Highway or River?

Is life more like driving on a highway or rafting down a river?  Do we choose a destination and then try to find a way to get there?  Or do we simply react to the varieties of experience presented to us, from dangerous rapids to calm stretches with time to look around, without knowing where the river is taking us?

I have presented this as a forced-answer either/or question to students to see if those from middle-class origins are more likely to choose the highway analogy and those from the working class, the river.  By and large they do, though nowhere near uniformly and not without a lot of ambiguity about how to define their class origins.

The discussions this initiates are much richer than I can convey here, but in general the highway analogy emphasizes that as individuals we choose our own destinations, subject to change over the life course, and it’s up to us to find our way, to set our goals and achieve them.  Conversely, the river analogy de-emphasizes goal-setting and emphasizes the need for alertness and responsiveness to what is immediately before us.  At least the way I present it, the highway analogy overvalues official knowledge while the river analogy overvalues direct experience.  The highway requires lengthy periods of preparation and planning – before getting on a highway or at chosen stops along the way.  But if life is a river, you’re already in it (and can’t get out), and you need to learn as you go – both from others in your particular raft and from experience.  Others (parents, teachers, and mentors) help you prepare for the highway, but then students envision driving alone.  Rafting down a river, on the other hand, conjures a group where individuals need an easy responsiveness not only to the river but to others in the raft.

While I’m pretty sure life is much more like a river, to me both analogies make sense and are fruitful ways of trying to picture basic assumptions people make about how to live as they live their lives – and these assumptions tend to correlate with class background and/or current class position.  Those from the college-educated and relatively affluent middle class tend to choose the highway analogy because they are inclined to believe that they are – or should be – masters of their own destiny.  Those from working-class and poverty-class backgrounds would like to be masters of their own destiny too, but they’re skeptical that such mastery is realistically available to most people, and meanwhile they had better pay attention to what is immediately before them, including relationships with others they count on and who are counting on them.

Whatever you think of these life analogies, they are a way to point to different assumptions, expectations, and predispositions that seed different ways of acting and being in the world – different cultures that are likely to misunderstand each other if they are unaware that others have different expectations and assumptions.   Highway people may tend to see river folk as passive, strictly reactive, and (famously) incapable of delaying gratification – and given the relatively insignificant role they give to the force of circumstance, they also tend to be highly judgmental.   River people, in turn, while often willing to defer to highway-drivers, are inclined to exaggerate how distant, humorless, unresponsive, and “cold” they are.   They also regularly worry that highway-drivers are “out of touch,” “lack common sense,” and are dangerously over-confident or “arrogant.”

Different cultures are bound to misunderstand each other, but the misunderstandings can be fewer and of less consequence when people are aware of the differences.  When Englishmen visit Italy, in a much-used example, they expect rather dramatic differences in ways of doing and being, and thus are more likely to learn from and enjoy the exposure – or at least to suspend judgment.   Awareness of cultural difference allows one to recognize the strengths and advantages of other cultures and the weaknesses and disadvantages of your own.

These are the basic premises of Betsy Leondar-Wright’s new book Missing Class: Strengthening Social Movement Groups by Seeing Class Cultures.  Leondar-Wright surveyed and interviewed participants in 25 different social-justice groups and directly observed the groups’ meetings and actions, carefully correlating “class trajectories” with the roles people played in their groups and with their different approaches to solving various common problems.  (“Class trajectories” combine both class background and current class position with a person’s orientation toward the future – e.g., intentional and unintentional upward and downward mobility.)  She purposely chose groups with diverse memberships and found that small-group interactions revealed a certain deftness with recognizing and dealing with racial, gender, and movement-tradition differences, but were amazingly unaware of class cultural differences.  Her argument is that “missing class” both creates unnecessary problems and misses vital opportunities for drawing on the full array of class-cultural strengths within these groups.

A rare combination of empirical rigor and insightful storytelling, Missing Class is chock full of situations and problems social justice activists will recognize, often with new insight into the crazy multicultural mix of race, gender, class, and movement tradition in the variety of groups Leondar-Wright examines.   As I read, it occurred to me on multiple occasions that social justice groups, including bigger ones like some unions, provide relatively rare opportunities where different classes experience one another within contexts where awareness of  racial and gender cultural differences is well above the norm for most American social settings.  That is, there is a base of multicultural experience that should make it easier for us to see and benefit from our class culture differences.  This may in fact be a kind of competitive advantage on the Left, especially as the younger generation of organizers and activists are so much less sectarian and self-righteous than my generation was.

Leondar-Wright’s class categories are more nuanced (and, therefore, closer to the messiness of social realities) than my simple middle-class/working-class binary.   But besides being a handbook for “strengthening social movement groups,” Missing Class is an effective assault on the cultural hegemony of the professional middle class in America – and specifically on that wing of American sociology rooted in the 1980s classic Habits of the Heart, which so firmly asserted that there is no “genuinely working-class culture” and that “[e]veryone in the United States thinks largely in middle-class categories.”

I have no problem with the highway-drivers being our preferred national culture, and surely the working class could benefit from some broader goal-setting and a more expansive sense of possibility and confidence in the future.   But unchecked, unnourished by other more realistic and less confident cultures, I fear the highway-drivers are increasingly out of touch and dangerously arrogant.  From “school reform” to foreign policy, they have a tendency to make things worse by being blind to, or at least grossly underestimating, the force of circumstance.   They need to learn from rafters who have more daily (actually much too much) experience of the force of circumstance.  Together we might simultaneously better negotiate and reduce that force.

On the evidence of Missing Class, such grand cross-class coalitions may be emerging within those tributaries, both here and abroad, that are becoming increasingly strong and insistent that justice must be social.

Jack Metzgar

Chicago Working-Class Studies

This entry was posted in Contributors, Issues, Jack Metzgar, Understanding Class, Working-Class Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Highway or River?

  1. In 1973 I was in a program training potential teachers for the New York City public schools. My first trial class was a third grade class in Harlem. The school gave us the lesson plan for the day, Edgar Lee Masters’ excruciating poem “Invictus”: “I am the captain of my ship, I am the master of my soul.” A little girl in the front row had smiled at me when I entered the class and said “I like you.” When I left at the end of the hour, she frowned and said “I don’t like you any more.” I can’t say I blamed her. What an awful poem. What a stupid idea.

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  2. Melissa T Smith says:

    ​Interesting. I think life may have placed me on a highway, but I chose to take the river! So I opted out of our culture to investigate foreign cultures in a working-lass town.

    And in that town, the potholes have accumulated to the point where the ricer may be the smoother course!

    Melissa Smith

    ________________________________

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