Tag Archives: Working-Class Studies Association

Summer Reading from Working-Class Studies

A cultural anthropologist from the “Southeast Side” of Chicago whose family is still living the half-life of deindustrialization three decades after the mills shut down.  A community organizer, journalist, teacher, actor, and musician who also writes poetry in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  A day laborer in Oakland and Baltimore who while waiting for work was taking field notes as a sociologist.  And a daughter of the Arky part of Arkansas reporting on poverty in the Ozarks.

These are the four winners of the Working-Class Studies Association’s awards for the best work of 2013.  Together they ably represent our diverse field both in subject matter and method, as they focus on different parts of working-class life while insisting on combining direct observation and experience with book learning and the wider contexts it can bring to immediate experience.

Christine Walley’s Exit Zero: Family and Class in Postindustrial Chicago won the Association’s C.L.R. James Award for Published Book for Academic or General Audiences.   Now an associate professor of anthropology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Walley was 14 years old when the steel mill where her father worked was the first of a series of mills and related factories that shut down in Southeast Chicago.    Employing ethnographic and other anthropological methods, she recounts her family’s and neighborhood’s history across a century of industrialization and deindustrialization, revealing stories that counter and undermine what she calls “the hegemonic narrative” of the immigrant and working-class experience in America.

Judges praised Exit Zero for “its combination of rigorous critical enquiry and vivid personal reflection.”  One judge said: “We have many books on deindustrialization, but this one stands out for the effective way it uses family memoir to demonstrate what was lost.”  Another judge, more elaborately, explained: “Methodologically, this is a great example of someone working within a particular academic discipline . . . but recognizing that . . . disciplinary expectations for research are too limiting to honestly describe a class-inflected situation” – and went on to praise Walley for the way she dealt with “the tension between the expectations for a certain kind of articulation in academia, and the directness, or even bluntness, of working-class vernacular.”

Walley and her husband, Chris Boebel, have nearly completed a documentary film, also titled Exit Zero, which covers some of the same stories in a different medium.  It will be released sometime in the coming year.  For other activities around the book and the movie, see The Exit Zero Project web site.

Hakim Bellamy is the first-ever poet-laureate of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and his first book of poems, Swear, won the WCSA Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing.  Bellamy is well-known in Albuquerque as a community organizer and journalist and is now a teacher, musician, and actor as well as a poet.  Swear was published by Working-Class Studies pioneer John Crawford’s West End Press.

Many of the poems in Swear are fiercely political, as Bellamy comments on current events, taking special inspiration from Occupy Wall Street and the Occupy movement.   But his politics are wide-ranging, including a vivid protest against public school budget cuts that eliminate the arts:

you excommunicate us from your classrooms

because we are not your trinity

of science, math and history

we are the intersection

crucified on your standardized “X”

. . . . .

you make lamb out of your flock

sentence them to seven deadly periods

and a hot lunch

 In the section “Letter to Hip Hop,” which contains a third of the poems, Bellamy celebrates the presence of poetry in public space:

so the poet left the sanctuary

                  back to the curbside pulpit

                  where pain

                  and worship

                  both have to be louder than the traffic

 

WCSA judges praised “the strong and uncompromising voice of this poet” and “poems that directly confront the social conditions and spit out rebellion.”  One judge simply said: “Bellamy’s depiction of the class divide is a punch in the gut.”

The WCSA John Russo & Sherry Linkon Award for Published Article or Essay for Academic or General Audiences went to Gretchen Purser for her article in Labour, Capital and Society, an interdisciplinary journal, published in English and French, that “provide[s] an international mix of perspectives on labour struggles.”   The article, “The Labour of Liminality,” details the practices of day-labor corporations in “a well-entrenched, multibillion-dollar industry” that makes its money by making work ever more precarious for “a predominantly homeless, and formerly incarcerated, African-American workforce in the inner cities of Oakland and Baltimore.”  As part of her research, Purser worked as a day laborer in both cities. She draws vivid portraits of and testimony from day laborers as they wait, sometimes fruitlessly, to be transported to a few hours of poorly paid work.   Purser is now an assistant professor of sociology at Syracuse University.

