While I normally clench my teeth when reading  anything that seems to be essentializing class (“middle class people are like …. working class people are like…”), I’m instead nodding at parts of  this post on the Civic Fabric blog that speaks to how middle-class and working-class parents may work from different conceptualizations of the term “individualism”.

I read Kussorow’s (cited in the CF post) book American Individualisms: Child Rearing and Social Class in Three Neighborhoods a few years ago and liked much of it. I paused to highlight this passage:

The basic difference in these forms of individualism lies in the Queens [working class] parents’ conceptions of the child’s self as a singular “unit” against the world, as contrasted to the view held by Parkside [upper middle-class] parents of the child’s self as a singular unit “opening up” or out into the world.  A toughening, hardening, thickening of the boundaries of the self is thus part of the process of child development for Queenstown parents  … For Parkside parents, the socialization of soft indvidualism involves a more fluid conception of the self in which the child is encouraged to loosen the self, express feelings, unfold, and open out into the world.

But I think that I might read this through different lenses than some others might.

I think of my own parents who, from the moment of my birth,  had aspirations that I would be “better” than them.  I think of how they knew, at some level, that I was headed for situations in which being tough and tenacious would serve me infinitely better than would coming to  understand myself as a  gently unfolding flower.

Given the circumstances of their own lives, they had to have had some sense  that I’d face situations in which I would be positioned against the worlds  they hoped I’d enter.

And they were right.

I look back to my own schooling for any evidence available my parents that they could let their (and my) guard down as they steered me toward the middle class.  I believe that my parents sensed, as we did as students, that many of our teachers saw working with us as evidence of their own failed ambitions and that they blamed our parents for our many shortcomings.

They had to understand that it was unlikely that anyone would be waiting with open arms as I first stepped into their social terrain.  They had to understand that the odds were against me.

So while I’m intrigued by the civic questions in CF’s post about class differences in the readiness to embrace educational change (and share his intrigue with questions of how digital learning might better serve poor and working class kids), I want to pivot from his recommendation that perhaps the parents of these kids shouldn’t retain local control of their schools.

What if working class parents’ lives weren’t shaped by circumstances that require toughness and hardness?  What if educators who are puzzled that working class children don’t talk readily about their feelings understood that their parents’ days are laced with frustration and humiliation — and that no one wants to hear about that?

What if, rather than asking parents “what do you think of this idea that we assume is best for your children”, they instead sometimes asked “what do you want for your children and how can we work together on that?”

How would working class parents raise their children then?

3 thoughts on “

  1. John Mullaney October 16, 2008 / 6:02 pm

    Thanks so much for your insight and intriguing question. As the post indicates, I am engaged in the work of philanthropy which is trying to do more effective grantmaking. The questions I raise are the result of convergence of my work but also my role as citizen in a town with three intersecting social and economic classes. The result has been a school system that despite many tries and efforts continues to fare poorly on standardized test scores and which produces a significantly high number of students who are ill-prepared for college and too many that need remediation when attending Community College. I do not have the answers, but I think that Clayton Christensen’s challenge to the ways schools conduct will help schools better address this intractable problem of differing expectations that class and cultures bring to too many school districts in this country.

  2. janevangalen October 17, 2008 / 1:01 pm


    Thanks for coming by.

    It’s relatively rare that your district is serving children from such broad backgrounds. I wonder how the children all make sense of one another, and from there, now they understand the circumstances of their own lives.

    Does anyone talk about that directly?


  3. John Mullaney December 8, 2008 / 9:09 pm


    Not having children in the district myself, I was interested to know what the community thought. The foundation supported a community blog called “Community Diaries” which included a section on the schools. The conversations attracted a lot of people who appear to represent the voice of the minority parents. One parent self identified as from the “farmer community” and was later elected to the school board. The blog seems to peak when there are issues in town, but the conversations have subsided dividing around implementation of an International Bacalaureate program. http://www.communitydiaries.org/oberlin

    It is not an easy job for the Superintendent.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s