all i want for Christmas is a nice fresh myth: on class and education reform

The New York Times yesterday featured an op-ed on education entitled “Class Matters: Why Won’t We Admit It?

The authors, Helen Ladd and Edward Fiske, noted “New research by Sean F. Reardon of Stanford University traces the achievement gap between children from high- and low-income families over the last 50 years and finds that it now far exceeds the gap between white and black students.”

That statement covers most of the problems with education. And it reinforces at least half of them, including the persistent notion that complex societal outcomes fall pretty much squarely under the purview – and responsibility – of the educational system.

This notion comes to us straight from myth. By myth, I don’t mean anything false, necessarily: a myth is a guiding narrative, a story that both directs and justifies a culture’s ways of being.

Humans need stories. And we get most of our stories from culture: from our homes, from our ethnic origins, perhaps, if they haven’t been fully absorbed into the dominant, from media, from school and peers, and from cultural narratives about how the world works.

But when our myths are no longer resonant with or equal to the circumstances we find ourselves, the decisions we make on the basis of their guidance become destructive.

Our educational narratives are some of the most outdated myths still in popular circulation.

Myth #1: Education Creates an Equal Playing Field
Our contemporary education system was founded and built on the cultural narrative that public education can and does “level the playing field” of opportunity. This myth provides the shock value for the NYT piece: if it is newsworthy that children from low-income families do not achieve the school success of children from high-income families, then there must be an expectation that schools CAN do that.

I don’t think they can, not in the way we expect. At least not anymore.

There was a time, I think, when the myth may have had some validity. In an early industrial England in which children were frequently put to work in sweatshops, the idea of mandatory public school was relatively emancipatory. Trade twelve-hour-days in soot for learning to read! Definitely a move in the direction of increased equity for the least privileged.

And a few generations later, when Americans married this narrative of public school as the great equalizer to their personal pet myth of a classless society, it created a powerful juggernaut of cultural narrative that has been passed down through the generations as a precious truth.

But schools never actually bore responsibility for making everybody highly educated: to fulfill the myth all they had to do was open doors for the most talented and well-suited among the poor. For a few generations, they did. Now, that promise rings more and more hollow.

Myth #2: Education = Opportunity
We no longer live in a time when an education – even a university education – guarantees a good job. This is less about any particular failure of the education system than it is about demographics and the nature of work in a post-industrial globalized economy.

For the early Baby Boomers, the paths were relatively clear and open, particularly for males: if you did well in school, you could go to university cheaply and largely be guaranteed employment at the end. No matter what you studied. My father, born in 1947 to a working-class auto-mechanic and a homemaker, was the first in his family to go to university: his parents had upwardly-mobile aspirations and he was a quick learner. He studied biology, and paid for his studies by working through the summers. Tuition was minimal. He got a degree in 1968, and was immediately hired by a local school board as a teacher, despite having absolutely zero teaching credentials. He was a Director of Education for his district before he was 40.

Not all families in the era before social welfare programs like Medicare and Employment Insurance had the luxury of making upward mobility a priority. My father-in-law, born a few years before my father, had equal aptitude but very different financial responsibilities at a young age. He joined the military at seventeen, did a stint in Cyprus, and returned to his small hometown when a smelter opened. He worked hard, was responsible. He was a senior Manager before he was 40.

My own school cohort – my high school and college friends – turned 40 this past year. A huge proportion of us have multiple degrees. Some are still paying for them. Some of us are still in school. Many are freelancers, business-owners, or working in retail. Almost zero are in directorships or senior management positions. The Baby Boomers are for the most part still IN those damn jobs.

School taught both my father and my father-in-law some basic principles for success: get there on time. Do what you’re told. Stay on task. This is a lot of what the education was – and still is – structured to teach. It didn’t EVER actually equal the playing field, per se, but did absolutely help to condition children to take up hierarchical roles within a hierarchical society. Family circumstances and structure still shaped the trajectories available: my father’s opportunities were far more open than those of my father-in-law’s. But paths to success were available to both.

Those paths and principles haven’t been a guarantee of much for a generation or more. Increasingly, the passivity that schooling can inculcate can be a liability in a freelancer’s job market. But the generation for whom they succeeded still control a great deal of the narrative around success, because they are still in the positions of institutional power within our culture.

The reality is that success in school today isn’t worth much, job-wise, without real-world business and institutional contacts and strategies, and preferably the economic freedom to take unpaid internships, etc. These are precisely the things that kids from families without experience or success in these realms DON’T have. Good grades mean very little if you don’t know how to leverage them.

