Monthly Archives: September 2010

American History without the Working Class — Again!

As interesting and insightful as American Prospect reviewer Sarah Igo makes it seem, I am not going to read Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character by Berkeley sociologist Claude Fischer.

According to Igo, Fischer is a “master of synthesis, sifting through hundreds of studies of local communities and the lives of ordinary men and women . . . to arrive at what he sees as the defining arcs of American culture from the colonial period to the present.”  And, she says, the book displays “sensitivity to the experiences of disparate Americans but also comfort with broad generalizations.”  As I will explain, the timing is perfect for such an effort.  And even if many of the “broad generalizations” turn out to be too broad, or even flat-out wrong, they should be usefully provocative for anybody who is trying to understand current American culture and who believes, as I do, that past is always prologue.

But Igo critically (if too forgivingly) reveals a key premise of Fischer’s “synthesis” that makes me dismiss this social history out of hand.  Fischer straightforwardly equates “American character and culture” with “middle-class culture” and makes no apology for doing so because, he says, “the American middle class lives and promulgates the distinctive and dominant character of the society.”

I’ve seen this before.  In fact, it is still a widely accepted academic convention that, as the authors of Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life premised in the mid-1980s, if you understand the American middle class you understand Americans in general because “the middle class . . . has so dominated our culture that neither a genuinely upper-class nor a genuinely working-class culture has fully appeared.”  Books like American Manhood and American Cool make similar claims, often admitting a certain narrowness in their prefaces, but then proceeding recklessly to treat their version of middle-class culture as synonymous with the distinctively “American.”  Peter Stearns, for example, not only admits a middle-class narrowness in his introduction to American Cool, he further lets the cat out of the bag by granting that “[l]ike many studies of the middle class, it is biased toward evidence from Protestants in the North and West.”

I can see why publishers would not want more descriptive titles using unwieldy terms like American Middle-Class Manhood in the North and West, but this is more than a matter of deceptive marketing.  The actual practice of excluding working-class culture from the discussion is what Benjamin DeMott has called “middle-class imperialism,” which is less about actual economic and political domination than it is about middle-class scholars simply mistaking a part (their part, our part) for the whole, thereby maintaining their/our cultural domination.  The professional middle class in America is culturally dominant, in my view, even though we are economically subordinate to a ruling class and somewhat less politically subordinate but in a more complicated way.

Though I’m open to debate, I’m basically okay with the cultural predominance of the professional middle class.  If we have to choose among cultures, I’d choose – indeed, I have chosen – the middle-class one.  But middle-class imperialism that mistakes our part for the whole of American culture is the same kind of illusion as James Baldwin pointed to in the 1960s when he said, “If I’m not what the white man thinks I am, then he has to find out what he is.”  If working-class culture is not simply a discount version of middle-class culture, like hand-me-down clothes; if it has its own internal logic, constellation of values, and distinct history, as well as its own internal contradictions; if working-class culture influences middle-class culture as well as being influenced by it – then middle-class Americans misunderstand ourselves, as well as the larger society, when we mistake our part for the whole.

The concept of a “dominant culture” within a society presumes that there are other cultures different from the dominant one – Protestants in Italy, for example, or Catholics in England, Kurds in Iraq, or new and recent immigrants in all countries.  You cannot understand a dominant culture by excluding reference to the ones it dominates, how and why it predominates, and how it influences other cultures even if you think they have no influence on it.  What’s more, wouldn’t it be important in understanding middle-class culture to know what it is in the middle of – traditionally, between capital and labor, between a ruling and a working class?  Isn’t this middleness fundamental to its character and culture?

The standard scholarly convention does not dispute these, or any other, notions of social structure.  It just assumes that the other classes ain’t got no (genuine) culture that isn’t fundamentally defined by the middle class.  I don’t know enough about the ruling class to say how “genuine” its culture is, but if Working-Class Studies has done nothing else, it has shown that there is a genuine working-class culture that is very different from the middle-class one.  And as Barbara Jensen, Annette Lareau, Betsy Leondar-Wright and numerous others have argued, this culture has many valuable aspects that compare favorably to middle-class character and culture, as well as some that don’t.   Most of us in the field, whether in our family lives, as teachers, culture workers or activists, have experienced the kinds of culture clashes that would be impossible if there were only one genuine “American” culture.

