In addition to posts of cute kitty videos and pictures of food (and I’m guilty of both) I find facebook to be a site of a lot of thought-provoking conversations recently. In particular, I have been following a thread about the people who have PhD’s and their elitism.

There is a lot of this sentiment going around lately; I hear political candidates whose parties encouraged higher education a few decades ago now bashing the push for college educations, much less advanced degrees.  I expect sweater-vest-wearing politicians to say such things, but when it comes from within your own community? Where is this critique coming from, to make such generalizations. What does this mean for those of us from under-served or marginalized communities with, or currently pursuing, doctoral degrees?

Five years ago I remember being encouraged to go to school and pursue an advanced degree because the “academic and research world needed insider/community scholars.” I will admit that felt really intriguing and full of possibility. One of my beliefs has been that if I’m going to critique something, then I’d better be willing to do something more than voice my disagreement. I have naively thought that I could be “an agent of change from within the institution.” There are people who do not believe that is possible. I have to believe that it can be, if you don’t forget where you come from and what your purpose is.

People participate in activism in a number of different ways. Being the lone academic in the ivory tower fighting for inclusion of your community’s needs at the risk of professional advancement (particularly if your institution is known for oppressive treatment of its faculty and students of color) is one of the bravest acts I can imagine. It can also be one of the most foolish if done without any sense of balance. Like Peter Parker’s uncle said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Part of a scholar’s responsibility is to balance the pushing and the accommodating so that advanced work on the issues you care about can continue. You can charge in like a bull rhino but if you alienate everyone or refuse to fulfill your academic obligations, you won’t have any platform for your work. And how does that help the community?

There comes a time, I suppose, where those of us who were once “on the ground level” get to a place where we’re told we have to choose – to buy in to the academic elitism or to shun it and focus only on the community activism. I reject that dichotomy. Activist scholars can do a lot of amazing work to help support or advance a community’s needs and agenda.

Yes, there are snobs, those who care about the advanced degree, the letters after the name, the supposed prestige  and privileges. I am sure there are some who think I am an elitist for pursuing an advanced degree; what people don’t always realize is that it is because I cared about how academics were treating people from my community in the first place that spurred my desire to enter a doctoral program. I entered graduate school because I was tired of reading research articles about my community that asked what I thought were wrong questions or made incorrect assumptions about us; I was tired of knowing that people were, to borrow from the Disability community, “writing about us, without us.”

I am not a traditional student. My high school academic career was mediocre at best, I was never singled out for my intellect or my potential. I was the student who tried my best to be average and not noticed in any way. I was a college drop out for many years, attending four different undergraduate programs before finally obtaining my baccalaureate at the ripe old age of 36.

Many of the PhD’s I admire the most are the ones who wanted to help advance their communities, and many came directly from the communities. Several of the most brilliant scholars and thinkers I know failed out of high school, got their GED’s, and found their way to post-secondary education as non-traditional students, often with a kid or two and working to pay the bills. The schools aren’t rolling out the red carpets for folks like us. In many ways we have a more difficult time proving we’re capable of being in the program, what with our patchwork transcripts, lack of academic mentors, and fewer research skills developed in traditional programs and so on. The goal is to obtain the skills we need to help support our communities, not so we can have the alphabet soup behind our names.

Is the critique from within our communities that we are not doing enough to communicate back to our  communities about the work we are doing? Is it that we’re perceived to have forgotten about where we “came from?” Is every academic who comes from a marginalized community required to give back 100% to their community? This isn’t expected among traditional (i.e. white) scholars and academics (although I could see this happening if one belonged to another marginalized population).

Are there higher expectations for academics of color/marginalized communities?