Friday, November 11, 2011

Social Class Consciousness on Campus

Will Barratt, Ph.D.

I often feel that I grew along with the various consciousness movements; women’s consciousness, black consciousness, political consciousness, men’s consciousness, and the many other consciousness movements that have emerged in the past 60 years.  I have always appreciated these movements because they add important dimensions to our lives.  With the rise of each movement, and with its maturing, discussions become more and more interesting, the body politic gets more complicated, and the world gets a little more inclusive as each group claims more consciousness.  Defining ourselves through increased consciousness has become part of every movement.  Class consciousness, like other forms of consciousness, is individual.  It is about you and it is about me.

Twice in my life I have lived in countries that were nominally Communist; Budapest, Hungary in 1987-1988 and Beijing, People’s Republic of China in 1995-1996.  Communist rhetoric, especially about social class, was a background hum for both of these experiences.  Class consciousness surfaced most often when I was discussing education with campus colleagues.  Class consciousness was part of their world view, part of their ideology, part of their practice, and part of their lives.  A Hungarian colleague was given a place in his university class because of his proletariat background – affirmative action for the proletariat.  Because of this class based advantage in his early life his class consciousness got a huge jump start. A Chinese colleague was sent into the country side with his family for re-education because his father had a photograph of a Swedish missionary who had taught him English as a child.  This Chinese colleague’s first school experience was when he stepped onto a college campus as a first year student in his 30s. Attributed social class kept this colleague out of the educational system until he was in his 30s, making class consciousness a foreground feature during his life. Attributed social class played a large part in the lives of these people. Communist rhetoric, education, and media pushed for a certain sort of class consciousness.

Students going to college in the US don't have these experiences. Class consciousness and class awareness are well in the background.  At most the typical US college first year student is aware that social class has something to do with money.  If they have been paying attention to the current news they are aware of income disparity between the 1% and the 99%, but this is a different level of class consciousness than being sent to the country side for re-education. 

In the US, and certainly on US college campuses, we don’t have any sort of push for class consciousness.  While “First Generation Students” are the shiny new minority on campus the recognition of this new social class minority has not led to any emphasis on exploring social class on campus.  This is a similar pattern to the recognition of ethnic minority students that does not lead to any exploration of ethnic majority students.  Consciousness in the US is for members of minorities, not for members of majorities.

I would argue that most of the class consciousness that occurs on campus comes can be seen in the members of campus social class minorities and comes from their contrast with the social class majority on campus.  That contrast initiated social class consciousness is a start.  There are types and levels of class consciousness.  More complexly, where you start determines your path to consciousness.  Working Class / Poverty Class students on campus will begin the journey to class consciousness from their social class world view and from the consciousness that comes from experiencing social class contrast on campus.  The majority class student on campus, child of college educated parents, has no contrast on campus to push the beginning of the journey to class consciousness.  The reality is that the majority class student on campus has been set up to be isolated from social class contrast, to live in a bubble that prevents social class consciousness.  This isolation may be intentional, but the forces of evil inhibiting class consciousness are more probably grounded in ignorance than in maliciousness.

So, how do we initiate discussions about class consciousness among the majority class student?  How do we challenge their assumptions of their social class normality?  How do we help them to realize that they are members of a minority social class group in the US and are in the majority on campus?

The answer is simple – start a discussion.  Getting social class out into the open is the first step.  Social class consciousness is a long journey with many steps, like all other forms of consciousness. 

A level of social class consciousness is an interesting idea and is one way to think about developing increasing consciousness.  Below are two endpoints on a scale of social class consciousness from 0 to 10.  For an interesting exercise, fill in descriptions for the levels in the middle.  What are the waypoints along the journey?  What marks a step forward in consciousness for you?

Level 0
Denial – “We really don’t have social class in the US.”
Level 1

Level 2

Level 3

Level 4

Level 5

Level 6

Level 7

Level 8

Level 9

Level 10
Full Social Class Consciousness - I know that social class is about cultural, social, and economic capital, identity, culture, and is also about many other factors.  I know that social class is personal, social, and economic.  I recognize the privilege I have based on my social class of origin, current felt social class, and attributed social class.  I recognize the social class market and population segmenting in the US.  I recognize how social class is reproduced by social, political, media, and economic institutions.  I advocate for minimizing the disadvantaging and advantaging of people based on social class groups.  I understand different national and cultural contexts for social class.  I recognize that my consciousness requires action. 

Your notion of class consciousness may go all the way to 11.  Great.  For me Level 10 requires constant work to maintain as the new things you learn are integrated with what you already know. 

Whatever you do, start a conversation about social class. 

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