Monday, April 6, 2015

The Hidden Injuries of Class.

A few weeks ago, This American Life, told a story about young persons of color who had attended public school and not learned a whole lot. They were then given the opportunity to study at a good, predominantly white college. Most of them flunked out. They were overwhelmed by the alien environment. They felt themselves to be utterly incompetent. They were much too ashamed to talk to anyone to ask for help. They lacked the most elementary self esteem they would have needed to survive in a mainly white, middle-class, intellectual environment which felt utterly strange and incomprehensible to them.
The students I teach at a State college are overwhelmingly white. They are there because tuition is a lot lower than it is at all the private colleges in the area or even at the State University. They belong to what is now referred to as the middle-class but they definitely belong to the lower strata of that middle-class. They have limited financial resources. They are not well prepared for college. Many of them do not write a decent paragraph in English. Many of them have difficulty reading academic texts because their vocabulary is very limited. They know a good deal about popular culture, but few of them are readers of books. Not too many of them are familiar with current affairs, or with the outlines of the history of our country and our world.
A lot of them are bright people who, given half a chance, could do good work of some kind. Not all of them will have that chance.
But their greatest handicap lies in the rarely considered class distinctions in contemporary American society. To illustrate that, here is the story of Timothy.
Just before spring break I assigned a midterm paper. It had to be all of two pages long and discussed issues, some of which we had been talking about in class – the problems of having a functioning democracy when large portions of the electorate are ill-informed about political matters and are not in a position to make reasonable choices between candidates.
The papers were to be submitted in the last class before Spring Break. Timothy did not give me a paper. When asked, he told me he would send it to me that afternoon by email. I sent him a message when I did not receive this paper, but did not hear any more from him.
After class at the end of spring break I asked him what had happened. It turned out that the paper he promised to send me had never been written. Then he went off to spring break somewhere warm. He saw my question on his email when he returned, but felt I had sent it too long ago. He could not respond. It was certainly embarrassing to confess that he had never written his paper. He could not really talk to me about it and so he did nothing at all.
Not writing an assigned paper does not strike me as such a terrible thing that it should have been impossible for him to ask me for an extension, or even to make up some family tragedy to excuse himself. But from Timothy's perspective the distance between him and me is so enormous, that it did not seem possible for him to talk about the whole matter.
I am almost four times as old as he is and that makes a difference. But the age difference is not the only thing that makes it hard for him to take an active part in his own education. He is clearly finding himself in an alien environment where he does not seem to have much agency. I do not think that his situation is as dire as that of the students of color mentioned in the beginning of this blog. But his problems are not unlike theirs. He is not oppressed by racial prejudice – he is white. But the class differences between him and his teachers, and the administrators in the college are serious enough for him to not be able to take charge of his education, to ask questions when he is confused, or to ask for an extension if he cannot get his work done.
But how is he going to learn anything if he can't ask any questions of his teachers, if having questions appears to be so terribly embarrassing that he can't let on? How can he make useful educational choices if the entire project seems so strange and in some way incomprehensible?
Timothy's class problem is, of course, also an element in the failure of the students mentioned at the beginning of this blog. It is not just their skin color, and all the restrictions and limitations attached to that, but also the deep divide between classes in the US today that makes attending college terribly difficult or perhaps impossible for them.
It is high time that we should admit and carefully consider the class problem we have.