Thomas Nadelhoffer

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Shelley Tremain

Hi Alan,

thanks for a very engaging read. I hope that you won't think that my question diverts from where you were going with your post. Unless I have misunderstood, you were the first member of your family to attend a post-secondary institution. I'd be interested to know what that was like for you. And, furthermore, do you think that the experiences of a first-generation university student at that time were similar to what first-generation uni students encounter today? If you think they differ, can you say something about the extent to which they differ and how?
Thanks, Shelley

V. Alan White

Hi Shelley (if I may)--

Thanks so much for commenting. I wrote this after thinking about one of the best books I've ever run across on issues of merit, responsibility, and freedom that's out there: Neil Levy's Hard Luck. I've been thinking about Levy's thesis now for about two years at many levels--this piece--which just flowed out of me in about an hour--was the result of thinking about luck as it appeared in my life. An anecdatum yes. Applicable to the vast majority of us in the world who came from poorer backgrounds? I think so. Luck plays a much larger role for the underprivileged than for those with socio-economic status that insulates from brushes with luck that can sink or divert a life-route already launched by good "constitutive luck" as Neil excellently terms it. I hope more people heed Neil's carefully argued case; no theorist in the field of agency/FW/MR can ignore the deep effect of luck on all our lives. My point was just that some lives are more "naturally" affected, and more deeply affected by being something like chaos-theory sensitive in life's paths to small causes. For many years I've asked my students to consider this question: what was the smallest occurrence in your life that has made the biggest difference? What Neil showed me is this is an inquiry into luck in this chaotic-theory sense. But just as chaos theory says--some systems are more sensitive to these small causal influences than others. Poverty is one such chaotic system. In my case, a remark in a casket factory in 1963 led to chains of cause and effect that enabled me to become a philosopher.

Now to your questions. I have an older brother who actually has claim that in our direct lineage he in fact was the first to graduate high school. Mom got to sixth grade before my grandfather pulled her out to work the farm and eventually become Mom before she was Mom. Dad--whose family was much poorer--made it to eighth grade (twice; there's a good short story there). Now you know that my brother and I were, by pure luck, pulled out of Tennessee rural schools and thrust into California public schools. While I apparently showed some promise to teachers even in Tennessee, the schools themselves were so poor that it was assumed that high school was the end of education if one could get there. Just one small measure of where I came from: elementary and high school had a two-week "vacation" in the fall called "cotton-pickin'" That was literal. My mom--before she got the casket-factory job--took me into the fields to pick cotton. In a day I could barely half-fill one of the huge sacks we were given--Mom would pack a couple of them tight and full.

See who my Mom was? Tough, no-nonsense, knew who she was--much more than my Dad did. No wonder her refusal to back down from tacking a casket-lining led to changing all our lives. BTW then she was "Mama" and Dad "Daddy". California scrubbed those out of my mouth quickly.

Though my brother finished high school first, he went into law enforcement and waylaid education for a while. (Aside: he took classes while a cop for over 30 years and received his PhD at 55; he is now an Associate Professor of criminal justice at a small college in the South--a second career after police work.) I went straight through school for 22 years from first grade--though first through a religious college, wishing to become a minister, but after reading SK's Fear and Trembling, forsaking religion forever for philosophy--and so ended up a PhD at 29. I got my present job at 28 as an ABD, and now at 62 have 37 plus years under my belt (including TAing at the University of Tennessee). As I hope you see from my post--so much good luck came my way. I can't take credit for much of it. My life as it is could have been so easily derailed.

Not that it's been the so-called bowl of cherries. As no doubt some oral tradition at UT-K has it, I f***** up mightily there in many ways. I married very badly as a consequence. And believe me I take much more credit for my f***ups than any accomplishments. As Robert Lowell says in "Dolphin"--"My eyes have seen what my hand did".

But given that luck passed me into a good public education in California, and that my constitutive luck gave me natural curiosity and love of learning (Mom was really, really smart if undereducated), I can't say that my experience as first-to-college and first-to-grad-degrees was onerous or difficult. I went into debt because I had to finance my education (along with scholarships here and there), but unlike today for many, it was manageable--about what would buy a really nice car then. (That's for comparison--maybe like 40k now.)

One factor for me is that my Mom modeled self-sufficiency for me. In college I never consulted student services--I planned all my coursework from the college catalog and finished my AB with a triple major in four years. Likewise in grad school I finished in 6 years ('76-'82), the last one employed in my present position while I polished off the dissertation.

I'm incompetent to assess how first-generation students are engaging college now. As a group they have much more diverse backgrounds than mine--mine was from lower-class poverty, but still Caucasian and male, which no doubt added advantage. There is a much greater safety-net for such students now in terms of resources, tutoring, and advising, and I think that has minuses as well as pluses in terms of fostering self-reliance. (A BIG factor here must be the degree of family support a first-gen student has--my family did not understand at all what I was doing--but did not stand in my way or complain that I was "highfalutin".) But there you can see I'm my mother's son--she taught me by example to make my own way, set my goals short and long term, and enjoy what small accomplishments I might have along the way.

See? I'm back to my thesis. I was so lucky to have my Mom. She explains me better than just about anything.

Thomas Nadelhoffer

This is a lovely piece, Alan. I will share it both on FB and over at Flickers! As you know, I, too, give luck pride of place when it comes to explaining how most things turn out (for better or worse)! Your autobiographical sketch does a nice job of highlighting this feature of life.

Anne Jacobson

Alan, such a good piece. Thank you! One of the things you may be addressing is the fact that many people with a lot of privilege tend to see the success they have as due to their talent and efforts, not luck at all. So may I emphasize that, as this piece shows, you also brought skills and talents and efforts to your situation. It isn't that people in more elite universities necessarily had more talent or work harder.

V. Alan White

Thanks again to Shelley (especially for off-net comments on effective posting), Thomas, and Anne. I've been humbled by the reaction and emails to my little knock-off piece that was done in about an hour last Sunday night. A HT to Brian Leiter as well for featuring this post on his website--I didn't send it to him and frankly don't know how he found it.

As a discipline we really need to re-evaluate the role of luck in all our lives--Levy's book profoundly shook my complacency about how we conduct ourselves as if the Enlightenment paradigm of the primacy of the individual and our presumed autonomy are the best guiding principles by which we can fairly construct social and moral laws. Luck undercuts all of that, and in such fundamental ways as to require re-thinking the reconstruction of society from the ground up.

As I'm thankful for Mom--I'm thankful for the careful and important work of Levy.

Shelley Tremain

I'm glad that you received many responses to your post. It really is terrific; and I hope that the reaction to it serves as encouragement for you to post often!

As I said to Thomas the other day, after I read your post the first time, I began to reconsider some events that have taken place in my life, and how I have understood them and explained them to myself. Your post has in fact prompted me to do that a number of times this week. Thanks for a very thought-provoking piece!

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