02 July 2008

The Night Gallery: The Riddle of Accomplishment


When I received my cream-colored letter with the Latin crest announcing my acceptance to Prestigious Eastern University in the spring of my senior year of high school, my college counselor and several faculty members were ecstatic. My high school generally sent one student per year to the Ivy League, and that year I was that student. Other teachers, however, had very strange responses to my putative success. One remarked sourly that his daughter had wanted to go, but they couldn’t afford it. Another cautioned that students he knew who had gone east for college had ended up dropping out, drunk at the Student Union, failures.

At the time, a strange vibration told me not to pursue these odd utterances that were neither congratulations nor outright dismissals. Later, of course, I recognized the soon-to-be familiar cadence of ressentiment, for attaining something that was, for a number of reasons, thought to be beyond me. Berkeley was acceptable, an eastern university covered in ivy less so. Even though no one ever said so to my face, my admittance to a prestigious university was chalked up, on the part of some teachers and students, to an undeserved opportunity, due to affirmative action. And while I have no doubt that I was admitted to an Ivy League school in part because of affirmative action, the simple fact of the matter was that I was also a dedicated high school student with a GPA of 4.2 (factoring in AP courses and college language courses in French and German taken in the summers after my sophomore and junior years). Empirical evidence, however, doesn’t stand a chance against impression.

Now, of course, students of color cringe when affirmative action is mentioned. And many of the students of color at Prestigious Eastern University at the time didn’t need it, frankly. They had gone to Choate-Rosemary Hall and Exeter and Andover and Deerfield, they had mastered the techne of collegiate learning that would propel them first to the Ivy League and beyond to Wall Street or Yale Law or Harvard Med. Acting affirmatively has a bad reputation, is code for unqualified, which itself is code for “not one of us.” When a lesbian student this past fall went to the Dean to complain about my course (which I have written about esoterically here), she did not take issue with the readings, assignments, or classroom methodology. She claimed, simply and transparently, that I was “unqualified” to teach at Prestigious Lil’ College.

The racial, sexual, and gendered dynamics of that claim, of qualification, are hard to mine, for there is, to borrow TV Reed’s memorable phrase, a lot of traffic at that intersection. What I think my student sensed, on some intuitive level, was that I thought it was all bullshit, the meritocratic pablum that students at élite institutions are spoon fed, and that deeply threatened her sense of worth. The simple fact of the matter is, in the end, I went to a better college than she did. I know from “qualification,” and yes, I do think it is bullshit.

Am I saying here that all students are equally endowed with intellectual skill? Obviously, no. However, at the risk of sounding overly cynical, most of what passes for talent in the university is actually mimicry, mimesis, rote learning, repetition and training and being told what to do and learning to meet expectations. Do you remember when you figured out how to phrase arguments in ways that pleased your teacher? Do you recall the moment when writing essays became about ideas and not sentence structure? Or the first time you used a sophisticated word casually and informatively? These are signs of education, of knowledge, of intellect. But they are taught, learned, and repeated skills. If you have no one to teach you these signs however, then whatever innate intelligence one has goes largely unrecognized and untrained. Although I had read the name for years, the first time I said Goethe aloud, in a graduate seminar no less, I mispronounced it. No one in my household was a dedicated reader of Goethe, you see, nor for that matter, a speaker of German.

This does not mean that nothing is going on in those gilded heads lining classrooms in prestigious colleges and universities. But the institution’s expectations and measurements of performance are grounded in a number of presuppositions that precede the university on the primary and secondary levels: quiet space for studying; supportive, motivated parents; food, shelter, and health care; safe streets and classrooms; money for materials, training, and tutoring; and perhaps most importantly, a recognition that education is a laudable goal, and flowing from this, an agreement with or at the very least an acquiescence to the structure of power represented by schooling.

