The Costs of Being Upper Middle Class

I want to read more about this researcher’s work, but this newspaper article on relatively high levels of distress among affluent youth caught my eye.

The researcher, Suniya Luthar, says that

upper-middle-class adolescents reported far more incidents of substance abuse, anxiety and depression than those in inner cities and the general American teen population.

She tells the reporter that it has been hard to find funding for her research, because few people think that the problems of rich kids are worth studying.

Ellen Brantlinger made similar points in her poignant case studies of “the winners” in high school who fared less well as young adults in Dividing Classes.

There are at least two things at work here that intrigue me:

First is the tendency of the press and academic community to local psycho-social problems primarily within “at risk” kids in poor and working class homes, in spite of how often studies like this show otherwise.

But second, is that the “problems of rich kids” are part of the story of how class works in America. We talk too little about the ways in which intensified competition for too few opportunities affect kids trying just to get in the game, but we’ve hardly talked at all about the costs for kids trying to hold their places there.

We can’t understand class without understanding both.

I wrote in a an article a few years ago about how seldom educational researchers “study up” to the upper-middle classes or the wealthy.

In part, I suspect, the children of powerful families are more protected from the scrutiny of researchers than are kids in poor and working class schools.

But I wonder, also, whether we’ve even been interested in what we might find there beyond the high test scores? Even as we insist that test scores can’t capture the full educational experiences of kids on the margins, do we have a lot more to learn about what lurks beneath the accomplishments of the poster children of achievement in upper-middle class schools?

Spoiling a Good Party

In her chapter in The Lost Dream of Equality: Critical Essays on Education and Social Class, Beth Kelly returns several times to Patricia Williams’ encouragement to find the strength to “spoil a good party” by speaking against taken-for-granted privilege. Kelly writes this in the context of remembering an incident when a professor said incredibly classist things to the laughter of other students. And Kelly didn’t speak up.

She writes that “Especially for those of us whose lives are deeply rooted in poverty, and who retain poverty in memory long after we have obtained some measure of the financial security and comfort that was denied to our parents, it can be humiliating to tell these stories”.

Someone that I read recently noted that when people of color, women, or gays and lesbians began speaking out in classes, at work, or at actual and metaphorical parties, they were connected at least peripherally to some broader social movement that had already started that conversation elsewhere. Classism seems a different animal: there is no broader social movement, no simmering moral outrage, no alliances across class differences, no representations of class conflict in popular culture to spark deliberations.

More commonly , there is simply each of us, one by one, and our stories of childhood and family.

And those can be raw and painful stories to tell, especially when our hearts are pounding and our mouths are going dry because someone has said something, again, that reminds us of how invisible their class privilege is.

So, I didn’t say anything, again, when I sat in a meeting a few weeks ago listening to a lovely woman segue from a politically informed critique of high oil prices to her worry that “our generation’s” retirement plans would be curtailed by the global economy (she was particularly sad that unlike her parents, she probably couldn’t take annual trips to Europe for granted). I didn’t say anything about how my mother is counting her dwindling assets from selling her small house and calculating the number of months she can afford to stay in her low-rent assisted living center (not many). There are very few choices for her when the money is gone.

And I bit my lip as, in another meeting, a very young colleague monopolized the social chatter over lunch by pressing everyone else for advice about investing in rental property (this in one of the more inflated real estate markets in the country), assuming that everyone at the table did own investment property. At his age. I didn’t remind him then –or a few weeks later when he supported action that would mean higher tuition — that most of our students are so deeply in debt that they’ll likely never own their own homes.

And I didn’t dash off the outraged letter to the editor of the magazine that I had picked up in an airport, in which the author of an article on reinventing oneself at middle age encouraged me to not feel guilty for investing my share of the “unprecedented” inheritance that my generation can expect on my own dreams. “How dare you assume that you and your inheritance represent your generation?” I seethed. But I didn’t write the letter.

So I teach. And now I blog. And I aspire to be part of generating richer public discourse about such things.

In part, I do this as part of my broader commitment to social justice.

In no small part, I do this because I’m weary of the puzzled stares when I do tell my stories.

What will it take to generate broader public conversation about social class in America?

Over-Achievement, Salvation, and Alienation

While I’ve been away, I’ve been catching up on reading the ever-growing stack of books on my desk. I have been reading and re-reading sections of Telling our Lives: Conversations on Solidarity and Difference, a remarkable and complex account of a multiple-year conversation among three women from the working class: One African-American, one Jewish-American, and one Irish-American. One is lesbian, the other two straight; all are now academics who have been meeting around kitchen tables to record their many-layered conversations about their lives and work.

They each talk about early engagement in school, the development of a keen competitive edge, the centrality of early literacy in their identity development. They write:

For all three of us, public presentation of self, enacted within and through the discursive regimes of the school, would become extremely important. At the same time, however, outstanding academic performances indicative of high levels of public literacy do not tell the whole story. The flip side of our overachievement (and to some extent, its motivation) was marginalization — primarily class based, although other factors contributed. The houses we built of words always had shaky foundations.

I come back again and again to these questions of how to best serve children poised at the boundaries of class divides that they can’t possibly understand, sensing the precariousness of their footing, floating between the joy of accomplishment and the quiet sense of unease that they cannot name.

Certainly, we can educate the teachers of these children that so much is going on beneath the high test scores and competitive treks through the classroom library.

Yet I know of few teacher education programs that come even close to engaging in such work.

Working-Class Parents Get It Right

Annette Lareau’s book Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life has generated a great deal of discussion in courses, on listservs, in the popular press about contrasts in childrearing in upper-middle class homes and working class homes.

Lareau characterizes middle-class child-rearing as “concerted cultivation”. Children are often hyper-scheduled and goal-driven, raised with a sense of entitlement by parents who schedule their own lives around their offspring’s many activities and who coach their children in negotiating their way through institutions and organizations.

Working-class child-rearing is described as facilitating “natural growth”. Children engage in free play, and are more often responsible for their own entertainment. They are more likely to spend unsupervised time with siblings, cousins, and neighbors in driveway games or runs to the neighborhood store.

Journalists, students, and even some family scholars have argued the benefits of middle-class childhoods filled with structured activity and the intense personal involvement of parents.

Now, from the American Academy of Pediatrics (via the Family Involvement Network of Educators at Harvard) comes this report on the importance of ample time for free play for children’s physical, intellectual, social, and emotional health.

Will working-class parents now be given credit for “getting it” and perhaps even be held up as models for middle-class parents?