The loaded question

As I was leafing through today’s El Mercurio, I came across an editorial piece entitled “┬┐Donde estudiaste?” or “Where did you study?” After reading the one-page article, I actually felt PLEASED (of all things!) because the author reflected what I have thought all along about this ridiculous question:

  1. Discriminatory by defacto, this question seems to have little-to-no socially relevant objective.
  2. Those who pose the question want nothing more than to tell YOU where THEY went to school because in their mind, something about the school is better than yours
  3. There is no Eton-equivalent in Chile (sorry, Grange and Nido) so there is no justification for such a mundane question
  4. In the end, most, if not all of us, are pretty much run-of-the-mill and no amount of English words in your school’s name will change that

But I guess what I should do is take a step back to clarify that here in Chile, perhaps in Latin America as a whole even, the question “where did you study” does not automatically mean “From which university did you graduate?” or “Where did you attend college?” Rather, this question literally means “Where did you go from Kindergarten to 12th grade?”

The author of this article goes as far as to claim that said question is usually third or fourth in a conversation between adults who are meeting for the first time, usually following suit shortly after “What’s your name,” “What do you do,” “Are you married/have kids?”

When I moved to Chile, this issue came up in various conversations with different groups of people. At first I found it hard to believe that anyone would care where one went to school 20, 30, even 40 years ago especially in light of the fact that most real-world experience is obtained later in life, in college and post-college. Perhaps this is why I find it more relevant to be asked where I attended college and what it is I studied there. My personal experience here in Chile has been that people don’t ask me this question once they find out that I didn’t grow up here. But it has been the case that I’m asked where my husband went to school. (After the snide “What do you care” crosses my mind) I answer that he grew up in the northern part of Chile and didn’t move to Santiago until he was 11 and then, he attended a Catholic school in Macul (a middle/working class district of Santiago). The answer is met with “Oh” and followed by “I went to Santiago College” or “I went to Nido.” At which point I make it a point not to ooooh and ahhh over said statement.

When considering where G and I would send our future kids to school here in Santiago, we discussed three fundamental factors for selection: 1) the school needs to be fully – and I do mean 100% fully – bilingual (English and Spanish), 2) the school must not be psycho heavy on religion (Catholic schools are OUT OF THE QUESTION in a dominantly Catholic society), 3) the school must have a curriculum that promotes individuality, adventure, exploration, teamwork and curiosity (in other words, I want innovative, forward thinking education. Not something that’s stuck in the dark ages.) Given the above criteria – things that are FUNDAMENTAL to us – are the chances high that our kids will go to the Granges, Nidos and Santiago Colleges of this world? Maybe. Unless I found another school that will prove to support our criteria for our kids’ education, it may very well be the usual suspects as contenders. Regardless, I’m not bound to any brand name school in Santiago, I’m bound to the three points above. Unfortunately (or fortunately) every adult I’ve met who attended one of the brand name schools of Santiago speaks pretty fluent English. Even the kids I’ve met who currently attend these schools are already on the road to said fluency. The fact of the matter is that in my case, English is my first language and as such, it remains a priority for me to make sure it’s always spoken to a good extent in my home. Sadly, the options are limited in Santiago.

This brings me back to the author’s last point of the article where he states that the answer to the infamous question does not grace the person answering with some kind of admirable quality or attribute. After all, they didn’t decide where to go to school – their parents decided that FOR them. If the person did happen to attend one of the brand name schools, does that mean that the parents are worthy of all the merit? I think it depends. If they carefully looked through all possible schools that combined their fundamental educational goals for their children, and then opted for what turned-out-to-be a brand name school, then yes. If said decision was based more on status and keeping up with the Joneses, allowing the family to use the child’s school as another indicator of the family’s wealth (such as the car and the house), then no.

Taking that into consideration, when someone in Chile asks you where you went to school, what if they’re really asking “how much money did your family have while you were growing up?” Which actually equates to asking for the family’s financial statement prior to engaging someone in conversation, interviewing them for a position or, generally speaking, deciding their worth as a human being.

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5 thoughts on “The loaded question

  1. I wonder if the translation is different in British English than it is in U.S. English. Because if they're using U.S. English then calling a colegio "college" is not the correct translation. I always wonder that too when people bring that crap up.

    Keeping up with the Joneses when it comes to colegio is kind of necessary. Seba once got a job because he had gone to the same colegio as the interviewer. There's so much "pituto" ing going on that if you went to a non-name brand colegio where your professors and fellow alums won't be in positions of power in order to hire you, you're at a disadvantage, I think.

  2. Uuuugh I hate this. There are so many cuico colegios that cost a ton of money that aren't that good at all. Most of the teens I taught went to some sort of colegio with an English sounding name, yet they still had to go to a private language institute because the English instruction was sub-par. I mean granted, perhaps the other academic areas were better, but I kind of doubt that. I think that in the US you could maybe get a job depending on what university you went to (I know it happens A LOT with my alma mater) but I've never heard of getting a job based on your high school.

  3. yea, i think it's a provincial thing. i grew up in st louis missouri and the big joke there is that the first q someone asks you after "what's your name?" is "where did you go to highschool?" i think this may happen less in other places – like maybe in nyc where there's like 10 trillion different good schools. i'm not really sure. to a certain extent i agree that it's a loaded q – but lots of qs are loaded – "where do you live" or "what do you do" could just as easily be interpreted as prying into others lives. and is it so bad? i think that humans by nature try to find points in common. ways of differentiating themselves from others as well. asking where did you go to highschool is in it's simplest form just a space filler, another way of connecting with someone who you don't really know and you're not sure what else to say: "oh you went to villa maria? my brother goes to verbo!" i think it just shows a bit of a lack of imagination or ability to really connect w/people more than anything. though then again that may be looking into it too much. obviously santaigo is a very class-conscious culture. i wouldn't get annoyed when someone asks you that though-it's super cultural i think. and yes, with your criteria for schooling you'll probably have to send your kids to cuico-land colegio. oh well i say, i'm not gonna let a kid's education suffer – if i have the means – to prove a point.

  4. Really good topic, as I have this on my mind as well. Being that hubby and I have done our schooling here in the US we have a bit of an out, but we anticipate the question coming up regarding where he went to school as a very young child in Santiago/or what neighborhood he lived in, for that matter. You said it so well. It really is like asking for an income statement prior to conversing with someone. I am sure that this will not be one of my favorite things about Chile. When you find that elusive school, let us know. Your criteria points look like mine for my little ones.

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