Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America

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.

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33 Responses to Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America

  1. Nymeth says:

    This sounds like something I’d be really interested in – thank you so much for bringing it to my attention. Reading Owen Jones’ Chavs earlier this year made me want to read more about class, especially as I haven’t read anywhere near as much about it as I have about forms of inequality based on gender or race.

    • Teresa says:

      Jensen talks a lot about how class is an invisible inequality, so I don’t think it’s unusual for people to have read more about gender and racial inequality. This book is pretty U.S.-centric, but I’m guessing that a lot of what she brings up would apply outside the U.S. too.

  2. Alex says:

    Something that is very noticeable and frequently commented on in the UK is how the chances of moving from the working class to the middle class through education have diminished over the last fifty years. Certainly, my own journey from the slums of a major city to University lecturer (my first job offer came from the local pimp!) would be far more difficult now than it was for me when ability was noticed and funded by the state.

    • Teresa says:

      I think one of things that’s happening in the U.S. is that the position of the middle class is becoming more precarious, and the working classes, in turn, are getting pushed down further. It’s like the only people with a good chance to move up anymore are the people already at the top.

  3. Jenny says:

    What’s on the People of Walmart website? I went there but there were so many ads I got a headache, and I didn’t want to do all the work of clicking more clicks and figuring out what was happening. (Because I walked ONE MILLION MILES today and now I am tired.) (Not one million. Like, two. But still. It was sunny and I didn’t have any water.)

    This sounds fascinating, especially the parts about education. I’m really interested in the educational strategies different schools use and how it varies across class and racial lines.

    • Teresa says:

      The site shows pictures of people users have seen in Walmart and makes fun of the way they dress and how they look. It’s terrible. Mean-spirited and gross and dehumanizing. They even refer to the people in the photos as “creatures.”

      And I hope all that walking was to fun things!

  4. Tony says:

    To be honest, this sounds… a bit like stating the obvious.
    Then again, I do have the advantage of of post-graduate qualifications in education, so maybe it’s not obvious. Or is it?

    • Teresa says:

      It seems like it should be obvious, and I don’t think she’s saying anything new. It’s just stuff that doesn’t get talked about much, at least not in the U.S.

  5. Biblibio says:

    It makes sense that this wouldn’t be anything new, exactly, but the issue of classism is one I have yet to encounter head-on and as someone with an interest in education, I think it’s fairly important I know these things… Would you recommend this one as a good source of information, or are there better, more specific books on class biases in education in the U.S.?

    • Teresa says:

      I’d say this is a pretty good place to start, but it isn’t focused entirely on education. Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities is the education-specific book that comes first to my mind. It’s an older book, so it doesn’t address things like No Child Left Behind, but it is eye-opening as to the extent of the inequalities. Some of his newer books might be worth looking into as well.

  6. Violet says:

    I have a big problem with classism. I come from the bottom rung of the socio-economic ladder and nothing was expected from, or for me, at school. I had terrible teachers and my parents thought education was a waste of time. I still identify as working-class, albeit with a university education, which I was lucky to attain through a special entry programme I applied for as an adult. Middle-class people can be so smug and clueless when it comes to education and opportunities in life. They just take so much for granted and feel entitled to a good education and a well-paid, physically easy, job. It’s very amusing to me that here in Western Australia, where there is an iron ore mining boom, working-class tradespeople are earning large salaries working at remote mine sites, while desk-bound, middle-class workers are not doing so well financially, although they’re frantically trying to keep up with the Joneses and getting into huge debt.

    • Teresa says:

      The expectations were low at my school too. When I look back at how unchallenged I was, I feel short-changed in a lot of ways. It was my love of reading that saved me because I could learn new things and teachers didn’t bother me if I read quietly when I was bored.

