More on the Middle Class

Lynn Bloom begins her 1997 JAC essay “Teaching My Class” with a declaration: “I was born to teach.” The autobiographical history she offers indicates that, for her, class and history are not contingent or constructed or socioeconomically produced, but rather that class is destiny. As I implied in my previous post about Bloom’s work on class, this position conveniently absolves Bloom of any responsibility for attempting to remedy class inequalities: if class is destiny, then one need not bother worrying about the plight of those in positions less fortunate, since they — like Bloom — were born to their lot. It’s a wonderful rationalization of class privilege, and Bloom would likely find herself quite at home in a caste system — supposing, of course, she were born a Brahmin rather than a Dalit.

But what is to be done about those unfortunate enough to not have been born teachers, to not have been born Brahmins, to not have been born middle class? Bloom’s essay implies that we must follow through on “our” desire for “our students to share our class values” (210), and, in fact, make them share our class values.

In other words, Bloom argues that anybody can be assimilated into the middle class (85% of all Americans, via Bloom’s uncritically parroted statistic) by adopting middle class values. (According to Wikipedia, 16% of Hindus in India are of the Dalit or “untouchable” class. According to Bloom, 15% of Americans do not belong to the middle class.) I’d be extremely happy if we could once and for all put this stupid 85% statistic to bed, for any number of reasons. First: as The Hidden Injuries of Class and so many other texts demonstrate, socioeconomic class in America is deeply connected to pride and shame, and any self-reporting of class will of course be skewed by individual perceptions. Second: let’s do the numbers. If 15% of Americans do not self-report as middle class, does that mean 7.5% at the top and 7.5% at the bottom? If so, then one in twenty “middle class” Americans lives below the poverty line. (This is according to the U.S. Government statistic that twelve percent of all Americans live below the poverty line.) But maybe there’s another way to run Bloom’s 85% of Americans in the middle class, especially with her references to “the super-rich” and “the very poor”: looking at government figures for net worth. According to the U.S. Census, 11.5% of American households have a negative or zero net worth, while 3.6% of American households have a net worth of more than $500,000. Which adds up to 15.1%. Almost works, doesn’t it? Do you think that Bloom might contend that if your household net worth is between $1 and $500,000, you’re middle class? And would you agree?

For me, the problems go beyond the merely definitional. Bloom’s essay paints a picture of a childhood self as fully sure of the rightness and primacy of her own perspective as that of her adult self who can see no class position other than her own. When Bloom declares that the “common characteristics” of teachers include “The sharing of values, ethics, and point of view of the systems — cultural, political, national — in which the school is situated” and the “Expectation that this system and its incorporated values will prevail and endure, in public policy and private life,” and declares that she has “never met a teacher who thought otherwise” (209), one must presume that in her long and impressive professional history, she has never in any 4Cs meeting spoken to Mike Rose, Ira Shor, Min-Zhan Lu, James Berlin, Linda Brodkey, or any other writing teacher who might believe in changing “some or all of the values, ethics, and point of view of the [aforementioned] systems.”

Bloom’s concluding paragraphs indicate the deeply conservative — nearly, in fact, reactionary — nature of her project. The social stasis her perspective privileges “allows all of us, teachers and students, to get on with the business of the academy” (212): business as usual, for Bloom, being an apparently overriding concern. Business as usual is the reproducing of inequality. In the service of such reproduction, Bloom also argues that “in the process of teaching the subject, composition, we are also composing the students”: clearly, Bloom’s passive and helpless students have no say in this process of enculturation and reproduction. “If we encourage — even require — them, in their use of Standard English, to speak and write as we do, we are essentially reinforcing American educational norms” (212). And so we have a backward-looking pedagogy of composition in which there is no new thing under the sun, a pedagogy in which the old punish the young, a pedagogy that holds no desire, hope, or need for a better or more equal society, since in Bloom’s eyes, the only people who matter are her vague and comfortable middle class.

More on the Middle Class