In England, Peter Brandt, the head of the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has written that

 bright children are less likely to apply to top universities because they are worried about “not fitting in”. He said that they need to become more comfortable with middle-class social setting such as restaurants, theatres and offices if they are to succeed.

He argued further that politicians place ” too much focus on education, and often fail to realise the need to make poorer children feel “comfortable” in middle class settings”.  He recommends that  “visiting different places, watching plays and having varied hobbies can help give working class children ‘shared cultural experiences’ with those from middle-class backgrounds”.

______

I remember a day early in my academic career when I was talking with come colleagues  about a novel I’d just read and loved.  I knew that this was a prestigious, not a “popular” author, so I believed that I was on solid ground in talking about my love of this book with two women that I considered friends.

I’d barely started when one interrupted to say “yes.  And it’s so brilliant how she’s retelling [some Shakespeare play] in a modern setting”.

And then there was that long silence that was by now so familiar to me.

And the two of them looked at each other.  And looked back at me.  And it was left to me to recover and move on, but of course there was no way to do that gracefully so I’m sure that I changed the subject.

There was no discussion at the point of the disparities in education that leave many of us without access to knowledge about Shakespeare.

There was certainly no open discussion about why gaps in my understanding of Shakespeare mattered in any way.

There was no further talk about the things that I did find so compelling about the novel.

There was no quick synopsis of the Shakespeare play or invitation to think together about how the author had woven themes from the play into the novel.

There was a very awkward silence, from women that I considered friends.  And while they were friends,  they were also each above me in the academic hierarchy, so I sensed to the core that this moment mattered in ways that stretched far beyond the momentary awkwardness.

Because it was all about the fact that I’d just revealed in yet another way they were very open about their judgment  that I didn’t “fit in” with their conceptions of who an educated person should be.

_____

I grow weary of articles like this in which there is never anyone making others understand that they don’t fit in.

I grow weary of the argument that middle class culture is a neutral land with open borders than anyone can simply enter, rather than a social barrier that is carefully protected.

I grow weary that there is never any discussion in articles like this about the vital necessity of educating all students to understand the structural stratification of  social worlds, and never any mention of educating privileged college students to understand that they did nothing to earn the education that they’ve enjoyed and have no right to judge those were educated elsewhere.

If working-class students don’t feel that they fit in, it’s because others are making sure that they understand that they don’t fit in.

And that’s something that we can do something about in schools and colleges, once we get past the eye-rolling and awkward silences that happen with privileged students and faculty meet people like poor and working-class people for the first time.

It can be difficult to find writing on First Generation College students that doesn’t begin from a deficit standpoint.  First Generation students are presumed to lack “cultural capital“, access to basic information,  family support, or resilience needed to be successful.  These attributes are all, of course, contrasted with the experience, knowledge, social capital, savvy, and ambition of more privileged students who are presumed to arrive at college well-positioned to succeed.

It could be helpful to question more often what we might mean by “succeed”.  According to one recent project, at least some of the academically gifted, wealthy, and culturally savvy students of Harvard University  lack the most basic understanding of people different from themselves, but this racist ignorance has in no way stood in the way of their academic trajectories.

Because, of course, it’s those occupying the social class of these very students who make the rules about what does or doesn’t prepare one for success.  Using the wrong fork at a formal dinner?   One need go no further in that job interview.   Say ignorant things about race? Accuse those pointing this out of just playing “the race card”.

Missing the cues about table manners hurts no one, but  can mean missed opportunities to support oneself even after doing well in college.

Are there any consequences for the racism of Harvard students, when those very students will soon be hiring, sitting on college boards, and voting for candidates supporting their understanding of opportunity?

 

Update: Tressie McMillam Cottom dialed it in on Twitter this afternoon:

 

Earlier this summer, I attended a dinner in which the other lively and funny guests turned cynical  near the end of the evening when they encouraged me to tell them more about my work. When I explained that I’d be  teaching a graduate education course in a few days, the woman who only a few minutes earlier had been bragging about her son’s work in Europe following graduation from the same very selective college that she’d attended, cut me off when I began talking about working in this course with teachers.

