A Class Traitor in Academe

Brian Taylor

November 09, 2007

It's easy to find books on race and gender in academic life, but only a handful focus on social class.

I know of four. They are all essay collections that came to me like life preservers when I was drowning in graduate school: Strangers in Paradise: Academics from the Working Class (1984), edited by Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey; Working-Class Women in the Academy: Laborers in the Knowledge Factory (1993), edited by Michelle M. Tokarczyk and Elizabeth A. Fay; This Fine Place So Far From Home: Voices of Academics from the Working Class (1995), edited by C. L. Barney Dews and Carolyn Leste Law; and Teaching Working Class (1999), edited by Sherry Lee Linkon.

All four books include female and minority writers, and, as such, they underline how the ties of solidarity that come from class awareness are often stronger than the divisions that generally preoccupy academe.

I almost always feel a deeper empathy with people who share elements of my economic background, regardless of what they look like, than I do with people who are supposed to be interchangeable with me on the basis of appearance.

I am now a tenured professor at an expensive liberal-arts college. I enjoy teaching, and, of course, I care about my students. I am grateful to have a job at all, given how few are available in the humanities.

But at times I feel discontented with the larger purpose of my work. The overwhelming majority of my students come from social strata far above mine. I seldom feel like I am giving anything back to the community from which I came. I believe that my courses complicate and soften the aggressive certainties of future elites. But, as I become more secure and established, I wish I could do more to help other first-generation college students.

My feelings on this matter stem, no doubt, from a lot of personal baggage, but they also come from continuing personal interactions. At least once a year, I return with my family to visit our relatives and childhood friends in Philadelphia, where things are not going all that well for many people my age and younger.

Many of my childhood friends have struggled to find stable, full-time work. The police and fire departments aren't hiring; nursing and education have shifted to part-time, no-benefits operations; manufacturing is long gone; and the union jobs that lifted many of their fathers into the lower-middle class have disappeared.

So, in the place where I grew up, there are men and women in their 30's who live with their parents and can't start families because there are so few real jobs, even for the ones who put in a couple years at community college, transferred to a state school, and were the first in their families to get degrees that were sold as certain tickets to the middle class.

A lot of those people end up delivering pizzas, mowing lawns, waiting tables, or working the checkout lane at Wal-Mart for $7.15 an hour, and the message spreads that education doesn't matter.

But that is old knowledge in a lot of subcultures -- the world of their great-grandparents -- and it is being relearned in our new Gilded Age. As Anya Kamenetz has observed in her book, Generation Debt (2006), education is, more and more, not a ticket to anything but financial ruin. You have to know somebody who knows how the system works, who will help you. Or you have to start your own business, if you can get some money. But you probably can't. For some, mostly the men, the military seems like the only reliable way out. It's no accident that military advertising emphasizes earning marketable skills; you'll see the world, and you'll come back able to look your dad in the eye.

All of those impressions are affirmed by the data assembled by Janny Scott and David Leonhardt in "Shadowy Lines that Still Divide" in The New York Times collection, Class Matters (2005), although their information is now almost a decade behind the continuing trends I describe.

To a great extent, my life's course was set by the determination of my parents to give me chances that they never had and to foster a conviction that I would not live as they did: to have only one child, to send that child to parochial schools, to emphasize study, and to enforce strict rules.

But, even as a child, I can remember feeling that school was training me to be a subordinate in a culture -- nearly a caste system -- where the people who have money and power were different from us in personal style, language, and values. The suited professionals in their BMWs looked like members of some kind of alien occupation army; there was no possibility of communicating with them on equal terms. And they seemed to wield almost absolute power -- over rent, jobs, health care, schools, prices -- from inaccessible conference rooms in downtown office buildings. We never met their children because they lived in faraway suburbs.

In the context of working-class schools, I saw that a few students -- compliant, ambitious, individualistic, and possessing an aptitude for mimicry -- were eventually singled out for advancement. They passed by using test scores, recommendations, and loyalty oaths in the form of application essays. And if one of those students succeeded in a decade -- usually by joining the lower class of suit-wearers -- they were brought back to reinforce the myth of unfettered meritocracy: "See kids, you just have to work hard."

I was a believer, but most working-class kids only half-trust what they are told. They see what happens to their parents and older siblings. And they know that trying too hard at school will cost them friends and make them targets for violence, particularly in the earlier phases of education, before the weeding process and tracking systems produce cohorts who cling to a sense of being exceptional and deserving, unlike their lesser peers. And they pay a price for spending time studying instead of building alliances in the neighborhood.

Some students, like me, can rise into the middle class that way, putting the dangers of the early grades farther into the past, but, at some point -- maybe decades later -- the ability to mimic elites must become so refined, so subtle and nuanced, that one cannot succeed anymore. There are five forks, and you don't know what to do with three of them. You've never been to Martha's Vineyard. You are reluctant to speak anyway because you can't remember the rules for "who" and "whom." People are laughing, and you don't know why. You feel like a lead pipe on a lace napkin. You have risen to your level of incompetence, and what is there to do but admit you don't belong and rely on the charity of your hosts?

I have been remarkably fortunate, but it is sometimes hard for me to empathize with my current students' concerns about whether they should go to Austria or Australia for their semester abroad. And, in faculty meetings and in the larger profession, I sometimes feel deeply conflicted when someone talks about diversity in terms of race and gender without explicitly considering class as another significant variable. It's not that I am opposed to affirmative action, but that I think we need a more comprehensive vision of who needs that assistance.

As has been said in many other contexts, academe's admissions, hiring, and promotion practices seem to favor people who look different but mostly think alike, largely because they belong to similar class strata. Celebrating diversity involves many arbitrary choices about who is "diverse" and who isn't, who should be shown deference and who should be shouted down, who should be "strongly encouraged to apply" and who should be called "overrepresented." In the end, I think too much of the celebration is about making privileged people feel like they care about inequality without having to really change anything.

I am now one of those privileged people, and I sometimes feel like a class traitor in academe. And so I am occasionally drawn to another life, possibly teaching at a state university or a community college in an urban setting. I want to give something back and feel like I deserve my office and my job security. I get nostalgic during the opening credits of The Sopranos. But I also know the old neighborhood is the Tahiti of the former-working-class imagination: a dream of unselfconscious authenticity, acceptance, and deep familiarity with the rules of social interaction. Of course, it is a self-serving myth.

I know that I don't belong in the old neighborhood either. I made my choices long ago; or perhaps others made them for me. No one is awaiting my return. I think I can hear what they'd say: "You seem to like playing the working-class hero for rich people. Whatever. Do it if it works for you. You never belonged here anyway, even when you were a kid. If I could get out of here, I would. So get on with your life. We'll be fine without you."

Meanwhile, back on the job as a tenured professor -- certifying the inherited status of his middle-class students -- the self-proclaimed "academic class traitor" romanticizes his alienation and mocks his own naïve posturing. He realizes there are no people whom he can serve without some inner conflict.

Even so, there are some ways to resolve the contradiction. For the present, that means looking out for students -- the ones who seem somewhat out-of-place, who may have no inherited familiarity with the unspoken rules of higher education or the job search -- and trying, as best I can, to guide them through territories that remain somewhat alien and intimidating to me.

Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Mich. He writes about academic culture and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at