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.

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.