Why Can’t Those Working-Class Kids Value Education Like Our Middle-Class Kids?

It was another one of those moments when I didn’t know whether to launch into a lecture or to just smile and move on. It was an informal meeting of colleagues from different departments. The conversation had turned to our students, many of whom are first-generation college students. A woman — known on our campus to be particularly committed to issues of diversity — said “I just wish that they’d come to value learning for the sake of learning. They so often just seem to be here for the credentials”.

I didn’t lecture.

I didn’t hiss.

I did tell a story about a student in my course a few years ago who argued the same thing — that his high school kids from working class families didn’t “care” about learning the way that his middle class kids did. In class that day, I told another story about some research that I’d done in a private high school and the very creative but pervasive cheating that the kids told me about. I asked my student “so, how does an elaborate culture of cheating support your idea that middle class kids care more about learning for the sake of learning?”

My skepticism over whether differences in academic engagement can be explained by deep differences in the value placed on intellectual life is reinforced by this article from the SF Chronicle documenting rampant cheating among the highest achieving students in high school and college, and the students’ justifications of their cheating.

Similar articles are published fairly often in newspapers and education publications. I don’t think that it’s a secret anymore that many highly-ambitious kids casually cheat. Yet I have yet to hear any teacher or college faculty member talk about “them” and “their culture” as being sadly anti-intellectual, as they so often speak of working-class kids.

To justify class advantage, the respectability of the poor and working class must be denied.

My student’s response that day? He said that cheating at least showed that the middle-class kids valued the goals of education, and that made them better than his students who just didn’t bother to do their homework.

I didn’t lecture any more. I didn’t hiss.

My colleague’s response to my story about that high school teacher? A polite smile, and then a move to change the subject. I smiled back, and moved on.

But I do continue to marvel at the myths about class that are sustained in schools and colleges.

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6 thoughts on “Why Can’t Those Working-Class Kids Value Education Like Our Middle-Class Kids?

  1. Jeanne October 27, 2007 / 2:48 pm

    This post made me cry. I know, you’re an academic, and you’re not trying to make people cry. But I’ve been having a woman posting on my blog and she has said similar things. In one comment she wrote:

    “On the other hand, I am alienated from my working class community college students who see no need to learn about racial and gender equality because they do not feel it will help them get “real jobs.” How sad it is when people lust after things and ignore the spirit…”

    Later in the post, she claims that the working class disdain arts & humanities.

    This is such a common misconception among the middle class. I’m so glad that YOU see it and are calling people’s attention to it.

    Jeanne

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