Learning for Learning’s Sake…

It was yet another conference paper on first-generation college students, and yet another lament about how “they  don’t value learning for learning’s sake”.  “They want to know how everything relate to careers”, the presenter said.   “They complain about having to take courses like the history of pop music”, she sighed. I’d long ago stopped making snarky tabulations on my notepad every time she emphatically said “they” when talking about these students.

During the Q and A, I sat on my hands for awhile and then asked what the middle-class students said about learning for learning’s sake.

But the study wasn’t about them.  So no one had asked. The assumption seemed simply to be that if students from working class backgrounds expressed frustration with courses, curriculum, or the relevance of what they were required to do, it was evidence of a flawed values system.

But someone else on the panel then spoke up. “It’s money that they value”, she said.  She cited studies of the value that middle-class kids place on their college education. For them, she said, the intellectual took a backseat to the  earning potential that a degree would confer.

The middle class didn’t value learning for learning’s sake, either.

I haven’t seen those studies, but am still somewhat amazed when Ph.D.s who often are in it for the love of learning are surprised that anyone else isn’t.

And when I see studies like this recently released report on the alarming rates of cheating among high school students, I wonder how anyone can still think that students anywhere are driven primarily by a hunger of the mind.

But I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again:  Middle class kids know how to intellectualize their complaints, how to feign interest, how to just stay quiet when it’s in their strategic interest to do so.  Working class kids may well wonder often and loudly why the hell they’re borrowing hundreds of dollars for a course on the history of pop music.

But learning what we’re teaching purely for the love of learning?

In my dreams.

Because if we really value learning, we have to value the learners, even when what we’re teaching isn’t self-evidently interesting to them, even if they’ve grown up within cynical times, even when they’re from backgrounds very different from our own.

…even if we have to be willing to look past the surface level differences to see the complicated lives withn which all of our students now contextualize their education.

Middle Class Privilege

The organization Class Action offers terrific resources on class and classism, and in their recent newsletter Building Bridges, they write of the important discourse sparked by Peggy McIntosh’s piece, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” (which you can easily find via Google, but since many of the copies on the web may be bit casual about copyright, I’m not linking here), even as they note that many of the items on her list are experienced by middle class whites, but not by lower income white people.

The exercise that Will Barratt and his colleagues developed that morphed into that “privilege meme” a few months ago was one take on developing a parallel class privilege list.

In the Building Bridges newsletter, the Class Action people offer another take on a middle class privilege list, They acknowledge that this list is far from definitive, given the many ways that race and gender complicate class privilege.

Thus, they invite others to contribute their own lists at <privilege at classism.org>. I’d invite you to cc me in the comments below.

Middle Class Privileges

  1. The “better people” are in my social class; I know this because they are the ones reported on and valued in the media and in school.
  2. People appear to pay attention to my social class; we set the standard.
  3. When I, or my children, are taught about history, people from my social class are represented in the books.
  4. I can swear, or dress in second-hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the laziness, poverty, or illiteracy of my class.
  5. The neighborhoods I can move to, where I feel “at home”, typically have better resourced schools.
  6. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization”, I am shown that people of my class made it what it is.
  7. I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their class.
  8. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my class.
  9. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my class.
  10. I am never asked to speak for all people in my class.
  11. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of poor and working class people who constitute the world’s majority without feeling in my class any penalty for such oblivion.
  12. My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people in other classes.
  13. I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odor will be taken as a reflection of my class.
  14. I can worry about classism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
  15. I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my class.
  16. If I have low credibility as a leader, I can be sure that my class is not the problem.
  17. I can read recipes and purchase whatever ingredients or appliances they might call for.
  18. I can invite my friends out for an evening and not have to think about whether they can afford it or not.
  19. I don’t need to worry about learning the social norms of others.

What else might you add as a manifestation of middle class privilege?

Straight Talk About Class

Ok, NOW, we’re talking about class, as Ali Eteraz writes (among many other important things)

Anytime the media wants to cast aspersions upon Obama, to diminish his chances to be elected, to give voice to smears against him, to suggest that he is a Muslim, or a black-nationalist, or a socialist, or a Eunuch, or some Chameleonesque mixture of all of those things, suddenly these concerns are put in the mouth of “the working class.”

Read the whole essay. It is worth the effort of a mouse click, and once you’re there you’ll keep reading.

Trust me.

Getting Past Class Stereotypes

I’m not interested in using this space to debate the merits of the presidential candidates, but I have a strong interest in dispelling stereotypes based on class.

I was interested, then, in Larry Bartels’ column in today’s NYT.   Bartels, the director of the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics at Princeton, writes, for example, that:

It is true that American voters attach significantly more weight to social issues than they did 20 years ago. It is also true that church attendance has become a stronger predictor of voting behavior. But both of those changes are concentrated primarily among people who are affluent and well educated, not among the working class.

While so many of us have been gratified by the more open and frank discussions about race that have been generated by this campaign, I wonder: what it will take to get to more informed deliberations about class?

Working Class Academics

Last week, The Chronicle published a poignant essay by Thomas Benton, a working-class academic who feels, at times, like a “class traitor” in his work at an expensive private college.

The article spurred excellent discussion among Dave, a sociologist; Wes a musician who wrote here and here; and Nathan, another musician, all of whom reflect on their own working class roots and their current work.

The life stories told in the posts and in comments that follow each are well worth a careful read.