Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Part 2 - Class Myths

Class myths

People are regularly challenged on their personal points of view about gender and ethnicity and challenges about class are quite rare. Peggy McIntosh’s (1988) White privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack list is a classic personal point of view challenge for ethnicity and gender. The recent movie Crash (Haggis, 2004) is typically seen as a movie about ethnicity and when seen through a class lens takes on an entirely new dimension. Personal challenges about class happen rarely, and can be quite powerful.

Barratt, Lurker, Cahill, Carlen, Huck, Lurker and Ploskonka (2006) developed an experience called Take a step forward designed to increase college students’ awareness of privilege as a way to stimulate discussion about class. The experience was a list of 36 statements indicative of privilege within the US majority culture and based on published research. N. Jeanne Burns (2007) posted a web based version of this experience on her blog with the authors’ permission. Burns’ blog posting asked people to highlight the statements that were true of them. Within two months this experience was being called the privilege meme as people sent it to their friends and the number of people posting it in the blogsphere expanded dramatically. The original authors were prompted to create an updated version (Barratt W. , Cahill, Carlen, Huck, Lurker, & Plosknoka, 2008).

Reactions to this experience on blogs ranged from dismissive (Scalzi, 2008) (McArdle, 2008) to reflective (Van Galen, 2008). Some bloggers hated the meme and the idea of privilege, like Scalzi, and most people who participated in the privilege meme experience and subsequent discussion found it useful. After reading numerous blogs and comments the theme appeared that this experience was the first time many people had confronted their own points of view on privilege and class.

Cheryl Cline (N.D.) lists 25 things you hear when you try to talk about class on her web site. Seven of these statements are included here because they reflect some common myths about class, common attitudes toward class, and personal points of view that can be seen as individual or political.

Class doesn’t exist in the USA.

This myth is the classic denial of class. No matter what model anyone uses for class there are dramatic differences between US Americans in income, education, occupational prestige, cultural capital, social capital, speech, dress, accessories, beverage preference, and even comedy preferences. Constant effort and a sheltered life are required not to see class in the US. Denying class allows individuals avoid dealing with class, class based issues, and their role in a classed society.

Ignorance of class can come from a lack of exposure to differences. People in sheltered lives who only go to school, go to work, shop, and play with people like them may find it easy to deny class. Their encounter with class may be minimal if they only read magazines and see media that reflect people like them. Cross (1995) is clear in expressing that encounter is the first stage on the road to awareness and change.

Ignorance of class can come from continued exposure to the denial of class, much like the racist and sexist statements that perpetuate racism and sexism. Challenging this myth and making class a foreground issue (Van Galen, 2000) is an important part of social justice work and celebrating diversity.

We are all middle class anyway.

This point of view recognizes the existence of class while simultaneously denying differences. Even the media perpetuates this myth by referring to the growing middle class. Zweig (2000) and Van Galen (2000) define working class in terms of work autonomy, making the point that the vast majority of the working public have very little work autonomy, which makes them working class. On the other end, the upper 20% in income are typically labeled as upper-middle class. By naming the upper class, the upper 20% in family income, as the upper middle class the upper class conveniently disappears, becoming some variety of middle class, but somehow slightly better.

By embracing the notion that everyone is the same we get to deny important differences. “Why can’t we all get along?” and “Doesn’t all this talk about diversity lead to divisiveness?” are both corollaries to this myth. This class unifying point of view minimizes the very real differences in US Americans and creates a fictional giant middle class that can become a political, social, or religious force because of the manufactured homogeneity of the group.

The working class is disappearing.

This recognizes class, and recognizes the differences between classes, but hopes for the world where we are all becoming one class, at least in the US. This myth reflects an out of date world view when work and physical labor were the same. Traditional working class jobs have disappeared in the US as manufacturing labor has moved to where the wages are low. The reality is that laboring class in the US is disappearing as a function of the global labor economy. The actual work of the working class has moved from labor to service jobs. These jobs have traditional working class characteristics such as low wages, minimal work autonomy, and little or no supervision over others. Members of the modern working class now dress in more prestigious clothing that reflects a different kind of work.

This disappearing working class belief reflects the idea that President Johnson’s War on Poverty was victorious, asserting that welfare, education, and other social programs were successful and we are consequently all middle class leaving poverty behind as a problem. Suggesting that the 20% of US American families who make under $20,035 are no longer working class is patently absurd.

Once you get a degree you are no longer working class.

There is a wonderful image of a Madame Alexander doll in a graduation cap and gown. She is still a Madame Alexander. This myth of class recognizes the existence and even the ubiquitous nature of class while believing that class mobility is as simple as graduation. Her change in clothing, and the implied change in her status, does not change her identity.
This myth casts class as something external to the individual and does not recognize the very real changes that class shift engenders in personal identity and relationships. Classic views of class taught in school rooms come from a sociological perspective which uses class to classify groups of people. The idea of someone having an internal and individual social class that is part of their identity and culture gets ignored when class is seen as a group classification or class is seen as something changeable on getting a diploma. When class is seen as a group classification then the group and not the individual becomes the focus.

Education is the key to upward mobility.

The best propaganda campaign is misinformation, which is providing information that appears to be true and is something that people want to believe. Education is certainly the key to upward mobility, sort of. This is a pernicious myth because it is partly true. The recent U.S. Department of Education Report A test of leadership: Changing the future of U.S. higher education (U.S. Department of Education, 2006) that was orchestrated by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings and Charles Miller (Zemsky, 2007) repeats the idea that education is the key to upward mobility. One of the cornerstones of the report is the idea of access to post-secondary education, rising college costs, and shrinking financial aid are seen as one impediment to increased access. The report ignores the fact that even with rising college costs enrollments continue to rise. However this may only reflect US American’s willingness to assume debt to attend college.

