On Monday, I attended a University of Michigan bicentennial event celebrating social class difference. At the event, we launched an edited collection of student writing titled Social Class Voices: Student Stories from the University of Michigan Bicentennial. Last Spring, Professor of Sociology Dwight Lang and I worked with student writers, helping them to read and revise their deeply personal, deeply political essays about their experiences of social class both during and before their time at University of Michigan. On Monday night, I read from my afterword to the book, encouraging listeners and readers to celebrate the great risk our student authors had taken in writing about such a controversial issue as social class difference as well as the grace and effort with which students told their stories. I invited readers of the anthology and listeners in the audience at the event to reflect on their own social class experiences and to take action against social class stratification–especially in educational contexts where our differences too often stand to divide us rather than facilitate conversation and learning as they rightfully should. Then, I sat in the audience and listened as 17 of our student authors read excerpts from their own reflections on social class.
This event was remarkable. Individual students shared their experiences, and collectively we participated in a respectful discourse about social class difference. That night, it occurred to me how rare such respectful discourse across difference—especially social class difference—is in today’s contentious political climate. I felt proud and humbled all at once to have the opportunity to learn from these students, their stories, and their examples of respectful dialogue.
The event—and the anthology—are also remarkable in their inclusion of multiple perspectives from a range of social classes. In my experience, narratives about social class too often rely on an up-by-your-bootstraps, rags-to-riches cliche—meaning we only really get to hear the stories of working poor and working class people, and those people often are obliged to remind us how great (and possible) upward mobility is. But in this instance, students from working poor and working class communities told a variety of stories. Their stories described the great risk working poor and working class students take in pursuing college. Some of their stories expressed certainty in upward mobility, others questioned the possibility, all asserted and demonstrated the valuable aspects of working poor and working class communities—refusing to give in to any high idealizing of the American Dream.
We also heard from students who identify as middle, upper middle, and upper class. That in itself is remarkable. Rarely do we hear stories of the ultra wealthy—instead, their lives are purposefully mystified, made to seem exclusive and unattainable. I come from a working class family and am easily put-off by displays of upper class pretension. I saw none of that pretension from our upper and upper-middle class UM student authors that night. Instead, I saw honesty about their own privilege and promises to remain aware of social class stratification and its effects in the lives and education of themselves and others from all social class backgrounds. I heard pledges to use their college educations—which they pursued out of tradition and out of certainty they would maintain their station in life through that education—to help lift others up, not to exclude.
Our middle and upper-middle class student authors studiously noted the difficulty of describing that which is always (but also never) described, that which is quickly disappearing: the middle class in America. They talked about the experience of usually having enough to get by but often not having nearly as much as others around them. Of pursuing college education with both certainty and trepidation about what that college education would afford and cost them.
Overall, I came away from the evening with overwhelming pride and hope that this generation of social class awareness would create change in our stratified social institutions, especially in higher education—often touted as the great equalizer.
Then on Thursday the popular political news site Politico published a lengthy expose on the state of social class stratification at the University of Michigan. The (accurate) introductory synopsis of the article states: “The University of Michigan, like many public flagship universities, faces a crisis of confidence in working-class communities.” I recommend reading this article to better understand the stronghold that social class
stratification has in higher education—especially at elite institutions like the University of Michigan. The whole thing is excellent, but one moment struck me especially; the article discusses elite universities’ loyalty to admissions practices that perpetuate social class division and the exclusion of working poor and working class students, stating:
“Some want the university, and other elite publics like it, to do more by moving away from economically biased admissions standards like standardized test scores, for instance.
‘They’re still creaming the cream of the cream,’ said Arizona State University President Michael Crow. ‘The University of Michigan is worried about losing their elite status. Their elite status is not on what they produce, it’s on who they don’t admit. What elite status is that? That’s not elite status.'”
Here’s the paradox: exclusionary admissions practices are actually detrimental to any institutions’ attempts at becoming or staying elite. Multiple studies in the field of higher education—across a range of times, institution types, and student populations—show that recruiting and retaining a diverse student population brings a diversity of ideas and approaches to the educational context and enriches learning for all students. The same is true of research: recruiting and retaining diverse faculty, graduate, and undergraduate populations brings a diversity of ideas and approaches to research settings and enriches the research experience as well as the outcomes of that research for everyone involved. The University of Michigan and other elite universities are shooting themselves in the foot by not reaching out to diverse faculty, graduate, and undergraduate student populations—especially by not reaching out to those populations
that are typically underrepresented in higher education. These new kinds of learners, teachers, and researches would continually revitalize the university and reconfigure what it means to be elite.
As a first-generation college student who comes from a working class family, earned her Master’s and PhD, and currently works as a college professor, I have lived in and moved through a lot of different social class communities. In each of them, I have found people and practices to value. I wish that our institutions of higher education, especially those that fancy themselves elite, would learn to do the same. #GoBlue