Rethinking the Phrase “Meet Them Where They’re At”

alice catI’ve probably never said this aloud, but the educational cliche, “meet them where they’re at,” makes me want to vomit.  I think about Alice in Wonderland, and the people and creatures she encountered as she wandered around.  I recognize that everyone she encountered met her where she was at. Sometimes others were offended by her appearance, other times annoyed; sometimes Alice was alarmed when another character showed up randomly; and not one of her encounters was more pleasant or productive because she was met “where she was at.”  Though occasionally curious, Alice felt as often confused, lost, distressed and desperate.  Such desperation was reciprocated hostility.

Consider these interactions:

Alice at the Tea Party

The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it: `No room! No room!’ they cried out when they saw Alice coming. `There’s PLENTY of room!’ said Alice indignantly, and she sat down in a large arm-chair at one end of the table.

`Have some wine,’ the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.

Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. `I don’t see any wine,’ she remarked.

`There isn’t any,’ said the March Hare.

`Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,’ said Alice angrily.

`It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited,’ said the March Hare.

Alice and the White Rabbit

After a time she heard a little pattering of feet in the distance, and she hastily dried her eyes to see what was coming. It was the White Rabbit returning, splendidly dressed, with a pair of white kid gloves in one hand and a large fan in the other: he came trotting along in a great hurry, muttering to himself as he came, `Oh! the Duchess, the Duchess! Oh! won’t she be savage if I’ve kept her waiting!’ Alice felt so desperate that she was ready to ask help of any one; so, when the Rabbit came near her, she began, in a low, timid voice, `If you please, sir–‘ The Rabbit started violently, dropped the white kid gloves and the fan, and skurried away into the darkness as hard as he could go.

Alice was an outsider in Wonderland, and the people she encountered reinforced repeatedly that she did not belong.  To me, statements about meetings learners where they’re at implies a couple of things: 1) The person making the statement would normally not have cause to be in the same place at the learner, and so it has to be intentional to “meet” the learner there; and 2) Wherever the person making that statement is, the learner(s) don’t typically belong there unless they are assisted.  Point in case, this “meet them where they’re at” video made by the Gates Foundation.  While the “meet them where they’re at” phrase should elicit the notion that a person invites diversity and inclusion, it really condescends to mean that someone must deign to the level of another.  It’s educational othering.  Notice that in the Gates Foundation video, Mr. Gates starts out speaking about “these kids” who went to underresourced schools and have low GPA and test scores as the identifying factor for needing his program’s money; when Dr. Carter, President of Johnson C. Smith University begins to speak of the students, he is clear to say that what is important is NOT a student’s ACT or GPA, but rather who they are. While President Carter humanizes the students in the program shown in the video as minority students, Mr. Gates is distances himself from “them.”  Mr. Gates may “meet them where they are” but his words don’t indicate that “they” belong where he is.

In Wonderland and in Higher Ed, the key players–Rabbits, Hatters, Advisors or Professors–are prone to inter-group and institutional bias.  Our words must be mindfully stated to show that we truly believe that all admitted students, regardless of academic preparation, deserve clear access to the inside information and hidden curriculum, and deserve to feel that they belong inside our institutions, not just for a year, but for a degree.  If a professional or faculty advisor believes this to be true, and  if they are committed to proactive advising, then it is too little, too late to meet anyone where they’re at.  Get there first, send an invite and give clear directions on how to arrive and stay.

Two years after Disney release an animated feature film reboot of Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, a research wrote an unrelated but similarly inspired article called “Confusion in Higher Education” (1953), about revisioning higher education to serve the needs of the learners–among a series of brilliant and contemporary insights, Neff posited that the purpose of higher education wasn’t to educate young people in the style of lords and ladies, much like Oxford may have in the days of Lewis Carroll, rather, it was to be current and visionary in its role of meeting the professionals of the future.  At present, record numbers of students from diverse backgrounds are accessing higher education in the United States, and yet, degree-attainment for students from low-income, first generation and minority backgrounds grows at a snail’s pace.  Is it because higher education’s expectations and goals are antiquated for today’s learners?  Neff might say “yes.”  Certainly he would be in good company.  I would extend that to say that a diversified higher education model means that students should be able to identify with the institutional culture upon arrival.  Today’s young people and non-traditional learners are not in college to become aristocratic lords and ladies, nor do their future employers expect them to be, but I do think that the hierarchy of higher education makes them feel like pawns in a world of kings, queens, knights and bishops.  Regardless of where they came from or “where they’re [perceived to be] at”, we must focus on who they are and where they are headed. Students are humans, with the goal of degree attainment. Anything else is an injustice.

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