Hating Students: A Case of Class Conflict
One thing about being a child and growing up in rural poverty is that you don’t know you are poor or even that you are rural. (That’s two things I guess.) But we lived in a bump in the road, Ora, South Carolina where the train no longer stopped, seven miles outside of Laurens, where the train stilled stopped. And our four room house contained no toilet or bathroom facilities. We bathed in a wash tub; for other needs we had a chamber pot, and my grandma’s outhouse, and the great outdoors. Till this day when I find myself in highly vegetated areas I have this urge to jump out of the car and relieve myself in the bushes.
In 1955 we moved to California, where my father joined a union, became a bricklayer and we acquired indoor plumbing. One of my brothers got a BA in Philosophy and went on to work for years as a postman until his back gave out. Then he worked as a clerk in a Radio Shack, and now he takes tickets at a Mexican American Flea market. Another brother became a brick layer, like our father, but decided to use his brains and became the executive director of the bricklayers and tile setters local for San Diego County. He works to qualify for medical insurance, but actually he is at 55 pretty much retired. Another brother worked for 12 years as a beer truck driver and then decided to use his brains. He now works for what he calls a computer firm and makes 100K per annum, more than doubling what I make as a writing instructor and all this with no sort of higher education degree.
I was a reader of course and well aware of class issues in a theoretical sort of way. I came to take class more to heart when I took the action that, as far as I am concerned, marks my entry into the middle class. I started seeing a psychotherapist as soon as I had a fulltime job as a writing instructor. When I had recourse to working class issues as an explanation for my general alienation and sense of estrangement, my therapist would have nothing to do with it. First, she would look at me and say, “You are not a working class person. You have a PHD and you have read deeply and broadly.” Second, she was not in the least concerned with what I thought might be causing my misery; she was mostly concerned that I, as an individual, face my emotions and feelings and, by looking into their real causes in early life, assume responsibility for them. The ideology of psychotherapy, as well as the fact that she was French, allied her completely with the individual. She couldn’t stand groups or group thinking.
But I was reading a good deal about class–Marx, Althusser, Eagleton, Jameson, and a host of others–and when I thought back to my graduate work some events took on a different coloring. One professor had for example said that I had a strong but wild and untamed intellect. What was he saying but what Bourdieux says: that a person who comes to middle class culture from outside that culture will always lack a certain polish. This seemed further confirmed by my being fired as a TA because, as one of the reviewers said, I lacked “university decorum.” And another, who had worked with hundreds of TAs over the years, said I was the only one she couldn’t put into a box. At the time, I didn’t know what to make of these remarks at all. I got lost in them. But looking at them through a class lens, they seemed to me expressions of unconscious class bias.
About the time I started psychotherapy, I began for four or five summers in a row to work at literacy development with members of the California Conservation Corps. The members of the corps ran from 18-23 years old and a good 90% had not been graduated from high school. I have to say I felt like a bust as a literacy developer. I wanted to show these kids the pleasures of writing as a form of self expression and means towards the acquistion of self-knowledge. I wanted to show them reading as a way to enter into and participate in the “larger” world. I wanted to show them culture as a means of introspection and a way to enter into the subjectivies of other people in other times and other cultures.
Instead when I asked these young people to write page, they fill up the page with words as if they were filling a box with rivets. I was not just the teacher; I was the boss. They would obey my orders, but they weren’t going to do any more than what was asked for. They were not going to involve their selves at all; perhaps because their selves had been much bruised by their previous educational experiences. The number of them that believed at least that they had one or another learning defect was astonishing.
So there I was–sort of strung out in the middle of nowhere. These were working class kids. I felt comfortable with them and them with me as a person, but I was not one of them nor could I show them important parts of me. The things I had worked hard for had no meaning for them. Reading Paul E. Willis (Learning to Labour) helped me to understand how working class lads assert their identities as working class against the bureaucratic school structures. The kids in the Corps seemed to feel there were two kinds of work: indoors and outdoors. They wanted to be outdoors and as far away from the pencil pushers and paper shufflers as possible. These were indoor people, like me.
About this time I started hating my university students. This was the big 80s when greed was good. A Business Econ department was flung together where I taught as a way of attracting students who more and more were voting with their feet. The department overflowed. Then someone recognized that, while they were placing their accounting students in one of the big six firms, many of their graduates couldn’t write. Suddenly, these students, having been ordered by their department, began to flood one of our courses. And I was given the task of teaching one, even two of them, a quarter.
I did not do a good job teaching these students. But I tried hard, as I always do, but I felt more and more isolated. I began to dread going to class. Slowly I grew to hate them, deriding them behind their backs as the Busy Econs, ant people who didn’t have the faintest idea what to do unless you spelled it out for them. Some of them had actually taken assertiveness training classes and would burst into my office, hand extended, to introduce themselves, they would say. These people all wanted to make a million. That wasn’t why I had gone to college. While Sennet and Cobb in the Hidden Injuries of Class argue that working class kids are drawn to college mostly for career reasons, they also note something more subtle. For some the idea of career means, in part or in whole, becoming a “better person.” The working class person perceives the middle class people as more “autonomous” because they seem, at times, relatively unaffected by the ebbs and flows of the economy that may lay waste to working class families and their hopes.