Monica Potts’s cover article in The American Prospect, “What’s Killing Poor White Women?” won the WCSA Studs Terkel Award for Media and Journalism.  The article builds on a study that found that while most Americans are living longer, the life expectancy of white women who have not completed high school has declined by five years, from 78 years to 73.  The researchers do not know why this has occurred over the last two decades, so Potts went to northern Arkansas, where she grew up, to talk with the numerous white women without high school diplomas there.   One of the judges said of Potts’s article, “The story of Crystal Wilson is gorgeously told and I like the way the writer weaves together the narrative with study findings.”  Others praised it as “very moving,” “powerful, sensitive, and forthright” and for showing “the ways in which poverty can impact all aspects of life.”  You can see more of Potts’s work at The American Prospect.

The high quality and variety of the numerous entries for this year’s awards testify to the growing importance of Working-Class Studies as a field.  As our award-winners do, most of our entries challenge “hegemonic narratives” in a society that often denies the existence of social class while routinely overlooking, stereotyping, and/or reductively simplifying working-class life and experience.  We have a long way to go to right the balance, but these books and articles provide road signs on the various paths forward.

Jack Metzgar

WCSA Past President

 

 

 

 

Summer Reading: WCSA Award Winners

Each year the Working-Class Studies Association (WCSA) issues a number of awards honoring publications in the field: books and articles, documentaries and dissertations.   A panel of judges identifies “excellent work that provides insightful and engaging representa­tions of working-class life, culture, and movements; addresses issues related to the working class; and highlights the voices, experiences, and perspectives of working-class people.”  The 2012 prizewinners were announced May 1 and offer outstanding examples of this work, across a range of genres: social history, poetry, media criticism, documentary film, and cultural studies.  The working-class people and cultures represented in these projects include Mayan market vendors in Guatemala City, high school football players in a small Texas oil town, blue-collar Baltimore police officers, Dominican-American kids on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, and residents of a depressed steel-town campaigning to keep their community hospital open.

The issues addressed by the five prizewinners are current and pressing, including the social costs of globalization and deindustrialization, the collapse of upward mobility, and the possibilities of allegiances across lines of class, race, and gender.  And the writing itself, in these varied accounts, is accessible and compelling, making for some excellent summer reading.  As one of the judges, Peter Rachleff, said of the large stack submissions he read for the C. L. R. James book award:

Every book made a significant contribution to the field of working-class studies, showed dedicated research and original thinking, and inspires the rest of us in the field to maintain our own efforts.  . . . The value of their work reached beyond the chosen subject matter in suggesting questions, analytical frameworks, and arenas for working-class studies, which many of us, regardless of our formal disciplines or fields, might pursue.

The winner of the CLR James Award for a book for academic or general audiences is J.T Way for The Mayan in the Mall: Globalization, Development, and the Making of Modern Guatemala (Duke University Press).   Way, who is now an Assistant Professor of Latin American History at Georgia State University, was previously the Director of CIRMA (Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamérica) in Antigua, Guatemala.  His book, which Rachleff calls “a veritable history of the making of the Latin American working class,” uses oral and literary sources as well as archival research to reveal the impacts of “development,” national and US-directed, on the people and neighborhoods of Guatemala City through the 20th and early 21st centuries.  The city’s contrasting street markets and glittering malls, corporate towers and sprawling shantytowns are products and symbols of globalized capitalism, with its attendant class segregations and racial violence.   But Way pays as much attention to the agency of Guatemala’s indigenous working-class people as he does to their exploitation and misrepresentation, including the story of “grass-roots everyday development that built neighborhoods and made them function… and the striving of ordinary individuals to survive even as their efforts defined the life and feel and texture of the land.”

The Tillie Olsen Award for Creative Writing went to Pittsburgh-based Italian-American poet and fiction writer Paola Corso for her collection of poems, The Laundress Catches Her Breath (CavanKerry Press).   The book’s epigraph by Arundhati Roy states, “Another world is not only possible, she is on her way. On a quiet day, I can hear her breathing.”  Catching one’s breath, though, is a struggle for a low-wage woman in a smoggy steel town, still living at home and doing her father’s laundry.  In the words of judge Jeff Gundy, “Paolo Corso’s laundress is a vivid, richly detailed character, hard-working, chain-smoking, grouchy and smart, memorably imperfect and entirely winning.”  She is also an “Heiress to Air” in a poem Gundy calls “brilliant, a moving tour de force that William Carlos Williams would certainly have loved.”  In the book’s final poem, the laundress “flashes a charge card and her middle finger then leaves her father’s house” to move into “A Well-Ventilated Basement Apartment.”   Mobility, it turns out, is possible, even for her, if not “upward,” at least into freer air.

