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

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8 Responses to Working-Class Knowledge and School Knowledge

  1. I realize I am late coming to this party, but it is an essential discussion. I literally printed out this post to make notes of interest and highlight critical areas in my mind.

    First, to put my reply in context, a bit of my background – I am the second in my family to ever receive a Bachelor’s degree – I compressed 4 years of college into 10 years by working on drilling rigs in the oilfields and alternating going to classes. In some cases, when I was land based I worked as a consultant’s assistant and therefore lived on the rigs 24/7 – when I could I attended classes; otherwise I did my studies during the peaceful times between issues on oil rigs.

    I want to address three issues here:
    Critical thinking, communications and a broader perspective of the world. I do this based on my perspectives AFTER I received my formal education.

    Critical thinking – during that 10 years of going to college I learned there are many ways to look at a problem (we ARE about solving problems, right) and many ways to solve them. I developed critical thinking. I learned and was rewarded for not going with the flow all of the time. I learned to think for myself.

    Communications – I flunked (failed for the rest of you out there) a core required class in Geology twice – not to worry, this professor failed on average more than 50% of her students the first time through – and she would tell you that the way to pass the course is to learn to communicate effectively through developing your writing skills. This DID make me learn and to this day I continually learn about verbal and written communication skills. It’s a never ending process.

    Broader perspective of the world – I see this challenge frequently in the world and in my work – people that have that world-class experience and get the job done when no one else can are often dismissed out of hand when they open their mouth to speak on other subjects. Their viewpoint is limited, sometimes extremely limited, and it shows. The unfortunate lesson they learn here is that just because you can and do get the job done are not desirable company to keep – in this case perceived as a class issue, and one that I believe higher education with some liberal arts studies can go a long way to dissolving.

    There are so many other things that education taught me – formal research, using facts to make a case and intuition to know the case had to be made to name a few.


  2. me says:

    I am a working class mother who recently discovered she has adhd and other learning disorders that I went through high school not knowing about. I would like to go back to school but I hesitate because of having to take math courses. Math always held me back in school and I don’t want it to sound like an excuse but I am nervous that the time and money spent will be a waste when I have to take math only to fail it. I would like to get my paralegal degree and maybe eventually a law degree someday (even if I am in my 60’s) so that I can be a disability lawyer mostly working with working class families. I feel like this one subject is holding back from making that leap and I am considering just going to take Math first just to get it done with. Not only am I working class but i am non traditional and learning disabled. Right now I run my household and I have learned to overcome many things that are difficult for me, but the math still scares me.


  3. Pingback: are college degrees worth less than they used to be? « hal's house of pancakes

  4. Kelly Ohler says:


  5. Kelly Ohler says:

    “Both, with all their might, [Dr.s Crane and St. Peter], had resisted the new commercialism, the aim to ‘show results’ that was undermining and vulgarizing education. The State Legislature and board of regents seemed determined to make a trade school of the university….Every year the regents tried to diminish the number of credits required in scienc eand the humanities. The liberal appropriations, the promotions and increases to salary, all went to the professors who worked with the regents to abolish the purely cultural studies.”
    Willa Cather “The Professor’s House” pages 120-121. 1925.
    While I am encouraged by Sherry Linkon’s turn to embrace education for the working-class, I am astonished at the AA of C & U’s statements that she generously posted. A vague notion from the educated about the purpose and value of education surely translates into the pooh-pooh-ing of the value of critical thinking and the vagueness of a true understanding as to why EVERYONE should be educated not only in their field of interest, but liberally as well.
    Many people develop their sense of social responsibility and communication skills, or not, long before the enter college. And I don’t believe college can alter it that much. (Any studies out there?) And if a BA is to teach us how to understand how to vote, how to navigate through society, and understand social debate, well, then universities are certainly failing miserably on this account to produce so many Palins, Bachmanns, so many millions who cannot understand the reality in front of them or that they are being hoodwinked by smoothly stated rhetoric. As I began with Cather, I end with the point of quoting an almost century old text…..should not the purpose and value of education for ALL be that since we pursue the idea of a smattering of the basics of all subjects, that the point is that we can and should therefore make the necessary life connections among them? And that this connection between literature and economics, economics and history, history and literature, and round and round she goes, is how critical thinking is accomplished, how we can protect ourselves from being manipulated and hoodwinked, hwo we can best fashion our society and ourselves for the benefit of everyone. Is this not clearly seen, stated, and communicated by the educated so that it is understood simply and doesn’t have to be constantly defended? It all seems rather simple to me……


  6. The bottom line is, working class people go to college to get a piece of paper (the DEGREE) that enables them to get certain types of jobs. That piece of paper is extremely expensive – I have white collar friends who are literally A HALF A MILLION DOLLARS IN DEBT to get that piece of paper.

    All that airy-fairy talk about “critical thinking” is really missing the point!

    Working class students want to get “more bang for their buck” and if a class doesn’t contribute to their personal bottom line, they feel (correctly) that they are wasting a whole lot of their money.

    Gregory A. Butler


  7. Sharon Kinsella says:

    Years ago, I wrote an article in response to a middle class woman. She had stated that middle-class women needed to teach working class women things they know, like how to get a discount. I said that we didn’t need to know their methods, we had ours, that’s how we survived day to day. I’ll give you an example – I sold cars, new and used for a while. One of the skills you need for that is skill at how to read people quickly. We could see them when they were coming in the door. We’d smile, act like we were being solicitous and stomp them. Their was air about them of entitlement and that set them up from the get go. They smiled too much, spoke softly, tried to control the conversation. They had all their i’s dotted and t’s crossed. We knew that and had our own ways to take them and leave them smiling. Don’t ever presume that you know the ways of the world and the game. There are a million games and working class women have no time for that.


  8. Patricia Hills says:

    Good article. I agree with Sherry, and she put it nicely. I’ll pass it along to students.
    Pat Hills


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