Myth #3: Class Is About Money
I know this statement isn’t popular in many circles, but class? Is not solely or even primarily about money. Nor does talking about class reinforce hierarchies. In fact, pretending it doesn’t exist reinforces class prejudices by presenting classed practices as mere individual choice. If “those people” just did things like we do, goes the complex mythology that pretends class is merely monetary difference, all would be well and the deserving poor would get their due. Everybody else? Consigned to Jerry Springer or Real Housewives of New Jersey, depending on income.

Bourdieu talks about habitus, or practices that determine belonging to a group. I see class as far more related to habitus than it is to mere money. The types of behaviours skewered by sites like People of Walmart, for instance? Aren’t actually about full-on poverty, as people AT Walmart spend significant amounts of money. They’re about class as habitus (Bourdieu also has some nice stuff on how we get our sense of ourselves through distinction, or identifying what we are NOT, aesthetically. Hello, People of Walmart. Hello, hate for hipsters.)

For a lot of us who work in education, the idea that class has links to educational outcomes and opportunities is…um…not new. As in, it has formed at least part of the backbone of the reading list of most of the B.Ed, M.Ed, and Ph.D in Ed courses I’ve taken – and taught – over the past, oh, eighteen years.

Kids who come to school with the values and literacies that school rewards do well. By literacies I don’t necessarily mean formal literacy: nobody has to teach their child to read at home in order for the child to succeed in school. That IS one of the jobs of school. But a child who comes from a home where books and text and information are part of the habitus valued and modelled by adults? Who has experience focusing on task A in order to get to result B? Will have a far easier time in most classroom situations.

And the disparity in the way homes value and practice these skills and literacies with children tends to fall along class lines, not purely in terms of economics, but in terms of habitus.

So, we have an educational system built on reinforcing already outdated industrial-model work behaviours, and we expect it to provide truly equal-opportunity learning to children who come from vastly different family circumstances and values, while making them ALL highly-educated citizens because our culture no longer has any real place for those who are not highly-educated (and even then, security’s a whole other myth these days). And, we’d like to do this all without talking overtly about class and the advantages and disadvantages it confers, because in doing so we would undermine our cultural justification for having the education system we do in the first place?

We don’t admit class matters, New York Times, because for generations we have grown up not knowing how to talk about class at all. And because most of us who work in education have bought into the idea that we are here to level the playing field, and we don’t know how to imagine our way out of the tangle of narratives and myth that we’ve built our system on because they’re still passed around like truth.

I want to believe we can revision the concept of public education so that it remains true to its principles and goals of increasing equity and opportunity in a disparate, pluralistic society. I think the first step in getting there might be admitting, once and for all, that it is not currently succeeding on that front at all. Not because the system or the teachers or even the parents are failing, but because the task and the society no longer fit the narratives driving our policies and our practices and our purposes for learning.

What education needs for Christmas is a new myth; a new vision. Maybe a whole stocking full of them. Any ideas?



15 Comments all i want for Christmas is a nice fresh myth: on class and education reform

    1. bon

      Ann, I’m really interested in the social determinants of health framework: I like the pan-societal view of health that it takes, rather than partitioning off effects from causes.

      Thanks for the link.

    1. bon

      Laughing, Buzz. How IS a bad radio station like our public school system?

      I personally suspect more Air Supply would improve our system, but that could just be me.

      Thanks for the link.

  1. Brie

    I grew up very aware of class. It comea from having hippy/socialist parents who taught the history of Winnipeg. I am always amazed that people don’t understand the importance of class in history and decision making.

    Growing up we didn’t have a lot of money but I knew weren’t working class. My dad was a writer and mom worked in a library. Her family was full.of lawyers and doctors. His not so much, but they were storytellers.

    My husband and I each have two degrees and I feel like we are now part of the middle class my parents left. And there are books every where in our house.

    1. bon

      Thanks for the comment, Brie.

      Hippie parents made for some of the most interesting people I grew up with…in the hippie critique of the societal status quo was some of the same willingness to explore new stories for living that I’m calling for here.

  2. Lisa b

    you had me at hello
    “including the persistent notion that complex societal outcomes fall pretty much squarely under the purview – and responsibility – of the educational system.”
    made me laugh and took a weight off my shoulders
    thanks bon

    1. bon

      My pleasure, Lisa.

      There are huge problems with the system, but the fact that they tend to be presented lately as the fault of teachers rather than a product of the larger society in which schools AND teachers exist…seems to me to be a level of scapegoating.