The Studs Terkel prize for Media and Journalism was awarded to documentary film-makers Tony Buba and Tom Dubensky for their full-length feature We Are Alive: The Fight to Save Braddock Hospital.   Buba has made a number of films about his hometown of Braddock, Pennsylvania, in the Monongahela Valley steel district, a town hit hard by the effects of mill-closings and depopulation.  We Are Alive documents the struggle — in the streets, the courts, the press — to keep Braddock Hospital open after its new owner, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (UPMC), slated it for demolition.  Jack Metzgar comments:

We Are Alive is my top choice because the analysis is embedded in the story-telling and in the voices of the people documented.  The basic reporting narrative of the fight to save Braddock UPMC is clear, compelling, and engaging from beginning to end.  It also has spirit – not just a spirit of struggle, but of the glories of plainness in working-class life, even when it is creatively zany.   It leaves you not only with knowledge, but also a bit of sly inspiration.

Although the Braddock hospital was torn down (and a shiny new one built in the nearby, more affluent suburb of Monroeville), UMPC now faces broad public censure and a lawsuit challenging its status as a charity, which pays no property taxes while its CEO makes upwards of $6M a year.

The C. L. R. James award for the best article or essay was won by Tim Libretti of the English Department at Northeastern Illinois University.  His article “Working the Case: The Wire and Working-Class Cops on American Television” (in Blue Collar Pop Culture, Praeger) examines the motivations and dynamics of the team of Baltimore police investigating the city’s endemic drug trade.  Whereas much commentary on HBO’s hugely popular show focuses on the corrupt symbiosis between the political system, including the police, and the criminal organization, Libretti explores the possibilities for “non-alienated” labor on the part of individual cops working for the greater good, however compromised. Judging this category, Jim Daniels comments:  “What I admired about Libretti’s piece is that he was getting at a tension that exists in all workplaces—personal ambition vs. the larger good—in fresh, interesting ways.  This essay gets at why The Wire was such a transcendent TV show, and a lot of that has to do with work and class.”

Finally, WCSA honors emerging contributors to the field with the Constance Coiner dissertation award, won this year by Sara Appel, of Duke University, for Football Wishes and Fashion Fair Dreams: Class and the Problem of Upward Mobility in Contemporary U.S. Literature and Culture.   Upward mobility, Appel suggests, is a problem not only because it is now such a diminished possibility for the majority of Americans, but also because of the powerful ideological grip it holds on our national imaginary, including narratives in fiction, non-fiction, film and TV.   Through close readings of a range of current texts, including Terry Macmillan’s stories and the book/film/TV series Friday Night Lights, Appel illuminates an alternative social and cultural possibility: “a hopeful vision of collective accountability” visible in relationships based on romance, sports, education, neighborhood, etc.   Courtney Maloney comments:  “The nimble way [Appel] triangulates between the texts under discussion, her personal experience, and the pertinent economic/political contexts is cultural studies writing at its best.  Most importantly, her readings . . . expanded my thinking about the power of narrative to help us conceive what is possible in our current conjuncture.”

Together these prize-winning projects demonstrate the scope and vitality of cultural and scholarly production in working-class studies today.  Reading them, I was struck by a generosity of spirit and a love of their subject that animates all of them, and each one deepened my analysis and expanded my sense of the possibilities.  These works are sharp and nuanced in their representations of how class operates and how it can be contested.  At their best they show both a clear-eyed gaze on harsh realities and an equally clear recognition of how people who are up against it act in their own interests and care for those around them.   I look forward to seeing what work from 2013 will be honored next year.  The call for submissions will be circulated in September.

Nick Coles

Shout Working Class

Nearly 18 years ago, at the closing session of a conference on Working-Class Lives at Youngstown State University, we posed this question: if there were a Center for Working-Class Studies, what should it be doing?  We heard over 100 suggestions, ranging from “create a bibliography” to “start the revolution.”  Many of the recommendations focused on education, including a plea from a local steelworker for us to advocate for and provide a good education for working-class children like his.  Others emphasized public policy advocacy, working with unions, and helping to create spaces for working-class art and literature.

