Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Should schools support class mobility? Can there be a classless society?

The first fact Bourdieu (1986) claims is that people's cultural practices are linked to, first, their level of education and secondarily, to their social origin. As Dr. Seuss (1978) said, “The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” So, in theory, the more education a person has, the more aware he/she will be about what legitimate culture is, how to legitimately respond to it, and how to find/get it. However, if Bourdieu is correct, a person's social origin will also influence their desire for the knowledge of or attitude toward legitimate culture. So, a working class person, by virtue of their habitus will reject legitimate culture and a middle class person will either revere it or pretend they know more then they actually do (pretentiousness).

In my reading, I get the feeling that Bourdieu thinks that working class rejects legitimate culture, because they assume they will never be accepted into the upper/dominant class, so why bother. The middle class is conflicted – they want to be accepted, but don't have the money to do it. Assuming that access to upper class/dominant class, is the goal of people's lives (which I'm not sure about, but seems to be), then there should be a way to climb the cultural/social/economic ladder. (I find it difficult to truly separate the three.)

This being the case, what is the role of school? If the school teaches legitimate culture (which it mostly does), it would be in an attempt to give access to legitimate culture through education, for those who don't come with the legitimate cultural capital. However, in doing so, the school illegitimates the student's cultural experience. (Would this be cultural debt?) Now, according to Bourdieu, a student from a working class background may very well reject legitimate culture – having a taste for necessity rather than luxury. So, should the school be working more to “develop a taste” for legitimate culture and then the knowledge – and in doing so, does the student have to reject their family's taste? To continue, it would seem that the middle class would embrace this form of education, because they have the aspiration to become upper class. Since there is already a reverence or pretentiousness for legitimate culture, the education should be fairly easy. As for the upper class – well, they attend the private upper class school which is teaching legitimate culture anyway. Overall, this does seem to explain the current state of schooling.

So, what is the alternative? Should schools legitimize other forms of knowledge - which is a phrase I hear often, but don't exactly understand what it means. If, for example, mariachi music is a cultural practice in most of the students' backgrounds, should this become part of the school's curriculum? If so, what does it leave out? If students are using mariachi music to learn other things, ie parts of speech, it is really legitimizing the cultural practice? If learning all about mariachi music – the people, history etc. leaves out learning about classical music, a legitimate cultural practice, is it a service or disservice to the students? Can knowledge of mariachi help them succeed?

I can think of a few examples of something similar being enacted in schools. The ebonics debate in schools – the idea that teachers should use and support the use of African-American vernacular English, (AAVE). Some people believe it is the home language of students, and that teacher knowledge and use supports their learning of standard English. Which, in a similar debate, also supports Spanish bilingual education. However, the opposition believes that by supporting the use of non-standard English in the school, the students will not become proficient in standard English, which will limit their access to other opportunities. When I taught in Brazil, at an international school, the majority of students were Portuguese speakers. At the middle and high school level, we were constantly asking them to use English in the classroom because it was easier for them to converse in Portuguese, understandably. However, as a consequence, by not using and struggling with the English academic language, they did not become proficient with it, and their Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL) scores were low, which limited their opportunities to apply for prestigious colleges and universities. In trying to “force” them to speak English, rather than valuing their home language, I've been accused of being a colonial power – which has been applied to my broader choice of working within international school settings.

Is it possible to have a classless society? Is is possible to have a classless school in a classist society? Since our society is formed around notions of class and learning how to maneuver (through education) in a higher class than which one was born in allows a person to earn more power, prestige and money – is education, which supports a white, middle class mentality a bad thing? Should schools be shooting for teaching upper class mentality?

In looking at science fiction and fantasy stories, the only way to achieve classlessness is to take things away from people. In “"Harrison Bergeron" by Kurt Vonnegut, people are made to look and perform at the lowest possible level by attaching “handicaps” to limit their physical appearance or abilities. Athletic people receive heavy weights, beautiful people wear ugly masks, smart people receive electric shocks to interrupt their thinking. Yet, still, there is a rule class of the people who determine the “handicaps.” In The Giver by Lois Lowry, people are assigned jobs, marriage partners, children and housing by a central authority. They are taught to be polite and unquestioning and even have the ability to see color taken way – all in the name of sameness. In the The Twilight Zone episode “Number 12 Looks Just Like You” (1964) when people reach adulthood, they are encouraged /pressured into choose a new body form from the dozen or so approved, beautiful bodies, which means no one is more beautiful or ugly than another. In Wall-E, all of the “work” of daily life is taken away from humans and given to robots – even walking. As a result, humans become fat, lazy and ignorant. All of these images of a classless society are pretty grim.

So, what is the alternative? If there is no working class, how will “dirty” jobs get done? Without monetary and prestige awards, who will choose to devote themselves to long hours of study and practice to become a doctor?


Bourdieu, P. (1986). Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Seuss, (1978). I Can Read with My Eyes Shut! Random House Children's Books.

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