The Burdens of Social Change

Today, I’m going to quote at some length from an article by Michelle Fine and April Burns, in the assumption that not everyone has access to academic journals.

Speaking of other articles in a special issue of the Journal of Social Issues on Social Class, Fine and Burns write:

“…We note a floating, under-articulated but consistent fantasy about economically oppressed people. The fantasy goes something like this: poor and working class people will see themselves as a collective, pool their subjugated wisdom and critique, organize, rise up, and slay the evil dragon of economic oppression. Within the fable, of course, there is bitter disappointment by scholars (ourselves included!) that “their” critique is not without complication. “They” contaminate it by believing in mobility. “They” voice critical consciousness, but it’s littered with shame and hopelessness, not action. Or, most distressing, “their” social critique boomerangs into self-blame or distancing as far as possible from others in like circumstances. If only, we seem to plead, “they” would realize the strength of the working class and stop victim blaming. Perhaps “we” have projected our own contradictions onto “them”. So, while “they” yearn for mobility, we “yearn” for a revolution (by them!”)

We witness this fantasy as a predictable, but not so useful, tendency within critical psychology toward reifying the poor/working class subject as the new hero. …yet the data presented here suggest that the working-class subject is aware of inequity and yearns for a better life. She is almost too tired to slay the dragon, much less get all the other women in the neighborhood to join her for a collective slay.

This academic class fantasy of the under-developed working-class critical spirit places an enormous burden on poor and working-class youth in America, for whom no social movement equivalent to feminism or civil rights, queer liberation, or even disability rights, exists outside of the trade union movement. [data on decline in union membership]. In the United States, there is little pride in being poor or working class (Sennett and Cobb, 1972). It is still, here, a condition defined as “lack”. [A] significant area for research involves the study of the creation of critical identities in the absence of large-scale social movements.

I’ve been grappling with what a class-conscious pedagogy might look like. It is very common for educators to invoke Friere as a first response to the question of what poor and working class kids need.


And I’ve wondered, often, where else that conversation might go, as we wonder what complications might be expected as we adapt methods developed for adults in informal settings, to children in compulsory public school classrooms. I’ve wondered what Friere  might have had to say about identity formation in a global economy grounded in consumerism, about convincing poor children to not want the very things that seem so central to others’ contentment.

Paul Willis recently wrote that it is harder now than ever to talk with working-class kids about a positive class identity because now, more than ever, they can access the symbolism of global materialism (music, clothing, fast-food) and draw their identity from these things, not from the social position afforded them by the work done by their parents.

So, what does a pedagogy of class look like, in the absence of much of any conversation about class, let alone a social movement toward class equity? How do we share with poor and working class kids the “enormous burden” of social change?

Fine, M. & Burns, A. (2003). Class notes: Toward a critical psychology of class and schooling. Journal of Social Issues 59(4). 841-860.

Willis, P. (2004). Twenty five years on: Old books, new times. In N. Dolby and G. Dimitriadis (Eds.) Learning to Labor in New Times. New York: Routledge Farmer. pp.167-196.

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