That year, a group of YSU faculty created the Center for Working-Class Studies, with modest funding from then Provost James Scanlon, who challenged us to get other faculty involved. Over the next dozen years, the CWCS organized five more conferences that laid the groundwork for the formation of the Working-Class Studies Association in 2006. We sponsored a lecture series that brought scholars, activists, and artists to Youngstown, where they spoke not only to the usual academic audiences but also to community groups, unions, and schoolchildren.  We collected oral histories with workers from the GM Lordstown plant, created an online archive of materials reflecting the many different ethnic and racial communities of the Mahoning Valley, called Steel Valley Voices, and published many articles and books about the working-class history and culture of this area.

With the generous support of the Ford Foundation, the Center was able to expand its programming.  Workshops for Ohio teachers and consultations with local schools helped bring attention to working-class history and literature into K-12 education, while an innovative “teaching on turns” project made college education accessible to steelworkers, whose constantly changing schedules made getting to traditionally-organized classes difficult.  We created a graduate certificate in Working-Class Studies and offered a focus within the MA program in American Studies at YSU.  Center members engaged journalism students at YSU in reporting on working-class people and issues.

In collaboration with the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative, we sponsored an interracial, cross-class community reading group to study mass incarceration.  With the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, we helped lead community discussions on class and race. The CWCS also created an extensive online resource collection featuring digital exhibits about working-class life, resources on working-class literature, and materials on teaching about social class as well as links to materials about labor and class from dozens of other projects, libraries, and organizations. We conducted opinion polls, helped journalists from around the world report on working-class voters and the continuing struggles of deindustrialized communities, and established this blog.

All of this might seem like bragging, but the point is simply to say that we have worked hard to make the Center for Working-Class Studies a dynamic, multidimensional project.  We’ve done some good and important work.

And now the Center is closing.  Over the past month, John and our administrative assistant, Patty LaPresta, with help from colleagues in the American Studies and History departments at YSU, have packed up the books, sorted through files, and moved dozens of photographs, posters, maps, and a/v materials to the Youngstown Historical Center for Industry and Labor.   The Center is closing because we have left YSU.  Sherry began a new position at Georgetown University in August, and John just retired.

But the real reason the CWCS is closing is not that we left YSU.  It’s that YSU left us. The administration at YSU was not willing to provide continued funding.  Had they been willing to create one position to replace our two positions, we could have hired a creative, activist academic organizer to continue this work.  They chose not to do that.  Some have suggested that our visibility as faculty union leaders and political activists may have contributed to that decision.  The official version is simply that the resources are not available.

We appreciate all of the kind words and support you’ve provided over the years, and we know that many of you share our sadness and anger at the Center’s demise. We hope you will also share our commitment to continuing to work with and for the working class.  As Jack Metzgar wrote in the fall newsletter of the Working-Class Studies Association, the Center may be gone, but Working-Class Studies is not.  Here’s what will continue.

First, we will continue to publish this blog, offering commentary on working-class lives, culture, and politics.  Since we began in 2008, the blog has received almost 300,000 page views, and it gets about 30,000 hits each week.  Last year, it was read by people in more than 100 countries.  It’s been listed as a Washington Post staff pick, cited in dozens of other blogs, and reblogged by the United Steelworkers, Portside, and others.  The most widely read piece, an early blog on “Stereotyping the Working Class,” has almost 18,000 hits – many more readers than anything we’ve ever published in an academic journal.  Put simply, people are listening, and we hope they will continue to do so.

Second, the endowment fund originally created through donations from many colleagues and supporters, as well as our own contributions, will now become the CWCS Legacy Fund.  It will provide continuing support for exhibits, research, and other projects on the working class at Youngstown State University and projects of the Working-Class Studies Association.  This ongoing work, most of it based in YSU’s Center for Urban and Regional Studies and the Youngstown Historical Center for Industry and Labor, will ensure that students, scholars, and organizers have the resources to keep asking critical questions about the issues facing workers and their families in the Mahoning Valley.  If you’d like to contribute, you may do so by downloading and sending in this form.

Third, the Working-Class Studies Association has already taken on much of the work started at the Center.  The WCSA organizes annual conferences, publishes a newsletter, and starting in January, a new WCSA website will become home to many of the online resources we created at YSU.  If you’re not already a member, we urge you to join and become active. Better yet, organize a session for the WCSA conference this June in Madison, reaching out to colleagues who haven’t previously participated.  The deadline for proposals is January 14.