      And your point about the mining jobs vs the office jobs is such a good one. A teacher friend of mine has students who she says would probably enjoy more physical jobs in construction, car repair, cosmetology, cooking, etc., but their parents insist that they pursue university education when sitting at a desk obviously makes them miserable. Yet a lot those trades that their parents claim aren’t good enough are exactly the jobs that can never be sent overseas, while most office jobs can. It’s ridiculous!

  7. Lisa says:

    Here in the US it seems like we do talk more about race and ethnicity – and maybe income level (In the current economic crisis, we’re hearing more than ever about class in terms of income). I do think it’s been one of our national myths, a point of pride, that we are a “classless” society – or that class is fluid, and anyone can pull herself up by the proverbial bootstraps. Education has always been one of the big keys to that, and access to higher education has of course always been tied to income, as has access to the kind of schools that ease the access to “good” colleges. How does Jensen (or Jean Anyon) account for the wide-spread bias in schools against working-class kids – the teachers’ attitudes, but also the different approaches to education (rote vs. conceptual learning, for example) ? What exactly is going on in the educational departments of colleges and universities – where the teachers learn to teach?

    • Teresa says:

      The whole bootstrap myth makes me crazy. People just don’t realize how huge the barriers are!

      The explanation Jensen (and the people she cites) gives for a lot of the difference has to do partly with the fact that the teachers themselves are middle class and see their way of speaking and acting as the “right” way and all other ways as inferior. It’s often unconscious, but it’s there. They notice the deficits without seeing the strengths, and the focus on deficits causes them to think the students aren’t ready for conceptual learning. She doesn’t talk explicitly about the schools of education, but my guess is that the same bias is in play there. There’s a movement out there toward culturally responsive teaching, which looks at student strengths, rather than deficits, but I always hear it talked about in the context of race, rather than class, but it seems like a lot of the same principles could apply.

  8. This books sounds incredibly interesting thanks for the recommendation. Like the author, I grew up in a working-class family but my job would probably define me as middle-class. I’m from England and the class structure here is far more noticeable and rigid than the states and there is still a lot of snobbery around being labelled as working class here. I will certainly have to check this book out.

    • Teresa says:

      I think the snobbery exists all over. In the U.S., the supposed lack of a class system is a big part of the problem. People who don’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps get blamed for not doing so. The implication is that they’re too stupid or lazy and deserve to be at the bottom.

      • I agree that snobbery exists every where and that there certainly is a class system in America but here in Britain there is still the differentiation between the upper classes (monarchy, aristocracy, etc., which America doesn’t have) the middle-classes and the working-classes who are labelled ‘chavs’ or ‘benefit-scroungers’. A great book on the subject is Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class by Owen Jones. It highlights how the working-classes have become demonised in Britain so much so that they’ve become caricatures in the media.

        Because of our long history it has become ingrained in our society, I guess in the same way as the caste system has in some parts of Asia. Our current government here does very little to help matters, blaming the poor for being poor, rather than attempting to aid them.

      • Teresa says:

        Ana (Nymeth) reviewed Chavs a while back and had good things to say about it.

        I think it would be interesting to examine how attitudes toward class differ in different countries. As you say, it’s more ingrained in England, but it’s invisible (yet real) here in the US. How does that affect people’s chances of success and people’s attitude toward those in different classes? Lots of food for thought there.

  9. Stefanie says:

    This sounds like a really interesting book that I might have to find at the library. I grew up working-class but my parents managed to pull in a decent middle-class income. They pushed my sister and I to do well in school and go to college. It’s interesting what you note about education because, yeah, I can see some of that bias in my own public school education. Thanks for such a fabulous write up of the book!

    • Teresa says:

      I remember when I went to college being surprised at some of the things people had studied and had available in middle and high school. At the time, I thought it was mostly a funding issue, but I wonder if some of it had to do with expectations and what school leaders thought was important in a community like ours.

      • Stefanie says:

        I had the same surprise! Other people had art and music classes and a wide choice of foreign languages (only Spanish at my school) and so many other interesting choices that that were never offered at my school. I thought it was funding too but I suspect there were other things at work as well.

