For anyone interested in social stratification and university systems, Julie Garza-Withers has written “Is the Community College Still the Best Bet for Working Class Students?” over on the “Working Class Perspectives” Blog. This blog raises similar issues to what I wrote about in my essay here “The Sociology of Status Hierarchy and Why I Think Chico State is a Better College than UC Berkeley?” Or more to the point, Garza-Withers’ blog asks why such a premium is put on where you learned something, rather than what you learned? And more importantly, she asks why there is an inverse relationship between the quality of teaching and the status of the institution; or in other words, why are the most dedicated teachers (and smallest classes) at the Community Colleges rather than at the more high prestige places? (The reverse question of course is why at the elite universities insist on teaching Anthro 101 in sections with several hundred students, and an army of inexperienced teachings assistants?)
To those of us a little lower than Berkeley or Harvard in the academic pecking order, the answer is obvious: It is because in the United States there is a class system which separates us into different institutions when it comes to the allocation of status. To those at the top of the pecking order go the privileges, status, and the right to explain why the existing system is right, just, and meritocratic. And as a result, those at the top are ever-ready to uncritically assume that their advantages, and assumptions about the nature of social status are simply the natural order of things. They do this even though this rests on an otherwise unsustatinable assumption that what you do before age 17 to get into an elite university drives what rights you have for the rest of your career.
I just read Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class by Ross Douthat (who is now a New York Times Columnist), which I highly recommend to anyone interested in how such elites view and perpetuate themselves. Douthat describes how the upper class education institutions he experienced at a private school, and then at Harvard are used by the upper class to sustain the existing social order. The strong point of the book is that Douthat is one of the few from the upper class who not only admit to the advantages, but also write about the nature of such privilege. He does this while still appreciating the advantages of Harvard’s inflated grading system, and a chance for a midnight skinny-dip with William F. Buckley, Jr. Indeed, Douthat describes the modern privileges he gained via his Harvard education in the following fashion:
“Privilege, I have termed the sum of those poses and prejudices, though I don’t mean the privilege of ole—of social registers and massive Newport cottages, or farther back of titles and family crests. No, ours [at Harvard] is the privilege that comes with belonging to an upper class grown large enough to fancy itself diverse; fluid and competitive enough to believe itself meritocratic; smart enough for intellectual snobbery but not for intellectual curiosity.” (pp. 283-284).
This of course is an important acknowledgement in a society where the wealthy and the poor alike, for different reasons, like to assume that they are all “middle class.” Or as I learned from my first sociology instructor, Tom Bruce, at the very working-class Sacramento City College in Fall, 1976: We live in a society where poverty is associated with being a slob, and wealth with being a snob. And of course none of us want to be thought of as a slob or a snob. So for this reason, Bruce went on, we all uncritically assume that we are middle class, and therefore all is o.k. with the existing order.
As a result we are as society (except in some isolated corners populated by the Working Class Studies folk, and Ross Douthat) are reluctant to recognize the inequalities that undermine our highest ideals. If Tom Bruce is not an example of why community college instructors aren’t great, I don’t what is!