Pre-Read 2021: Moving Up Without Losing Your Way

May 14, 2021

Pre-Read 2021: Moving Up Without Losing Your Way was first published in the May 2021 issue of the Princeton Alumni Weekly.

When I talk to Princeton alumni about why they value their experience at this University, the phrase I hear most often is, “it was transformative.” Transformative collegiate experiences are at the heart of the 2021 Princeton Pre-read, Moving Up Without Losing Your Way: The Ethical Costs of Upward Mobility, by Professor Jennifer M. Morton ’02.

Moving Up Without Losing Your Way is the ninth Pre-read that I have selected since becoming Princeton’s president. The Pre-read program has two main goals: to introduce students to the University’s vibrant intellectual culture, and to encourage students to think about the values that should guide their Princeton educations and their lives after graduation.

Morton’s book fits these objectives beautifully. It is a philosophical reflection on the challenges of being a college student. It is also very literally a product of Princeton’s scholarly environment: Morton, who becomes a presidential associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania this fall, worked on the book while she was a Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Fellow in Princeton’s University Center for Human Values.

I like Professor Morton’s book for many reasons. It gracefully integrates philosophical insights with common sense observations and personal stories. It calls upon all of us to consider what gives value and meaning to our lives. And it speaks candidly about what makes a college education exhilarating, what makes it hard, and how to navigate the choices it requires. Professor Morton focuses on a group of students whom she calls “strivers”: students who are from low-income families or the first in their families to attend college. She is interested in the distinctive pressures and ethical dilemmas that strivers confront as they pursue an education.

In Moving Up Without Losing Your Way, Morton draws both on her students’ experiences and also her own memories of coming to Princeton. She is a Peruvian immigrant who became the first person in her family to graduate from college. In the preface to her book, Morton thanks Princeton for taking “a chance on me as an undergraduate” and later as a faculty fellow.

Morton speaks candidly about what her education made possible. She also describes the challenges she faced — beginning on her first day on campus, when, feeling herself very much an outsider, she “lugged [her] embarrassingly large and heavy suitcase to the third floor of Blair Hall, shut the door, and wept on the bare mattress.” (p. 11)

Morton’s path from worried freshman to honored professor exemplifies the transformative power of education, and “transformation” is one of the key concepts Professor Morton uses to develop her argument. “Education, by its nature, changes us in profound ways,” she writes (p. 137).

Transformations can be wonderful, but they can also be unsettling—both to us and to those we know. They can change our political or religious convictions, our aspirations for the future, which people we admire, and what we read. They can alter how we look or what we eat. Many college students have shared the disconcerting sense of feeling a bit like an outsider when they return to their home communities after coming to Princeton.

Morton urges students to approach these transformations self-consciously. She recommends developing a “clear-eyed ethical narrative” about what they value, what they are or are not willing to sacrifice as they pursue their dreams, and how they relate to the structures and communities around them (pp. 110–111). That is sound advice, for college and for life.

Morton illustrates her argument by describing the narrative that informed her own college experience, a narrative shared with many other immigrant families. “Everybody in my immediate family had immigrated for economic opportunities,” she writes. “I was taught that to access opportunities for upward mobility I would have to eventually move far away from home and that it would be hard and lonely work.” (pp. 11–12)

I, too, come from an immigrant family, but until reading Morton’s book I did not realize how important that fact had been to my own Princeton experience. “Go far away and find your future” was the theme of my family’s history and its expectation for the next generation. The narrative was at once liberating and constraining: it simultaneously authorized and impelled me to leave past connections behind. My expectation is that many other alumni readers of Morton’s book will come away with new insight into their own time at Princeton as they reflect on the background narratives that implicitly shaped their own path through college. And my hope is that Moving Up Without Losing Your Way will both provide our entering students with fresh perspective on the adventure ahead of them, and also enable them to think constructively about what our society must do to realize more fully and equitably the profound “transformative effect of education on [students’] life prospects,” (p. 14) not only at Princeton but in America more broadly.

I am confident that the book will spark many interesting conversations. I look forward to discussing it — in person! — with Princeton’s Great Class of 2025 next fall.