Working-class discrimination is the weed in Plato’s garden

Prejudice against working-class academics threatens the academic integrity of universities, argues Jack Adams 

March 26, 2019
Overgrown garden with gnome

There is a major problem with writing about the pernicious prejudice in academia against people from working-class backgrounds; expressing such experience risks fatally damaging a career path governed by those conducting the prejudice. 

Unconstrained by such chains, as I run my own business as a consultant to academics and institutions, I have the freedom to speak out about these biases that I have experienced first-hand. In working with universities, I regularly find that my cockney accent frames me long before my abilities are considered. As a mature student at Oxford and Cambridge, this prejudice was ever present as well. I can empathise with academics from working-class backgrounds, especially those working in Russell Group universities.

A criticism about any critical enquiry regarding this prejudice is that, as here, most consideration is anecdotal, allowing those in denial – and often the culprits– to dismiss any such claims as unreliable or insubstantial.

Prejudice against working-class people is a virulent weed whose extensive roots lie mostly unseen within the soil of society. In academia, its presence is a pernicious expression of middle-class power, sadly, sometimes consciously wielded. Maybe it is a tragedy but more likely a farce that those who, through their discipline, should know better are often the most disabled. When an eminent Marxist sociologist, for example, forcefully expressed to a junior colleague of working-class origins that it was unworthy of his status to engage with the cleaning staff and insisted that he cease being so friendly towards them, we can see the whole spectrum of this prejudice at work.

Prejudice can never be self-reflective because it is always about power and the defence of the status that power imparts. The roots of this power are deep, an essential element of our culture, fertilising the nature of our establishment. Academia would require a monumental act of confession, both institutionally and personally, to acknowledge the problem. 

If such a spiritual cleansing were to occur how would one weed-free plot in the social garden be meaningful? Perhaps the point would be academic integrity. In denying chairs to worthy candidates because, as one academic of status, performance and outstanding REF delivery observed, “you are not really one of us are you?”, this prejudice, as with all prejudices, undermines the public good mission of our institutions. 

People such as our Marxist sociologist in his prestigious chair instinctively act as threshold guardians to this hierarchy. Their defence is robustly, uncompromisingly, non-intellectual, as was the case when a powerful, established gate guardian told the author of a recent article that it would never be accepted for publication by any respectable journal because it was critical of research by “well-respected colleagues and friends” whom he had been with at Oxford.

Still, no matter how substantial this prejudice, those from working-class backgrounds develop our own fortitude. We are equally robust because we are used to being required to knock down the walls of prejudice. We constantly outperform mediocrity even though our recognition for such feats is usually less than if we were middle class. We know that in the eyes of most, we can only ever come from working-class backgrounds; there is no such thing as a “working-class academic”. To be an academic is to be middle-class. 

While we may be allowed into the guild, we’ll never be considered a member of the club unless we lose that cockney accent. It’s an unworthy and inhumane strategy as damaging as the prejudice. The first step has to be recognition of this prejudice in action, not concealment. We need to be bold and forgiving together, in the interests of academic integrity and the purpose of higher education.                                                                       

Jack Adams is a historian and academic adviser on professional stress and project management.

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Reader's comments (13)

