Working Class, Upper Class, Community Colleges, and Harvard U.

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!

15 thoughts on “Working Class, Upper Class, Community Colleges, and Harvard U.

  1. I’m back!
    I’ve been thinking about your posts and am grateful for them. I am young, and don’t know very much, but still am having a hard time accepting some of the things I am reading…again, I have recently graduated from a prestige-house (Berkeley) and have attended classes at a less prestigious UC, did 2 semesters in high school at a CSU, and took community college classes throughout my high school years. All of this happened in the last 6 years, so perhaps my angle can be a relatively fresh student’s perspective.

    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?

    Not so much anymore. My local CSU’s intro to cultural anthropology class has 160 students in it. Without a discussion section. Again, the inexperienced teaching assistants at my UPrestige weren’t fresh first years. Similarly, here’s an advantage of UPrestige: graduate students get lots of teaching.
    Also, I believe that community colleges and state schools do not offer discussion sections. Especially with intro classes, smaller discussion sections can be advantageous because students can begin to grasp the nuances of a new discipline in a small intimate setting without slowing down lectures. Remember, these courses are lectures, not seminars.

    Perhaps it is the case that I’m a victim of my own prestige status, that I can’t see beyond the comfort of my degree to the realities of teaching and learning, but I would really like to see the evidence to support the claim that students learn the same things in similar courses with the same rigor. Again, my intro to anthro class at Berkeley had us reading parts of 5 different books and at least two essays a week. We were then lectured for three hours a week on the texts and their place in the discipline, and also talked in small groups with a graduate student for an hour a week to go over anything that was still murky (discussion sections). Is this comparable to a community college class?

  2. As long as you’re not bitter, that’s what’s important.
    I think it may be simpler than you’re trying to make out. Anthropologists look for mysterious sub-cultural causation the way that many psychologists used to look for sub-conscious explanations. Part of the issue is probably just name recognition, and exclusivity. These two things can account for much of the phenomenon you’re talking about. It also explains why clubs, restaurants, stars (especially ones famous for no other reason than name recognition), collectors items, etc… It’s all about a signal that others can recognize and interpret. I.e., herding behavior.
    All of the Ivy League schools now have simply been around longer, and existed at a time when very few people went to college, or even graduated from high school.
    In the army people put themselves through incredible suffering to go to various schools known to be evil, like Ranger school. Most of the people that try out for it are there just to get the tab or pin and put it on their uniform, because the army uniform is like a resume to those that know how to read it. As so, people want to say “I went to Harvard.”
    This points to an ignorance by most people of what that statement means, or perhaps how little it means. Now if you ever see someone with a Ranger tab, that’s impressive.

  3. Hi Kroba:
    Glad to see you back! Social stratification works in strange ways. If you have a chance, read Douthat’s book on the upper class. It is funny, and I think insightful. You are already experienced at not agreeing with everything you read, and he may give you something to chew on, too. Still, I think that the overall gist of his argument about the nature of elites at Harvard is a good one.

    Still, though the best description of social stratification is Max Weber’s essay “Class, Status, Party” which is quite widely available. If you want to make my day, you can get the translation which was published by the Journal of Classical Sociology last May. (It was translated by my wife and students). There it is called “Classes, Staende, Parties.”

  4. Hi Rick:
    Yes, the bitterness problem is often an issue, especially when you consider that grumpiness is not all the persuasive for most poeple. But we are all caught in systems of social stratification in which someone is higher, cooler, and more important than we are. A way to keep humble is to remember we are higher, cooler, and more important than someone else, too, and that they may well not like us, either.

    I’m not sure I completely buy the “been around longer” argument. By that form of reasoning, Chico State would outrank Stanford and most of the University of California campuses. I think US News and World Report would disagree with such an assessment!

    Emile Durkheim wrote some great things about the various kinds of rituals (hazing) and otherwise we put ourselves through to establish status. I guess that some of my students might think that I put them through such tortures, and all they get in exchange is a lousy diploma…

  5. Hi Kroba:
    Reading Max Weber before bed! That really takes discipline. Maybe you are right, and I have underestimated UCB grads.


  6. Tony,
    It was an interesting read, especially since I have been reading a different line of Weber’s work. Kudos to you and your team for publishing the work.

