My philosopher daughter gave me a book written by a colleague: Jennifer Morton’s Moving Up Without Losing Your Way. I found it both challenging (it is philosophy) and resonant with my own long-ago experience as a first-generation college student. Like me, Morton grew up “somewhere between working class and middle class.” Now she is a philosophy professor. Morton identifies us and students like us as “strivers,” among the tiny minority who move upward across class lines. Her book considers the ethical challenges posed by this upward mobility mediated by college education.
One kind of challenge comes from change:
“[O]ne’s own life starts to feel removed from the relationships, concerns, and viewpoints with which one grew up. The amount of distance required can vary a great deal, but negotiating it is often a feature of the experience of upward mobility.” (Morton, Jennifer. Moving Up without Losing Your Way. Princeton University Press. (47-48)
Using many stories drawn from her teaching experience, Morton describes the unavoidable tension between working on one’s own achievements and responding to family needs for financial and emotional support. This distance has ethical costs, but those costs are not only individual responsibilities. Strivers should not “see their achievements and failures through the lens of individual responsibility instead of correctly allocating a significant share of the responsibility to the social and economic structures that undermine their access to the opportunities they seek.” (pp. 43-44)
In a completely different kind of book, Soraya Membreno describes her own experience in attending a small, elite liberal arts college, as an immigrant from a non-upper-class background. She chooses a “red-and-white-polka-dotted Minnie Mouse dress” for her graduation, and then sees all of her classmates in “a very specific kind of dress, a white or cream-colored or pale pastel shift, simple and strapless.”
Her mother cannot get a visa to come from Nicaragua for Membreno’s graduation. Her father manages to attend but looks as out of place as she feels.
“Somewhere along the line, in the flurry of niceties and ceremonies, with my father relegated to the sidelines of my peripheral vision, that weekend made clear the very thing I had been denying for the past four years: I was being subsumed by something else, going to a place where my family could not follow. I stood out like hell, a polka-dotted dress in a sea of white, but there I was, still in it. Still part of it. And he could do no more than snap a picture.” A Map Is Only One Story: Twenty writers on immigration, family, and the meaning of home. Edited by Nicole Chung and Mensa Demary. Catapult, 2020.
Morton, herself an immigrant, says that, while strivers from different backgrounds have different stories and experiences, the immigrant narrative offers insights for all strivers:
“The immigrant narrative is built on four distinct features that I think, not coincidentally, are also the crucial elements of an ethical narrative. First, it affirms a plurality of ethical goods that matter to one’s life—one’s relationships, culture, and connection to one’s community—rather than focusing only on educational or economic achievement. Second, it makes it clear that some of those ethical goods will have to be traded off or sacrificed for the sake of other goods and opportunities. Ideally, though not always, it situates these trade-offs in a historical, political, and socioeconomic context. Third, it is cognizant of the risks to one’s identity that the process of immigration entails. As the immigrant striver becomes more at ease navigating the new country, his or her skill at navigating the culture of the home country may wane. And finally, though this is not as frequently a part of the immigrant narrative as I think it ought to be, the experience of being an immigrant enables one to think more critically and reflectively about the broader social, political, and economic context of both one’s adopted country and one’s home, and how one might play a role in changing them for the better.” (p. 128)
Working to change social, political, and economic structures for the better is a central ethical challenge for all of us. Moving Up without Losing Your Way analyzes the ethical questions carefully and clearly. A Map Is Only One Story tells twenty stories, in twenty voices, and manages to raise many of the same ethical issues of connection and separation, unjust social structures, and individual responsibility and possibility.