I have been a working class academic in HE for over 30 years entering originally as a ‘mature student’ - lacking the formal qualifications. I am now a professor in a Russell Group university where a number of my colleagues are also from a working class background. Whilst the author no doubt points to a cultural divide that will exist in patches in elite academic settings I have neither witnessed, nor been knowingly subject to prejudice in this way. I retain my South London accent and it does ‘come up’ but many colleagues with ‘Northern’ accents often sound more working class to me. This cultural divide - will be more real in some disciplines than others (as with gender/other divides) and certainly in some institutions more than others but the piece suggests it is an issue saturating academia and this does not resonate with my ‘insider’ experiences in a range of institutions over many years.
Academic finds pompous academic in academia....
An interesting opinion Ross and one which is very much in line with the underlying critique of the article. Whilst your own personal experience from your own ‘patch’ has some relevance, it could be seen as brave, even courageous perhaps, to extrapolate from a singular position, a small localised sample, across a whole ecosphere of sociology. Certainly it has to be hard to see how a condition of prejudice which is widespread in UK society somehow only translates into academia in a ‘patchy’ sense. Perhaps the hierarchical power structures of academia are in some way immune from prejudice? Perhaps your own personal experience is exceptional? Surely these are questions any self-reflective process would welcome in the asking? Certainly the experiences of other ‘insiders’ like yourself, as exampled in the article, are not the same as yours.
I think I was just looking for a little more nuance.
I think I asked some valid questions about your patch and how you see it. I think I also asked some valid questions about sociological perspective. I also think I also asked if your own emphasis of 'insider', which may seem to some to be perjorative invective, is subjective. The challenge of the article is quite clear, are we able to address the subject as a discourse or do we simply defend positions? I would say we need to step out of the shade of subtle meanings and enter into questions and discussions. If you believe that prejudice against academics from working class backgrounds is 'patchy' in academia then let's have some discussion about the subtance of the issue and talk openly. If you, from a working class background and with a history of working in two institutions where this prejudice is relevant then why do you think that is so and why do you think you can externalise your experience across the experience of hundreds of others in hundreds of other institutions? I think it is a good discussion.
"Prejudice can never be self-reflective" - does that mean we don't have to do the unconscious bias training now?
Good question.
One does occassionally read of such things, but.... I am a professor of cell biology at a major Russel Group university. I came from a working-class background, my father being a van driver in our South Wales Valley town. I passed my exams, enjoyed my udergraduate life at UCL, did a decent PhD, did well in my chosen career. I have never ever felt that my background hindered my rise through the career structure of University. A lot of what is discussed in the article may well happen but I seem to have been blissfully unaware of it all. I wonder why?
Because it's far easier to claim oppressed victim status than to work hard and achieve
I work very hard and I achieve. I always have done. All of the academics I cited in the article are people who work extremely hard, produce outstanding material and are recognised in their fields. This is not about claiming 'oppressed victim status', this is about talking around and discussing a well known and well documented prejudice. Why should any education professional be worried about this discourse? Most of what we have here is denial or dismissal, no-one is really talking about the issue as an issue because, in the main, they do not recognise it as an issue. In the literature of the sociology of prejudice is it that we are claiming that active prejudice by middle class people against those of working class background or heritage does not exist? Are we saying that working class people are naturally lazy and look to victimhood rather than work and achieve? Are we just going to trot out tropes or are we going to discuss the issue?
To be sure, many people from working class backgrounds do well in academia. The fact that many don’t (perhaps disproportionately) is down to more than the lack of direct discrimination, which undoubtedly exists. One factor is the sheer cultural clash of values and priorities. It is mostly invisible to the superior class. But negotiating it requires a steep, and sometimes baffling, learning curve. But there are additional psychological burdens more difficult to overcome. A special report for the American Psychological Association (2006) urged educators, employers and others “to attend more fully to the impact of socioeconomic position on psychological processes and outcomes, the subjective experiences of social class status, and psychosocial processes related to the social and political implications of class inequities”. Being conspicuously lower class in a class structure induces what has been called “subjective social status”. It affects self-confidence and achievement expectancies that can persist for life. Interaction with a more confident, patently “superior”, class further induces negative self-evaluation and fears of social rejection. These burdens may be less now than they used to be. The vast majority of 11-plus failures of my generation left school duly convinced they were inferior in terms of brain power. Whatever the subsequent achievements, all those feelings are difficult to fully overcome. However, I’m sure the inequalities of the education system and the class structure of society still imposes them on would-be working class academics today (as it does, of course, on women and some ethnic groups). As I said in my THE article last November, the problems are not those of a particular class, but of the class system as a whole, and the tacit ladder view of merit it perpetuates. It demands radical attitude changes across the institutions.
I believe your comment here to be completely on point. To my mind this is well thought out and explained argument. Your article last November and the call for radical attitude changes is the essential comprehenison of my own call for self reflection and 'confession'. Interestingly, in conversation with the academics whose 'inside' issues I described, I stated that I felt the first response would be from an academic, claiming to be from working class origins, defending the hierarchy and casting doubt on the validity of what was being said. Those secure in their career path are blind to the games of prejudice and how they are played in my opinion. The problem I was trying to draw out was the work to overcome denial and, so far, other than yourself, it appears that this call to action is unheard.
"When an eminent Marxist sociologist, for example, forcefully expressed to a junior colleague of working-class origins that it was unworthy of his status to engage with the cleaning staff and insisted that he cease being so friendly towards them, we can see the whole spectrum of this prejudice at work." Ah yes, lets analyse this 'Marxist', neo or not most likely programmed to see the 'working classes' as traitors for they predecessors failure to revolt, 'sociologist' studies social relationships and interactions, 'Marxist sociologist' studies social relationships and interactions and is in a position to adversely comment on the 'working classes', 'eminent Marxist sociologist' studies social relationships and interactions and is in a position to adversely comment on the 'working classes' from an exalted high status afforded to them by their 'middle class' origin or elevation from the 'working classes' by the aforesaid 'middle classes'.

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