  3. Will

    I don’t know, my mom was a housewife and my dad worked a factory job at Ford with 4 kids. Now my wife and I are engineers with master’s and MBA and have been quite successful. If you get a philosophy or history degree and can’t find a job well there’s a reason for that.

    Industry is changing, jobs are moving to cheaper locations so you have to adapt. I’m in IT now and there are tons of high paying jobs – I’m working remotely for US clients at the moment. A lot of this was from specific decisions and changes I made – these people don’t even see me or know me so how can it be from class?

    To me this is a very defeatist attitude. I don’t think anyone is better off with a high school diploma or less. Get the skills that are in demand today or start a business and you’ll be fine.

    1. bon

      Will, thanks for the input. However…not sure how your comment relates to most of what I said except to try to refute class.

      To me, your “non-defeatist” attitude is an example of the neoliberal narrative that only serves to blame people for systemic issues. You want credit for your own success, and appear to assume that concepts like class get in the way of that.

      I think individuals and even individual choices still exist in a system with structural inequities…but the narrative of the equal playing field that you appear to want to base your own pride in success in? It’s a sham.

      And I don’t know which part of the post you missed, but I’m not suggesting people just get a high school diploma these days. I’m suggesting we become aware that opportunities like your dad had – raising four kids on a single Ford income – don’t exist anymore, and school isn’t sufficient to provide them. Nor does it create opportunities even for the academically talented like it once did.

      Are you seriously suggesting everyone go into IT or business? Do you at least think that our schools should prepare students better for the literacies that create success in those fields? Because some people grow up in families that don’t offer that know-how or value those types of pursuits: where do you expect those people to magically learn?

  4. V-Grrrl @ Compost Studios

    Yes, I’d like a new myth and a new reality. I don’t know what to say to my kids anymore about their education (they’re teens). Their dad struggled all the way through school and university but has been successful in terms of salary, accomplishments, job security. I was at the top of my class in high school and university and garnered all the awards and scholarships. Earned national writing awards in my 20s and….I’ve never been able to translate that into regular, high paying work. (My degree is in communications). So as I repeat the myth that Doing Well in School Will Create Opportunity to my teens, I’m faced with the reality of my own situation. Despite all my efforts to stay relevant and educated for the times, I’ve been left behind. The reasons are complex, but it *is* hard to guide to teens through their choices in the face of my own experience.

    1. bon

      i was startled when i learned, in my 30s, that even successful writers – literary writers, that is – make very very little profit from their work, particularly when time invested is considered.

      this wasn’t even information that was particularly available fifteen or twenty years ago, when those of us inclined towards the arts were making life choices. our teachers themselves didn’t particularly know. because THEY had grown up with the narratives the post is about. maybe i’d have chosen business or science – as Will is so pleased to have done – had i had counsel in that direction. i don’t know. i still think that this making sense of ideas matters. i don’t even mind if others get more $ or security from making more market-focused decisions. i just think in order to do MY chosen job well i need to keep digging at these myths and narratives until i understand why they’re still propped up.

      and then the really hard job. replacing them. with better.

  5. Kimberly

    I read this on the heels of reading the criticism a friend of mine (rhetoric prof) leveled at the “black kid in Philly” article.

    I wonder if we are in the midst of one of those shoulder periods where things shake up economically and people shift from one mind-set to another.

    In the late 1800s, with the huge immigration from Europe to America, and the plains opening up, etc, the signs in New York were, “No Irish need apply.”

    I also suspect that the narrative you are describing is mostly US/Canadian. Our countries were populated by folks who, mostly, were rugged individualists who left their native lands for various reasons but all had the “the unknown is better than the known” impetus. I think that is a particular brand of driven-ness that fosters the kinds of narratives you are discussing.

    One of my relatives in my great-grandmother’s generation came to this country from Germany when she was 18. She worked as a maid. She made $5 a week. She paid $2 for her room and board, had $1 for spending, clothes, transportation, etc, and sent $2 back to Germany for her family. Interestingly, the lady who helps me clean the house does somewhat the same thing.

    It is almost never the first generation immigrants who are rabid about education, it is their children. And then their grand-children become part of the “system.”

    Thought-provoking post.

  6. bon

    yeh, i do think a certain share of rugged individualism underwrites the myths, or at least the way they’re taken up now. they may have originally been intended to support a system aimed at creating equal playing fields, based on beliefs that such things COULD be done on a grand scheme. such things WERE, i think, more doable in a different economy. but now the myths just excuse the refusal to acknowledge those differences, and difference of opportunity in general. they prop up a system that cannot do what it is being asked to.

    thanks for the comment, Kimberly.

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