This autonomy appears to endow the middle class person with greater interior reserves or resources for dealing with changes in the environment. As one worker put it, the member of his family of origins seemed creatures of impulse, driven hither and thither by circumstance, and impelled by their own desires. They seemed, said the worker who had risen to the middle class, more like “animals” than did members of the middle class. Characterizing working class people as “animals” could smack of elitism. Maybe I toyed with that. But I wanted an education because I had found that knowing stuff seemed to help me to understand the world and my place in it. Maybe this would help me to become not a better person but better as a person—not perpetually boiling over with rage, like my father, or wrapped in depression like my mother, or just too frequently afraid, as was my case.
The busy econs were guaranteed to set my teeth on edge. They didn’t care about being better people. They wanted to pile up the units, get a degree, and get on to making money. This was painful and isolating because disillusioning. Here personified in the flesh was the “real” middle class attiude towards the education I had so idealized. The parents of the students at my particular branch of the UC system have consistently had the highest income level of all the UCs. At present, the annual income of the top 4/5s of students averages 120,000 per year. My students have all had braces; they all have had dermatologists too. They have traveled, not just in the USA, but all around the world. One student even went on a Safari but he said it was mostly bogus.
For the Busy Econs getting a middle class education was not about becoming a better person. It was about forwarding the crass materialistic and self-protective agenda of the middle class while covering up this threadbare ideology with a pretense to higher things. I had to hate these students. They pulled the wool from my eyes and rubbed my face in the fact that middle class education was intended to inculcate certain values into middle class people–concern, for example, with something called “professionalism.” Education was about throwing together a bogus business economic department because that’s what middle class students wanted.
Chickens come home to roost. While I didn’t fit into the working class as my therapist maintained, I didn’t, via the employment that allowed me to do a middle class thing like visiting a therapist, fit into the educational agenda of the middle class. No wonder thinking about teaching the busy econs made me feel sick. Just being around them, broke me into a fragmented mass of self-contradictions. Oddly, the more, though, I viewed these as self contradictions the less I viewed them as things caused by the busy econs. I had been so blocked by my anger at their crass materialism (and their cavalier attitude towards the poor in our society) that I failed to listen around the edges.
When I did, when I used a little empathy, I heard that the students didn’t just want money, they wanted it for something. How could I have missed that? They wanted to marry for example and have a family and believed that money might afford them protection in the dog eat dog world of crass materialism. Some wanted lots of money as soon as possible because they were concerned they would not be able to maintain for their children the standard of living that their parents had given them. And some wanted money as soon as possible because they were seeking a quick way to retirement, to getting off the wheel of fortune and out of the jungle of social Darwinism. Perhaps my affluent students did not share my view of education or my particular social values, but I was familiar with anxiety and fear.
It’s good that when one is a poor child one doesn’t know it. Looking back I have come to see how much fear of falling right to the bottom pervaded my family. At the time, as I began to get a foothold in the middle class and having no sense of a personal safety net, I was full of the fear that I might become a bum on the streets. This fear had been increased by my having tested the job market with my PhD in lit and come up with nothing. Additionally, the UC had a rule that lecturers of the kind I was could work for four years and then they would be summarily dismissed. However the American Federation of Teachers took this ruling to the Public Emplee Relations Board where it was proclaimed illegal. And when an tenured member of the AFT came to me and a colleague and asked us to organize locally for an election to ratify the AFT as the sole bargaining agent in all negotiatons with the UC, we did so. Then followed three years of meetings, calling meetings, nobody showing up to meetings, distributing information, and finally a vote that did ratify the Union.
My willingness to join and work with a union arose directly from my working class background. When the family came to California things did improve, however slightly, when my father joined the union. I have worked with the executive board of my local in different ways since 1985. And quite recently, after 3 terrible years of negoiations, lecturers, who had passed the equivalent of a tenure review, came to be called Continuing Lecturers. The University after 20 years had decided to admit the obvious. We lecturers were not temporary and I have been told that I will have employment till I retire, unless the buildings fall down. It took a while, nearly 20 years, but the union has contributed significantly to the job security of lecturers.
Over my years working for the local, I have been involved in recruitment and I have struggled better to understand why many of my fellow lecturers refuse to join the union. Maybe some of this is the free rider phenomenon, but I think it’s more than that. Most of my fellow lecturers do not come from working class backgrounds. As middle class persons many seem to have invested in the notion of personal achievement and individual accomplishment in a way I have not and do not even quite understand. They wish to prove successful at their careers and for some reason the notion of career does not involve collective effort.
Really, I just don’t get it—this conception of individual acheivement; but as I said I understand fear and anxiety, and while my job situation has stablized, knowing about these things helps me to understand the very career orientated students I teach today. They don’t go around vulgarly talking about making a million as quickly as possible, but they are very intent on making sure they get a profitable career. This is even more the case given the massive quantities of debt middle class students are building up while going to college. While I understand their fears, I know that our trajectories into this fear are different. I still don’t understand the idea of career. It seems as if one selects a career or decides upon it. I never felt I had a choice. First, I didn’t know enough to know I had choices; second my entire education was informed by money and the need for it. I didn’t go to the best graduate school that accepted me; I went to the one that would give me the most support. And I got through my entire education owing 1000 dollars because as a working class person I inherited an enormous fear of debt.
So I understand students career aspirations; at the same time, I don’t think systems of education do these students any favors my catering to career aspirations. I think the kind of education I sought might be the better way to go. As a working class person, I sought an education that might help me be better as a person. I wanted tounderstand the world and my place in it. As a working class person moving into the middle class, I needed a compass. As traditional family and religious and social structures continue to change, more will be required of the individual; he or she will either be blown by the winds of change or seek the comfort of prefabricated ideologies. Or they will locate a compass that will guide them on their particular course. This is the kind of education all students—whether from the middle or working class—deserve.