Finally, the most important thing any of us can do to ensure that Working-Class Studies continues is exactly what Joe Hill told us decades ago:  don’t mourn, organize.  Teams of faculty and local activists around the U.S. and beyond have the potential to create many more centers for working-class studies.  Begin with small steps.  If you’re a student or academic, invite a guest speaker to campus, or just show a film, and announce the event widely.  Get the names and contact information of everyone who attends, and get a discussion going about shared interests and possibilities. If you’re an artist or writer, follow the lead of folks like John Crawford and Larry Smith and organize anthologies or magazines to help make working-class voices heard – and send a link to your work to the editors of the WCSA website, so we can list it.  If you’re an activist or organizer, advocate for attention to class as part of local, regional, and national debates about policy.

And whoever you are, whatever you do, follow the advice of former Youngstown steelworker John Barbero, who explained that after the mills closed, he made it a point to keep “shouting Youngstown.”  Now it’s our turn.  Shout working class.

John Russo and Sherry Linkon

We’re On to Something: Reflections on the WCSA Conference

From June 22 to 25, 2011, around 230 people attended the conference of the Working-Class Studies Association, held at the University of Illinois-Chicago.    The conference was chaired by Jack Metzgar, a regular blogger on this site, and organized by the Chicago Center for Working-Class Studies.   The conference theme of “working-class organization and power” reflected the urgency of the present moment when not only are public sector unions under attack, but also the very idea of the “public” as a shared set of social resources is being undermined by cutbacks or privatization.   Conference plenaries on organizing in Wisconsin, food justice, and the “corporatizing” of public schools explored these topics from multiple perspectives.  Panelists included teachers, parents, labor leaders, researchers, community organizers, a social worker, a farmer, and food service worker, along with academics.  Each panel both analyzed the challenges and described actions being taken to tackle them, in an inspiring demonstration of the unity-in-diversity necessary to carry our common work forward.  (The full conference program is available online.)

In this post I want to offer some reflections on the conference and on what it suggests about this formation we call “working class studies.”  But first, a little institutional history.

The first working-class studies conference in the US was held at Youngstown State University in 1995, and it continued to meet there every other year through 2005.  The conference was hosted by the Center for Working-Class Studies, which was founded in 1995 at YSU by Sherry Linkon in English, John Russo in Labor Studies, and several colleagues.  Since then, the WCSA conference has traveled to St Paul Minnesota in 2007, Pittsburgh in 2009, and Chicago in 2011.  In the meantime, in 2002 the Center for Study of Working Class Life, founded by economist Michael Zweig, began holding conferences in even numbered years at the State University New York – Stony Brook.    The sixth of these conferences on “How Class Works,” which also function as annual meetings of the WCSA, is planned for June 7 – 9, 2012.  (The call for proposals is available on the Center’s website.) The Working-Class Studies Association itself was launched in 2004 at the Stony Brook conference, with the aim of building a broader network “to develop and promote multiple forms of scholarship, teaching, and activism related to working-class life and cultures.”

These strands of WCSA’s work  – research into working-class issues, attention to education about class, and a focus on organizing (labor, political, community) – were fully present at the Chicago conference, along with another strand that has become salient at WCSA gatherings: cultural production in the forms of photography, film, poetry, music, and so on.   For example, a “Hard Times Poetry Slam” demonstrated the people’s art of slamming, now popular worldwide, which made its start in Chicago’s neighborhood clubs.  Another plenary, “The Working-Class Eye of Milton Rogovin” celebrated the work of a remarkable photographer who died January at age 101, with an exhibit of his work and a lecture by Janet Zandy at a packed gallery on Michigan Avenue.

A key feature of working-class studies from its beginnings has been interdisciplinarity, the way it draws not only on activism and art, but also on work from all the academic fields in which class can be productively studied.  One example of the benefits of this approach came in the session “Visualizing Work, Class, and Place,” a roundtable discussion of Derrick Jones’s eloquent and haunting film “631.”  This short documentary centers on the house where the Jones family lived, in the largely Black south side neighborhood of Youngstown, now decimated by the effects of deindustrialization.  In addition to the filmmaker, the panel featured historian David Roediger, geographer Carrie Breitbach, and Cultural Studies professor Kathy Newman, each of whom offered a response to the film, reading it within the terms of their discipline.

For instance, Roediger noted how the film corrects a silence in New Labor History about the interior lives of workers, Breitbach observed how landscape can be read to illuminate social justice issues, and Newman drew on her knowledge of film history to notice the horror-movie elements of footage inside the now-burned-out house.  Listening to these readings of his film from three perspectives, Jones commented, “We need this interdisciplinary focus because what we are creating is like a community, a neighborhood.  We each have skill sets that are needed to build it up.”  Or, as one audience member put it:  “The disciplines together expose the full humanity of the story, which is not only about one family, but lots of people, and the demise of a town.”

