What Working-Class Universities Should Do

Sherry Linkon’s two recent blogs react to a new study that found working-class students (defined by parents’ income and education) are less likely to graduate from a “working-class college or university” than from elite, more selective schools (defined by selectivity).  As someone who took seven years at four different universities to get a bachelor’s degree and who subsequently spent three decades teaching undergraduate working adults at a “working-class university,” this probably doesn’t concern me as much as it should.  The causal weight Sherry gives to what she fears is our “low expectations” of working-class students and a “dumbing down” of the curriculum concerns me more.

Both the study and Sherry have good reasons for this concern, but my fear is that it plays into a larger dialogue that I’m convinced is mostly negative for both students and faculty at colleges and universities with large numbers of students from working-class families.

“Dumbing down” is an ugly phrase, but I’m pretty sure I do it if you compare my teaching to what goes on at elite universities.  For example, many of my students are poor (and slow) readers, so I assign shorter readings and spend more time than I should in breaking readings down into their parts for discussion and, indeed, in requiring students to pay a lot of attention to how the organization of a piece of writing affects its meaning.  This means I do not cover content they should be learning.  Likewise, far too many students can’t work percentages or do other arithmetic that are about equally important to dealing with academic facts and figures as they are in daily life. Teaching arithmetic is not something our (or, so I’m told, any university) math department is willing to do.  So in many of my classes, I take time away from other things to drill students on working percentages.

Likewise, I’m not as interested in “challenging” my students with “more demanding” material as I am in trying to engage and sustain their interest in whatever we’re studying and their commitment to improving their reading, writing, thinking, and communicating skills.  This is based on a pedagogy of taking students where they are and doing what I can to help them improve.  This – merely sustained interest and improvement — is surely a low expectation, but I’m convinced it serves most of my students well.

Sherry’s notion that creating “a stronger atmosphere of achievement” might better serve working-class students could work for the higher-achievers who may find our curriculum not challenging enough to keep them intellectually engaged.  But it could also turn away the vast majority of middling students who already often feel disrespected as well as disabled in college classrooms, while actively pushing out the most poorly prepared who are also the most difficult to teach.

Like most teachers, I suspect, I have always aimed at teaching the middle because it’s the largest group of students, while paying more individual attention to the most poorly prepared.  Though I’ve had unusual circumstances (teaching general education seminars to adults), I have never felt guilty about cheating the high-achievers in my classes.  For one thing, they’re more capable of learning on their own.  For another, they often take a leadership role in class, others look to them for help, and they generally elevate the level of discussion (and learning) regardless of what I do.  As a rule, I need them more than they need me.

For the great middle group, however, I think it is important to clearly understand that our task is different from that of the elite schools.  I reject the notion that “workforce preparation” is not “true education.”  The overwhelming majority of students in my classes are there because they want higher-paying, more secure, less dangerous and/or demeaning jobs.  To get and keep those they’re going to need to greatly improve a whole set of reading, writing, thinking and communicating skills that are characteristically “middle class” in our society, but which are of some universal value as well – even if often overestimated by us highly educated folks.

Raising expectations may be a good idea in many instances, but to foster a “stronger atmosphere of achievement” would be to heighten the already heavily middle-class cultural atmosphere of higher education as a whole.  Because of tenure and other protections for academic freedom (now eroding), university faculty and our middle-class professionalism have an unusual degree of autonomy from ruling-class and managerial oversight.  All universities, partly as a result, tend to be hyper-middle class in our ethos and culture – a culture that, as Sherry says, “emphasizes individual success and competition,” a more meritocratic place than most, and one that values individual achievement above all else.  Indeed, for a working-class student a university is where one is socialized into the values, the ways of thinking and behaving of “the educated middle class.”

