Tuesday, June 19, 2012


That's me.

The women's studies folks on campus put together a summer reading group to read and chat about bell hooks' Where We Stand: Class Matters.  We're reading a couple chapters at a time, and then getting together mostly once a week to chat.

The argument in the first bit is that we (US dominant culture) don't talk enough about social class and its effects on people's experience.  I think we talk more about social class than hooks thinks we do, but I see that we don't talk enough about it.  hooks talks about her family background and her estrangement, and asks how much one can hold onto and how much one gives up in moving from growing up poor to getting to the middle class.  That seems like a really good question.  (She makes the point, since maybe you're wondering, that she's already written books with start their analysis from feminist and race-centered positions.  She doesn't ignore either, here, but starts with social class.)

She talks a fair bit about not fitting in at college where she first went, and eventually at Stanford, where she went also.

I found the book a bit repetitive in its argument, but hooks is readable, and interesting, so it was okay.  But I didn't find it especially compelling as far as we'd read.

When folks started talking, though, it made me really think about how bourgeois my reaction was.  Several of the people talked about growing up very poor on this or that farm in the upper midwest, mostly.

I grew up pretty solidly middle class, and very bourgeois, since my family (grandfather, father, uncle) owned a business, and thus owned the means of production.

So mostly I kept my mouth shut.

The best question of the evening was when someone asked how we define "class."  Me, I tend to think in terms of a fairly Marxist definition.  Others not so much.  A few thought more metaphorically, where "class" became about acting in certain ways, or having self-respect. 

We're meeting again tonight, and I've been thinking about the new chapters and about last week's discussion.

I wonder if the folks that talked about growing up on farms grew up on farms that their families owned (or that their families owned with the bank or credit union)? 

How would that play into the Marxist definition?  Does it mean the same thing if you own the means of production and work with that capital to produce whatever it is?  Is there a difference between owning a farm that way and owning another sort of business?

One of the things that struck another person and came up in conversation later was how many of the people in the conversation had grown up and stayed very much in the same area.  In this conversation, at least, geographical movement was tied fairly strongly to having a phd and being on the tenure line (though not completely).   (The sample size is pretty small, too.)

It feels like there's something untold in hooks' narrative about college.  I think she grew up in Ohio, and I have no idea about how public universities in Ohio were in the 70s about African American students.  I know African American students in my home state went to college at lower rates, and had far fewer opportunities.  But I wondered why she'd chosen to go to a private school rather than a state school?

I guess my wondering comes from growing up in a state with (then, at least) excellent public secondary education, to the extent that very few of the kids I graduated high school with went to private schools.  (I can name two that I know of.  Everyone else I can think of who went on went to public schools.) 

I think private schools are more prevalent in some parts of the country rather than others, and maybe offered scholarships more than public schools?


  1. Speaking to your regional question ...Here, the public schools are 65-85% minority, and the private schools are about 1% minority. It's a class and race combo, methinks. It feels to me like minorities have a very hard time here, much worse than in the bay area.

    We are pretty convinced that we're going to send eldest to a private school because the very good public school he's at doesn't handle special needs kids well at all. We're really lucky that we can shift our finances around and do this. Not everyone is so lucky

  2. hooks is actually originally from rural Kentucky (from somewhere along the TN border, if I recall correctly), and I am not at all surprised that she would have chosen to leave for her education in the 1970s. Diversity (in terms of integration of African-American students and faculty) remains a huge issue even today in Kentucky higher education, with students of color in KY tending either to enroll in the one HBCU in the state or to go to schools in bordering states that have more support for African-American students (so, for example, students from the Northern Kentucky region are more likely to enroll at the University of Cincinnati than to choose in-state options. I'm not at all surprised that hooks would not have chosen to remain in KY when it came time to go to university 30 years ago, given the state of things in KY today. It is worth noting though that the last I heard hooks had returned to KY and moved to Berea College, the first co-ed, integrated college in the South and a college which does not charge students tuition and primarily serves a first generation student population and has a strong commitment to admitting ethnic/racial minorities.

  3. The whole "is this classical Marxism" question is really complicated, and I find it hard to fix on one position. The fact is that Marx was dead and buried before some economic phenomena we now recognize had come into existence, so asking what Marx or classical Marxism would make of one thing or another is sort of like asking if Thomas Jefferson would register as a Republican or Democrat.

    The easiest thing for me to hang onto when examining such issues is the question of political economy: who is, in practical terms, in control of things? Does owning one kind of business or another give the owner real power over others by economic means?

    As far as the definition of class itself, it is most definitely a more complicated beast than Marx envisioned. You and your fellow readers all described a piece of the elephant, as it were. Social class in the US has a lot to do with how one performs one's role, but it isn't the only component. Class has an awful lot to do with access to wealth and access to political power, maybe more so than with one's ability to pull off a successful performance of middle-classness.

