Getting your class organized

August 5, 2009

Sarah Knopp reviews a new book that looks at the class stratification in our schools.

PATRICK FINN'S Literacy with an Attitude, which State University of New York Press re-released this year, is indispensable reading for socialist and social justice educators.

Education is set up to reinforce class divisions in society. Many teachers know this at a gut level, but Literacy with an Attitude provides a review of the best sociology that describes all of the aspects of the stratification of schools.

First, Finn draws from Jean Anyon's influential 1980 study, "Social Class and the Hidden Curriculum of Work," which explores class differences in elementary schools through the lens of pedagogy. Anyon looks at four different kinds of schools: working-class, middle-class, "affluent professional" and "executive elite." She shows how styles of teaching and learning in these schools reflect expectations of the future roles of their students.

In the working-class school, emphasis is placed on obedience and rote learning. In the middle-class school, getting the right answer and following directions are emphasized, and doing well in school (getting enough "right" answers) holds the promise of access to decent administrative-type jobs.

A teacher assists a student taking a test

The "affluent professional" schools, by contrast, emphasize student-driven, independent and creative work, and afford students a great deal of freedom. Curriculum at the "executive elite" school is similarly rigorous and inquiry-based, but with more of a sense that there were "right" and "wrong" answers than at the more creative affluent professional school. Children here were being prepared to be excellent, powerful leaders.

Most readers can instantly identify the types of schools that they have learned (and taught) in among the different categories Anyon lays out.

Most moving from this study is how children in each of the schools respond when asked what "knowledge" is. At the affluent professional school, many students responded to questions about knowledge by saying things like "thinking," "figuring stuff out" and "you think up ideas and then find things wrong with those ideas." When asked whether knowledge could be "made," the vast majority said yes.

By contrast, at the middle-class school, only about half the students said that knowledge could be "made," and they said that to do it, they'd "look it up at the library" or "listen and do what they're told." At the working-class school, only one child interviewed thought that knowledge could be made, and none of the students used words like "think" to describe what knowledge is.

Through these and other studies, Finn makes a convincing case that schools are designed to engender creativity in some and passivity in others. For all teachers who have heard others complaining that their mostly working-class students are "lazy," "don't get it" and are forfeiting their "opportunities," this book also provides powerful evidence that schools for most students are not actually designed to give "opportunities."

There's a certain common sense to kids' resistance to the rigidity of the school system.

Progressives debate some of the conclusions of the studies that the book cites. For example, a study by John Ogbu suggests that some of the "misbehavior" of minority children comes from an "oppositional identity," where school-expected behaviors are rejected as acts of freedom and defiance by oppressed groups.

Other progressives have argued that the defiance and opposition seen in working-class schools with children of color are also seen among higher-status children--they just aren't criminalized or looked down on when done by higher-status students.

For example, the new book Our Schools Suck: Students Talk Back to a Segregated Nation on the Failures of Public Education argues that oppressed children actually do want access to the opportunities afforded by a decent education, and realize that they're not getting it.

BUT THE great strength of Finn's book is that it proposes a way out of the conundrum faced by social justice-oriented teachers. If we realize that schools are set up to enforce class stratification, then aren't we their main agents? What do we do?

[T]here are teachers...who are self-consciously critical of the inequities of our society. They see their mission as helping students "develop a deep faith in struggle to overcome injustices and change themselves." They aim to help their students become "critical agents" who can "speak, write and assert their own histories, voices and learning experiences." They view their students not as individuals but as "collective actors" within culture, class, racial, historical and gender settings, and with particular problems, hopes and dreams. They try to help these collective actors become "agents of civic courage"--that is, to help them to acquire the knowledge to act in their collective self-interest.

The book, refreshingly, isn't a prescription for super-teachers who can slowly bring us to socialism, one classroom at a time, through Herculean pedagogical efforts. It doesn't encourage teachers to focus only on helping "border-crossers" (those small minority of students who will pull themselves up by their bootstraps and cross into a higher social status.)

Rather, it argues that the lives of the vast majority of working-class students won't be improved without their collective self-activity.

In a book Finn cites, Job Training Charade, Gordon Lafer:

argues that when high school dropouts work in nonunion jobs, they are likely to increase their earning potential by $2.25 an hour by finishing high school. If, instead, they stay on the job and help organize their workplace, their earning potential is likely to increase by more than $5.50 an hour. High school graduates who contemplate some college training short of a bachelor's degree would do three times better by organizing their workplace than by going back to school.

Finn is not a utopian. He realizes that we teach and learn under the constraints of No Child Left Behind, which is just the latest story on the edifice of standardization and joy-sucking bureaucracy that sits on top of teachers and students.

Therefore, he spends the last chapters of the book talking about the kind of collective action that will be necessary to transform our schools into the types of places where we would all want to teach and learn. Ultimately, if teachers, parents and students don't organize to demand something different, the ruling class' agenda for education is the one that will prevail.

The book is an essential source of ideas for this kind of organizing, for glimpses of what liberatory pedagogy could actually be like, and for arguments to arm ourselves against those who want to blame the victim for the failures of the education system. Social justice educators who read the book will get a shot of creative energy for teaching and organizing.

Further Reading

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