Made in America is an attempt to restore the kind of “consensus” view of American history that finds unity in diversity at the very core of our national character.  The civil rights, women’s and other social movements of the 1960s and ‘70s destroyed this view, aided in academia by African-American Studies, Women’s Studies, Chicano Studies, Queer Studies, the New Labor History, and others who insisted that attention be paid to those who had been excluded from the official understanding of our world.  This buffet banquet of diversity may by now have overemphasized our differences from one another, making it a good a time to try again to find what it is that unifies us, or could.  That’s why I was looking forward to this book when I first heard about it.  Though it is unfair to criticize a book I have not read, I know this isn’t the book I was looking for because you cannot find unity in diversity if you start out by eliminating most of the diversity – namely the majority of actually existing Americans who are not middle class.

Jack Metzgar. Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies

Education or Exploitation? For-profit schools and working-class students

If you read yesterday’s New York Times, you may have noticed the full-page ad, paid for by Corinthian Colleges, Inc., one of the largest for-profit education providers in the US.  The ad urged readers to contact our Congressional representatives to “put the brakes on” proposed regulations that link educational programs’ eligibility for federal financial aid with the post-graduation income and debt repayment of students.  The ad suggests that proposed new rules would lead to the loss of thousands of jobs and limit college access for low-income and minority students.

Responding to the proposed rules, Harry C. Alford, CEO of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, argues that the Department of Education was “singling out one vitally important segment of the post-secondary landscape and putting up ‘no trespassing’ signs, keeping out the students who would benefit the most.”  While this rhetoric is appealing, the question of whether for-profit schools – which Alford describes as “career colleges” – serve the best interests of working-class students is not simple.

For-profit schools have thrived for several reasons.  First, they offer an alternative to traditional college programs.  States have cut funding to higher education, and in some cases – California   most dramatically – have limited enrollment.  Meanwhile, the most common advice given to those who are out of work is “get a college education.” So it’s no surprise that enrollments are up across the country.  For-profit programs provide alternatives to students who can’t get in to crowded colleges or programs with limited enrollments.

For-profit programs also provide flexible, often on-line programs that focus on job preparation.  They offer short-term certificates as well as degrees.  That flexibility helps working adults, and some traditional-age working-class students may well find alternative settings more comfortable and accommodating than traditional community colleges or four-year public universities.  The focus on training for specific jobs may appeal to the practical attitudes of many working-class students, as well.

Such schools often target lower-income students, and they both enroll and graduate higher percentages of minority students than do traditional colleges.  A study commissioned by Corinthian found (perhaps not surprisingly) that they offer a good value for working-class students: such schools “increase access and student success among first-generation, low-income, and non-traditional students better than two-year public colleges.”  In a report prepared for the Imagining America Foundation, an organization that provides scholarships for students attending for-profit “career colleges,” Watson Scott Swail claimed that career colleges achieved higher graduation rates than public or private institutions.  The National Center for Education Statistics disagrees.  Its 2008 report shows for-profit 6-year graduation rates at just 24.5%, compared with 55% of students at public institutions.

Faculty at some for-profit schools work hard to provide high-quality education.  But some of these schools encourage or even require faculty to use questionable methods or pitch course expectations low.  Several of my former graduate students have taught at a for-profit near Youngstown State.  They describe the “college prep English” courses there as centered on grammar drills and worksheets, while “college writing” focuses on the “five-paragraph essay,” a model widely discredited by experts in composition.  The curriculum is tightly prescribed and very different from what we teach in first-year writing courses offered to very similar students at our open-enrollment university.  The education at the for-profit is significantly less challenging and substantive than what students would get at the university.  Asking less may help raise graduation rates, but it cheats students.  One of my colleagues said that her students at the for-profit school believe they are getting the same quality education, in both substance and cultural value, as they would get at the university.

