Schooling the system of privilege

This “back to school” season got me to thinking about my own formal education, and the teachers and professors I’ve known who have or have not used their positions of academic influence to challenge the status quo, especially the economic status quo.

The current issue of Boston Review features Noam Chomsky’s essay, “The Responsibility of Intellectuals, Redux,” which is updated from his original 1967 treatise. “As the Vietnam War escalated,” notes Boston Review, “Noam Chomsky penned … a stunning rebuke to scientists and scholars for the subservience to political power. Today we face a similar array of crises, from wars to escalating debt. What are the obligations of intellectuals in this day and age?” Which is a mighty fine question.

“Intellectuals are typically privileged,” Chomsky writes in this month’s essay, subtitled “Using Privilege to Challenge the State.” “Privilege yields opportunity, and opportunity confers responsibilities.” How many academics rise to that challenge?

Several years ago, as an intern with Resource Generation (RG) (an organization that challenges and supports young people with financial wealth to leverage their resources and privilege for social change), I had the opportunity to present a workshop on the negligible percent of charitable giving that is directed at social change. We made our way to the campus of Tufts University, where we were greeted as that day’s guest speakers by sociology professor Susan Ostrander, who taught a “Wealth, Poverty and Inequality” course.

I recall being amazed that such a class even existed, and that such a discussion was happening. Who is this professor, I wondered?

Today, Professor Susan Ostrander is the head of the Sociology Department at Tufts University. She was kind enough to send me copies of the syllabuses from two of her current classes. They show that she continues to challenge, not just her students, but this society’s economic system as well.

On the first day of her “Wealth, Poverty, and Inequality” course, she asks the students, “Why are you in this course, and where are you in the class structure?” In the overview for her “Making Social Change Happen: Grassroots Activism and Community Organizing” course, she reflects, “People with access to privilege and power (like many of us at Tufts) can be important allies (as well as resource people) to this kind of social change!”

It is heartening to hear that Professor Susan Ostrander is continuing to challenge the status quo of the state. But Professor Ostrander is, unfortunately, one of few examples in academia that I can personally think of, though I know there are many more, who, as Chomsky urges, use their privilege to challenge the state.

I wonder what educational experiences other Classism Exposed readers have had? Did your teachers support the status quo or challenge it?


A former intern at Resource Generation and Class Action, Pete Redington blogs irregularly at

5 Responses

  1. Meg Owen

    While you write fluid, do you live as you write? Are you blind in America? Can you see past your Alma mater for one day beyond your country club venue? Start with what the average kid who grads from school has, or the alcoholic father who has worked his ass of supporting your socialistic beliefs. This is actually fairly hilarious: maybe Tosh.O funny. Oh wait, that’s right I cannot afford cable because it is a privilege and I have three children I raise and a husband in corporate America. Wake up……

  2. Unfortunately, I would have to say that professors like Ms. Ostrander are a very rare species. Most intellectuals prefer to maintain their own privilege and social class status by serving as self-appointed gatekeepers. As a woman from deep poverty, from generational poverty from an urban ghetto who struggled to overcome the obstacles of poverty just to get my Bachelors degree from a state university, it has been my personal experience that the upper-middle class don’t want to have to compete with the “poor white trash” for life’s social prizes and rewards. Professors made no secret about how they felt about too many poor people and non-traditional aged students getting access to a college education. So these “kingmakers” in our society are largely NOT allies of the poor, the marginalized and the downtrodden. The only thing scarier to them than an angry ghetto youth prepared to carjack them is a “poor white trash” woman like me armed with a copy of Karl Marx; someone with an education, and although economically excluded due to age discrimination and long-term unemployment, it is my ability to use words to shape thought and help launch a movement for real social justice — not charity, but real redistributive justice — that threatens their comfortable status quo in the socio-economic food chain.

  3. From what I observed during both the times I attended college, the first in the early 90s and most recently in the early 2000s, college faculty tend to passively ignore “non-traditional” students. Most of my classmates were from families where everyone gets an education. These kids seemed to me to appear much more at home in the classrooms than I myself felt. They seemed more comfortable expressing their opinions, believing them valid and worthy of being shared. The professors responded to them in kind.

