A CLASSROOM IS WELL NAMED
By John C. Raines
Here is an obvious, almost always ignored, and therefore quite astonishing fact. No one has ever seen a university. We see material evidence of it. We see buildings and desks. We see teachers and students. But a school or a university is an idea, a meaning. Not an isolated meaning, but part of a whole network of meanings that together constitute a society of meaning or an ideology. And it is that ideology which gives form and shape to the activities that take place in these buildings, the exchange of labor between teachers and students that happens here, and the place this activity holds within the wider division of labor in our society. As a university teacher I want to understand what I am doing when I do my work, and this means making the invisible visible, bringing into critical reflection the ideology that we are looking at when we mistakenly say: "See, there's Temple University."
We may begin by noting elements of material culture. We with into a classroom and usually we find a series of individual chairs with writing arms lined up facing, not each other, but forward toward a desk with a blackboard behind it. What is it we are seeing? Perhaps we are seeing hierarchy, authority, competition--individual students (many of them) side by side facing forward toward one desk (the teacher's) with the symbol of authoritative knowledge, the blackboard, behind it. Perhaps a classroom is well named. Perhaps the classroom is the room where we learn about social class.
But surely that is not so. Schools and classrooms are about training and achievement and opportunity. Schools and classrooms are where teachers discover bright students and encourage them to aspire and so make the arbitrariness of birth, and with it the arbitrariness of privilege and disprivilege, less final. If not equal opportunity, then at least the ideal and promise of equal opportunity is what schools stand for.
And this is what makes America fair. If the American dream is that in America "anybody can become somebody," then far more than lottery tickets or professional sports teams, it is schools and universities where the American promise takes material shape. After all, we all know that there is no better bet, statistically, for upwardly mobile social status than doing well and staying in school and going on for more schooling. Statistically, sports and lotteries are desperate bets; although popular bets for those whom schools have left bereft.
If schools are about opportunity, how well, we may ask, does schooling do at making America more open and equal? Or, more pessimistically, is the work of schooling the reproduction and legitimation of the steep hierarchy of authority, wealth, and power already in place in America? Put differently, is it true that what is wrong with the American economy today is an insufficient supply of educated workers? Or do we in fact educate workers rather precisely for the actual shape and form of the adult work world--organized as it is in sharp pyramids of command with a huge surplus of unneeded workers at the bottom? Do we need to change our education to improve? Or do we need to change the construction of the exchange of human labor in our society to improve?
We are constantly urged to change the visible: the educational accouterments of the classroom, the training of teachers, the curriculum and testing of students. But remember, no one has ever seen a school; no one has ever seen a university. They are hidden but integral pieces of social institutionalization, of social regulation, of social legitimation. It takes an act of critical imagination to make that invisible landscape visible.
Let us explore this hidden landscape of schooling and the American ideology that gives life and shape to what we teachers are called to do when we do our teaching. We may begin with how wealth is distributed in our society as an entrance into how power is organized and deployed. We may then plot these wealth statistics against the income levels of the families of origin of those students who graduate with a four-year college degree. Wealth in relationship to educational attainment will bring to the surface and reveal how well the engine of equal opportunity, operating through schooling, is working in our society. This should show us not only how hierarchy is constituted but also how entrance into hierarchy is constituted, and so show us how power and privilege are both produced and reproduced in our society.
Professional economists are agreed that the division of wealth, of personally owned entities of exchange value (money, stocks, houses, jewelry, paintings, etc.), looks something like this. The top 1 percent of the population gets between 28 and 34 percent of the wealth of our society (depending upon which economist you use). The top 20 percent of the population gets 80 percent of everything that can be personally owned. The lowest 20 percent of the population gets 3 percent of the wealth. And the middle 60 percent of the population (below the top 20 percent and above the bottom 20 percent)--this middle 60 percent of the population gets 17 percent of everything that can be personally owned. We are far more unequal as a society than we are inclined to admit.
If that is the present and past geography of wealth--which is not too far from the geography of power--what about the pattern of families of origin for those who graduate with a four-year college degree? Those of us who are college teachers tend to have highly inflated notions about how many college graduates there are in our society. In fact, only 19 percent of white folks end up with a four-year college degree. Only 11 percent of blacks graduate from college and only 8 percent of Hispanic folks. Even more crucial, the patterns of college-degreed persons and their families of origin correlate very closely with the 20 percent of the population who get 80 percent of the wealth. It is quite mistaken to think that the "middle class" (the middle 60 percent of our population) is a college-educated class or that it succeeds in yielding in any substantial numbers the next generation as college-educated folks. Census data show, for example, that in a working-class neighborhood of Philadelphia like Frankford (a white, working-class neighborhood) only 5 percent of the children will end up with a four-year college degree. This class pattern is nationwide.
