- All PhDs are not Created Equal:On Academic Privilege
Your early education at a prestigious private boarding school founded in the early 1890s with a 7 to 1 student to teacher ratio prepares you well for an undergraduate degree from a prestigious private college and a masters and a doctorate from a prestigious private university, which was established in the first part of the seventeenth century and has today a nearly 35 billion dollar endowment.
Your early education at an average public high school built in early 1970s with a 22 to 1 student to teacher ratio prepares you well for an undergraduate degree from an average state college and a masters and a doctorate from an average state university, which was established as a normal school and has today a 96 million dollar endowment.1
One of these is a door to academic privilege. The other is not. For those who have travelled the educational path from secondary to doctoral education in the United States, the two doors look very different. For those who did not, they can appear the same. Seeing the difference between these doors is a major element in coming to an understanding of academic privilege, but so too is listening to accounts of the unearned advantages one door affords its beneficiaries and the disadvantages the other door bestows upon others. Many of these accounts have become part of the common folklore of higher education. Evidence of academic privilege is all around us—even if many cannot see it or do not want to see it.
Unlike white privilege or male privilege, there are no high profile individuals or groups raising awareness of academic privilege. There is no NAACP fighting for the rights of the academically disadvantaged, and thereby rallying the underprivileged academics. There is no Colin Kapernick taking a knee in opposition to academic privilege, and thereby [End Page 393] raising nationwide attention to it.2 And there is no movement within higher education to eliminate the oppression of academic privilege. If anything, the special rights and advantages of academic privilege are the higher education "knapsack" that no one wants to talk about, "an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks."3 Not even those who have chronicled the various trials and travails of the "culture" and "PC" wars in higher education, which provided a platform for reinvigorated debates about privilege in America.
The Reagan eighties were said to be the cauldron where animosity toward "political correctness" stewed for many years. This simmer reached best-seller status in 1987 with the publication of Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (Williams 2013, 11). This book "attacked the faculty for 'political correctness,'"4 and raised public awareness of and interest in the "culture wars" of the late 1980s to an unprecedented level and fever pitch by selling nearly half a million copies in hardback alone and becoming the number one best-selling work of non-fiction on the New York Times list for four months.5
I point to this period because it was one of the high points of public awareness of "political correctness" in the United States. Works like Bloom's were asking those within higher education to take a stand on the whether "dead white European males" would continue to dominate the higher education curriculum or whether the broadening of the canon was needed to bring about more awareness of diversity in our society and a less culturally homogeneous curriculum. By the late 1980s and early 1990s, there were two doors to higher education but not the ones mentioned above: one involved political correctness, diversity, and the recognition of male, white, and European privilege in the academy; and the other championed moral correctness, the classics, and Eurocentrism, which conveniently comprised a canon of primarily "dead white males."
Amidst all of this commotion about political correctness and debate about "dead white males," a working paper was circulated in 1988 about the live ones and their privilege. It proved to be ground-breaking because of its frankness about the "unearned advantage" of its author, Peggy McIntosh. Entitled "White Privilege and...