Metal Detectors or Medical Doctors: The Privilege of Education Itself

by Alex Kindel, ’14

When we discuss privilege, a few general types seem to come up more often than others. We frequently acknowledge our white, male, straight privileges, and depending on the space, perhaps cisgender, class, physical ability. I’d like to propose a category of privilege that isn’t as frequently discussed at Stanford: educational background.

For example, did you know what “units” were when you arrived at Stanford? Were you able to receive AP exam credit? Are you used to using textbooks as a tool for learning? Do you speak a language other than the language(s) you speak at home? Did you have high school teachers who were experts in their fields? Do you play an instrument? Was it considered “normal” or “expected” for you to apply to highly selective universities? Do you feel free to pursue opportunities abroad? Do you have generally positive memories of your high school experience? This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I believe examples are the best way to get started on thinking about the way our educational backgrounds influence our identities as Stanford students and the opportunities we feel able to take advantage of.

By no means is educational background separate from other privileges. The beauty of intersectional identities is the ability to understand problems we face in terms of other issues and identities. Intersections with educational background are everywhere; some are familiar, and some are surprising. For example, you may not be shocked to hear that low-income neighborhoods have generally worse public schools, and that private schools are generally better institutions of learning than public schools. You may know from experience that students who have to work to support their families are less able to participate in after-school activities. But have you given thought to the fact that queer youth, in particular queer youth of color, are at increased risk of dropping out of high school? According to a study by Lambda Legal on LGBT youth in schools, “nearly one-third of LGBT students in high school drop out to escape the violence, harassment, and isolation they face there – a dropout rate nearly three times the national average.” Or, have you thought about how someone’s physical abilities might affect their participation in clubs and sports?

At Stanford, a student’s educational background can affect them in frustrating ways. Students from underresourced schools are categorically less likely to reach schools like Stanford in the first place. (How many students from your graduating class in high school were admitted to Stanford or similar schools?) Once they get here, these students are less likely to take advantage of the opportunities and resources Stanford provides. (Have you participated in research opportunities, or felt like they were an option for you?) Many have underdeveloped study skills and feel unprepared for the level of rigor in a typical Stanford course. (Do you feel like you could feasibly complete a major in a STEM field?) Many feel less empowered to pursue majors outside of the fields they’re familiar with. (Were you exposed to academic fields like engineering or computer science in high school?)

It is difficult to be cognizant of our educational privileges when we have them, in the same way that it is difficult to think critically about your whiteness when you view it as the ‘default’ skin color. When we make decisions about our classes, very rarely are we thinking about how our identities shape our enrollment. “But Alex,” you might ask, “how does an understanding of what our past education has been like translate into anti-oppressive action?” I’m not sure. But as with any social issue, the first step is to talk about it.


Alex is a sophomore majoring in Symbolic Systems, with a minor in Education. He wants to know how your educational background has influenced your time at Stanford; let him know at atkindel@stanford.edu.

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