The Corinthian study claims that for-profits “do a better job in helping advance students, leading to higher wage gains upon employment and more manageable debt burden.”  Specifically, the report finds that students generally see a wage gain of about 54%, comparable to what they’d get with a community college degree.  Most for-profit schools promote their programs as good preparation for high-demand careers.  While defining college entirely in terms of job preparation is problematic, as Tim Francisco pointed out last week, it’s equally true that for many young adults, job training programs are a good fit. For some students, learning a skilled trade would be a better choice than a more academic program.  Despite the popular belief that “everyone” should go to college, some students who might struggle at four-year universities would thrive in practical training programs.  Further, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the employment categories that will see the most growth over the next few decades require either specialized training or none at all.  For those jobs that require some training – manicurists, for example, or licensed practical nurses — some for-profit training programs may be a fine option.

Yet, as we’ve discussed here before, many of those jobs pay very poorly.  The New York Times reported earlier this year that students often enroll in for-profit schools expecting to land high quality jobs, only to discover that being a line cook or a manicurist doesn’t pay very well.  Worse, tuition at most for-profit schools is significantly higher than at public institutions.  A Government Accounting Office report provided a case in point: “A student interested in a massage therapy certificate costing $14,000 at a for-profit college was told that the program was a good value. However the same certificate from a local community college cost $520.”  Students who either pay out of pocket or take out loans for $30,000 dollar degrees that lead to $22,000 a year jobs are right to feel resentful.

Meanwhile, for-profit schools claim that they do not receive taxpayer support, while both public and private non-profits rely on state and federal funds for operations and research.  Of course, students attending for-profits do receive support from taxpayers, in the form of loans and Pell grants, and their loan repayment rates are considerably worse than those of students attending non-profit schools.  According to an Education Department report, 43% of those who default on student loans attended for-profit schools, even though only 26% of borrowers attended such schools.  For-profits may not receive direct funding, but without government loan programs, many of their students could not attend college.  And many of those who attend such schools don’t earn enough to pay back their loans.

That imbalance lies at the heart of the “gainful employment” concept of the new regulations.  It asks schools to demonstrate that the cost of a program does not exceed a reasonable percentage of typical earnings for graduates and to show that graduates are paying off their student loans.  A program would be deemed ineligible for federal loans for students if less that 35% of graduates were successfully repaying loans.  That’s why for-profits and their allies are fuming, though as Inside Higher Ed points out, the new regulations are likely to make just 5% of for-profit programs ineligible for government loan programs.  About 55% would be restricted in some way.

Even worse, the GAO study found clear patterns of deception and pressure in recruiting, and admissions counselors at several schools encouraged applicants to lie on their government financial aid forms.  Undercover investigators applied to 15 for-profit schools around the country.  Every single program “made deceptive or otherwise questionable” claims.  At most schools, applicants were given inaccurate information about job placement rates, job openings, and potential earnings.  Some applicants were pressured to sign contracts without having a clear statement of program costs.  If for-profit education is so good, why do so many programs rely on high-pressure tactics and misrepresentation to recruit students?

No doubt, many working-class students benefit from alternatives to traditional 2- and 4-year college programs.  They may offer greater flexibility, programs focused on preparation for jobs that don’t require a traditional degree, or a focus on working-class and minority students. Some for-profit schools offer high-quality and affordable programs, provide students with accurate and smart advice about how to balance college debt with employment potential, and assist students in finding good job placements.  They provide a viable alternative for working-class or any other students.  If others can’t make a profit without misrepresentation and exploitation, they should be shut down.   I guess it’s pretty simple after all.

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies

Thinking Through Stories: Journalism Education, The Liberal Arts, and the Working Class

I’ve been thinking and writing a lot lately (as have many others) about the state of the university, the media, and the role of liberal arts education in both, and how the shifting ideas about each might affect working-class students, and since I’ve titled this entry, “Thinking Through Stories,” I want to begin with a story.

In my Feature Writing Class last week (the title is a holdover from when our curriculum was heavily centered on traditional newspapers), students were vetting and brainstorming possible topics for narrative journalism pieces that they had gleaned from clippings from our local newspaper. I wanted them to understand that most of the best “feature” pieces, while sometimes distinguished from “news,” are sparked by news values.

One student offered a brief clip about a pregnant Amish woman killed in a collision between a horse drawn buggy and an automobile, in one of the several bucolic Amish communities within a short driving distance from the de-industrialized cityscapes of Youngstown.