    In this midst of this good learning however, I’m still not convinced that Chico is a better school than Berkeley, that classes across institutions are comparable, and that I should send my little sister to community college, etc. etc. etc.

    And on the notion of reading before bed…there’s no other way of managing the reading loads I’m used to.

  7. Kroba,
    You are right that I haven’t answered your question about how/why the quality of education is better at Chico than at Berekeley. I think that we can “win” on class-size, and teaching experience of our faculty.

    But that of course is not the same as saying the learning, or education, at Chico is better. But the fact is that while both institutions do a lot of assessment in the curriculum, little (or nothing) is done that permits comparisons across the institutions. So does a Berkeley education result in more learning? It probably depends on how you define and measure it–but none of the big accreditation agencies directly measures “learning” in a way that permits comparisons. A partial exception is the National Survey of Student Engagement which asks students about how many hours they spend studying,volunteering, talking with faculty, etc., but this is a weak proxy for “learning.”

    As I wrote in my blog posting, I think that Berkeley’s greatest strength is the student body it admits. The most diligent high school students go to Berkeley, and feed off each other in a positive fashion. To the extent that this makes Berkeley a better place for learning, I can tip my hat to them. But this is not the result of anything much that the faculty at Berkeley do. Rather it is something that the high schools and students themselves do.

    As for what is required of students, I would be happy to put the readings lists at Chico State Sociology Department up against those at Berkeley. I think that you will find that they are similar–meaning that some are pretty skimpy, and some are pretty beefy. (Whether the students actually read everything is another story, as you can read about in Douthat’s book).

    Anyway, that is a partial response to your question. The bigger issue in the Weber article which I would call your attention to is the relationship between what we believe about inequality (i.e. Staende), and what the implications are for how we perceive each other. Weber uses ethnicity as an example, and I use Chico State and Berkeley.

    A question for you: Is Stanford really all that much better than UC Berkeley?

    And a final note: Congratulations on getting through Weber in the middle of the night. I usually prefer to read books by journalists and novelists at that hour. Weber usually requires a morning hour, and a good cup of coffee!

  8. At the end of the day it’s the student that takes charge of their own education that matters, but in my limited experience depts. that are too easy to get into can drag down a classroom experience, because there will be people there that simply don’t belong in graduate school. In an undergrad environment those people will drop out, or fail out, in the first couple of years, and those that stay tend to not really get in the way.
    I really don’t like the fact that we live in a society that almost requires a college education. This draws a lot of people there that are there simply, because that is what they are supposed to do.

  9. Thanks for the response Tony, and for the insight Rick. I suppose I’m coming at it from the perspective of a student who is interested in a discipline and wants to go to graduate school.

    Tony, thanks for the link back to Weber…that helps, actually.

    And a quick aside…yes, if you’re an anthro student, stanford is better than berkeley in most regards. Berkeley’s faculty has more celebrity, but stanford graduates about 15(!) anthro students a year. I think that might be more than 1 faculty per student. The result? Even more specialized attention to students who are of the more motivated and committed type, on top of a huge endowment to fund summer fieldwork etc.

  10. Hi Kroba:
    Does Stanford graduate 15 Ph.D., or BA students per year? 15 Ph.D. students is a huge and probably robust program. 15 BA students would be a really small program on life support.

    There was an editorial today int eh Washington Post about the limited course requirements of different universities. The surprise is that the Privates have fewer graduation requirements than the Publics. I do not think that this is a good proxy for “teaching quality,” so we are back where we started from!


  11. Wow, that’s crazy Tony. I took every one of those courses graded during my undergrad at Texas, and I had too from what I remember. One of the points of a liberal arts education is to expose students to a solid core during the first two years so they have a good idea of what to major in and have a better idea of how to be better citizens on a broad range of subjects. In fact it was because I took macroeconomics that I was able to realize it was a bullshit subject early on.

  12. I noticed that California did terribly in general. This is one more data set in favor of a personal theory of mine. I find that while Texas has both really right and left wing folks, most people are in the middle and we generally keep our ideologues in check, often ignoring them while the national media gives them attention.
    Any group of academics that feel that the Gynecology of the Ancient World be used to satisfy a social science core credit need to be reigned in.

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