Fitting In, and Being Made to Understand That You Don’t Belong

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”.

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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.

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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.

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5 thoughts on “Fitting In, and Being Made to Understand That You Don’t Belong

  1. Fran March 10, 2016 / 1:30 pm

    That’s actually really patronizing. I’m from a working class family and my issues wasn’t not knowing how to pick up the cutlery and pronounce bette noire, it was not knowing how to deal with the repressive implicit violence of politeness that the middle class utilize to get ahead. Working class people have a culture of open conflict and resolution. The middle class have a covert system of codified violence that represses open discourse regarding perceptions of reality. THIS is what stops working class children getting ahead, they fight openly and are branded violent, aggressive, unco-operative, vulgar, blah blah blah…….The immaculate filth of Machiavelli is THE historical and prevailing issue of class. But hey make it OUR problem of not knowing where the silverware is, why don’t you just give us working class a covert kick in the nuts in front of teacher whilst you’re about it?

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