Legions of individuals can be counted on to provide evidence for this myth. Education is the key to upward mobility for many. It’s just not that simple however. The lower prestige occupations like teaching and nursing are filled with people who were first generation students, whose parents did not have a college degree or even go to college. While first generation students become physicians, attorneys, and college professors the reality is that education helps people up the ladder of occupational prestige one rung at a time.

Education is not working for many people. It is not their key to upward mobility. These people didn’t go to college, they weren’t a success, and they didn’t a get newspaper feature on overcoming hardship. US American’s have a high school graduation rate between 75% and 85% depending on which study you read. The reality is that public high schools are failing to educate students to the level of graduation. As you might imagine the students who do not graduate are typically among the poor, so it would appear on the face that public schools are in the business of preventing the upward mobility of poor students. There is a strong relationship between school level poverty and graduation rates.

Viewing education as a commodity creates a more disturbing reality. Like any product education can be divided into luxury goods, mass market goods, and discount goods. Selective high prestige colleges are the college luxury goods. The competition for admission to these colleges is fierce among the upper 20% of US Americans who are accustomed to purchasing the luxury goods they can afford. Parents get upset when their average child cannot meet the high academic criteria for admission to highly selective colleges, even though the parent can afford the high cost of tuition. Mass market colleges are where most students go and where the cost is moderate. While the preponderance of mass market colleges are public institutions there are many private schools in this category. A cursory examination of college web sites and printed material will reveal which market segment the admissions material targets. Discount goods provide great value for price but are low prestige. In the US today our community college system seems to be marketing itself on the basis of cost for value.

College is open to anyone who wants to work hard.

Access to college and the transition from high school to college are significant social issue but are rarely tied to issues of class. While 50% of US adults over 25 have no college experience and only 25% of the college population has parents with no college experience. Children of college graduates are far more likely to do well in schools, go to college, and graduate (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2005) than children from families with no parental college experience.

Assuming that intelligence is distributed randomly in a population leads to an interesting question. If the children from wealthy families are no more intelligent than the children from poor families why is it that children from poor families do worse in school, in general, than children from wealthy families? We can attribute their lack of success to individual effort – that the children from poor families don’t work as hard, have bad parents, and have home environments that don’t support learning – or should we be asking about the interaction between the children from poor families and teachers.

Myth and reality

The truth of class is much more complex than the myths about class. It is easier to blame poor people for their lot in life, lack of education, money, resources, and manners than it is to understand the underlying systems of class that perpetuate this situation. Children in schools rise to the level of their parents’ education, which means that the playing field is not level, that some children have a head start and get help along the way and others get barriers put up to their academic and financial success.


Barratt, W., Cahill, M., Carlen, A., Huck, M., Lurker, D., & Plosknoka, S. (2008). Step into social class 2.0. Retrieved Feburary 19, 2008, from
Barratt, W., Cahill, M., Carlen, A., Huck, M., Lurker, D., & Ploskonka, S. (2006). Take a step forward. Terre Haute, IN: Authors.
Burns, N. J. (2007, November 2). What privilege do you have. Retrieved February 19, 2008, from Social class & Quakers:
Cline, C. (N.D.). Payday. Retrieved February 18, 2008, from 25 things you will hear if you try to talk about class:
Cross, W. E. (1995). The psychology of nigrescence: Revising the Cross model. In J. G. Ponterotto, J. M. Casas, L. A. Suzuki, & C. M. Alexander, Handbook of multicultural counseling (pp. 93-122). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Haggis, P. (Director). (2004). Crash [Motion Picture].
McArdle, M. (2008, January 7). Retrieved February 19, 2008, from Megan McArdle Asymmetrical Information:
McIntosh, P. (1988). White privilege and male privilege: A personal account of coming to see correspondences through work in women's studies. Wellesley, MA: Author.
National Center for Educational Statistics. (2005). First-generation students in postsecondary education: A look at their college transcripts. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.
Scalzi, J. (2008, January 3). Point of privilege. Retrieved February 19, 2008 , from Whatever:
U.S. Department of Education. (2006). A test of leadership: Charting the future of U.D. Higher Educaiton. Washington, DC: U.D. Department of Education.
Van Galen, J. (2008, February 13). Class, Race, and Privilege. Retrieved February 19, 2008, from Education and Class:
Van Galen, J. (2000). Education & Class. Multicultural Education , 7 (3), 2-11.
Zemsky, R. (2007, January 26). The rise and fall of the Spellings Commission. The Chronicle Review , p. B6.
Zweig, M. (2000). The working class majority: America's best kept secret. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.


PIHATIL said...

"Assuming that intelligence is distributed randomly in a population leads to an interesting question. If the children from wealthy families are no more intelligent than the children from poor families why is it that children from poor families do worse in school, in general, than children from wealthy families?"

This seems an incredibly bold and almost certainly false assumption. Even if you believe that "The Bell Curve" overstates the case for the heritability of intelligence, virtually no one claims that intelligence is randomly distributed. Smarter people make more money and on average have smarter children.

I do hope you've read "The Bell Curve," because the main point the book makes is that because of the changes in society, particularly with the education of women, social class has gone from being very porous from 1880-1960 to suddenly far more rigid and stratified.

I think your study is interesting, BTW.

Will Barratt said...

I have read "The Bell Curve" and disagree with nearly everything in it. The findings have been thoroughly debunked.