Barbara Jensen, Annette Lareau, and others have argued that there is a distinctly different working-class culture, one that is much less achievement-oriented, more bonded to people and places, and one that often sees middle-class ways as lacking in “personal integrity and sincerity and [having] poor interpersonal relations,” as Michele Lamont has found.  If this is true, and I believe it is, then the college experience for working-class students is inevitably a clash of cultures in a way it can never be for middle-class students.  Heightening that clash could be good for some of our students, but it would be bad for more.  What’s more, it would be bad for most faculty, I think, because it would make it harder for us to value and learn from the good things in working-class culture.  It would make our classrooms more adversarial than they are now, and over time it would likely lead to the kind of middle-class self-righteousness I associate with wannabe second-tier universities.

For me, being a “working-class university” is an aspiration.  You shouldn’t get that designation simply by having a large proportion of first-generation college students or by having more faculty and administrators from working-class backgrounds, or even by providing a supportive environment for working-class students.  These are necessary but not sufficient conditions.  To earn that title, a working-class university must be a place where working-class and middle-class cultures meet to feed and water each other, a place where certain middle-class skills are effectively taught along with some manners and mores, but where students are not required to abandon the entirety of their culture (often including their existing network of family and friends) in order to get a better job.  A working-class university should also be one that, both in its classrooms and in its relation with the larger community, should be actively engaged in building solidarity with the two-thirds of American workers who do not now and never will have a bachelor’s degree.  Once that part of the working class has steadily improving standards of living, more secure jobs and incomes, there may be less need for workforce preparation and more room for “true education.”  Until that time, Youngstown State seems to many of us one the few places that is consciously living that aspiration.  My hunch is that creating “a stronger atmosphere of achievement” would undermine that.

Jack Metzgar

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3 Responses to What Working-Class Universities Should Do

  1. Tom P. says:

    This is mistake. Rutgers should be the model.


  2. Jack – These statements sound both condescending and yet have great meaning.

    “This – merely sustained interest and improvement — is surely a low expectation, but I’m convinced it serves most of my students well.” “This means I do not cover content they should be learning.”

    You are covering the content they need for where they are in their process. That IS meaningful.

    Are your expectations low? Or are they higher than the students expectations of themselves? If the latter, then your expectations are where they should be.

    I thank you Cathy for your comment. My family and I were speaking of what the economy has ‘forced’ us to do with our finances and lifestyle and business ideas. We find ourselves more creative (something I feel many of us have lost) and more engaged than we have in a long time. And you know what? Our greatest fear is that when the economy returns we will go back to our old ways.


  3. Cathy says:

    I have mixed feeling about this blog post. I graduated YSU in 2001, but I also attended several other universities (some of a higher tier than YSU.) As a person who has lived in Youngstown (both inner city and suburban) and has also resided in seven other states, I feel there is a unique culture at YSU and northeast OH. I appreciate that YSU is aware of the working-class culture but I also feel (and felt as a student) that overemphasis on the idea of what Youngstown is and the labeling of the culture in this community can smother, or marginalize, people. This classification of what it means to be “working-class” seems to not only cultivate the mindset of students but also how the world interprets our value.
    Because our society is a rank-and-file paradigm, I would argue that YSU, working-class communities, and working-class people should focus on the best aspects of their identity and boast the value of working-class culture. From a spiritual perspective, I would boast that the working-class follow a middle path in life and that, unlike their high raked human peers, working-class people find ways to make greater use of their minimal life styles. For example, several of my working-class friends wash and reuse their zip-lock sandwich bags because the expense of buying more of these little baggies is too costly for them. Yet, these green acts are never valued by the wealthy corporation who manufactures these little baggies and who also has more power in cultivating our value systems.
    I’m certain that if we studied the poor, working-class and lower middle, we could find many ideas and values that would empower a more kind and egalitarian society. Unfortunately, the majority of academics seem to demonize and devalue the identities I have listed above, and the context of American academic culture (and perhaps the growing westernized world) focuses on a top-down value system, even this blog has a touch of a top-down approach because those with greater SES power are the gate keepers to the framework of the blogs content. I feel that when the academic world truly values a bottom-up-approach to society the quality of the lives of those who have less in America (and the world) will be greatly improved, and I don’t mean by having more funds to shop at Wal-Mart…


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