Harvard Educational Review
  1. Moving Up Without Losing Your Way

    The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility

    Jennifer M. Morton

    Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2019. 173 pp. $26.95 (cloth).

    Jennifer M. Morton’s Moving Up Without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility argues for a new narrative for low-income and first-generation students pursuing higher education—one that accounts for the trade-off between economic and ethical values that students experience in their journey toward upward mobility. Morton asserts that the traditional narrative available to low-income and first-generation college students, or “strivers,” is not only falsely meritocratic but fails to take into account the “ethical goods” that strivers are typically asked to leave behind as they enter the middle and upper classes. These ethical goods, namely the people and places they love, are crucial to strivers’ identities and well-being. However, they are rarely recognized by a narrative, and system, that ignores relationships and community in its focus on economic mobility. An honest narrative of upward mobility and college access should understand the ethical costs to strivers for whom upward mobility means moving away—literally and figuratively—from their communities and families. Moreover, it should help strivers reflect on what they value from home and what they aspire to achieve through higher education, and then make life decisions that reflect their whole selves and priorities. Morton describes how these ethical trade-offs occur because American society has concentrated poverty and disadvantage in specific geographical areas through centuries of inequality and discrimination. She takes both a short-term view for improving the experience of current strivers and a long view of changing the structural inequalities that create the trade-offs in the first place. Ultimately, she argues that those with power in higher education institutions, and the strivers who reach the upper middle class, have a responsibility to lessen those trade-offs by working on both individual and structural levels.

    Moving Up is a work of empirical philosophy. Morton uses the tools of philosophy, including in-depth reflective analysis and concepts from moral and ethical theory, to understand real-world problems. This method is gaining in popularity, particularly in philosophy of education, as an antidote to “first-principles” philosophical analysis that abstracts from everyday experience. Empirical philosophy holds immense promise in philosophy of education for illuminating the ethical and moral dimensions of human experience: philosophers’ keen conceptual understanding and detailed analytical methods can excavate aspects of teaching and learning that social scientists may miss. Moreover, empirical philosophy can go beyond social science’s cultural and economic explanations to articulate the ethical dimensions of human experience. Morton’s work does just that: while research into higher education has long analyzed the challenges low-income and first-generation students face in higher education, Morton is perhaps the first to focus on how these challenges are ethical in nature—that “they concern those aspects of a life that give it value and meaning” (p. 8). In doing so, Morton shifts the conversation away from a focus on upward mobility as a positive experience centered on net financial gain to a focus on the multitude of values that make up a “good life.”

    Morton primarily uses qualitative and quantitative data from the social sciences as the basis for her philosophical analysis. She also brings her work to life with stories from her own experience as a Peruvian immigrant striver attending college in the US, anecdotes from interviews with other strivers, and illustrations from her experience teaching strivers at the City University of New York (CUNY). Social science readers, however, might find Morton’s use of anecdotes—particularly the “composite stories” of her CUNY students—a bit jarring. She did not conduct a full-fledged research study of her students’ experiences, and her analysis of these stories sometimes gave me pause. For example, she “constructs a backstory” that she bases on the “demographics of City College” about the circumstances that may have caused a student to send her an unprofessional and graphic email as an excuse for missing class, rather than talking to the student directly about their motives and trying to understand the situation from the student’s perspective (p. 61). At other points it wasn’t clear whether the students whose stories she shared were aware that their experiences would serve as illustrations in a scholarly work. For a book on ethics, I would have appreciated more attention to the research ethics of sharing vulnerable students’ stories, even if they aren’t “intended to serve as a rigorous, systematic empirical study of the experiences of first-generation students” (p. 14).

    Trained in both philosophy of education and the social sciences, I am a strong believer in empirical philosophy. I think that real-life illustrations are essential for thinking through philosophical concepts and that philosophical concepts are essential for thinking through real-life dilemmas. However, I am curious whether philosophy’s exacting analysis and ethical attunement could be matched with in-depth qualitative methodology, and what would be gained or lost in that process. Currently, Morton and other philosophers are able to use such anecdotes because their primary audience is other philosophers.

    As a discipline, philosophy employs real-life empirics to illustrate and illuminate concepts, dilemmas, and principles, rather than as a basis for generalizable conclusions about human behavior. Philosophers use empirics to reflect on whether their intuition about an idea is sound or practical and to help them engage in dialogue and reach common understanding about nuanced concepts. The goal of empirics in philosophy is different than the goal of empirics in the social sciences. Morton’s work inspired me to think about future scholarship that could combine these goals and approaches. In the meantime, however, a wider audience of social scientists should read Moving Up with an understanding of the norms of its discipline, lest a misunderstanding of Morton’s methods cloud their judgment of her otherwise stellar analysis.

    Morton is, after all, writing for an audience of fellow humanities scholars. Despite the “you” in the book’s title, her chapters are often addressed to a “we” of academics (e.g., pages 41 and 71). It’s important to note that this focus isn’t incompatible with her stated goal of writing a text that is accessible to strivers themselves. Striver readers may recognize details of their own experiences in the anecdote and interview data. Possibly more importantly, given how rarely it is articulated, they may also recognize the emotional and ethical sides of those details, the trade-offs they’ve experienced, and the pain those trade-offs have caused. Morton’s work pulls back the veil for both strivers and their professors and has important points to make to both.

    However, because Morton is primarily speaking to academics, she must spend extensive time and energy deconstructing the status quo meritocratic narrative. Thus, the first half of the book is primarily concerned with why the expectation that strivers simply leave their communities behind in the quest for economic mobility is ethically unsound. She also spends much of chapter 2 explaining structural inequality and arguing that home communities and relationships do, in fact, hold value for strivers. To more critical readers, and to strivers themselves, these arguments could go one of several ways: they could feel validating to strivers who haven’t encountered them before or who have struggled to justify holding on to their home values; they could feel self-evident; or they may even feel patronizing, as one should not need to convince others that any community has value. However, it seems as if Morton is acting as an interlocutor here to readers (and perhaps departments) for whom the idea of meritocracy-as-myth, or even the experience of having striving students in their classroom, may be very new. After all, her academic audience plays an outsized role in creating—and could play a major role in dismantling—the ethical difficulties that strivers face in institutions of higher education. While at points I worried she may have given too much purchase to outdated arguments, I was ultimately impressed by how she pivots from dismantling them to arguing that “when the ways in which we have structured access to opportunities incentivize those unfortunate enough to be born into poverty to disvalue family, friendship, and community, it is time to change those social structures” (p. 71).

    The final two chapters are where Morton seems to be speaking most directly to the “you” in the title, and also where she gives the most concrete and helpful advice to professors and mentors working with strivers. In these chapters, she describes the need and possible foundations for a new narrative of upward mobility, one built by strivers themselves, that acknowledges its ethical benefits and costs and urges strivers who have reached positions of power to “resist complicity” in the structures that necessitate those trade-offs in the first place. Morton argues that “honest and clear ethical reflection should be an integral part of upward mobility” (p. 99). She advocates for strivers to be given room and capacity for reflection to help them recognize and consider what they value, what they are asked to give up in the name of upward mobility, and what structural changes they would like to see in their universities and society to prevent future ethical costs to themselves and other students like them.

    Morton coaches readers on how to help students engage in this reflection, going beyond the now-common advice that academics should demystify the hidden curriculum of academia. Instead, she provides insightful, concrete questions that can help make both students and professors familiar with ethical language as a tool for understanding their experience. I plan to keep a list of these questions handy—to ask my students and myself, and as a reminder that ethical costs of upward mobility are socially constructed and can be dismantled if we do the work to understand them first.

    Tatiana Geron
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