In the UK, discussions about higher education – and just about everything else – invariably turn to issues of class. In the US, the subject is more often skated over. And that makes the books that do engage with this theme all the more fascinating.
Several years ago, I wrote a feature about Elizabeth Armstrong and Laura Hamilton’s Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality. This turned out to be, I discovered, a rare example of an academic book “full of the comedies, rivalries and mini-dramas one might find in a high school movie or romcom”. Arriving at “Midwest University”, many young women were already “primed to party” – in sororities that validated and perpetuated what Armstrong described as “a certain kind of classed femininity”. As a result, I wrote, the most prestigious sororities were highly homogeneous, “filled with women who are ‘bubbly’, white, heterosexual, more or less naturally blonde, au fait with the right (expensive) shoes and handbags, and able to negotiate the fine line between ‘sexy’ and ‘slutty’”.
But while the detail of Paying for the Party was highly entertaining, the underlying message was bleak. “Midwest” laid on a range of “pink-collar easy majors”, with no Friday classes to interfere with partying, which attracted a certain kind of affluent but not very academic student. But, in doing so, it was also failing many others. I cited the case of a working-class young woman, for example, who abandoned plans to be a teacher “when she discovered more privileged peers studying tourism with a view to becoming wedding planners, little realising that this profession depends largely on contacts and social capital she would never have”.
“One of the consequences of the invisibility of social class in the US,” Armstrong told me, “is that women in the wannabe category didn’t understand how much more in the way of resources some of the other young women they were trying to keep up with had.” She added: “Most of the other books on the social side of college don’t connect it to the academic core and the stratification process and the status-competitive aspects of it, so they miss the real work that this stuff is doing.”
Equally interesting, if very different, is the book that I have written about this week: Anthony Abraham Jack’s The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students. Designed to encourage universities to have “as robust conversations about social class as they do about gender and race”, this describes research at an institution Jack calls “Renowned University” – where poor students rub shoulders with mega-rich peers who sometimes arrive with their own interior designers or boast about mid-semester trips to India for a wedding.
While this inevitably leads to culture clashes and resentments, The Privileged Poor explores the ways that universities can make things worse by, for example, shutting down all the cafeterias during the spring break, using exclusionary language and in subtle ways “reminding lower-income students that they are second-class citizens in a first-class world”. Particularly striking is a system known as “community detail”, which gives poor students an opportunity to make a bit of money by cleaning the rooms of their slobby but privileged classmates. For black students, this can be particularly distressing, since it tends to evoke family and wider cultural memories of cleaning up after rich whites.
If universities want to move beyond access to genuine inclusion, they should probably avoid bringing together in the same seminar room a student who has just had to clean another’s toilet. That, at least, sounds like a sensible first step in addressing some of the tangled issues around class.
Matthew Reisz is a reporter and books editor for Times Higher Education.
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