Denying the Cultural Capital in the Classroom

In her article in The Diversity Factor (posted also on the Class Action website) Felicia Yeskel mentions that when she’s facilitating workshops about class, she often asks how many of the college-educated participants have friends who have not gone to or not graduated from college. Few hands go up, even when she conducts these workshops with those who teach others about diversity. Since only slightly more than a quarter of all adults over 25 in the U.S. have graduated from college, Yeskel sees this consistent response in her workshops as evidence of class segregation and classism.

As I read this, I thought about my colleagues (on my campus, and among more distant collaborators), and while we rarely talk openly about these things, I’d be surprised if more than a few of them know any poor and working-class people themselves.

Yet I’m equally sure that if I asked this question in my classes, many student hands would go up. There are students in my courses who know economic vulnerability; who know what it was like to be tracked in school; know what it’s like to wonder even after a long string of excellent grades, whether they really do belong in college; know what it’s like to be raised by parents who want their children to simultaneously love them yet fear becoming like them.

I know, too, that many of my students learned long ago to mask those parts of their lives, to act and think and perform as middle class, to suppress the language and mannerisms of home. Doing this, they have learned, is a condition of being seen as “educated”.

How did it come to be, that in so many courses — especially those focused on questions of diversity, justice, and equity — that these students have been silenced? How is it that we have come to believe that we as middle-class educators know more about disadvantage than our students?

Yeskel writes:

Professional middle-class people are harmed when they’re isolated from working-class people and taught they are superior to them and should be in charge. They are harmed by misinformation about how society works (they are sometimes less clued in to social and economic trends than working-class, poor or rich people), and by conditioning that shapes their behavior to a narrow “proper” range.

How do those teaching working-class kids come to see what they have to learn from those right there before them?

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