Middle- and upper class students, those with material privilege and a knowledge of the shape of structured education (study habits, mastery of written and spoken language, advanced literacy in testing and assessment methodologies), come to school prepared to excel on the institution’s terms. Conversely, for many working class people, schooling and the schoolhouse are antagonistic spaces. The degree to which this is true for all working class people (or, for that matter, middle- and upper class students) is debatable, and over the past few weeks I have struggled with my colleagues in my teaching seminar to define the antagonistic relationship working class students bring to the classroom, an animosity grounded in unequal power relationships rather than meritocratic talent per se.

One of the seminar coordinators graphed the differing value orientations between working class and middle-class populations thusly:

Middle-Class/Working Class
Becoming/Being
Achieving/Belonging
Individual/Group

Thought/Action
Abstract/Concrete
Decorum/Practicality

Past—Future/Present
Entitlement/Undeserving

This graphing I found intriguing, both for what it said about how the expectations of the university are grounded in class, and class privilege, as well as where I myself might fit into the above structure. Working class people do not value the same things that middle- and upper class society does, or at least not in the same ways, which then leads to a disconnect with schooling, the primary engine for acculturation into dominant standpoints that are arguably necessary for successful social integration (success here measured by attainment of credentials and financial security).

One of the things that was fascinating to me was the extent to which seminar participants did not want to engage with class, but rather were distracted or drifted off into discussions of race or gender. This was symptomatic of many things, not the least of which is a paucity of class analyses in American history, politics, and social formation. We are sexualized, gendered, racialized beings, but like to think of ourselves as relatively classless, which is why someone who lives in a fourth-story walk-up in East Harlem and another in an apartment on the Upper East Side can both describe themselves, without irony, as "basically" middle-class.

But where does the working class academic fit into the schema above? Do we bridge the gulf between analytical standpoints, or do we leave one for the other? Many academics either play at classlessness, or offer apologetic mea culpas to their classed condition, both of which are rather annoying. I, for one, am not classless. I am a middle-class person from a working class background, who mastered the art of mimesis in pursuit of what I thought was important, driven out of the natal home by gayness. And for as much as I could appreciate the elegance of the graphing, the humanistic and communal values associated with working class people, I know, at least from my patch, that there was also a lot of human misery, which of course is why working class people pursue university degrees in the first place, chasing an escape, drinking the Kool-aid their middle- and upper class peers imbibed long ago, like mother’s milk.

Where we get stuck is in thinking that class, like other social conditions, is inescapable, that accomplishment means nothing, that we are always raced, gendered, sexualized, or classed in ways that are biological or natal rather than social, and therefore malleable. Or alternatively, that our accomplishment taints us, and we seek to recover the original house of love and familial warmth. For working class academics, the struggle is in keeping it real, and by that I don’t mean being street, I mean recognizing that we are compromised agents of hegemony, we have drunk the Kool-aid, but still might have something to offer our working class students besides punition and antagonism. The question becomes: is the very task of teaching someone to think, not the beautiful gilded lilies of places like PLC but the working mothers and foremen and the eager new Americans in classrooms at places like Cold City U., therefore an act of class betrayal in and of itself, if the thinking is grounded in class inequality? What are we teaching and how?

10 comments:

Dr. Crazy said...

This post and your last are so fantastic. Still thinking, and I'll probably post something on my blog in response once I've processed more.

Lesboprof said...

I am with Crazy. I wonder if our class backgrounds and our personal experiences with success at the "mimesis" and Kool-Aid drinking that draws us to one another in the virtual world. Similarly, I am drawn to working class students in my classes...showing them that this is a game, with hidden rules, and that I can help translate.

Anonymous said...