  4. I think the public/private thing (you're talking higher ed, yes?) is very very regional. I grew up in New England, and at least half my high school class went to private universities, and it was definitely the top half. Going to the state university was considered settling for mediocrity in the clearest way. Although I didn't think of it as a distinction between public/private schools - I just thought of it as the difference between good schools and not good schools. It just so happens that, looking back, gee! all the good schools were private! But really, honestly, when thinking about where to go, the categories "public" and "private" didn't even resonate with me - it was big/small, urban/rural, sporty/arty, that kind of thing. (And, yes, where the school ranked in the US News & WR.)

    I mean, I'm sure the public/private distinction was actually operating very strongly, but it wasn't really visible to me (even though we did talk about "state" schools. It's just that there were "state" schools, and schools; I never thought about the opposite of "state" being "private"). I've always been really struck by how you perceive private schools as something completely foreign and that attending one has to be justified, when to me, that was just where you went. Like asking why someone would choose to go a private school over a public school - when for me, the question would be, why go to a public school if you could get into a private one?

    (NOT saying the private school bias is justified or correct or anything. Just, that's what I grew up thinking, because that's what a lot of people around me thought.)

    There are just so. many. private colleges/unis in New England, I don't think public education played the same role as elsewhere - I think it got kind of squeezed out. That, and - back to class - my hometown was exceedingly upper class/elite/wealthy, however you want to define that. As well as snobby. :-)

  5. Wow, Fie, is that K-12, or college/university? (I know nothing about K-12 education, sorry.)

    Dr C, Ah, that's really interesting. Thanks. I'm very limited in my regional knowledge.

    Dr. K, Good point, thanks. I think of class as having to do with one's relationship to the means of production. It doesn't work great in some ways, but it's my starting point.

    New Kid, Thanks. Yes, I think where I grew up, it was just assumed that if you were somewhere in the middle class, you'd probably go to one of the state systems. I remember being totally shocked in HS after doing well on the psat at all the privat school brochures, and wondering why anyone would go to those places when there were state schools with WAY better reputations. But I really had no clue about things such as liberal arts, or what sorts of special attention students get at SLACs. I didn't get a clue until I met folks in grad school who'd gone to SLACs and Ivies.

  6. I spent a lot of my life conscious of class differences, where "class" = "How much money you have'. For a long time I resented those who had it easier than I had had it. The roommate whose mother took her shopping for suits for her first job, for instance. I SO resented her. And now, of course I'd do the same thing her mother did for her for my own kids.

    I see my kids, who went to public school in NYC - a very conscious choice on my husband and my part - carry a bit of the same chip on their shoulder when they talk about kids who went to private school. l. I spend a lot of time getting them to stop categorizing people based on where their parents chose to send them to school.

    I think my own class blinders got in my own way of connecting to the real person behind the class, and would hate to see my kids crippled in the same way.

    Look forward to your further reading and thoughts.


  7. Sorry I didn't get back to this sooner, but as for the minority distribution I mentioned in my previous comment, I was talking about K-12 education. It's fairly segregated here as far as public versus private schools. If you're middle class and white, it's weird if you don't send your kids to private school. At least, that's how it feels to me, and that's how it felt growing up here.

    I went to a private, Catholic school from k-6. Then, went to a public school from 7-8. The private school had one black person in my class. Then, I went to a public school that was 82% black. It was a culture shock for me. Plus, at the private school, you could get in trouble for having your shirt untucked, whereas at the public school there were people bringing weapons and drugs to school and having sex in the restrooms. Several girls in my class were pregnant at 8th grade graduation. I fled back to the private school in high school. I'm certain that 7-8th grade were the worse schooling years of my life.

    And the thing is -- I feel very sorry for the kids who didn't have that option to escape, nor the inherent feeling of security that I had at the private school. The public schools here, even the "good" ones, have major issues, and I think a lot of it comes down to class and race separation.

    I don't really feel like I grew up middle class, though, even though I went to private schools, mostly. We were the poor kids in the private school, and we lived in a marginal neighborhood. My parents were constantly asking my grandparents for money, just to survive. We didn't belong to any country clubs or anything like that, and many of the other kids' families did. We never did the sort of vacationing that the other families did. My parents didn't go to college, and had crappy jobs, living just above the poverty line, until my mom got lucky and was able to work her way up in an insurance company. But that was when I was already almost out of the house. And my dad lost his job just as my mom was becoming successful, so we still struggled a lot. It wasn't until I was in college that my family's finances turned around. I feel like my little sister, ten years younger than me, lived an entirely different life than I did -- one without palpable poverty.