As at any conference, much of the pleasure and the learning comes around the margins of the official program of panels and plenaries, as people from all over the US, and several countries beyond, eat, walk, talk, and sometimes sing together.  One evening, for instance, I found myself playing guitar and swapping songs with a group that included miner-poet Rab Wilson from Scotland, who recited Robert Burns and sang a US truck-driving ballad; Italian scholar Cinzia Biagiotti, who sang “Bella Ciao” and Joe Hill songs; psychologist Barbara Jensen from Minnesota dueting with Betsy Leondar-Wright of Class Action on feminist folk-standards; and nurse-poet Jeanne Bryner from Ohio, who shared her haiku.   Of course, the fun and camaraderie of this “wayside learning” can’t really be communicated.

But other forms of knowledge from these meetings can and should be shared between conferences.  Although the WCSA has decided for the time being to hold off starting its own peer-reviewed journal, members at the WCSA business meeting are committed to developing the association’s website as a space for informal publishing and conversation, including conference papers, blogs, videos, and linking to social networks.

In this connection, let me insert a membership plug here:  If you like what you are reading in the Working-Class Perspectives blog and especially if you attended the recent conference, consider supporting the Association’s work by becoming a member (you can join online at the WCSA website). As a member you will be eligible for a discounted subscription to New Labor Forum, the interdisciplinary journal with which WCSA has an editorial partnership.  You will have access to our website, including the Working-Class Notes newsletter and book reviews.  And you will help make future conferences like the event in Chicago possible and affordable.  As a member, you’ll be the first to find out where it will be held and to get the call for proposals.

The 2011 conference concluded with a general assembly on “the future of working-class studies.” It was a rich and lively discussion, and specific suggestions will be taken up by the Steering Committee and reported on in the Fall edition of Working-Class Notes.  As a brief preview, broad questions raised included:

  • how to develop the international reach of working-class studies
  • how to foreground issues of poverty, along with labor, in the field
  • how to work more consciously at the intersections of race, gender and class
  • how to use our institutional know-how to set up new centers of working-class studies.

Why?  Because we’re onto something.  The fact that the working class constitutes a social majority is no longer “America’s Best Kept Secret” (to borrow the title of Mike Zweig’s key book on the subject), and the increased recognition of working-class struggles and cultures owes a lot to pioneers in our field like Zweig, Metzgar, Zandy, Russo, Roediger and Linkon, among many others.

As some at this conference argued, the key to a just and sustainable future for all of us may lie in the alliance of a clearly and inclusively defined working class with a professional middle class that also sees its interests opposed by a small capitalist class (or corporate-political elite, if you prefer) which has been conducting a very conscious class war from above for the past thirty years.  Globally, this capitalist class has been busy grabbing up the planet’s land and resources, converting the global proletariat into a “precariat” of impoverished casual labor, fueling (and denying) climate change, and undermining the democratic processes designed to give the rest of us a voice and vote over these matters.  So yes, we have our work cut out for us, but on the evidence of the Chicago working-class studies conference, this modest sector of the broader movement is up for it.

Nick Coles

Nick Coles teaches working-class literature at the University of Pittsburgh.  He is the president of the Working-Class Studies Association.

Working-Class Knowledge and School Knowledge

A couple of hours after I posted a recent blog exploring whether college education is the best option for working-class students, our administrative assistant at the Center for Working-Class Studies came into my office, saying she wanted to talk with me about it.  She raised a question I hear often from students at this largely working-class university: why do they have to take so many general education courses that don’t seem to have anything to do with their future careers?  Patty’s daughter is a college freshman, and like many, she’s frustrated with having to take courses that are not related to her major.  And as Patty pointed out, taking all those classes is expensive.

I gave my standard answer, one that reflects a widespread agreement, especially among liberal arts faculty: getting a broad education prepares you to be an active, critical member of society, someone who can adapt to new situations, understand the complexities of social debates, and make wise decisions about things like how to vote or how to respond to media messages.  As the American Association of Colleges and Universities explains it, this sort of liberal arts education provides multiple benefits to individuals and society:

Liberal Education . . . empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture, and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.

