Building Education for the Commons
Calling a bluff is always satisfying especially if you know it’s a bluff. A bluff is “an attempt to deceive someone (or a group) into believing that one can or is going to do something.” To call someone’s bluff is to expose their deception.
People who grew up in a sustained context in which hardships were a perennial part of daily life develop an idiosyncratic creativity and a fighting spirit. Observing parents or guardians just trying to “make ends meet” to put food on the table, to constantly pay the rent and bills just to stay off the streets teaches one the basic truth of social reality. Life is exceedingly difficult with each day bringing new and basic challenges to stay just above water.
This segment of the population is the most populous in American society according to Dennis Gilbert & Joseph Kahl (The American Class Structure). They are the folks who may or may not have some college, make incomes just above the poverty line, work longer hours, are more likely to be sick, injured and suffer from a disability for which there are little or no resources. Growing up in this environment, as opposed to a posh one of the middle class, produces a fighter, that is someone who has to struggle much harder to just survive. A survivalist mentality is born.
Too often the worker is unable to attend college and this is so because of very basic economic reasons. It’s not just that tuition is too expensive it’s also because the resources of time (time to study, read, write, attend classes etc.) are not available for the working class 18-year-old. And even if the factors of time and money were available, the values imbued within the working-class outlook don’t lend themselves to learning about such subjects as history, politics, sociology and so forth. There is an ideological reason for this, no doubt.
But sometimes, despite these very real economic, social, and communal obstacles, some working-class people find their way into college. In most cases the colleges the working-class attend are filled with over worked adjuncts, or are colleges in which the curriculum is designed to reproduce upper-class values. In this way, the working-class student, to “survive” in college is forced to be intellectually dishonest to their own values as they learn to embrace alienating values of the privileged social class, values that ignore the truth of capitalist power-relations designed to reproduce itself via enslavement.
A working-class student of mine did a research project in which she looked at the percentage of working-class/disadvantaged students in elite universities (top 25) and what she found was astonishing. As it turns out about 5% of students in these universities come from families whose total annual income was $32,200 or less. Now given that this social-class comprises the majority of the population what you literally see from this research is that there is an unequal representation from the economically disadvantaged in the college environment. Here’s a recent article about this issue. The upshot here is simple: for all the talk about inclusion and diversity in universities and colleges these days it seems a ripe time to call their bluff–a deception–a lie as the most populous segment of society is being systematically EXCLUDED.
What explains this fear of the working-class student within the academy? Is the academy just a space in which upper-class values are learned and reproduced at the expense of suppressing other values such as economic inequality or social and economic justice? It seems to me that any university should be open to teaching all types of values from all parts our social composition.
It is time to challenge universities to be open minded about economic inequality and how they reproduce this inequality.
The fear of the working-class intellectual is that they possess a fighting spirit who is not intimated by the upper-class. They possess a value for justice and the courage to fight for this value and this explains why they are feared.