As I wrote last week, I was initially surprised by the claim that working-class students are less likely to graduate if they attend a working-class college or university than if they go to a more selective school. While working-class schools do many things well, including providing support services, lower tuition and expenses, and a more comfortable atmosphere, we can and must do a better job of educating first-generation college students from lower-income households.
Renny Christopher understood this ten years ago. In an essay on teaching working-class literature in Teaching Working Class, she noted the differences between the undergraduates she taught at the highly selective University of California Santa Cruz and MA students at a much less selective California State University campus. The differences were not primarily about students’ abilities; rather, Christopher found that the MA students were less interested in exploring theoretical concepts or critical interpretation of literature. They expected a graduate course in English to emphasize their personal connections with literary texts, because they had been trained to do so. Some of the more privileged students at UCSC resisted the course content, but they were quite willing to engage with challenging material and ideas. Her experience persuaded Christopher that “working-class students are oppressed and cheated in both elite and nonelite educational arenas” (220).
Christopher’s experience echoes Jean Anyon’s findings about how working-class and middle-class schools approach education. While her work focused on K-12 education, her findings should challenge those of us who teach at working-class colleges and universities. According to Anyon, working-class schools focus on controlling students’ behavior and teaching students to follow directions, fill in worksheets, and memorize facts. In other words, working-class schools have long provided “workforce preparation” rather than true education. At middle-class and elite schools, students learn to explore problems, develop their own analyses, and see themselves as knowledge-makers, not just knowledge-consumers.
Do these patterns play out on the college level? Certainly, many working-class institutions these days emphasize workforce preparation, in part in order to foster local economic development and help disadvantaged students improve their individual economic positions. At elite colleges, and often even at flagship state universities, faculty and administrators understand that students are likely to succeed professionally regardless of what they study. Such institutions emphasize research for faculty and, increasingly, provide rich opportunities for students to pursue research, as well. This approach prepares students for entrepreneurship and management, for graduate study and the professions. As Christopher noted, her elite students had learned to grapple with theory and criticism, while her working-class students had been trained to see such abstract thinking as useless. At the working-class institution, she says, students “are not invited into the realm that the true holders of power in our society inhabit, that of theoretical abstraction” (220).
These different missions reinforce students’ attitudes toward college. Many students go to college these days with stronger interest in getting a diploma than in learning, an attitude that reflects national discourse that defines higher education as a requirement for getting a good job but not as an exploratory, developmental, educational experience. For working-class students, this instrumentalist attitude may be even stronger, since the best way to justify the cost of higher education is in economic terms. And public discourse about education encourages students not to care about what they learn and focus only on getting the degree as easily and quickly as possible.
If we want to provide all college students with a good education, many things need to change, from access to funding to the very idea that the only way of measuring college success is years to graduation. Educational inequality reflects and is reinforced by the social and economic system, and change has to happen in many parts of that system. As faculty, our ability to change public discourse and policy may be limited, but we can and must challenge the definition of higher education as job preparation.
Along with critiquing this definition and being conscious of the challenges that our working-class students face (at institutions of all kinds), those of us who teach at working-class institutions must take responsibility for what happens in our own classrooms.
Is it possible that one of the reasons working-class students succeed at more selective institutions is that more is asked of them? Might this not encourage students to wrestle with complex problems and difficult materials? On the other hand, I worry that our efforts to accommodate working-class students’ needs might inadvertently encourage them to expect less of themselves and to view college as just another hoop to go through.
I don’t mean to disparage my hard-working colleagues at working-class institutions around the country. Most of us are passionate about serving our students well. As I noted last week, we sometimes ask less of our students because we think that will help them. We want them to succeed, so we accommodate their busy lives and work schedules.
And yet, we’re frustrated when students who refuse to do the reading, continue to write muddled papers well into their college careers, skip class and thus don’t learn how to do projects well, and so on. The temptation, often, is to “dumb down” courses because our students aren’t ready for challenging readings or assignments.
When I hear these concerns from my colleagues, I have to wonder whether we can’t find a different solution. Instead of asking for less, and possibly cheating our students, couldn’t we give them both serious challenges and serious instruction that helps them learn how to do better work?
Many of those who teach at working-class institutions feel conflicted about how we can best serve our working-class students. But we don’t have to choose between two evils. We can raise our expectations and teach our students how to manage difficult readings and abstract thinking. We can be flexible enough to help them navigate overloaded schedules and demanding enough to engage them in the education that is taking up so much of their time and money. Painful as it is, we can even talk with them about the inequities of the system, about how working-class students are usually encouraged to get less out of school, and we can encourage them to demand more, of us and of the system.