His peers peppered the conversation with questions critical to the story: How many of these accidents occur on average? How many lives are lost? How safe are the horse drawn buggies, and are there any regulations for transporting children in them? All of these questions are essential to fully reporting the story, and yet I wanted them to think in broader terms, to identify themes or points of connection that make for great narrative.

A young woman offered up a statement of theme that was both simple and powerful, one that has stayed with me since that class: “It’s about two very different cultures traveling on the same road.”

From this theme the students worked through many of the complexities of the story, identifying possible reporting and writing practices and noting what pitfalls or traps the journalist might also encounter: What kind of access is realistic? How can he avoid coming off as a mercenary cultural tourist? A common thread that emerged from the discussions of this tragedy was how little most of us really know about the people of these communities, residents of towns that many of us routinely bisect in our cars on trips to the outlet mall.

Regardless of whether this story pans out, the value lies in the thinking process, which reveals how journalism and journalism education engage strongly with the premises of liberal arts education. A narrative piece done well, I tell my students, traverses back and forth between the specific and the broad.  It draws clarity from disparate sources of insight and information, from all of the sources of information reporters know—data, interviews, and of course, observation. It is relevant, but not necessarily in the narrowly focused, “what does this have to do with me?” way that has become a misguided mantra for both media and higher education. And students who do journalism well use knowledge they have gathered from many courses and disciplines—history, sociology, political science—to name a few.

It is, or should be, our greatest challenge as educators to help students become curious about people and ideas they do not know.

When we step back and look at the changes in the journalism profession and responses to these changes, an interesting microcosm emerges. Technology and consumer demands have radically altered the business model, and those of us charged with preparing future journalists are having hard conversations about how best to meet the challenge. We know that our students’ chances of landing a traditional job, especially on a newspaper, are slim at best.

And yet, they still come—and in increasing numbers. Reasons for this are varied and speculative and many (myself included) have written about them before. One of the most compelling, however, is that, according to Lekan Oguntoyinbo, “the continued relevance of journalism schools may also lie in the underlying motives of a new generation of students choosing journalism as a major. Many of these students increasingly see journalism as a liberal arts major that teaches them skills for an array of other professions.”

Many students see the profession itself more broadly , in part because journalism has expanded to so many new channels and forms, and they  understand the opportunities that can come from a journalism education that maintains a broad liberal arts viewpoint. Yes, we teach technology now, but many of us see it not simply as a means to a vocational end, but rather as a kind of rhetorical tool– we teach students how different platforms can convey different elements of compelling true stories. Approached from this perspective, journalism education in a multi-platform age can be a powerful means of returning to the roots of liberal arts education, which at its core should provide students with a set of tools applicable to many opportunities.

We might note, too, the parallels between these conversations and similar debates about the future of liberal arts in the university.  As student “success” is increasingly defined as securing a job related to one’s major, politicians and policy makers reward universities for narrowly focusing education on technological task-driven skill sets aligned with one particular job in one particular industry.

This emphasis applies especially to education for working-class students.  For them, the implications of this shift are far-reaching, for as I have written before, it essentially creates a two-tier system in which liberal arts training is reserved for elite private colleges, while public and access institutions become the workforce training centers.

As a consequence of educational policy and missions that enforce this distinction, even unwittingly, many working-class students will essentially wind up paying for the job training once undertaken by employers—an unfair equation at best. Perhaps more importantly, this approach encourages students to define their futures at a very early age and deprives them of the kinds of choices that a liberal arts background may provide. Our journalism students won’t necessarily find jobs as journalists, after all, but they will find that the research, critical thinking and communication skills they develop now will help them navigate many other professions and seize many other opportunities

Even more troubling, this shift to the narrow vocational education may deprive these graduates of the tools they need to realize their greatest potential, for, as Valerie Saturen observes:

If a liberal arts education becomes a luxury, the implications for civil society are profound. A broad-based higher education provides an environment that fosters the critical thinking skills that are the hallmark of informed, responsible citizenship. Disparity in education equals disparity in power. By making a well-rounded education available only to the elite, we move one step closer to a society of two classes: one taught to think and rule and another groomed to follow and obey.

