Let’s actualize, not ditch, the ‘bootstrap’ metaphor (letter)


At best, Peter Smith is only partially correct in his assessment of the bootstrap metaphor (“The Bootstrap Fallacy: Self-Levitation Doesn’t Work”). To understand this, looking abroad is useful — I turn to Southeast Asia. Harpswell Foundation, which operates in Southeast Asia, reveals the problem with abandoning the metaphor. Harpswell Foundation educates some of the brightest girls and young women in Cambodia. Ratana (not her real name, but an actual person) is one such young woman. 

Ratana is from rural Cambodia and has done everything she can to achieve her potential: eventually attending a university in Phnom Penh. There were many external barriers, some of which she was able to overcome to attend a good university in the capital. But had she faced fewer barriers, she would have had access to steeper trajectories.

Similarly, there are external barriers for many American students. American children from inner cities and poorer communities unequivocally are more likely to face challenges and barriers which shrink their margin of error and lower their trajectory.

But let’s not conflate the two scenarios. Ratana was plucked from the countryside by this NGO that scours rural Cambodia for cognitive talent. To graduate from a world class university she had to have parents that didn’t send her to the rice fields, be suggested by her school’s headmaster to an educational NGO for having extraordinary cognitive abilities, finish high school, learn English, navigate the application process for a world class university in Asia or the West, figure out how to fund her overseas education, and adapt to a forign country as she started her studies abroad. Not impossible, but close. Thus, even if Ratana won the cognitive lottery, which she did, her margin of error would be hyper slim. Every decision she would have to make to get to an elite university would have to be the correct one. And for students born without the intelligence (and luck) of Ratana, agency wouldn’t be enough — there is no route to a world class university education for such children.

The same cannot be said for American students, no matter their socioeconomic background. There’s little chance an American student gets sent to a rice field or factory. You don’t need to be the one student plucked from hundreds or thousands by a principal for your cognitive ability in order to even attend a proper high school in the capital. You don’t need to figure out how to fund flying, living, and paying tuition abroad for a proper university education. Even for American students that don’t win the cognitive lottery and come from circumstances that make learning and studying difficult, there is a route forward. A difficult route that is inequitable in many ways. And America does lag behind other OECD countries on social mobility indexes.

But there is a route. A route that can only be traversed with agency and the desire for personal progress. This can even happen well into one’s twenties, thirties, and later. You might have to make sacrifices, live with roommates, cut expenses dramatically for years, take on debt, and attend a local community college, but, be that as it may, there is a path forward. For hundreds of millions of children and young adults around the world, there isn’t. 

Should we recognize that for hundreds of millions around the world agency plays no role in their destiny? Yes. Should we revamp American support systems, as Peter Smith suggests, for high school and college students from middle, working, and poor classes to repel the increasingly entrenched cognitive and plutocratic classes? Yes.

Should we dispel with the relatively true bootstrap metaphor? No. The solution is not to ditch the metaphor, but to actualize it in the face of an encroaching caste system that is the result of policies and technologies. 

–Leo DeKino



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