Mission Statements: Elite Harvard, Middle-Class Chico, and Working-Class Butte College

Schooling Childhood Cover

Education is an inherent paradox. At its most explicit, it assumes that students are trained for a fair, meritocratic, and competitive labor market in which learning is valued without reference to who they are or their social connections. This is why fair markets are “anonymous”….

But schools do not operate in anonymous markets. Schools emphasizing the visible honors of academic achievement, teacher-student relationships, are often the opposite. The tensions between the utility of skills in an anonymous labor market while monopolizing the distribution of visible status honors in the broader community is at the heart of the educational enterprise (see Weber 1920/2010).

As anyone who has ever perused US News and World Reports college rankings issue knows, raw anonymous human capital is not the only thing peddled at elite colleges—so are “connections,” status, and habitus of elites. Ross Douthat [currently an influential New York Times columnist], in fact addressed this tension—that between visible honors and the anonymous labor market in which productivity is the measure—at Harvard University. He concluded that any success he would have in the future was related to connections as much as anything else:


I understood the secret of Harvard’s success—which is that it doesn’t end with college, that it still exists out in the wider world, and that all of my adult life, all the people I would know, the jobs I might have, and the worlds I would conquer, would be nothing more than an extension of my four years in Cambridge . . . Harvard had made me to be elite and connected, and successful, to be inside, you might say . . .(Douthat 2005, 250).


[For Douthat, being inside included an internship at the National Review, and a trip on William F. Buckley’s boat where they went skinny dipping together, a rite of male bonding]  In other words, education at Harvard is not simply about the creation of skills, brain power, and the wisdom as sorted out in an anonymous meritocracy; it is, as Bourdieu wrote, also about the dominant preserving the dominant. Elites depend on institutions like Harvard to create the habits and symbols with which they can recognize each other. These symbols determine which worlds can be conquered. The Harvard pin is ultimately about inclusion for insiders who share and recognize a style of life, and exclude the rest of us.

And such habits echo downward in the stratification system. Just like the Harvard pin, the symbols, habits, and styles of life of working and middle class lives described in Annette Lareau’s book Unequal Childhoods:


Class, Race, and Social Life reproduce social class among middle- and working-class children in Pennsylvania. The difference is that the elite set the standards that reflect the overall shape of the status pyramid. Harvard sets the tone for the game; what is valued at the top reflects downward, shaping the habitus of those lower down and what they think, say, and do.


Mission Statements: Elite, Middle Class, and Working Class

Despite Ross Douthat’s bluntness about understanding ”the secret of success” being rooted in Harvard’s role in sorting people, there is nothing about elite exclusivity in the mission statement of Harvard College. Instead qualities like productive cooperation, full participation, and even the liberation of students (or at least Harvard’s students) is emphasized, even as they try to sneak in a statement about “self-reliance.” In fact the entire subject is missing of elites, buried in abstract statements about the centrality of advancement, encouragement, and rejoicing about responsibility:


The Mission of Harvard College

Harvard College adheres to the purposes for which the Charter of 1650 was granted: “The advancement of all good literature, arts, and sciences; the advancement and education of youth in all manner of good literature, arts, and sciences; and all other necessary provisions that may conduce to the education of the . . . youth of this country. . . .” In brief: Harvard strives to create knowledge, to open the minds of students to that knowledge, and to enable students to take best advantage of their educational opportunities. To these ends, the College encourages students to respect ideas and their free expression, and to rejoice in discovery and in critical thought; to pursue excellence in a spirit of productive cooperation; and to assume responsibility for the consequences of personal actions. Harvard seeks to to remove restraints on students’ full participation, so that individuals may explore their capabilities and interests and may develop their full intellectual and human potential. Education at Harvard should liberate students to explore, to create, to challenge, and to lead. The support the College provides to students is a foundation upon which self-reliance and habits of lifelong learning are built: Harvard expects that the scholarship and collegiality it fosters in its students will lead them in their later lives to advance knowledge, to promote understanding, and to serve society. (http://www. harvard.edu/siteguide/faqs/faq110.php)


Harvard’s latent mission is very clearly an elite one, untethered to the pragmatic utilitarian goals of a more anonymous marketplace as, say, the community college system, where the message is about “skills,” and not “responsibility.”


Butte College provides quality education, services, and workforce training to students who aspire to become productive members of a diverse, sustainable, and global society. We prepare our students for life-long learning through the mastery of basic skills, the achievement of degrees and certifications, and the pursuit of career and transfer pathways.


Or at the middle class Chico State where I teach, just down the road from working class Butte College, where a middle ground is sought in which graduates will both assume responsibility and also be “useful”:


California State University, Chico is a comprehensive university principally serving Northern California, our state and nation through excellence in instruction, research, creative activity, and public service. The University is committed to assist students in their search for knowledge and understanding and to prepare them with the attitudes, skills, and habits of lifelong learning in order to assume responsibility in a democratic community and to be useful members of a global society. (emphasis added)


…[But] [t]he missions of Butte College and Chico State do not exist in a vacuum, because middle-class values are profoundly influenced by the actions, wants, and needs of those above them and even those at social distant Harvard. Robert Frank’s book Falling Behind (2007) is among the most articulate in describing the very nature of economic inequality and the ideological interrelationships that develop in a fashion that, in Bourdieu’s words, “are identical to the interests of the dominant.” In other words the values of Chico State satisfy the needs of Harvard for midlevel managers who will be “useful members of a global society.” And finally down to the graduates of Butte College who can do the tasks that require “mastery of basic skills” and are needed by those above them in the system of hierarchical dominance….

Source; Tony Waters, Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child.  Palsgrave Books 2012.  Pages 112-115.