To be sure, this trend is not likely to diminish anytime in the foreseeable future, but public universities should assume a more thoughtful and innovative stance in negotiating the demand for vocational training, and perhaps take a page from journalism. We can teach students the practical skills required to land a job, but we can also do a better job of integrating all that the university has to offer. We can revitalize the role and the mission of liberal arts to teach our students to negotiate between the specifics and the broad implications and foster the kind of critical thinking that will make students, to borrow a term from business, “entrepreneurial” in the very best sense of the word—well rounded, intellectually agile, and capable of navigating the increasing complexities of a changing world.

Tim Francisco, Center for Working-Class Studies

What Workers Really Need This Labor Day

For some, Labor Day marks the end of summer, one of the few remaining days to have a cook-out, and the time of year when public-school children return to school from summer vacation. For others, Labor Day is when retailers sell items at summer clearance prices and, before “winter white” clothing became fashionable, the last day to wear white shoes.  But, officially, Labor Day honors the contributions of working men and women to the growth and prosperity of our nation. This Labor Day, we should be especially proud of the dedication and hard work of American workers who are expected to do more with less as organizations continue to eliminate jobs and lay off workers.

  • According to a labor market survey by the Society for Human Resources Management , job market conditions have improved since last year, but large-scale hiring has yet to occur.  About one-third of the surveyed human resources professionals in public-and-private sector expressed some level of pessimism about job growth in America during the second quarter of 2010. They reported that companies were increasing the workloads of their current staff rather than hiring new workers and predicted that 73% of hourly service workers and manual laborers would be affected by layoffs planned for the second quarter of 2010.  The good news is that fewer of these workers were laid off than had been predicted (about 59% versus the predicted 73%). The bad news is that job growth has been miniscule.  Staffing levels at most companies remain flat, and most economists expect the national unemployment rate to remain near 10% throughout  2010.
  • In a different survey, 93% of workers who performed additional work on the job said they had not been paid for the additional work they performed. Two serious implications of this report are that workers perceive that employers are exploiting them, and many workers are suffering from a level of work overload that puts their health and safety (and that of consumers) at risk.
  • Research also indicates that the working class continues to be more vulnerable to job loss and wage theft than higher-income groups. While even senior executives may be found in unemployment lines these days (see Ulrich Beck’s The Brave New World of Work), research indicates that manual laborers and low-waged service workers are most likely to be found in unemployment lines.  Not surprisingly, 6 out of 10 Americans feel less secure about their jobs compared to a year ago.
  • Wage growth is at a stand-still.  In fact, earnings have actually decreased for many workers who have managed to keep their jobs or find new jobs during the current Great Recession.  A recent report by the Economic Policy Institute indicates that the annual household income of the typical working family has declined by more than $2,000, despite the increased productivity of American workers.  Additionally, income and wealth inequality has increased over the last decade, according to the EPI report.  Between 2000 and 2007, more than half of the income increases went to the wealthiest 1% of U.S. households.

The collapse in wage growth, tremendous income and wealth inequality, and dramatic job loss has meant that the typical American worker now lives a lower standard of living, which may extend well into the future.  Confronted with such grim facts, who needs a rainstorm (or a Hurricane Earl) to feel uneasy this Labor Day weekend?

With mid-term elections in November, rain or shine, public officials are likely to keep their scheduled Labor Day appearances.  We should demand that candidates answer a few key questions:

  • What are you doing to create new jobs? How about an increased investment in job restoration and job creation? How about re-opening closed schools and rehiring downsized teachers? Any plans to re-open closed libraries, restore library hours, and return laid-off library personnel to work?  Wouldn’t schools and libraries that are adequately staffed and funded be needed to produce those 8 million more college graduates that the Obama administration says we need in order to compete successfully in the global economy in 2020? Where are those “green jobs” you promised American workers during your last political campaign?
  • What are you doing to institute livable wages?  What about an increase in the minimum wage? Both these things would decrease the number of working poor in America, don’t you think?   What incentives have you given employers to provide child care assistance, especially to low-waged, single mothers? You talked about making the world safe for democracy.  Could you add making the workplace safe for workers to the national agenda?

What workers really need this Labor Day are straightforward answers to these questions.  Instead of lip service about the importance of their concerns, our leaders should pursue more genuine efforts to resolve the serious issues many face.

Denise Narcisse, Center for Working-Class Studies