  10. Melissa says:

    This book sounds really interesting. I’ll have to check it out. Great review!

  11. florinda3rs says:

    This is an issue that fascinates me, and I suspect this book would give me a lot to think about. I think that American society does like to believe it’s classless (some facets of it are VERY lacking in class, but that’s another story), but it seems to me that the widening gulf between rich and poor makes it hard to buy that. On the other hand, I think the US is more stratified by class, economically, now than it’s been for close to a century…but because we spent much of the 20th century trying to break down class barriers, there’s a blind spot about their resurgence.

    Or maybe the blind spot concerns the fact that they never really did go away. We’re attuned to success stories, and those often concern people who DO move from one class to the other, so they foster the belief that anyone can do it. Not necessarily. Equal opportunity doesn’t guarantee equal results, and there’s still a lot of iNequality on the “opportunity” side of the equation, which skews the results even further.

    (Well, your REVIEW has given me a lot to think about, so the book might make me go on and on…!)

    • Teresa says:

      I wanted to go on and on in my review. There was so much more to think about! I didn’t even touch on the problems of feeling in between cultures that crossovers experience. Or the problems that come with not having the networks in place that people use to get jobs. Or the differing attitudes people in different classes have about work. There’s a lot about what the middle classes could learn from the working classes, particularly when it comes to putting stress on kids.

  12. amymckie says:

    Oh wow this sounds absolutely amazing and is going on my wish list immediately. Thanks for the review. Like you I grew up working class but am now in the middle class with my consulting job. It’s a difference that definitely comes out often enough. I recently read a book by a woman who grew up working class and how becoming middle class and a teacher kind of fractured her relationship with her father. The book is a memoir of her father’s life. It’s called A Man’s Place by Annie Ernaux, translated from the French, published by Seven Stories Press. Really interesting.

    • Teresa says:

      I think you’d find it very interesting, Amy. The ways that crossing over into a different class can damage family relationships is a big topic in the book. I’ll have to look into the memoir you mention!

  13. Jenny says:

    I like the intersectionality you mention, because this reminds me of what I like to call the Whitey Saves the World films you get all the time (like, oh, Dangerous Minds, though that one is pretty old.) The narrative is that middle-class white people can go to working-class/ inner-city schools, usually with a racial barrier involved, and “inspire” kids because they know the right way of doing things. Those films drive me nuts.

    Interestingly, though, if what you say is true, such teachers might have more strategies about creative thinking and working outside the box, just from their background, or possibly different expectations of what students are capable of. I wonder. That goes against the grain for me.

    • Teresa says:

      Those films make me nuts too, not because I don’t believe such things could happen but because they seem to deprive people of agency. I feel like the hero is the wrong person. I suppose it is possible that someone with a different background could bring in new ideas and see things with fresh eyes, but I think those cases are exceptions. One of the things that Jensen talks about is how middle-class teachers often misread or ignore working-class kids’ ways of communicating, and then they make incorrect assumptions about the kids’ intelligence. Or the kids value different things from what the teacher grew up valuing, and the teachers don’t know how to motivate them.

  14. Eva says:

    On to the wish list it goes! :) Have you read Reading is My Window? It looks at books & reading in a women’s prison.

  15. Anonymous says:

    This is an Important book, coming out at just the right time in American History. As much personal memoir as researched wisdom, this book strikes a nice balance between the two and stand out as one of the more poignant and influential books on the subject to be written in a while. This is a subject which becomes more and more relevant as each day passes. If you know nothing about class warfare, I recommend this book. If You know everything about class warfare, I recommend this book. If you live in America I highly recommend this book.

    • Donald Pheen M.D, says:

      I have to agree. I picked this book up on a whim at Barnes and Noble last week, and I’ve read it twice already. there’s something about the way she writes that fascinates me. Plus i feel more informed than ever.

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