Compared to the US, Britain is generally regarded as having more rigid, tightly enforced, and widely understood social class barriers. With its well-known scene of blindfolded children moving on a conveyor belt toward becoming ingredients in a social sausage, the movie The Wall (and music: Another Brick In The Wall (Part 2)) asserts the salience of class for British education. It does so via the refrain (presumably addressed to all teachers, not just the sarcastic one depicted in the video): “All in all, you’re just another brick in the Wall.” The film highlights how people experience class during ordinary interactions in school and thus offers a sharp reminder of the relationship between class and anger in education.
I once invited a group of aspiring American teachers to (re-)view and comment on the significance of the “The Wall” in relation to their own potential careers. While these largely middle-class undergraduates understood the anger expressed in the video and found it amusing, they didn’t see its relevance to their experience as students and the experiences they anticipated they might have as teachers. Why did my largely middle-class students respond to the video differently than I had anticipated?
In their 1986 study of anger (and anger management) in American history, social historian Peter Stearns and psychiatrist Carol Stearns assert that changes over time in the aims and methods of emotional control “help explain class relations in American society, particularly in the twentieth century.” After World War II, they say, the job of guidance counselors emerged in schools. The task was to reduce the number of “adjustment problems,” including angry students. By the 1950s, survey responses suggested that teenagers were intolerant of expressions of anger by peers, preferring instead a “cool” stance. Beginning in the 1960s, another aspect of anger in school was partially managed in a different way: as grade averages trended upward, angry student-teacher confrontations became less likely.
Despite the muted expression of anger, the classroom remains what social psychologist Bernard Weiner calls a microcosm of the social universe, a courtroom where we render and receive moral judgment. When people feel negatively judged, anger is a likely response and students/faculty of working-class origin are likely targets of negative moral judgment. As British sociologist Andrew Sayer puts it in The Moral Significance of Class, “the working classes are both imagined or expected to be able to compete on equal terms with others and [at the same time] expected to fail.”
How can these two expectations go together? It is widely believed that the US is a meritocratic society: where we end up, most people think, is based (mostly) on individual merit. In other words, we get what we deserve. If so, how do we account for “failure”? The availability of a free public education means that educational (and occupational) achievement must be attributed to personal characteristics. In other words, we deserve what we get.
There is, however, abundant evidence that education in the US is less meritocratic than widely believed. After all, the teaching staff and management of educational institutions are largely informed by the perspectives of the (not always egalitarian) middle class. Given that, what might a working-class person experience upon entering (or competing for entry to) a cathedral of learning? Class contempt.
Class contempt, according to Sayer, consists of negative judgments often based on taste and style that “[spill over] into judgments of moral worth.” Social class is “given off” by cues of accent, language, demeanor, possessions, and lifestyle and differences indicated via these cues can trigger the expression of class contempt (in either direction). Perhaps it was for this reason that Pierre Bourdieu described the belief that we can escape our social origins (by merit or other means) as a “dream of social flying, a desperate effort to defy the gravity of the social field.”
Even at its mildest, Sayer suggests, class contempt can significantly constrain the life chances of those who experience it. Expressions of class contempt (sometimes even by those who study the working class) need not be deliberate, and those who are the targets of it need not even be aware that contempt is being expressed.
The link between class contempt and anger is not necessarily direct: anger, as an effect of class contempt, can be mediated by shame. Shame, according to Sayer, “is commonly a response to the real or imagined contempt, derision or avoidance of real or imagined others, particularly those whose values are respected.” Consider the following example.
A working-class student in the last year of middle-school had very high achievement scores and difficulty behaving “appropriately” in classes. The student had independently read about the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations and asked a favorite teacher (who knows the student extremely well and teaches History) for the recommendation required to enroll in an advanced course in Ancient History the following year. The teacher replies he cannot write a recommendation because the student may misbehave, thus reflecting poorly on the teacher. The teacher later confides to a colleague that he did not want the student to experience disappointment. During the remainder of the middle-school year, the student experienced shame; the following year, the student experienced anger, declaring “they care more about my behavior than whether I can think.” Angry in part over the denial of that dream of scholastic upward mobility, the student left school at age sixteen. Does this story depict class contempt or simply the negative evaluation of a student who happened to be of working-class origin? This complex question is difficult to answer. We can see class contempt more easily in an evaluation task completed in the late 90s by another group of aspiring teachers. I gave the students a list of ten hypothetical candidates for selection into a hypothetical high school advanced placement (AP) course that only had two openings. I asked them to rank order the candidates. The candidates varied by last name, gender, grade point average, test scores, number of days absent or truant, and parent occupation. The results were more or less as I expected: the candidate with the highest test scores, a number of truancies, and a parent employed as a non-professional was ranked the lowest, while the candidates with Anglo-Saxon sounding names and professionally employed parents were ranked the highest.
When I pointed out that the most able candidate (based on test scores) was being denied access, several students argued rather vociferously that the candidate had misbehaved and thus did not deserve the opportunity. When I pointed out that many students in my class may have benefitted from a similar ranking process in high school (many having been enrolled in programs for “the gifted”), several replied that they had deserved to be highly ranked, either because of individual merit or (when evidence of this might have been equivocal) by virtue of having “come from a good family.” These results, and – especially – the student justifications, suggest the operation of class contempt. The possibility that some of my former students are probably ranking actual candidates even now suggests the relevance of the ranking exercise and its outcomes to the contemporary educational scene.
Anger sparked by expressions of class contempt can lead to interpersonal struggle or social transformation. “The Wall” makes the expression of sarcasm by a teacher visible as an expression of class contempt. Only by seeing ordinary interactions in social as well psychological terms can we move from shame to an anger that may help ensure that the American Dream is achieved more on the basis of merit and less on basis of class, race, sex, gender, age, ethnicity, religion, or politics.
Roy Wilson has published in the areas of sociology, computing, and education and has worked in industry and academia in the roles of employee, consultant, teacher, and researcher.