I’m teaching a course on working-class culture this semester, a course that always reminds me in forceful ways of just how complex and elusive a topic class is. That’s one reason why it often gets left out of the curriculum. In a radio interview a few years ago, I asked two professors from elite institutions why their programs on gender, race, and ethnicity didn’t address class more directly. Their answer was simple: “class is too difficult.” The difficulty has three sources, I think.
First, class is difficult not because it’s invisible in American culture, as some have claimed, but because the way we talk about it creates misconceptions. In contrast to the survey data Jack Metzgar wrote about here a few weeks ago, my students seem to think that identifying someone as working class is rude. They have learned that we aren’t supposed to notice social differences or to draw attention to anyone’s disadvantages. Focusing on someone’s class – especially if that person is working-class — seems comparable to focusing on a disability or emphasizing someone’s race. They’ve learned that we’re supposed to focus on how everyone is human and equally valuable.
My students also often insist that upward mobility is available to everyone. Working-class people, that belief suggests, are therefore responsible for their economic struggles. They must not be smart enough or work hard enough. On the other hand, upper-class people fare no better in many students’ eyes: rich people, they tell, don’t appreciate what they have, and they’re lazy, self-absorbed fools. In other words, my students define middle-class as normal, and everyone wants to be normal.
The second reason why class is such a difficult topic to make sense of is that the experts – people like me – refuse to define it clearly, insisting that it’s complex, shifting, contingent. While many scholars base their approaches in the reasonably clear Marxist distinction between those who own the means of production and those who sell their labor, many others complicate the definition by considering multiple variables such as education, income, social status, and so on. It’s easy to get caught in an unending debate about an individual’s class status, and my students find such debates confusing. But, as I remind them, Working-Class Studies is less about how we define class and more about how it affects people’s lives. That leads us to focus more on culture and discourse. We’re more interested in how working-class people think, write, act, and interact than we are with drawing sharp lines between classes. That makes our work complex, which is useful in academic terms, but that can also make it confusing.
I can handle these first two challenges by guiding students through readings, discussions, and applying what they’re learning to new situations. My students usually come away from a few weeks of concentrated examination of class theory and images of class with the vocabulary and conceptual models to think critically about how class works. They may not feel completely confident of their understanding even at the end of fifteen weeks, but, as I tell them, I’ve been studying class for more than fifteen years and I still struggle with the concept at times.
The last challenge of teaching about class is harder to resolve: class is challenging because it’s personal. It makes us all recognize aspects of our lives that we’d prefer to ignore. Talking about class makes us question our own social positions, and students sometimes find that their long-cherished identities as middle-class people begin to shift as the course progresses. That’s often uncomfortable.
The discomfort is compounded when we talk about the limitations of upward mobility. Most of my students have a deep faith that getting a college education will improve their social and economic positions. They’re right. But they have to recognize the obstacles that could block their progress up the class ladder. Many are the first in their families to attend college, much less graduate school. They sometimes struggle not only to pay for school but simply to justify it. “What are you going to do with that?” their aunts and uncles ask at every family gathering. And the truth is that they don’t know: they’re pursuing degrees in English and American Studies that not only won’t make them rich but may not even lead to a job. And they’re attending a working-class regional state university has less status than a selective liberal arts college or well-known research institution. Simply put, they don’t want to wrestle with the contradiction between the ideal of higher education as a ticket to the middle class and their fears that maybe, in the end, they won’t be good enough to move up.
I don’t tell them these things to make them feel bad. Rather, I want them to understand that the deck may be stacked against them. They need to know that working hard might not be enough. I want them to understand that social class is not a reflection of individual worth or effort but rather the result of a social system that doesn’t distribute opportunity equally. I also want them to recognize the strengths of working-class culture, so that they can appreciate where they’ve come from and understand that moving up may bring loss as well as gain.
Working-Class Studies is complex and sometimes contradictory. I want my students to understand how class affects their lives, but I also want them to learn not to take it too personally. I hope that they will continue to work hard and dream big, but I also hope that they will recognize how their lives are shaped by social forces, not just their own efforts and abilities. Their futures may not rest completely in their own hands, and that’s a difficult lesson for anyone.