“How many of them are good?”, she asked flippantly.
I’d listened trough the evening as she had talked about her second home, as she’d name- dropped, as she rattled her expensive bracelets and flipped her excellent hair.  But she was funny,  an excellent story teller,  and generally so well-mannered and lovely.
Until we started talking about teachers.

Because our hosts were good friends, I held my tongue.

As far as I know, she had had no contact with public schools since her children had graduated years before. Yet she felt completely entitled to insult the graduate students in my program, and to patronize me.

Corey Robin calls this sort of  classism for what is is in the essay he published this week about the Chicago teacher strike (that was also reposted — and thus generated a different set of comments — on The Answer Sheet).

Apart for conflating the distinctive upper-middle-class people of his hometown with  “people”, it’s an important essay. He writes of the pervasive contempt of teachers in his community:

Teachers had opted out of the capitalist game; they weren’t in this world for money. There could be only one reason for that: they were losers. They were dimwitted, unambitious, complacent, unimaginative, and risk-averse. They were middle class.

Meanwhile, as several commenters on the post point out, the Koch brothers and their allies are successfully convincing the working class that teachers are privileged elites who are in it mainly for the benefits.
As I type this, I’m listening to a high level journalist talking on the radio about the “special interest” teacher union that is disinterested in reform, all without addressing a single issue that was contested in the strike.

Rahm Emanuel was sure to get his fit upper-middle class body photographed next to smiling children of color this week in his suit and starched white shirt.  He smiled serenely back at them.

The striking teachers were consistently photographed in t-shirts and baseball caps,  shouting and shaking their fists.

Robin called this classism for what it is.

Let’s be sure that he’s not the only one.

The New York Times has published yet another infuriating piece on poor kids.

Yesterday’s article Wasting Time is New Divide in Digital Era is is almost breathtakingly sloppy.

After the “sky is falling” headline, the article reports that kids from “poorer” families waste “considerably more time” on media than kids from more well-off homes. Without missing a beat — or presenting a shred of evidence –the author, Matt Richtel, declared this time  is “wasted time”.  And then in an amazing leap, he concludes that  class differences in media use are “a reflection of the ability of parents to monitor and limit how children use technology”.

The sole source cited for this conclusion about parenting is the white principal of a middle school in Oakland.  Prominent on the home page of the website of this school is a link to the school’s Accelerated Reader quizzes.   Accelerated Reader is a “read and answer multiple choice questions for points” computer platform has been widely criticized by literacy experts and others as a shallow program that may actually discourage good reading habits in children.  In other words,  it may well be a waste of money and classroom time.

But I digress.

Readers of the NYT article have to get through several more paragraphs before learning that “considerably more time” is the difference between 10 hours a day and 11.5 hours a day.  You’d have to read even deeper into the article to find out that in the (unnamed) Kaiser study that is the basis for the article, data collectors “double dipped”.   In other words, if  a kid was listening to music while surfing the web after dinner, she was credited with two, not one hour of media time.

So imagine:  A child in a low-income home sharing a bedroom with at least one sibling who slips on earbuds to drown out distracting noise, or another using the home’s one computer as others are watching TV in the same room, or a child who didn’t spend after-school time being driven from soccer to lacrosse practice and instead spent that time watching television — each of these would count as evidence of poor children falling behind their privileged peers because they are “wasting more time” in using more media.

Yet the sloppiness runs even deeper.

Richtel never supports his key assumption that any time on social networking sites, watching videos, or playing games is inherently “wasted”.

He includes an ominous quote from danah boyd about  all of this, but never mentions that boyd was co-lead of one of the major anthropological studies of the social connections and informal learning happening in kids’ uses of new media.   He seems not to have bothered to Google any of the intriguing new studies that go beyond “hours spent”  to look at what kids are actually doing with media, including emerging work on how media is shaping kids civic and political engagement, and on the complex informal learning often happening in gaming.

Make no mistake: there are serious digital divides: Poor kids have less access to broadband at home and at school.  In schools, access to the most basic tools depends entirely on the wealth of the district (or the fundraising savvy of parents).  Most seriously, perhaps, poor kids are not being taught the new media literacies required for full participation in contemporary life.

The Kaiser study on kids’ engagement in media is important.

But it is not a study of the relative merits of childrearing in poor and middle-class homes.