This is so compelling for me because I have a friend who defines herself as working class but on a scholarship was accepted to a "Seven sisters" school for undergrad and Ivy-ish (west coast style) for grad school. I, on the other hand would view myself as middle class, only because many of my family members had some sort of "degree" (engineering, nursing, secretarial school - if you go back a couple of generations), but I went to public schools all the way through the PhD. I desire to teach in a public instition because I love them and the students make sense to me, I understand their questions and problems. My friend teaches in a public uni (I teach elite private - the only job offer I had) and she hates dealing with her students and longs for a job like the schools she went to. Recently we've been trying to understand each other's views of teaching and gotten into heated arguments, but your post has made me wonder. thanks.

Professor Zero said...

It's interesting - I'm not at all working class but I can't handle elite private at all and according to this graph I have working class values. I've got the other skills and can impart them but I guess my impatience with people who place too much value in them (in my view) is in itself a symptom of class privilege?

Werther said...

This has been awesome, this and your post on graduation day, which had me shouting "Amen."

i'm an immigrant, was raised in a not-so-nice city on the margins of new york and come from a background of, well, economic "fragility." yet i went to an elite boarding school and small liberal arts college.

I feel that my education had deluded me into a false sense of classlessness. When I graduated a couple of years ago, I very quickly began feeling that I had just undergone a kind of class expulsion, that the good times were sort of over. So I was glad to find you describing this and related phenomena.

In general I really appreciate the perspective of your commentary.

Anonymous said...

What a great post! Thank you, Oso Raro.

To answer your question--"What are we teaching and how?"--why not begin by making "working class" a part of students' understanding of who they are and where they come from?

Like your East Harlem resident, my Southern California community college students, in a campus that's 65% Chicano/Latino with an average family income of less than $40K/year, see themselves as "basically middle-class."

--Philip

Jonathan said...

The rhotic version of "Goethe" is arguably mispronounced, but the German pronunciation has its own problems.

I can remember at various points mispronouncing "Pepys," "Laforgue," (?) "Méliès," and probably for some reason placing the emphasis on the second syllable in "Goedel." (Needless to say, these were not household names, etc.)

Anonymous said...

This probably my favorite blog and many of the comments come close to home. I have to comment since much of the commentary reinforces what you have said. Most of academe, however well meaning, does not grasp the significance of class in the perception of reality, experience of the world and the plausibility of various avenues of existence. I was also accepted into an Ivy League, but not an obvious choice, aside from academically. The upper and lower middle class as well as the working class are mentioned but we tend to stay away from the "rich" and those who live in abject poverty. I lived in abject poverty, but took my scholarship worked, usually two jobs for about 40 or more hours a week to pay for living expenses and operated without a safety net. That was my only choice. I came from a high school with welding and hair dressing with a high failure and drop out rate. University was something I would have to work for not on the academic side but on the financial side. It's always been that way, but the differences are very acute once you get to the end of graduate school and the tenure-track, where I am now. Few people have had to make that much of an effort and the huge gap between the majority of faculty and my experience is so great that they would never understand. The faculty does want to understand on a scholarly level but certainly will never come close to grasping the reality of this difference. I choose not to disclose that information rather than be branded.

Anonymous said...

This essay resonates strongly with me. As an Exeter graduate, and as a Black woman from the underclass, not working class, I know I am "tool" for hegemony. I am an example to be hoisted in proffering the capitalist myth that hard works yields fruit. Indeed it does. For some, not for all. Crossing the class line is not easy. It is not without resentment from some left in the underclass. It is not without guilt for not being able to extricate loved ones from the jaws of capitalism. It is certainly not a free ride!
Anonymous

G said...

this struck me at a conference the other day - at a private uni where people paid over 80k a year were talking about literature in a way that could be interesting to less than 2% of the population and it dawned on me how in the very near future the study of literature was only going to be available to the privileged - some might say it already is - taught by the privileged, and thus a means of accessing the world, relating to the world, will become even further from our grasp.
it made me think clearly for the first time that perhaps my goals should be finding other ways to make literature, the study of, the understanding of, more relevant than in it's current institutionalised way... or perhaps, befitting class and sexuality, a foot inside and outside many camps...