Statistics tell a story we're not supposed to hear. They reveal an invisible landscape we're not supposed to see. Education does not so much alter patterns of class over the generations as reproduce those patterns and legitimate the sharp social hierarchies of opportunity in our society. Many disagree. "After all," they say, "everyone gets a chance in school and the public pays for it. Look at those who start out poor or middle-class and through doing school well and long make it to the top!" Nicely said, but look again. Yes, schools are a better bet for upwardly mobile social status than playing the lottery or dreaming of being a professional basketball star. But still, statistically, schools too remain a very poor bet. In terms of class, the vast majority in our society end up where they started. Education remains popular precisely because it is seen as "paying off" for many more than it in fact does, at least in terms of altering their future class location. Our popularity as educators is rather forlorn. Parents bring their children's hopes to our place of work, but our place of work is mostly powerless to alter their futures.
What then have we said about the structural function of teaching? I am not talking about the personal motivation of teachers, who may thoroughly hope and believe that through their work in the classroom America is becoming more open and fair. Whatever we intend to do as teachers, what in fact we do is to administer a process wherein a vast majority of students will either not finish high school; or if they do, will not go on to college; or if they do, will not succeed in finishing with a four-year college degree. Which is to say that the overall effect of us educators, however unintended, is to produce students the vast majority of whom have learned that they lack adequate intelligence, cannot entertain high expectations for their adult lives, and must expect to have others in authority towering above them in the work place telling them what to do. And we who are college teachers--and reside therefore at the very top of the pyramid of schooling-- each day we enter our classrooms mostly we face the lucky inheritors of our society, leavened perhaps by a few magnificent survivors (depending upon what kind of college or university we teach in).
What a morally desperate picture to paint of the vocation of teaching in America! We who are teachers rebel against it, deny it, or claim that at least it's not that way in our classrooms! What a sinking feeling it gives us if we see that the classroom reproduces class, but reproduces it quietly, hiddenly, in the name of opportunity; that as teachers we are fundamentally legitimators of established social hierarchies.
More than race or gender, class remains the dirty little secret of our society. We like to think we have opportunity, not class. Especially for us educators, to face honestly class realities would force us to far more radical conclusions about our society than many of us want to reach. Or it would force us to admit that what we aspire to become are tenured class workers.
We may ask, is teaching a morally defensible vocation? My answer is--yes--but only if teaching is seen and practiced as subversive activity. It is possible, of course, to conclude that all societies are hierarchical (which is true) and that publicly supported education for all is a relatively humane instrument of class management. Not everyone gets the same chance, and many don't get much of a chance at all, but by sustaining society's belief in that chance a few at the margins are emboldened to make the try. I suspect this would be the argument of neoconservatives, who would find my call for subversion typical of the "political correctness" they say is exhibited by the new class of knowledge-handlers.
The neoconservatives (I have in mind people like Bloom, Kristol, Novak, and Berger) argue against those of us on the left that both we and they benefit from membership in a new class that emerged after the Second World War and expanded rapidly with the expanding economic surplus of the 1950s and 1960s. Our social position as a new class, so they argue, is precariously positioned and finally in competition with those blue-collar workers and white-collar managers and engineers who actually produce something of exchange value in our society. As knowledge purveyors, we new class members seek to consolidate and guild our social position as the explainers of things, both scientific and social. The most astute of the neoconservatives then borrow an analytic device ultimately derived from Max Scheler's brilliant analysis of the role of resentment in group relations.
We teachers, especially college teachers, neoconservatives argue, do not enjoy the actual class status of other professionals in law and medicine and we ooze within with unacknowledged resentment. We are not engaged in that objective activity of actually making and selling things and thus adding to the material horn of plenty at which we so eagerly hope to suck. And so, uprooted from what neoconservatives see as the "real stuff " of the political economy, we gather our wounded pride into what is really envious carping at the rough and tumble of an entrepreneurial society. We choose tenure instead of risking the pursuit of wealth and power; and then we resent our choice.
Attacked by the right (now generously funded by conservative foundations), when we turn to the left we find ourselves once again accused, this time not of resentment but of betraying the working class. Barbara and John Ehrenreich, for example, in their influential article "The Professional Managerial Class," see us as passive servants of the ruling class who hawk our poisonous wares of class humiliation, de-skirting, and the production of dependency. Since I think the Ehrenreich thesis does have truth but not the whole truth, I want to look at it more closely.
As neo-Marxists the Ehrenreichs are quick to admit that Marx did not foresee the immense productivity that would be generated by industrial capitalism. This unanticipated surplus allowed the emergence of a new professional-managerial class beginning at the turn of the century, a class that was not anticipated by Marx and whose location in relationship to the means of production is the reproduction of class relations between the ruling class and the working class. In their own words, "We define the Professional-Managerial Class as consisting of salaried mental workers who do not own the means of production and whose major function in the social division of labor may be described broadly as the reproduction of capitalist culture and capitalist class relations."
