Education and Class

Phrasing class-talk in terms of job types or income sits well with the American discomfort with class-differentiation. Putting people into classes seems like it’s defining who they are, whereas defining them in terms of job describes what they do and defining them in terms of income is by what they are getting. Doing and getting are activities, and activities are changeable. Being is a state, and more time-stable (a term from linguist Talmy Givón), and therefore perceived as less inherently changeable. If you’re uncomfortable with describing someone as being something, a solution is to describe them as doing something or having something done to them. This fits with the American notion of equality of opportunity. We know we’re not all equal–and identifying people by their job or income acknowledges this. But by identifying people by what they get and do, there’s an implicit suggestion that they could have taken other opportunities and had better jobs with better pay. Or that they didn’t have the skills or talents [or connections] necessary to make the most of the opportunities presented to them–but in a culture in which we tell children that “anyone can grow up to be President”***, we tend to gloss over the things that make ‘equality of opportunity’ an unachievable myth.

Separated by a Common Language, Thursday, April 03, 2008

I’ve had one of those busy months that don’t allow me much time for reading around the blogs I enjoy. I missed this wonderfully complex post on Separated by a Common Language, for example. It was brought to my attention by the Education and Class blog, on May Day.

I am always trying to talk about class in academic settings and it’s always frustrating. If you talk about it in terms of anyone outside of academia you get a positive reception. Everyone agrees that poverty is unjust, education should be more accessible, the wealthy are often selfish and self-serving.

The trouble starts when you begin trying to understand class within the higher education system. The white elephant in the room is not simply the role higher education plays in maintaining inequity in the society at large, it’s the shocking inequities embodied in the system itself.

What’s rarely acknowledged is the way a very organic self-interest stands in the way of any substantive discussions of class inequity in higher education. At conferences, for example, you quickly notice that the professional conversation is dominated by professors at research one institutions.

It makes sense, given that they are the ones who have the time and support to write the articles and prepare the presentations that earn social capital. It also makes sense that they are going to be the least likely to acknowledge, must less challenge, their own remarkable privileges.

I think what higher education has to begin to talk about is the way it has long distributed resources unequally, giving the most to those who already have the most, at private and research institutions, and the least to those who have the least, at two-year and community colleges, to cite only the most obvious examples.

About Ray Watkins

I was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at Our Lady of the Lake Hospital. I grew up in Houston, as a part of what we only half-jokingly call the Cajun Diaspora. At a certain point during the Regan administration, I had to leave, so I served in the Peace Corps, Philippines, from 1987-89. I didn't want to return to the United States just yet, so I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for three years or so. I then moved back to Austin, Texas, where I had received my Masters Degree, and (eventually) began a Ph.D., which I completed in 1999. I spent a year at Temple University and then accepted a position at Eastern Illinois University where I worked until May of 2006. I now work exclusively on line (although that may change) for Johns Hopkins, the Art Institute Online, and Smarthinking.com. I can be reached most easily via email: raywatkins [that 'at' symbol] writinginthewild.com

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