Earlier this month, an article on the website of Youngtown State University’s Center for Working-Class Studies struck a cord. The post is written from a faculty member’s perspective and describes the effects of class difference on attitudes toward education among students at Youngtown, a public regional university, and at Georgetown, the private Jesuit liberal arts institution in Washington DC. The author, Sherry Linkon, discusses the different kinds of cultural capital the two groups of students bring to the classroom. The Youngstown students “have first-hand experience with jobs that offer too little dignity or income, and they value higher education because they hope it will give them better choices…Just getting to college feels like an accomplishment for some; doing well sometimes seems out of reach.” The Georgetown students, on the other hand “come to college already steeped in elite culture. In high school, they read and wrote papers about postmodern literature and existential philosophy. They studied multiple languages and took AP courses in half a dozen subjects.”
Near the end of her piece, Linkon notes, “For working-class and poverty-class students, college often feels like a site of struggle, while elite students see it as a stage for performance.” During my ten plus years as a faculty member at ASU, my classroom is often a site of such struggle for my students: the single moms who have to keep their cell phones out in case the day care provider calls; the many students who work 40 hour/week jobs while taking 18 credits; the thirty-somethings who are going to college for the first time because they have finally saved up enough to pay even the relatively low in-state tuition; the first generation children of immigrants for whom going to college is as foreign as the spoken there. I’ve struggled too – especially with designing assessments that are meaningful and rigorous but reasonable for this student body without lowering my high expectations and aspirations for these students.
Due to the tragic and I believe unjustified deaths of several Black young men at the hands of law enforcement recently, the country is finally talking about race again in some meaningful way, including discussion of “White privilege.” My colleague Jason Scott reminded me that class privilege (which often correlates with race, but not always) extends to a kind of educational privilege as well: “It’s not so much realizing the different demands on their time as it is the way in which education has always been presented to them as a necessary task that must be endured – like a low-paying job – rather than an opportunity to blossom as human beings.” Many of our working class students do not have the privilege of viewing education as a means to something beyond a higher paying job; for many that is all it is. Perhaps the best thing that I can do as an educator is to instill in these students the idea that education is a means toward many unknown ends, including both the higher paying job and “the opportunity to blossom as human beings,” rather than a hurdle one is required to jump.
Photo of Georgetown University from WikiMedia, GNU Documentation License
Photo of ASU Commencement by Andy Lisle
Photo of hurdler Larry Wade by Flickr user Doublepillar, CC license