For the Ehrenreidhs we teachers are fundamentally engaged in the production and propagation of ideology and can be ranked alongside "social workers, psychologists, entertainers, writers of advertising copy and T.V. scripts," who are similarly engaged in the task of capitalist cultural and class reproduction. They see our class interests as structurally opposed to those of the working class. The work that we get paid to do is to infiltrate working-class culture, assaulting its perception of it own exploitation with weapons of bell-curved grading and the fake promise of opportunity despite class origin for the (unfortunately few) meritorious. Not political correctness but political collaboration with the ruling class is the Ehrenreichs' accusation against us.
How are we to defend ourselves? As teachers, what are we to say in moral defense of our vocation? I have indicated that our moral task to to teach subversively. What would that look like? But before that, is it realistic even to conceive such an alternative academic undertaking, given our own class interests as teachers?
I accept the idea that as knowledge workers our deep work is the work of social legitimation. Especially this seems true to me for those of us engaged in the humanities and social sciences. What the Ehrenreichs did not see is that this work of social legitimation leaves us peculiarly exposed to the contradictions, the fault lines of social meaning in our society. Especially when structural contradictions appear between the economy and socially generated and legitimated working- and middle-class expectations for the economy, the work of us explanation workers becomes deeply problematized. Our own sense of personal and professional integrity (even if only socially generated) can force us into choices that could be avoided so long as the economic tide was rising and with it most all of the boats of our society's socially segmented hopes. With the failure of the service economy as an economy of general upward mobility and the absence from political discourse of debate over a radical reindustrialization policy, this choice of how to interpret and make moral sense of our society is thrust upon us in a way that is hard to avoid.
What does this imply for the moral content of our teaching--especially for us college and university teachers whose students are, we know, mostly the lucky inheritors of advantage in our society? My suggestion is a critical or radical noblesse oblige. As the lucky inheritors of our society (with a few magnificent survivors) our students are beneficiaries not of their own unique intelligence but of their class position of "bird." They did not by themselves earn, through success in schooling, their future positions of authority and advantage. They are, instead, the inheritors of our whole national history of work. Which is to say that the moral training that this class elite requires--a moral training in how to serve the common good--is simply moral accuracy, not an ideal, not even a sacrifice of their own best interest since class privilege can isolate them from the common economic decline and its morally devastating scapegoating only temporarily. I write from a state--Pennsylvania--that refers to itself as a "Commonwealth" not because its founders were in their own eyes moral idealists but because in their own eyes there could be no private or individual good except as a most fleeting moral and intellectual illusion.
What is the practice of this radical noblesse oblige, its policy? What are the instructions we instructors might urge upon those who present themselves to us as wishing to learn and thereby to earn their deservedness? It is now clear that phrases like postindustrial or service economy are oxymorons in the sense that they do not name the presence but rather the absence of an economy that holds promise for the majority. What we need instead is what Cobb and Daley have argued in their For the Common Good, an economy of relative national self-sufficiency. This means imposing trade restrictions, especially upon the rapid flow of international capital in search of low wages and quick profits (yes, I am aware that Japanese investments are presently financing our national debt). It means new tax laws to undermine that common robbery called "paper capitalism" that seeks profits without excellence of products. It means the end of the morally reprehensible compensation differentiations that reward some workers in our society (CEOs, some lawyers, some stock and bond manipulators, a few workers in medicine) one thousand times as much or more per year as other full-time workers in our society. That is not the model of "success" that builds up in our students' minds the truth and accuracy of the common good. Such a national reindustrialization program will, over time, generate a social surplus that can be applied to a new War on Poverty, policies that proved their worth even when grossly underfunded in the late 1960s.
Subversive teaching in a time of structural contradiction between a failing economic policy of free trade and the promise that the American dream has led average folks to bring to that economy is not, in fact, subversive so much as liberating, liberating from distortions of truth that our society can not afford. It requires intellectual and moral accuracy in a time when buccaneer international capitalism and the pursuit of the moral idiocy of conspicuous consumption has run out of a future. Besides, everything I've said here our lucky inheritors and few magnificent survivors already know, or at least already suspect. Daring to speak honestly about the class realities of our society could release us from the silence that veils in moral embarrassment the truths we already know--and release as well a new and less encumbered vitality.
Note [1.] See Between Labor and Capital, ed. Pat Wlaker (Boston: South End Press, 1972).
JOHN C. RAINES is co-author, with Donna C. Day-Lower, of Modern
Work and Human Meaning (Westminster/John Knox Press, 1986). This
essay derives from a talks he gave to fellow faculty at Temple
University, where he teaches religion.
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