He Used to Have a Mullet

I’d thought that I was pretty well attuned to the depth and the forms that classism can take in schools and colleges.

And then, Inside Higher Education, one of the most widely-read education websites in the country, published a cartoon that was among the most classist things that I’ve seen in a long time, and when many of us objected, many well-educated people jumped in to defend it.

The cartoon is no longer available. I’d posted it here for a time after the cartoonist, Matthew Henry Hall, announced that in response to the reaction he’d gotten to the original, he’d created an alternative, which IHE published later that day. I believed — and still do — that having the original available would enable dialogue about the classism that IHE and Hall missed.

But both Matthew Henry Hall and the editor of IHE have contacted me to ask me to take down the original cartoon because I have no right to publish it. I pick my battles carefully, so have taken it down.

Here is what’s been changed from the original: The “101% Redneck and proud” t-shirt has been replaced by an “American Idle” t-shirt. The beer cans have been replaced by soda cans. The “Monster Trucks” and “Girls” and “More Girls” magazines have been replaced by “Star” and “People”. The beer spill is gone — apparently soda drinkers have better housekeeping skills. I’m not clear about the significance of his clothing, but he’s traded shorts for long pants, and is now wearing a different style shoe.

And, the mullet is gone.

We have (canned) beer, trucker magazines, a “redneck” t-shirt, and a mullet.

And we have a professor calling this student to thank him for not showing up in class.

And here’s what Hall, the cartoonist said in the message that he posted after getting many emails and after seeing the comments that were posted with the cartoon:

I in no way, ever intended the character in the above cartoon to be emblematic for working poor students. That’s a reading I’d not considered. I simply wanted to depict a fictional character who was a difficult student. That’s it. His level of wealth, be it high, low or somewhere in the middle, wasn’t something I’d even considered.

I’ll take him at his word.

But I’d guess that I’d much rather than he (and the editors of IHE who decided to publish this cartoon) were fully aware of how, when he wanted to depict a student that readers would immediately recognize as “difficult”, he chose a particular set of cultural markers that clearly signaled working-class. Right down to the mullet.

And I wish, too, that Hall and the editors of IHE had any sense of how many of us had no idea what we were getting into when we we aspired to college, how naive we were in our beliefs that it was going to be about big ideas and a love of learning and doors opening before us. I wish that they had any idea how often we instead sensed that our professors, the people in the financial aid office, our roommates, and those other carefully-groomed students in our classes were thinking exactly what the professor in this cartoon at least said out loud: That we didn’t belong, that we were annoying, that college was, essentially, for those who already “got it” and the rest of us deserved the snickers that we just knew trailed behind us — whether we actually heard them or not.

But they didn’t, and neither did a number of people commenting on the IHE website, who felt compelled to teach those of us who did object that we were “morons”, humorless, “wusses” and in the same camp as radical Muslims who objected to Danish cartoonists’ depictions of them.

For example, “ST” completely missed that people were objecting to classism and took it upon himself to teach the rest of us why we were wrong to think that this was “reverse racism”. He went on to teach us that “rednecks” were responsible for the history of oppression of blacks.

Two posters established their “cred” on the subject by tracing their southern roots, but missed completely that this cartoon was about class, not geography.

A number of posters reminded us all that we’ve all had difficult students, and this was just tapping into that experience. They’re right, of course. There are students that we’d wish into the sections of our colleagues. And any number of my difficult students have been wealthy, privileged, and entitled, but no one would *ever* create a cartoon about them. The latest announced on the first day of class that he was gifted and to then pointedly ignored me for the rest of the term.

Others talked about how students like this — who we see, by the way, engaged only in out-of -class endeavors–was obviously choosing to be anti-intellectual and therefore didn’t belong in college.

It seemed pointless to remind these folks that fraternity keg parties, the term-paper mills, the cheating rings at ivy-league colleges are hardly evidence that the middle-class comes to college for intellectual enlightenment alone.

IHE didn’t recognize the classism. Hall didn’t recognize how he was drawing on particular stereotypes as a cheap shortcut to “difficult student”. The rabid commentors didn’t even get that this was about class.

Ironically, I’m spending my time this week reading a collection of essays by people who were the first in their families to attend college. What strikes me about this collection is this: In these times when we promise kids that the world will open to them if only they do well in school, the authors of these essays had to go to exceptional lengths to get themselves to college, and once there, to find the means to stay. To a person, they had to fight teachers, counselors, peers, and sometimes family for the right — a right that they never, ever took for granted — to get a college education. Had they simply conformed, smiled, and played “nice”, they’d never have made it.

And we have the data (IHE itself regularly publishes notices of such studies) that many of them don’t make it, in spite of strong academic credentials and an initial will to become highly educated.

But I guess that the very idea many of the newcomers to college so often find themselves facing obstacles that require that they constantly question whether the fight is worth it, whether they do really deserve to be there, whether they’re selling out to stay — those ideas are, are in the end, too complicated to depict in any simple line drawing.

But certainly, there’s room to talk about this somewhere?