Monday, May 26, 2014

Barbara Jensen: Reading Classes

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The more I read about education and the more classes I teach, the more I think that it's like dog training: The only thing two people involved in the field can agree about is that the third person is wrong. Professor X argued that higher education isn't for everyone at the same time that Obama is trying to push college for everyone. John Marsh argued that, actually, education isn't going to end inequality, sorry. Lisa Delpit explored the ways that inequality is built into our the system. In a way, all of these scholars agree (except Obama): the system is messed up, and we're doing it wrong. On the other hand, they all agree that if we revamp it in a certain way, we can get it right. The thing is, none of them agree on that certain way. 

Add Barbara Jensen to the mix. Jensen writes about how class fits into the picture and argues that the American education system is designed to both ignore the working class and replicate the inferior status of the working class. The modern education system, she believes, is part and parcel of the way we look at class: "having steps on a ladder and that those who work the hardest move to the upper rungs while those nearer the bottom belong there and thus are granted much lower pay, power, and control in their work lives." (24). "This," she says, "is pure bullshit." It is, however, how pretty much everything, including the way we teach our kids from birth, is structured in the United States. We teach kids that individualism is the way to succeed, even if this isn't the way all cultural and class groups function.

Jensen's writing is based mainly on her personal life as a "crossover." She was raised in a working class family in Minnesota and eventually went on to get a PhD in psychology. She struggled (and struggles) to reconcile her new middle class life with her working class background. As she gained cultural capital, she realized that her family, while working harder, would never get ahead in the way she now could. She also saw the middle class controlled this, unwittingly. This is a cycle: "class is an injustice that says some Americans deserve much more time, leisure, control, and far more financial reward than others. Classism is the set of myths and beliefs that keep those class divisions intact, that is, the belief that working class cultures and people are inherently inferior and that class itself demonstrates who the hardest workers and the rightful winners are." (31)

Jensen believes that classism in education presents itself as solipsism, "or my-world-is-the-whole-world, what I call class-blinders. This is the tendency to assume everyone has had the same experience we have had and to be blind to the experiences of others... Societywide institutions, like public education, do the same thing: presume we all think and learn like middle class people do, that we all work best as individuals in competition. American education then punishes kids who have not learned to work best this way." (37)  The working class mentality, she argues, does not privilege individual success and the competitive nature to achieve this success over everything. Rather, there is a collective spirit and an urge to be part of and to protect the group over everything else. This is not what middle class families, popular culture and the educational system teach us: we must strive to be The Best and to Stand Out to get ahead. Working class kids who have to choose often fall back on the culture they are steeped in and the values of their family, this failing at school or opting out, and fall back into the working class, which no longer has much material worth.

"Reading Classes" is an interesting read. It combines personal narrative- Jensen's story of moving from working class to middle class- with oral histories she collects from her family with an extended literature review of the few authors who have looked at the effects of class on education. She combines a few major studies with her insights and experiences as a "community psychologist" to work her way through the educational journey from small child to adult learner. The problem, she thinks, is in how education defines working class (and lower class) students as deficient. We can learn by bringing the experiences of cultural crossovers like Jensen an others to light, problematizing the idea that we are all a happy middle class, best served by institutions tailored to the middle class. What's missing (as usual, I have to say), is a solid platform of solution, or even of what a better situation would look like. Special schools for the working class? (I don't think Jensen would argue this.) Better training for teachers so that they can understand where different students are coming from? (I don't think Jensen would think this sufficient.) Less stratification in the school system? (Not sure this is feasible.) The book has certainly opened my eyes, and there's nothing really to argue with, except perhaps the "lumping" of people in the working class, though Jensen explains herself in this. The question is where to go next.