When I brought up social class advantages in my classroom at Emory University (one of the colleges that calls itself “the Ivy of the South”), my students got furious. What did I do that got such an angry response? I stated that there were students in the classroom who did not arrive at Emory based on their own merit – that they in fact had help getting in.
I added, “Some of you got into Emory because your parents hired tutors, enrolled you at testing centers, made sure you engaged in the right extracurricular activities, took you on vacations to target places; in short, your parents began preparing you for college at a young age.”
The response to my dropping the C-bomb was fast and furious. They said, forcefully, that they “Worked Hard!” to get into college. Indeed, they did. “But,” I responded, “What an advantage!”
Who was I, they wondered, to say that they hadn’t worked hard for entry into Emory? I never said they didn’t work hard, I said they didn’t do it alone. I suppose this is one of the myths of meritocracy – and of American Individualism – that we make ourselves through our own hard work and sacrifice. I think their sense of accomplishment was jarred. Also, I don’t think they wanted to acknowledge that they had advantages over other students. This, of course, is one of the aspects of class in America that’s so persistent – that we don’t want to talk about class.
At the How Class Works Conference in Stony Brook, New York in June, I attended a presentation by Jill M. Smith of Brandies University entitled “They Come Pre-Packaged”: Independent Educational Consultants and the Reproduction of Class Privilege,” which brought back memories of my livid Emory students. Smith is researching families who hire educational consultants to teach and counsel families about getting accepted into top tier colleges. She described how the consultants inform families about the college-application and entry process such as hiring tutors, taking practice exams, and making sure students engage in the “right” extracurricular activities.
Similar to Smith’s interviewees, a lot of my students arrived at Emory from the Professional Middle Class, many of them coming to Georgia from New York. Many had lived comfortably due to their parents’ occupations such as physicians, attorneys, bankers, etc. These were the kinds of parents who — college-educated themselves — knew the right steps to get their kids into good colleges. These were the kinds of parents who could (and did) hire Educational Consultants to help get their kids into good colleges. These were the kids who grew up with the expectation that they would go to college, if not Ivy League then at least an elite private institution. These were the kids whose eventual entry into college began early in life, even if they weren’t aware of it. These were the kids who grew up with the right social capital for getting into college, even if they didn’t recognize it.
These students either didn’t see their class privilege and how it propelled them to this stage in their lives, or they preferred to ignore it. This “blind spot” gnaws at me because I know there are so many working-class and poor students equally as bright and motivated as these students but they lack the cultural capital needed for entry into the best colleges they could get into. And so goes the reproduction of class privilege in America.
Terry Easton is assistant professor of English in the Division of Humanities and Fine Arts at Gainesville State College. His research and teaching, grounded in working class studies, uses literary, historical, and sociological material to analyze relationships between power and identity categories such as class, race, ethnicity, gender, disability and citizenship. He has published essays and reviews in Hospitality, Southern Spaces, New Labor Forum, Southern Changes, Women’s Studies Quarterly, and Teaching Working Class. His dissertation on Atlanta’s day laborers, Temporary Work, Contingent Lives, won the 2008 Constance Coiner Dissertation Award of the Working Class Studies Association. In addition to holding a firm commitment to bridging the chasm between colleges and communities, he strives to eradicate classism in America.