I’ve been following Social Class and Quakers, a very interesting blog on classism, becoming educated, and the subtle ways in which even the socially enlightened from the middle class may simply presume that they’re self-evidently benevolent.

It’s a brave, important, and fascinating conversation.

Disgust

May 18, 2007

I always find something provocative in Beverly Skeggs’ books and many articles on social class and gender. This week, I read a piece in which she argues that attention to “excessive, unhealthy, publicly immoral white working-class woman” proliferates when there are other social tensions around morality, propriety, and self-responsibility.

She suggests that as TV programs like Sex in the City or The L Word have broken long-standing social boundaries regarding femininity, sexuality, and propriety, the culture has experienced “ambivalence, a dislodging of certainty” about what is acceptable and appropriate.

At such times, she argues, particular social groups (for example, women who wear plastic stilettos, rather than Monolo Blahniks) are designated in the media as unambiguously disgusting; unambiguously loud alarms are then sounded about the threat of such people to an orderly society. In times of moral uncertainty, then, consensus can at least be reached around this: Whatever their own shifting morals, middle class women are at least better than those loud and and vulgar women tottering around on their cheap shoes.

Skeggs writes of recent media “obsession” with “hen parties” in England, but I think also of Gwen Foster’s work on the huge popularity of reality shows in the U.S. that “fix” working-class people. From Wife Swap, to the Nanny shows, to the deliberately humiliating “outing” of badly dressed working-class women by the hosts of  “How Not to Dress”, we have multiple opportunities to see middle-class people responding to the “fixees” with justifiable measures of revulsion. Viewers are quite obviously meant to learn their own lessons of redemption as the “fixed” weep grateful tears at the end of each episode.

Skeggs writes:

Attributing negative value to the working class is a mechanism for attributing value to the middle-class self (such as making oneself tasteful through judging others to be tasteless). So, it is not just a matter of using some aspects of the culture of the working class to enhance one’s value, but also maintaining the position of judgment to attribute value, which assigns the other as immoral, repellent, abject, worthless, disgusting, even disposable.

What then? How might working-class people respond to such judgment?

Skeggs suggests three possibilities:

  • Contest it via managing one’s public presntation of self within norms of respectability.
  • Critique the pretensions of the potential judge.
  • Ignore it, and thereby steadfastly refuse to recognize the authority of those judging. Skeggs notes that this might be the “Jerry Springer” response.

I’m not clear that we could teach any of these forms of contestation and resistance within school, even as schools are places where more privileged children quite freely express their disgust with less privileged peers.

What, instead, would challenge the very positions of judgment that weigh morality at least in part against the cost of one’s footwear?

_______

Skeggs, B. (2005). The making of class and gender through visualizing moral subject formation. Sociology, 39, 965-982.

Foster, G.A. (2005). Class Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.

 

I’ve been tracking discussions about social class in the blogosphere for a few months now, and I guess that I’m not surprised that there is so little there.

Today’s collection is typical: There are more than a few students agonizing over Jane Austen assignments, other course papers such as this young woman’s poignant essay for her English 51 class, a very small number of postings about class and education from politically-attuned bloggers, and no small number of bloggers analyzing what is seen as the class-based bad behavior of contestants on British reality shows. Beyond such postings, I’m not finding much.

Why is it, do you think, that in these turbulent economic times, at this political moment, there is so little of substance and clarity about class in this medium?

In today’s New York Times, Tom Moore, a high school teacher, writes an opinion piece about the distortions inherent in movies like the recent Freedom Writers. He writes:

Films like “Freedom Writers” portray teachers more as missionaries than professionals, eager to give up their lives and comfort for the benefit of others, without need of compensation. Ms. Gruwell sacrifices money, time and even her marriage for her job.

Her behavior is not represented as obsessive or self-destructive, but driven — necessary, even. She is forced into making these sacrifices by the aggressive neglect of the school’s administrators, who won’t even let her take books from the bookroom. The film applauds Ms. Gruwell’s dedication, but also implies that she has no other choice. In order to be a good teacher, she has to be a hero.

“Freedom Writers,” like all teacher movies this side of “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” is presented as a celebration of teaching, but its message is that poor students need only love, idealism and martyrdom.

I talk often with the teachers I teach about the popular portrayals of teachers in the media, about the inherent contradictions between the mythology of “hero amongst the rabble” and a more systemic understanding of the reforms that will be necessary to make schools work for poor and working class kids.

For a class taught by one of my colleagues, they read Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, and many are quite simply overwhelmed as first encounter the gross inequities in U.S. public schooling. I want my colleague to push them further, however, because as they grapple with reconciling their initial belief in schools as essentially good places for kids with the conditions they read about in Kozol, they almost inevitably settle on one central image: that of the Chicago teacher with the rocking chair in her classroom who loves her students and works impossible hours to make them and their families welcome in her classroom.

This is who they want to be.

This is a powerful image of a teacher making the best of impossible conditions.

And I get mostly blank stares when I ask my students why this terrific teacher should have to put up with the conditions within which she works in the first place.

For many, their decisions to teach are shaped by films like Freedom Writers. They’ll be the One True caring teacher, and their students will grasp their ankles begging for more at the end of each class section.

I work hard with them to press the questions of whether, in the long run, poor and working class kids might not be better served by schools populated by an entire teaching staff that had the resources and support to do their jobs well.

I want my students to become heroic teachers. I want them to have models of heroism beyond the solo, self-sacrificing, teacher whose self-identity depends at least in part on maintaining smug distance from one’s colleagues.

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