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March 23, 2022+Jonathan Zimmerman
+Campus Policy+Public Policy

Listening to Our Working-Class Students

This piece is available in audio format on our podcast, “Heterodox Out Loud: the best of the HxA blog. Narration begins at 1:50.

I recently had lunch with a student who was in my first-year seminar three years ago. The course, “Why College? Historical and Contemporary Perspectives,” explores the purposes and dilemmas of higher education across space and time.

My student is a senior now, so I asked him what he had learned about college since he took my class. He paused for a moment, gathering his thoughts. “Privileged people have the privilege to deny the American Dream,” he replied. “But some of us are actually living it.”

He’s the son of two immigrants from Latin America, who came here with nothing as young adults and worked low-wage service jobs. They’re not rich now, but they earned enough to buy a house and — with lots of scholarship help — to send him to an expensive Ivy League school.

That’s not the kind of tale my student has heard very often in his classes, which focus heavily upon the inequities and bigotries of America. But there’s one bigotry they almost never address: the one against people like him. Immigrant and working-class students who rise up the economic ladder run counter to the dominant narrative about America at elite institutions like my own. So we tend to omit their stories, even as we admit more students who have lived them.

The irony here should be obvious. Our campaigns to diversify the student body aim to make the country more just, fair, and equitable. We want to help students from less advantaged backgrounds participate more fully in the bounty of America. But after they get to America, we tell them that the whole game is an elaborate hoax and that people with “privilege” always win it.

Let’s be clear: America is a radically unequal nation. As a wide swath of research confirms, it has become harder for poor and working-class people to own homes, access higher education, and increase their real wages. But it is not impossible. Suggesting otherwise denies the “lived experience” of our working-class and first-generation students, to quote a favorite academic buzz phrase. It makes them think that they don’t belong here, even though they do.

But don’t expect to hear much about that at your next faculty seminar about diversity, inclusion, and equity. There’s lots of talk about making less advantaged students feel at home, of course. Yet most of it focuses on material issues — like food insecurity and the cost of books — or on raising awareness about microaggressions and other slights racial and ethnic minorities suffer.

All of that comes from a good place. Of course we should make sure that our students have enough money (or swipes on their ID cards) to purchase meals and books. And we should also inform people about the types of comments that offend minorities. For example, asking a student whether they got in because of affirmative action won’t make them feel valued or accepted as a member of the academic community.

But neither will blanket statements about the inequities of America or the inability of poorer Americans to rise above them. That insults students like the one I took to lunch, who know—again, from their own experience—that it’s not true. And the more we repeat it, the less welcome they will feel.

Ditto for the rest of the received liberal wisdom on our campuses, which students from less advantaged backgrounds often don’t share. According to the 2021 American Values Survey by the Public Religion Research Institute, working-class citizens are more likely than other Americans to favor restrictions on immigration and abortion. They’re also more likely to trust the police.

That includes Black Americans, who are significantly less liberal than white progressives. They’re more likely to favor gun rights and capital punishment, and they’re less likely to support same-sex marriage. Even on race, they’re generally more conservative than white progressives: They’re less likely to endorse affirmative action and other forms of special assistance for minorities, and they’re also less likely to agree that diversity has made America a better place.

But as we bring a broader array of Americans to our campuses, including those from working-class backgrounds, we should also welcome the wide range of perspectives that they can contribute. That’s one of the key goals of affirmative action itself, of course. In an article quoted in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the landmark 1978 Supreme Court decision upholding the use of race in admissions, Princeton’s then-president William G. Bowen wrote that diversifying the campus would help students “to learn from their differences and to stimulate one another to reexamine even their most deeply held assumptions about themselves and their world.”

But that won’t happen if we dismiss the attitudes and experiences of our less advantaged students out of hand. It won’t happen if we assert that anyone who supported Donald Trump — a hugely popular president among the working class — was stupid and ill-informed. And it surely won’t happen if we insist that the entire game is rigged, which bears an ironic echo to Trump himself.

I’m not suggesting that we should treat disadvantaged students with kid gloves, of course, or that we should refrain from challenging their assumptions. That patronizes the students, all in the guise of protecting them. Like the rest of us, they’re here to learn. And that means confronting ideas and attitudes that they may not share.

But we do owe them respect, not ridicule. Openly racist and sexist remarks have become taboo on our campuses, and appropriately so. But you can still get away with wildly prejudicial pronouncements about working-class Americans, especially if they’re from the South. “Professors who would never let a racist comment pass their lips openly embrace ‘the stereotype of the southern redneck as racist, sexist, alcoholic, ignorant and lazy . . . Redneck jokes may be the last acceptable ethnic slurs in ‘polite’ society,'" writes law professor Joan C. Williams, quoting a white working-class scholar.

Other “acceptable” prejudices include those against evangelical Christians, overweight people, and gun enthusiasts. At their root, many of these biases are really about social class. Those people — always, “those” people — come from the wrong side of the tracks. They’re stupid, bigoted, and intolerant. And, worst of all, they’re patriotic! They’re too dense to understand how bad America really is.

We need to talk about those different perspectives, instead of simply dismissing them. A Mormon student once told me that his peers routinely ask him if he “really believes” in the story of Joseph Smith and the Latter-day Saints. (Would anyone on our campuses ever ask a Muslim student if she “really believes” in the Koran? I doubt it.) A working-class white student reported that people assumed his parents had voted for Trump (although they hadn’t) and also asked him how he could live in a community with “so much racism.” And a veteran of the Iraq War said students asked why he had acted as an “agent of imperialism,” instead of inquiring about why he had chosen to serve in the first place.

Those are the kinds of claims we need to surface in our classrooms. We should encourage our working-class students to share their experiences, so more people are aware of them. And, most of all, we should subject class-based stereotypes and myths to the same scrutiny that racial, ethnic, and gender ones receive.

"Nowhere is there more intense silence about the reality of class differences than in educational settings,” wrote the great essayist and feminist activist bell hooks, who died late last year. It’s time to speak up for our working-class students, and — most of all — to listen to them. We’ll all be better for it.


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