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?
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