A spotlight on social class
Almost every week this April has been devoted to a certain theme. Last week, Colby celebrated Pride Week and Earth Week. Festivities included flags and Drag Ball, and a nature walk and camp-out, respectively. This week is devoted to a new theme: social class awareness. On campus, social class is not something we celebrate. There is no club devoted to exploring social class, and no one sells colorful T-shirts printed with proverbs to promote social class awareness and acceptance.
Associate Professor of Education Adam Howard and the students of ED322: Social Class and Schooling organized Social Class Awareness Week as an opportunity to learn about and discuss important issues surrounding social class.
According to Howard and his contemporaries who also study social class, one of the main barriers to having a sustained dialogue about social class is that “we don’t have an understanding of social class that allows us to talk about it. So if you don’t even understand the concept, you can’t really talk about it,” Howard said.
According to Class Action, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to ending classism, class can be defined as “relative social rank in terms of income, wealth, education, status and/or power.” Notably, Class Action includes several determinants besides income in its definition of social class.
The first part of Howard’s course on social class and schooling addresses this distinction. “Part of what we do is we spend the first part of the semester really trying to wrap our head around this concept of social class and making it more complicated than just about how much money you have or don’t have,” he said.
The process of intentionally complicating the concept of social class “takes a while,” Howard said, “because students as well as the general public often don’t have a very complex understanding of social class. So you have to set that foundation first. That’s something we do all semester long.”
According to Melissa Barrie Lehmann ’14, another reason why people may not necessarily talk about social class at the College is because, “it’s kind of hard to see [social class] here [at Colby]. When you’re looking at people, you can’t really tell if they’re working class or middle class just because everyone blends in here so well.”
In this sense, talking about social class can be a contradiction. Some students like Barrie Lehmann think the community should talk about social class, but simultaneously take solace in the fact that perhaps at a small college like Colby, they may encounter less judgment or discrimination as they did at home.
“I know [social class] is important to talk about, but it’s also comforting to know that it’s not obvious when you look at people….I want it to be visual in a conceptual way, but not necessarily in such a physical or individual way,” Barrie Lehmann said.
At a small liberal arts college, two of the most obvious ways to promote a basic understanding of social class may be to hold open discussion forums and academic classes that address social class. According to Howard, though, the College community has yet to meet these challenges.
“I mean, look at this year,” Howard said. “Not one cultural event that we had on campus this entire year was focused on social class. So how in the world can the Colby College community become even informed and study and discuss if we have no opportunities to do that?”
According to Howard, the College curriculum reflects a similar lack of programming with regards to social class. “There may be two or three courses, [‘Social Class and Schooling’] being one of them, that focus on social class. How many do we have that focus on gender? How many do we have that focus on race? And we might not be good in those areas for certain, but we certainly know how to talk about those more so than social class because we just don’t have opportunities,” Howard said. Barrie Lehmann has a different perspective as a women’s, gender and sexuality studies minor. “A lot of my classes actually cover things that are related to social class,” Barrie Lehmann said. “It comes up a lot in my classes….I took ‘Intro to Women’s Studies,’ and we actually had an entire textbook talking about the differences in feminism between different social classes and between different races and through different parts of the world—how it’s really different based on women’s experiences.”
Some other departments that have incorporated courses on social class include African American Studies, Anthropology and Philosophy. However, there are still very few courses that deal specifically with social class. Howard’s course on social class and schooling is an example of one such course.
According to Howard, the class itself is “structured around different themes, and its survey of the major studies on social class, the major correlation between social class and schooling.” The class examines “themes like tracking, school funding, hidden curriculum, those types of things…we spend a fair amount of time looking at everything from kindergarten through college,” Howard said.
Another objective of the course is to “focus more specifically on privilege,” Howard said. “When folks do talk about social class, they always want to talk about poor people. And that is where the problem lies…we’re very critical of schools for poor students, the various institutions that support and work with people living in poverty, but rarely are we supportive or as critical in our investigations on the other end of the spectrum.”
Therefore, in Howard’s opinion, “Another way of thinking about inequalities is not just looking at poor people and issues related to poverty, but actually starting to look up, turn our gaze upward to the affluent and to the privileged as a way to understand how social and economic inequalities are reinforced and maintained and continued.” According to Renzo Moyano ’14, “People don’t really talk about social class....And the administration definitely doesn’t talk about those things....They do it for the different countries people are coming from, but people could be coming from the same country and lead completely different lives because of their social, economic wellbeing.” He believes it would be helpful to have charts and graphs representing social class at Colby, in the same way that there are statistics on gender, race and ethnicity.
“I would say in the short run, it ends up hurting us because we we’re less familiar with our surroundings,” Moyano said. “We’re less familiar with the lifestyles that people are living.”
Howard also pointed out, “The Pugh Center doesn’t have social class listed as one of its areas that’s focused on.”
Howard believes that social class “shows up in the fabric of our everyday life. I mean, everything, in terms of how we communicate with others, how we understand ourselves, how we relate to others—all of that social class influences. And we don’t have an awareness of the actual consequences of that.”