Monday, April 30, 2012

Social class is hidden in plain sight

Will Barratt, Ph.D.
Department of Educational Leadership
Indiana State University

Believe what you know.  Social class is everywhere; it is within us, it surrounds us, and we all co-create it daily.  The social class divide only exists because of our collaboration.  Like the ninja, like the purloined letter, social class is hidden in plain sight.  We all see social class, we all participate in co-creating it, but we somehow make what we see invisible. 

“What does social class look like?” is not the key question here because it looks a little different for each of us.  The key question here is: “Why don’t we see social class?” 

In order to celebrate and work with social class we need to see it, claim it, and own it.  What prevents each of us from seeing social class?  What filter obscures our view of the obvious?
We see the designer purses, we see social hierarchy, and we see prestige colleges, clothing, and cars.  We each participate in the co-construction of prestige within our own lives.  We each know our place within the work, play, local, regional, and global hierarchy.  We each have a social class identity.  We each participate in celebrations and events that are authentic to our social class of origin and current felt social class.  We each have a social class culture with shared foods, attitudes, symbols, events, norms, dress, music, attitudes toward education, and much more.  We know social class in our lives, but we don’t believe what we know.

The reasons for our social class blindness are not cognitive; we all cognitively see social class cues.  The reasons for our social class blindness are emotional; the reasons are fear and ignorance.  You will have social class blindness reasons of your own, but we all share fear and ignorance.  How each of us manages our fear and how each of us manages our ignorance is a test of our character. 

Fear is the mind killer, fear leads to the dark side, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself . . . we do not lack for pithy statements on fear.  Fear is personal.  What do you fear in social class that makes you blind to it?  Naming your fear, owning it, and confronting that fear are the first steps to overcoming it.

I need to constantly confront my ignorance in order to become more effective.  I may have uninformed ignorance, for example I don’t know the poetry of Li Bai.  But, now that I know this about myself I have informed ignorance.  If I don’t take the time to learn his poetry then I have willful ignorance.  I am willfully ignorant about many things, like Li Bai, like bird habitat in North America, like organic chemistry, and that is OK in my life.  I am not willfully ignorant about social class, about gender, or about ethnicity because I try to be an effective world citizen and respect diversity. 

False knowledge is the illusion of knowledge.  False knowledge is the ignorance of accepting prepackaged, preconceived information, or accepting knowledge that is past its expiration date.  False knowledge is believing that I know something because someone told you something once.  False knowledge is dangerous because nothing motivates me to learn what I think I already know.  Why would I add tea to a cup that I believe is already full?  Indeed, why would I believe that the cup of knowledge can ever be filled? 

Knowledge has an expiration date, ignorance is a renewable resource.  Understanding your ignorance, owning it, and confronting are the first steps to overcoming it.

What will you do?
Fear and ignorance are not good reasons to avoid confrontation.  Social class is invisible to us because we do not want to confront it, see it, claim it, own it, and celebrate it.  Overcoming fear and ignorance is the path to seeing, claiming, owning, and celebrating social class. 

Without fear and ignorance social class can no longer hide in plain sight.

Note: I am indebted to Coffman Distinguished Professor Maurice Miller for our conversation about fear and ignorance.  I am indebted to Allport, Clark, and Pettigrew for their book The Nature of Prejudice

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Celebrate Social Class Diversity

Will Barratt, Ph.D.

Department of Educational Leadership
Indiana State University

Celebrating social class diversity brings us face to face across the divide of our differences.

In the US we celebrate lots of things.  Summer brings an array of nationality and ethnicity festivals and different cities, towns, and neighborhoods vie for the best festival of its type.  These festivals reinforce national and ethnic identity, introduce guests to important cultural practices, and, if it is a great festival, introduce everyone to important foods.  These celebrations bring us face-to-face across the divide of our differences. 

Are there social class celebrations that bring us together?

When my wife and I were doctoral students at The University of Iowa we lived outside the small farming town of Wellman, Iowa.  Our neighbors, Gordon and Lois Schlaubaugh and their sons, took us to the 1980 4th of July celebration in town.  The celebration featured all of what you would expect, singing the national anthem, a prayer for the hostages in the embassy in Iran, 4H and FFA exhibits, baked goods, local cookbooks for sale, and great homemade food.  There was a tractor pull which was a serious event in Wellman.  Each family cheered for their tractor brand, red or green, reinforcing their brand loyalty. 

I would argue that this 4th of July event was also a social class celebration, and the Schlaubaughs’ invitation was a welcoming hand of friendship extended across the divide.  Iowa doctoral students and an Iowa Mennonite farm family experienced a moment together.  I don’t know if it was their Mennonite generosity that moved them to invite us, but even now I recall that shared moment.  In their on-going generosity and welcoming hospitality we went out to dinner in towns near-by, we went out for ice cream, and we spent time in their home.  We tried to reciprocate, we brought them things we picked up when the spent the summer in Salzburg, Austria, we sent their kids post cards whenever we travelled, we had a dinner party for the neighborhood, and we pitched in when there was work to be done, like making apple cider with their antique steam powered cider press.  We continue to exchange holiday cards, and we see each other occasionally.

What are social class celebrations?  I would suggest that almost every celebration has social class overtones.  The opera and ZZ Top concerts, demolition derby and Formula 1, dinner out, bowling, prom, and sporting events all have social class overtones.  All of these are social class celebrations of a sort. 

Invite someone who is not like you and welcome them to a celebration that is authentic to your social class of origin. 

Say “Yes” when you are invited to a celebration that is not authentic to your social class of origin or to your current felt social class.

Say “Yes” to welcoming others to your events.  We have all been unwelcomed somewhere and we know where that leads emotionally. 

To welcome someone means to make guests comfortable, to show guests the shared unspoken rules of the event, to comfort guests from too much conflict.  In being social class celebration host you may be surprised at what you learn about your own celebration.  I was placed at a celebration dinner table set with an array of flatware, glasses, and implements of feasting one evening, and I realized from watching my tablemates that they were uncomfortable with the table setting.  Remembering those times when I was confused I did what I could to make them comfortable.  We all had a great evening, bridging the social class table setting divided.

To be a guest in a social class celebration that is not authentic to your social class of origin means to be uncomfortable and to be a host means to be a guide and to make others comfortable. 

If social class is personal, if social class is like any other diversity, then bridging the gap needs to be personal.  It needs to start with you and me, and it needs to start today. 

Google "Celebrate Social Class"

Will Barratt, Ph.D. 

Here is an interesting experiment:  Google “celebrate social class diversity”, make sure to include the quotes. 

After that Google “celebrate social class”.  Try some other variations.  

Try “celebrate [your diversity / ethnicity / nationality here]”.  

Interesting, isn’t it.  

We all need to celebrate social class.  Own social class, claim social class, celebrate social class. 

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Emotionality, rationality, social class, and student retention on campus

Will Barratt, Ph.D.

How much of student retention on campus, students choosing to continue enrollment semester to semester and year to year, is an emotional choice and how much is a rational choice?

Do different students, Louise and Larry from the campus lower / minority class contrasted with Misty and Markey from the campus middle / majority class, have different emotional / rational ratios?

Do campus structural and organizational processes offset negative feelings?

What are the emotional reasons that help students to stay?  

Can we give any student an emotional reason to stay?

I am seeking comments and input here.  Yes, I know that this is a US biased question and discussion, and if you have an international perspective please share it. 



Tweet or Facebook this question with a link and add a comment here please.