Class is in session

Not long ago, I heard a business manager, someone who has recruited many new college graduates to her firm, describe the qualities she looked for in new hires. It’s not just about what the person learned in college, she said. It’s also about what they learned from their families.

From one angle, it’s a heartening sentiment. Of course success is not just determined by what someone learns in the controlled setting of a college classroom. Thankfully, we are not our transcripts or our thesis projects. Who you are matters, and your professors make only a small contribution to who you are.

From another angle, though, the manager’s statement is completely disheartening. Because among the things we learn (or don’t learn) from our families is how to negotiate the world of managers, and recruitment, and, well, negotiation. The more I thought about her words, the more I thought that my students who did not come from college-educated, economically privileged families would have a harder time after graduation than the ones who did. It was disheartening to think that you and I could do little to help students leap an enormous chasm of social class in America.

I have aimed in this blog to keep the focus on practical teaching issues: assignments, grading, course management. Making arguments about education’s social context was more the métier of an earlier blog, short-lived and seldom-read. But higher education’s role in consolidating class privilege just keeps coming up—in political news, in Chronicle essays, in research findings.

This is relevant to our work at King’s because social context is written into the college’s charter: King’s was founded “to educate the sons of coal miners.”  King’s,  now coed, currently enrolls few children of coal miners, but it does genuinely have an interest in educating students who come from the working class. This is a noble mission, aiming at the best American ideals. I can only imagine the pride that parents must feel, when they see their child become the first in their family to receive a college diploma. I imagine that they think, My child will not have to struggle. My child will prosper.

On average, that’s true. College graduates tend to earn more and have lower rates of unemployment than non-college graduates. But I worry nonetheless. I worry that, on average, students from humbler backgrounds will be hired into humbler white-collar jobs after graduation. I fear that they won’t become rich, simply because they aren’t already rich and thus do not know the ways of the rich. (Not that I think becoming rich is the most important thing. I do teach theology, after all.) The fear really is that they cannot become rich simply by doing what seems like the sensible thing: major in something practical, work hard, get good grades. These are not enough, despite our noble lies to the contrary.

In a particularly insightful and troubling essay on class in n + 1, Marco Roth contrasts two models of cultural capital. The first, which Roth associates with the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, sees cultural capital as a matter of consumerist preference. Here, being “elite” means having certain tastes and manners, or having the right credentials. The second, associated with the philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, sees cultural capital as earned through self-overcoming–the constant drive to expand one’s capabilities through confronting challenges.

In virtually all its sectors, our society has accepted the Bourdieuvian model. If indeed that businesswoman was talking about class markers, then she was expressing a version of it, too. To Roth, this acceptance fosters an ultimately tragic complacency and undermines any motive to treat education as a course for self-development. If I want to be successful, I just have to change my tastes and habits–I don’t actually have to learn anything. The problem is, even in a Bourdieuvian system, those who have had 22 years of exposure to the habits of the business and cultural elites will always have an advantage over those who have only had four. The sons of coal miners, even with a good higher education, will always lag behind the sons of coal barons.

The Ortegan model is closer to the ideals of King’s, even if it is far from contemporary social ideals or even the ideals of our students. Combining higher education with the blue-collar ethic of earning everything you have through hard work results in a strong sense of meritocracy. The challenge for educators is to try to instill it in students without glossing over the fact that we still live in Bourdieu’s world. It may take an act of self-overcoming just for us to make that point honestly to our students.

How does recognizing social class as a factor in education affect our courses’ learning goals? Should class matter to how a professor conducts … class?

Photo by stock.xchng user berenika / Creative Commons licensed.

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4 responses to “Class is in session

  1. Jeremy Simington

    Sometimes it’s fun to respond off the top of my head and make apologies/corrections/retractions later as needed. I don’t spend any time considering the social/class background of my students. I leave it up to Admissions to ensure that the College is meeting its mission by bringing in students from different class backgrounds in whatever proportions are appropriate. Once the students are here, it’s my job to educate them to the best of my ability without preference or prejudice. Yes, it’s true that students from a more privileged background will most likely lead a more privileged life post-graduation, but I’m not convinced that this is my concern as a professor, nor should I abuse my position as a professor to become a sort-of class avenger. I do care deeply about this in my private life and do what I can to promote a fairer society, but I think it’s incumbent upon me to try an compartmentalize this from my professional life, to a responsible degree at least.

    • No argument from me about how we can and must only teach the students who are actually enrolled and not some fantasy of who we imagine our students to be. That said, though, I can’t shake worrying about the fact that a classics major from Vassar stands a better chance of getting a job on Wall Street than does a first-generation finance major from King’s. I’m not sure what if anything it means for my teaching, but I feel that it can’t be completely ignored. I guess it matters on a bigger-picture level: do we, as a college, think of ourselves as preparing students for Wall St. (or whatever other professional Holy Grail) or for something else?

  2. I rather side with Ortega y Gasset and view his argument as perhaps the best rationale for study abroad (and study abroad funding!). In talking to Mollie Farmer, Director of Study Abroad, she has often commented that almost all of the King’s students who participate in study abroad report that their experiences become a major topic in their job inteviews. Empirical studies show that a study abroad experience enhances an individual’s creativity and problem-solving skills. Extrapolating from this data, study abroad should help an individual navigate situations that may significantly contrast with his or her family environment and perhaps compensate for differences in family structure. That said, study abroad is expensive and finances exclude some students from particular socio-economic backgrounds from these experiences. I might also hypothesize that many of the “practical” majors (business courses, the PA major, etc.) –with no offense to these majors intended–seem to attract students looking for a concrete job description. A student can become an accountant, a physician assistant, or an athletic trainer, but figuring out a job that goes with a history degree requires a bit more thought. Since, as Jon points out, many students at King’s–and their parents– are focused on employment and having a better financial situation than that of their parents, it might stand to reason that these students gravitate towards such more apparently pragmatic studies. However, often these majors come with a rigid schedule, pressure from accrediting agencies, and little room to deviate from the prescribed course of study. Because of the pressures of scheduling, students in these majors, often have less access to study abroad and other growth experiences outside of the classroom. For instance, it has taken some creative thinking to assist students in the PA program to make time for study abroad. So, if students in such majors have less time and–through a self-selection process–less money, the structure of the college education may actually increase the disparity among students from different socio-economic backgrounds.

    • Anne, you express my concerns almost exactly. The remark quoted at the beginning of the post came from an employer panel on liberal education. Other panelists mentioned study abroad as something that would make a job candidate attractive or “interesting.” (One employer gave the advice, “Be an interesting person.” My worry: interesting to whom?) It’s a chicken-and-egg problem: do students study abroad and then become attractive candidates for management positions, or do companies hire the kind of person who was always going to find study abroad appealing in the first place (i.e., students from, on average, more privileged backgrounds)?