And it is not a study of what poor kids are doing on line –full color photo of the  ethnic, hapless, self-described “Facebook freak” notwithstanding.

Several of the hundreds of people who commented on the article (many of them bashing poor parents)  made an excellent point: everyone who commented on a New York Times article was essentially wasting time in front of a computer.

And as I write on this social media site, I’m streaming radio in the background and have my Iphone next to me, waiting for a text.  I read the article on-line while similarly multi-tasking.

According to Richtel, this is obvious evidence that I’ve “wasted” at least three hours of time.

Of course I did.  My parents didn’t go to college so could not have educated me to do otherwise.

Obviously.

Middle Class Studies?

March 1, 2012

It is common now, when teaching about race, to turn students’ attention to “Whiteness Studies” and to the  unearned and often invisible privileges of whites in relation to people of color.  It’s understood now that merely teaching white people about “them” or encouraging white teachers to reflect on their conscious attitudes about race is never enough.  We have to also dig deeper into the taken-for granted privileges that sustain oppression.

Several recent studies about make me wonder about the potential of “middle class studies” as part of teaching and learning  about class and education.

For example,  this study out of Berkeley demonstrated that our ability to quickly “read” a variety of subtle social signals enables us to perceive the social class of others relatively early in social exchanges. Some of the markers identifying higher status individuals are particularly intriguing:

In general, powerful individuals are less dependent on other people, and tend to show more nonverbal disengagement, than less powerful people do. Studies find, for example, that high-power individuals, compared with low-power individuals, focus their gaze less on other people (particularly people of high status; Ellyson, Dovidio, & Fehr, 1981; Hall, Coats, &Smith LeBeau, 2005), are more likely to interrupt, and tend to speak at greater length—behaviors that reflect a relative lack of attention to others (DePaulo & Friedman, 1998).  …

For example, a meta-analytic review of status and nonverbal behavior found that, in comparison with lower-SES individuals, upper-SES individuals speak in ways that are less attentive to the audience, for example, making fewer turn-inviting pauses (Hall et al., 2005).

A second study also done at Berkeley suggests that upper-class people feel less compassion in response to suffering than lower-class people.

Our findings suggest that when a person is suffering, upper-class individuals perceive these signals less well on average, consistent with other findings documenting reduced empathic accuracy in upper-class individuals (Kraus et al., 2010). Taken together, these findings suggest that upper-class individuals may underestimate the distress and suffering in their social environments.

And this recent study suggests that the individualistic norms of college classes, norms that work well for competitive, independent work styles of middle-class students, may undermine the academic success of first-generation college students.

These studies  share the limitations of any research done with undergraduates in “lab” settings rather than in day-to-day interactions.

But they are suggestive.

So much of education policy and practice focuses on “fixing” poor and working- class kids.  Might not we also begin to speak openly about how class privilege may limit development of such basic human traits as compassion for suffering?

Some things I’ve been wondering about as I’ve been reading this new body of work:

Policy makers have long been touting the importance of teachers’ academic preparation as key to closing achievement gaps (and academic preparation might is, indeed, essential), but might, for example,   those privileged young people in Teach for America be missing key relational qualities that could be essential to building safe and supportive classrooms for poor kids?

Might all the teachers who regularly come here to defend Ruby Payne ( here, here, and here, for example) and her tired Culture of Poverty approach to “understanding” low income kids might come to understand that merely teaching poor and working-class kids to emulate mythical middle class culture is selling them short? And that understanding poor kids in our classrooms is never only about learning lists of things about “them” but also about our own deeply-engrained inability to see how our own actions disadvantage others?

I wonder about how often first-generation college students have written of their sense of “just not belonging” in academia, and how that sense of unease may be fed by middle-class propensity for “behaviors that reflect a relative lack of attention to others”.    I know that even now, as a highly-educated middle-aged woman, I still catch myself feeling that I need to earn the recognition of higher-status people I meet, that it will take effort to get on their radar.    It’s so easy to take this personally, to wonder if I’m still talking too loudly and too assertively and too working-class.  But it may well also be about them.

There would seem to be any number of fruitful lines of research suggested in these initial recent studies.

What might a field of “Middle Class Studies” include?

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