It’s this kind of general education that, to a great extent, defines the difference between most technical programs and a four-year college degree.  And it’s exactly what students who are pursuing B.A.s in very practical fields, like accounting or computer technology, sometimes question.

Patty and I talked for a while about her daughter’s experiences and the reasons why those liberal arts and general education courses might turn out to be useful, and then we both went back to work.  But the conversation kept nagging at me.  I had felt uncomfortable even as I offered my explanation, not because I don’t believe it.  I do.  I think that college courses on sociology, history, math, the basics of science, literature, philosophy, and so on help people learn to think better and provide an important foundation for citizenship as well as for navigating our complex world.

And yet, I couldn’t help but recognize the classism implied in my own explanation.  After all, school learning isn’t the only way of understanding how the world works.  Anyone who’s managed a household knows about interpersonal communication, social structures, and finance.  Anyone who’s worked for a large company understands the complexity of society and the ways that power can be distributed and deployed.  Those who work in the service sector, waiting tables or caring for young children, develop the ability to interpret social signals and navigate human relations.  Mike Rose has documented the intellectual knowledge of the working class persuasively in his terrific book, The Mind at WorkThe description of the book on his webpage reminds us of the nature of some of this knowledge, and why it matters:

The lightning-fast organization and mental calculations of the waitress; the complex spatial mathematics of the carpenter; the aesthetic and intellectual dexterity of the hair stylist—our failure to acknowledge or respect these qualities has undermined a large portion of America’s working population.

Nor is the gap between school learning and experiential knowledge absolute.  A number of for-profit universities grant credit for life experience, as do some accredited public institutions, especially those offering degrees online or for non-traditional students.  And many college faculty, myself included, incorporate experiential learning into our courses.  Experience is the best teacher is not just a cliché.

And yet, formal education does have much to offer.  It is at once intellectually broader and less immediately useful than education that focuses exclusively on preparing students for specific jobs.  In his most recent book, Why School?, Rose advocates for this view.  He writes,

I come from a working-class family, so I am certainly aware of the link between education and economic mobility. And as a citizen – and someone who has spent a lifetime in schools – I absolutely want to hold our institutions accountable. But I wrote Why School? to get us to consider how this economic focus, blended with the technology of large-scale assessment, can restrict our sense of what school ought to be about: the full sweep of growth and development for both individuals and for a pluralistic democracy. . . .  There’s not much public discussion of achievement that includes curiosity, reflectiveness, imagination, or a willingness to take a chance, to blunder. Consider how little we hear about intellect, aesthetics, joy, courage, creativity, civility, understanding.

Rose believes that the focus of contemporary education on students’ ability to “demonstrate on a particular kind of test a particular kind of knowledge” conflicts with American ideals about equality and citizenship. Equally important, he believes that parents, and presumably college students, also want more from education.

In today’s economy, as college tuition goes up, grants and other aid cover less of the costs, and the job market tightens, both students and parents – and yes, college faculty and administrators, as well – put increasing emphasis on the practical value of higher education, too often in ways that undermine its benefits.  Students rush through college, taking (and working) too many hours to have time for serious learning.  Curricula that focus too narrowly on job preparation leave graduates without one of the most important benefits of higher education: improved critical thinking and learning capabilities.  As Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa argue in Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, the students who learned the least in college were those in the most career-oriented programs – business, education, social work, and communications.  And those are the very majors that many students choose because they want to be sure their college education leads to a better job.

All of which puts humanities professors like me – and especially those of us in working-class studies — in a quandary.  How do I advocate for the value of what I teach, most of which emphasizes critical reading, writing, and thinking rather than job skills (humanities students are among the least likely to find work related to their college degrees), without denigrating the working-class knowledge that I also value?  How can I best articulate the value of  academic knowledge about the power structures and cultural forms that shape our diverse society (and reinforce its inequities) and developing the ability to navigate across social class divides while also encouraging students to value their own working-class culture and lived experience?

Every year, the Working-Class Studies Association conference includes multiple sessions addressing these and related questions.  We talk endlessly about the contradiction between valuing working-class culture and helping our students develop the cultural capital, skills, and credentials to leave the working class.  Despite all this talk, we haven’t reached many definite conclusions.  But I take heart in the ongoing conversation.  We may not be able to elide the contradictions of our work, but we are taking them seriously and talking together, across classes and situations, among faculty and students, in order to figure it out.  That may be the best we can do.

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies