I grew up in a working-class family in a rural, predominantly working-class community. Today, my job places me in the middle class, the professional class, and I live in a community dominated–culturally and economically, if not numerically–by the professional middle class. For me, the transition from one class to another has been largely positive, but like many with working-class roots, I sometimes experience class-based tension between my present and my past. The cultural expectations and etiquette I learned as a child sometimes differ from those around me now–they’re not better or worse, just different. I’ve never felt the need to hide my background, but I also never quite know how to react when I hear jokes and snide remarks about working-class culture (you really don’t want to get me started on the People of Wal-Mart website) or when, more often, I hear people speak about their middle-class background as if it were universal or the “right” way to live.
Like me, Barbara Jensen grew up in the working class and now is part of the professional middle class. She draws on her background as a “crossover” and her work as a counseling psychologist, as well as research into social class, to write about the growing gulf between the professional and working classes and the difficulties of crossing from one to the other.
For the purposes of this book, Jensen defines class as having to do with culture, rather than merely socioeconomic status. Working-class people are manual laborers, and middle-class people work with symbols and ideas. In some cases, members of the working class actually earn more than members of the middle class, but the higher earner still lacks the cultural status of his or her middle-class counterpart. Jensen does not deny that economic status is a primary class divider; indeed, she discusses some of the economic injustices that keep the working classes from doing much more than just getting by. But her main interest here are the attitudes, values, language, and so on that mark people as being of a particular class.
A good deal of the book describes how the U.S. education system, meant to be an equalizer, stacks the deck against children of the working class. One shocking study by Jean Anyon reveals how schools attended primarily by students of particular classes differ in their approach to education. Schools for working-class students focused on rote tasks and following directions, middle-class schools tried to inculcate conceptual knowledge, schools for students of the upper middle class offered more opportunities for creativity, and students in elite schools engaged in serious discussions and were given autonomy to move freely about the school. Jensen writes,
Equality of opportunity is perhaps our most cherished American value, and the heart of our belief in freedom. We may not all start out in the same place, but–we like to believe–if one works hard enough one can be anything one wants. A top dog/underdog battle of cultures is perhaps nowhere more acute, and ironic, than in public education. Acute because U.S. schools are biased against, even punitive toward, working class dialects, styles, attitudes, and values–in effect, against working class kids. The irony is that public education is also likely to be the only chance for these kids to learn the skills they would need to “get ahead,” to work in the better-paid middle class.
In America, it’s popular to believe that with enough hard work, everyone can achieve their dreams, but Jensen makes clear how in many ways that’s just not so. The barriers between classes are difficult to surmount, and hard work does not necessary mean higher pay. In fact, some of the hardest jobs out there do not pay well at all. What’s more, when children of the working class are socialized to be compliant and obedient, as they often are, they grow up into people who aren’t necessarily going to organize for better working conditions or seek justice when their rights are trounced on.
I’ve read quite a lot about education inequality for work, so many of Jensen’s arguments were familiar, although the literature I’ve read tends to look at these issues through a racial and ethnic lens. Jensen does talk about race, but her focus in class, and I was interested in (but not surprised by) how class barriers and biases are similar to race barriers and biases. That’s not to say they are equivalent, but class privilege and classism are real phenomena that need to be addressed, no matter the race of the person experiencing it. The concept of intersectionality comes in handy in sorting through these issues.
Jensen relies a lot on her own experiences and those of her clients for data, but she supplements it with research. She also makes it clear that any discussion of social classes will have to involve some generalities and that people’s specific experiences may vary. For example, Jensen talks a lot about the importance of community over individualism in working-class cultures. Although I could see what she was getting at, my own sometimes extreme introversion can make even the middle-class desire for community more than I can take! But as Jensen explains in an endnote,
The science of sociology and community psychology is about finding, or disproving, general trends in populations. I point to cultural tendencies that are more likely than not, not to how each and every person (or subgroup) deals with them. These categories should not (and should not be) proposed to pigeonhole or define people but, rather, to provide patterns of human behavior and questions to explore.
As a discussion of general trends, Jensen’s book is valuable, and her inclusion of personal anecdotes makes it more accessible to the general reader than a dry study or review of research would be. Some of the research she cites is old–she spends a lot of time on studies from the 1980s and 1990s–and I wonder how up-to-date it is. I think, though, that most of these are classic, foundational studies and are thus important to include.
At times, the book gets repetitive, and Jensen belabors some points. I had more than a few “Yes, I get it. Can we move on?” moments, especially in the early chapters. But for the most part, I found the writing to be engaging and the insights valuable. I suspect that lots of people interested in social justice issues will feel the same.