Four Perspectives on Class

The current (June 18) NCTE INBOX newsletter features a link to Susan Ohanian’s May 20 Phi Delta Kappan article, “Capitalism, Calculus, and Conscience,” where she makes a number of interesting points. While I found the article to be simultaneously diffuse and bombastic, with all-over-the-place examples and an overabundance of self-answered one-sided rhetorical questions that would put Donald Rumsfeld to shame, I agree with many of the sentiments Ohanian expresses (which I think actually points to another of the article’s shortcomings: the tone is so fierce and on-the-attack that it doesn’t have a chance of engaging anyone who doesn’t already agree with Ohanian’s point of view) regarding the increasing inequalities in the American educational system.

For me, the most important point Ohanian brings up is the the New York State Supreme Court’s disturbing affirmation (via a decision to fund high-stakes testing that sorts students into skilled/not-skilled categories over teaching practices that improve all student skills) of Pierre Bourdieu and Basil Bernstein’s argument that education does not foster social mobility, but rather reproduces the existing social hierarchy. She quotes Justice Alfred Lerner: “Society needs workers in all levels of jobs, the majority of which may very well be low-level.”

This talk of “levels” is hierarchical in the same way as Mankiw’s references to high school graduates as “unskilled” workers and college graduates as “skilled” workers. A “class” is a group of people, usually a group within a hierarchy of groups. I’ll rehearse what seem to me to be the four major ways that the literature of composition has constructed such hierarchies.

1. Wealth and Occupation.

Julie Lindquist’s recent CCC article, dealing with the rhetorics she encounters in a “working-class” bar, assigns people to various classes by their occupation. (I use the quotation marks around “working-class” to indicate the basic contradiction pointed out by Raymond Williams in Keywords: while writers like Lindquist oppose the working class to the middle class, the working class is a class defined by its activity, and the middle class is a class defined by its position in relation to other classes.) Edward Reiss calls such occupational hierarchies Weberian, and offers us one less loose than the common middle-class/working-class opposition:

Skilled nonmanual
Skilled manual

(Or something like that. I’m away from my books, so these cites are from memory, and may be kinda loose themselves.) Heilbroner and Thurow had a table in their book where they put people into classes according to annual income; I think they had — in 1984 — anyone making over $100,000 as being upper class.

2. Culture, tastes, and values.

While Lindquist defines the class of her subjects by what they do for a living, she pays close and useful attention to their culture and values, to the way they talk and what they consider to be important. Similarly, Geoff Nunberg’s assertion on NPR several months ago that former GE chairman Jack Welch would call himself middle class because he still drinks beer like any middle-class guy relies on a notion of class as shaped by tastes and values. Composition’s clearest example of such logic is in Lynn Z. Bloom’s essay, “Freshman Composition as a Middle-Class Enterprise,” which rather problematically constructs such values as “temperance” and “cleanliness” as being those that set the middle class apart from other classes. (The dirty poor? The intemperate rich? I find Bloom’s perspective arrogant, elitist, and reflective of what Linda Brodkey has called, in “On the Subjects of Class and Gender in ‘The Literacy Letters'”, the “middle-class narcissism that sees itself everywhere it looks”; again, apologies for lack of cite, though I think the quote is accurate.)

3. Relationship to the means of production.

The orthodox Marxist perspective on class: there are two basic classes. The bourgeois own the means of production, and the proletariat are alienated from the product of their labor. I’ve been talking about this perspective a lot here. In composition, Richard Ohmann was the first one to do this sort of class analysis with any real rigor; after him, there hasn’t been much that I’m aware of other than the excellent recent work by John Trimbur and Bruce Horner.

4. Authenticity and lived experience.

These are the folks who say, “I know what working-class means, because I’ve been there and lived it.” When I was at CCCC in New York this past March, there was some acrimony in a question-and-answer session following one of the panel presentations on class, where people in the audience were standing up and making precisely those sorts of statements to the panelists, or demanding, “How can you talk about a working-class pedagogy when you don’t even know what it means to be working class, because you haven’t [insert authenticity claim here]?” While its grounding in the practicality of everyday experience gives this view of class an immense power that the abstraction of the other perspectives on class precludes, I would argue that such a grounding is also its Achilles’ Heel, because it confines authenticity claims to a solipsistic isolation and thereby shuts off possibilities for bringing about productive social action (I’m borrowing this argument from the one that James Berlin makes about expressivist / expressionist rhetoric in his College English essay “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class”). Some of the arguments made by Mike Rose and Victor Villanueva imply an understanding of class as constructed by lived experience. I mean, of course class is always going to be at least partly constructed by lived experience, since it has the rare quality in identity politics of being a mobile category (in other words, people tend to think of it as being easier to change your class than it is to change your race or gender, and I’m not sure where sexual preference falls on that continuum), but I’m just saying it’s reductive and limiting and somewhat unsophisticated to make authenticity claims about class as only being constructed by lived experience.

With its vocational focus, Mankiw’s distinction between skilled and unskilled workers — while far simpler that the Weberian hierarchy Reiss offers — classes students via occupation. I would infer from this that for Mankiw, students are not classed beings until they get past a certain point in the educational process: they’re pre-economic, in a sense. Me, I kinda think class is a lot more complicated than that, but I’m also ascribing a lot to Mankiw that he’s not coming out and stating explicitly.

This connects to all the stuff I was saying about vocational versus liberal culture models of education, too: obviously, people who have an understanding of class as being based upon wealth and occupation will probably have a more vocational understanding of the purposes of the university, while people who see class as being determined by values and tastes will line up more with the liberal education model of the university; they’ll understand (like Pierre Bourdieu) that the discernment / taste / ability to make cultural distinctions and value judgments (e.g., Montrachet Grand Cru is of a different class than Pabst Blue Ribbon) is itself a marker of distinction. E.D. Hirsch, of “cultural literacy” notoriety, is a proponent of the liberal culture model of education. As disturbing as I find Hirsch’s vision, I find myself to be more ideologically aligned with the liberal education model than with the vocational model: I want to believe that education is more than just narrow career training. At the same time, I would add that the Marxist perspective on class seems to offer the most fruitful possibilities for progressive social and political change, but I’m at a point where I still need to know more about that perspective before I can really say things like that.

I still haven’t gotten to that teleological thing I said I was going to talk about. Something for next time, I guess.

Four Perspectives on Class

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