Working Class Thoughts on Education
One of the best pieces of feminist writing on the internet inspired this post. Melissa McEwan’s post “The Terrible Bargain We Have Regrettably Struck” is always worth a re-read. The post is a heart-rending examination of what it is like to be a feminist when negotiating relationships with the men in our lives. McEwan points out that while feminists may not hate men, it can often be difficult to fully trust the men in our lives. This isn’t a set up designed to make you think great things about what follows, I don’t pretend that my writing will reach McEwan’s level. I reference “The Terrible Bargain” because it is a piece of writing that carefully considers the consequences of living within the existing structure. In this post, I want to consider what it means to live within the existing culture at the intersection of class and the educational system. As McEwan points out in her post many other people could write this post equally well from different perspectives. I, however, can only speak from my own position (as a working class white woman with a Ph.D. in Rhetoric & Composition, who currently works coordinating a writing center) and in McEwan’s own words work to “make myself trustworthy” by striving to acknowledge and be respectful of those other perspectives.
While McEwan’s post inspired this piece, the point I would like to discuss isn’t necessarily a direct analogy, but in the same way that McEwan questions the cost women face when choosing to take a feminist stance in the world, I want to explore the cost to working class students when they choose to become a part of the educational system. Working class students receive very specific messages about education and they are expected to play a particular role within that system. For example, as a high school student in a small, economically challenged, logging town in the Pacific Northwest. Education was always considered good. Going away to college represented a chance to get “Off the Harbor,” to find somewhere with more opportunities. Additionally, more education was always better. If a BA/MS could get you a better job/life, then an MA/MS would certainly provide you with something even better. I can honestly say that during high school I couldn’t even fathom having a Ph.D. The underlying “more education is always better” message certainly got through, however.
Who knows, maybe in someone else’s experience, this all pays off. In my experience, though, I can’t say it has.
As the conversation about working class graduate students and faculty expands and becomes more visible, I’ve noticed a trend. Someone writes a piece about some aspect of the working class experience in graduate school, which gets published somewhere like The Chronicle or Inside Higher Ed, and while there maybe a few supportive comments, invariably they devolve into a chorus of, “X should have known better.” “They should have known x, y, or z about graduate school.” The most frustrating part of it all is that generally all the comments miss whatever the point was in the article. The commenters fail to engage with the larger critique of the educational system/institution. Although I learned early on Never to Read the Comments, and I’ve almost got to the point of just not even reading the articles, I just don’t want to ignore, what is to me, a vital aspect of who I am in this system. Consequently, I have been trying to why it is so disturbing to so many people to hear working class graduate students/faculty talk about their experiences. The answer I have come to is, as I think you get by now, wholly informed by my own experiences; but, I think the discomfort and antagonism comes from when working class individuals stop being consumers of the educational system and attempt to become members of that system.
As with many of the ideas snarled up in the American myth of class mobility, “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps,” and “getting ahead,” education is supposed to get you ahead, but only so far. Working class students are supposed to be users of the educational system, but only to a point. They should pay to take those business, nursing, accounting, elementary ed courses, and then they should go out an get the appropriate job. The problem stems from those of us who aren’t good at business, or accounting, and don’t want to teach in the K-12 system. For those of us who find out that what we are good at is “school” and have the temerity to want to teach at a college or university, we make the dangerous from users of the educational system to participants in the system. Becoming, or trying to become, a part of the university system is a mark of reaching too far, of getting out of our place. The X should have know comments are a way to try to maintain a boundary and distance between an “us” and a “them.”
The result of this constant “us” and “them” positioning is that working class graduate students and faculty have a precarious relationship with the educational system. On the one hand it has gotten me away from where I was, and given me opportunities, but it has also not paid off in some pretty significant ways. More education is not always better. Maybe it’s true; maybe I should have known to stop when I reached the end of my MA degree. I should have thought — the PhD is a research degree, and because what I really want to do is teach I should just stop here. But I didn’t know that, and in the face of a lifetime of being told variations of “more education is always better,” I chose to continue on with my PhD. Perhaps I should have been able to tell earlier; I should have known how stupid it was to leave my full-time with benefits Starbucks job, to get teaching experience as an adjunct. But shift work at Starbucks looked just like the shift work my parents did for years without getting ahead. In many ways I won my gamble. I have a full time job at a university.
Now, however, I know. I know I should have stayed at Starbucks because I could be making the same life for myself without the insane amount of debt now hanging over my head. I know I could have/should have stopped at the MA. Heck, I should have gotten over my unease around rooms full of small children and become a K-12 teacher. Now, however, I am a part of system that I no longer trust, a system that won’t hear my experience, won’t accept my calls for change. I don’t know that there is an answer to any of the issues I have raised here, but I my experience, my feminist experience tells me there is value in recognizing and acknowledging the problem; my working class experience tells me the problem is that I’ve moved beyond the consumption of education and become a part of the production of education.