to Gstaad every weekend on a private jet only to ski, eat fondue, watch soccer, and ignore his homework.

My point is not to arbitrarily fetishize a region of Europe or to poke fun at the One Percent of the One Percent. My point is that literally every topic under the sun can be studied, and enjoyed, in a million different ways, in a million different environments. That includes independent, self-motivated learning. The amount of knowledge a person can absorb with a mere library card dwarfs the amount of money in Jeff Bezos’s bank account. Learning the smallest fact can be more satisfying than earning one of his billions.

***

I am not suggesting that any of this is easy, even under the best of circumstaces. Far from it. Intellectual development and academic success require tremendous effort, enthusiasm, and brainpower under the most comfortable of circumstances. Nor am I suggesting that personal initiative absolves schools and governments to serve students effectively and equitable. I am suggesting, though, that, even under challenging circumstances, intellectual assertiveness is still possible.

By almost every measure, the elites will always win out over the masses. The wealthy will almost always dominate the poor. Education, or, rather, the acquisition of knowledge, remains the one area in which accomplishment transcends socioeconomic status. The opportunities to appreciate Hamlet, contemplate the results of the Second Punic War, and make calculations using Green’s Theorem belong to everyone. Colleges are looking for students who have seized those opportunities. They want students who have learned because they have chosen so, not because they were dragged around the world by their parents.

In fact, many colleges, quite wisely and rightfully, seek out economically diverse student bodies (and offer financial aid accordingly). They understand that different students have different opportunities, and many of them judge their applicants not according to an absolute scale but rather according to how well they’ve used the resources available to them, at least in part.

The boy from the South Bronx who taps into his inner Holden Caulfield to ride the subway, check out a few of the Main Library’s 4 million volumes, and reads them in Sheep’s Meadow once a week (thus using three great free public resources) need not have a resume as long or impressive as the girl at Spence does. If he just gets close, colleges will take notice.

I don’t begrudge that girl in the park. I hope she grows up to be a strong student and a good person. I hope she uses her good fortune to do good in the world, sharing her advantages with others. As for her less wealthy counterparts: they should not wait around for her largesse. Whether a disadvantaged child dreams of serving humankind or of living in one of those New York skyscrapers — or, possibly, of both — the journey begins with education.

For some, education just happens. For others, it is an act of defiance — and a worthwhile one at that.