Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Does Swarthmore Reproduce My Family, or Does My Family Reproduce Swarthmore?

One of the most fascinating, but head-cracking, aspects of Pierre Bourdieu's work is that he insists that we look at the complex ways in which one whole system of institutions produces and reproduces another whole system of institutions. In Reproduction, Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron look at the way in which the system of classes and the system of schools mutually reproduce one another.

The focus of our research is not on schools, but on families. So we got to thinking – how does the system of schools produce and reproduce the family? We realized that putting it that way was not quite right – the items on either side of the scale did not quite balance. At the level of the whole of society, we would need to compare the system of schools with the system of families.

This formulation raises the mighty question of whether there is such a thing as the system of families, whether the families in society form any sort of coherent unit – even in the loose sense that the schools of society form a coherent unit, or, for that matter, whether the social classes do.

But we could look, at the micro-level, at the relation of a school and a family. At first blush, the two sides of the scale are still unbalanced. A school endures; a family has a life-cycle. It is true that one family normally has a life-cycle, but a lineage does not. Now the longer time scales are more in balance. How do a school and a lineage mutually produce and reproduce one another?

I am a proud son of Swarthmore College, my alma mater, which was, indeed, second only to my own parents in shaping my character. Moreover, Swarthmore provided me the great boon of bringing me my wife, and shaping her character in a way congruent with how it shaped mine.

My parents are also Swarthmore graduates, having met at a freshman mixer dance just after the Second World War.

And now, the eldest Gruntled child is off to Swarthmore herself in a few weeks. When she was sweating trying to get admitted last fall, my sister reassured her with "if you tried to genetically engineer the perfect Swarthmore student, you would come up with" our eldest daughter. The right response to this notion, we realized, is that, in effect, we did genetically engineer the perfect Swarthmore student.

Stepping back and looking at just this tiny slice of social reproduction – one school, one lineage, one full back/forth/back cycle. Swarthmore shaped my parents in ways that surprised them. My mother, the daughter of New York schoolteachers, had some idea of what she was aspiring to and, as she said, "sweated bullets" getting in. My father, on the other hand, a high-school drop out who discovered he wanted to learn during long months at sea in the war, had no idea what "Swarthmore College" was in the status hierarchy of education. After the war he took his G.I. benefit, and walked (!) up to the college, looked around, and informed the admissions staff that "this looks pretty good – I think I'll come." I would like to have seen the look shared by the admissions folks at that moment. But come they did, and were changed by it – as any good school should do.

And the rest is history – the little history of this social reproduction narrative. When my parents sent me to their alma mater, they were, in a broad sense, reproducing themselves and their lineage's place in society. And now Mrs. Gruntled and I are sending our child to alma mater, which will, in a broad sense, reproduce us and our lineage's place in society.

Yet Swarthmore also reproduces itself and its place in society through us.

And the most important part of this whole story of reproduction is that neither family nor school is simply replicating what it already is. Both lineage and educational institution are transformed by the intimate process of schooling, mate selection, and child-rearing. At each step, the same family meets the same school. Yet neither is really the same. Swarthmore has changed notably over the last fifty years. Our family has changed in some of its important beliefs and in its precise class location.

So, did Swarthmore produce us, or did we produce Swarthmore? Does Swarthmore reproduce us, or make something new in us – and vice-versa? I think the only correct answer is "yes." Reproduction is both making the same again and making something new.


Mark W. Mallman said...

It seems that family, as a social structure, takes shape in the context of other social structures. Maybe the spaces where a family meets the rest of society are points in a sort of outline which gives recognizable shape to something like family, which is hard to define. Without family, things like school, church, pol. parties, sports teams, and service organizations would be irrelevant. Social structures are created and sustained by people in and from families. Those same structures give discernable shape to families, thereby defining them. I suppose I'm agreeing with the answer, "Yes."

Anonymous said...

I wonder if walking up to Swarthmore and telling them I was just going to come would have worked better for me...
I'm still just a teeny bit bitter about not being admitted.

Gruntled said...

I think every generation of alumni since, say, 1930 has noted that admissions standards keep going up, and wonders if we could be admitted today.

Anonymous said...

This year is a pretty interesting and rough year for anyone seeking to get into top ranked schools, because the competition is so stiff. I have a 33 on my ACT, and my essays were the same ones I used to get full admittance into Wellesley and Centre (though they do have a bit lower standards) and tons of honors and volunteer work and the sort, and I still wasn't wait listed.

Of course, now I think Centre is probably a better fit for me, so I'm grateful it happened the way it did - I think I'll perform much better at Centre than at Swarthmore, but I still found it amazing I didn't get in numbers-wise (and maybe a teeny bit ego-wise, too, but let's not talk about that...) When 1500 very intelligent people apply for 300 spots, however, it's bound to happen.

Gruntled said...

Of course, when one school has three times as many applicants for nearly the same number of slots, the opportunities for disappointment are significantly greater.