Sorting out social class contradictions
Located in the heart of an affluent community, the private high school where I began my teaching career did not normally play basketball teams from schools with mainly poor students. Isolation was fairly consistent in the various spheres of my students’ lives. Mostly clustered in isolated, class-segregated communities, the realities of poverty and those living in poverty seemed very distant from the life and schooling circumstances of my students. In the last game of the season, we were playing a team from a public school located in a poor community. With less than a minute and a half remaining, we were down 22 points. It was clear that were going to lose the game.
There is no way to explain fully just how badly my students dealt with losing. For most of their lives they had participated in a succession of contests to demonstrate they were better than others. They had learned to become competitive players in this game of being the best. Faced with certain defeat, they refused to accept the outcome of this championship game without some sort of protest.
A small group of boys seated at the top of the bleachers was the first to begin the protest by shaking their keys toward the players and fans of the opposing team. When the game was about to end, most of the students from our side joined them. In unison the students shook their keys while chanting repeatedly, “That’s OK, that’s all right.” “You beat us now, but you’ll work for us later,” a student shouted. “And clean my house,” another one added.
For the rest of the game they continued to shake their keys to their expensive homes and cars to communicate their privileged social status. Their actions that day revealed a great deal about how they understood themselves.
These kinds of incidents gave some indication that our school wasn’t living up to our stated goals for students as outlined in mission statements and other official documents: to teach students high moral character, integrity and respect for others, and to prepare students to participate responsibly in the world. Their treatment of others at this game made it clear that our students hadn’t learned what we wanted them to learn about themselves and others.
What my students had learned about themselves and others represented the opposite of what I held to be true. My thinking had been powerfully influenced by my upbringing in poverty. I was too unfamiliar with this world of privilege to effectively teach my students lessons about others and themselves that were different from the ones that reinforced privileged ways of knowing and doing. Frustrated, I became the student. I began to explore my burning questions about this strange world I had entered. Seventeen years later, I’m still researching (and teaching in) this strange world.
In my study of elite schools, I have discovered that contradictions often arise in what the schools say they want their students to learn and what they actually teach them. Students learn both intended and (purportedly) unintended lessons that are often in conflict. In part, this conflict results from various factors that influence student learning such as social contexts, institutional rules, curriculum, community influences, norms, values and educational and occupational aspirations. These factors often give shape and life to the unintentional lessons, even when school officials say and claim they want their students to learn other lessons.
Frequently, these unintentional lessons end up being the ones that are the most important in students’ lives. They are experienced as the way things are, or perhaps should be, even when these lessons interfere and prevent schools from living up to their stated goals as outlined in their mission statements and other official documents. The everyday nature of these unintentional lessons allows them to remain hidden as they pervade students’ educational experiences and reinforce powerful messages to students about who they are, how they should live and relate to others, what is important in life and what the future holds for them. Because these lessons often are framed as “normal” and everyday, they are not usually hard to detect. In most cases, they are taught in plain sight and repetitively. By way of analogy, this allows the “elephant in the room” to remain unrecognized and not talked about. Part of our task as community members of an elite institution like Colby, then, is to surface what we all are really teaching and learning so that we can transform those lessons that overshadow more positive, productive goals, like the ones stated, for example, in our mission statement and precepts. Go online and check our stated goals, and then you be the judge. What lessons are we really teaching and learning at Colby? Are we living up to our stated goals?
Like is most often the case, I have more questions than answers.