    The best you could hope to do if you were not of that world was to hope to blend in, try harder than everyone else, or make some kind of a splash. My first time through I received scholarships for my autobiographical fiction writing each of the years I was there, but once when I tried to meet with my professor who was published and could help me move in that direction, even though she thought very highly of me and my work, she just couldn’t find it in herself to give me the time of day. This was a little discouraging, but I was so used to be overlooked in such a manner I didn’t really question her disinterest. I was aware most of the young writers who “made it” were coming out of elite institutions, and always seemed to know someone of influence who opened a door for them. This is really the only way someone from down below can be seen as legit, by getting the seal of approval from someone else who is deeply legit. As soon as someone from on high says you are the new whatever, you can say or do as you damn well please and people will think, oh wow, that’s brilliant.

    It seems to me most professors help their own, and they feed the confidence of their own. Their indifference to people unlike themselves is perhaps their greatest weapon; while in their presence you can find yourself feeling an odd kinship with rats and mice. Anyway, that was a long time ago, but I think it’s relevant to this discussion. That professor didn’t feel a sense of kinship with me, even though she purported to be quite interested in the plights of poor women, actually wrote books on the plight of the pioneer ladies who drove their wagons over the Oregon trail. And this is a lady who owned a small gentleman’s farm in the foothills of the nearby mountains, raised many horses, came from money, taught me the word “dresage”. She also deployed the term “well-bred” with me when referring to my good friend (and she was not being funny, just stating a “positive” fact), as in “you should be lucky to have such a well-bred friend”. She was right, my friend was well-bred, the daughter of a Texan doctor, having attended the towns elite girl’s school while growing up there before heading off to NYC to study acting. Anyway, the prof knew I was basically without any sort of connection, had no understanding of the writing world, it was all there in my “fiction” (the fiction the university felt proud of itself for appreciating), but when it came to really helping me in practical way she was just, hey, I’ve got work to do. She wasn’t interested in being an ally. I wrote some about this on a recent blog post called, “Portrait of a therapist as a young girl”.

  4. it's not always about I.Q. or work ethic or study habits

    Sometimes I think an instructor is simply not aware that some students contrary to popular belief, aren’t getting the unacceptable grades because they don’t have the i.q., study habits, focus or self discipline, but because they didn’t have the same resources or support as other students. The ones that don’t help the student struggling might think that it isn’t worth it because they assume that the student isn’t disciplined, doesn’t know how to study at all, doesn’t have the i.q. or focus. The real issue may be that they didn’t have the resources to enable them to focus on their studies in order to cover all the material in the time it takes for one course. This can be the difference that can only be made up for with time. Time to reinforce the material is not what an average college semester allows. This means that reinforcement of the material must have happened before the course. When someone doesn’t have the time, money, social capitol, inherited merit, housing, food, healthcare, stable environment or technological skills( because they couldn’t afford it, NOT because they aren’t motivated)-then they are set up for failure by factors outside of what is in their control academically.

    The competency of the student is not what needs to be explained in order to somehow be abridged with the particular feild of interest. In other words, what I’m saying is, this is not an issue of whether a student who can’t figure out where the brain is, who wants to be a brain surgeon, explains that they were too busy dealing with poverty to study whatever a brain surgeon studies so they can be given the credit for the courses without passing them at all. What I am saying is, for example, that if a student knows how to figure out the buffering capacity of human blood, but they can’t afford the e-book for the class because they can’t afford the internet or a computer, then they might just do as well if not better than other more technologically savy students if allowed to do their homework from the actual text book for credit. This has never been an issue for anyone I know because most instructors I’ve heard of or had, usually offer the option of both the e-text and/or the textbook. The point is that lacking access to technology or the cumulative exposure to it, doesn’t make a student any less smart or hard working than any other student. Just to clarify, I’m not talking about if somebody doesn’t know how to use some piece of technology that they need to suck a tumor out of your chest, they should be allowed to open up the hood and poke around with a melon baller instead because they were too busy dealing with the constrants of generational poverty to learn how to use the piece of technology needed( maybe they actually use a melon baller, but if they needed some camera to look around in there that they couldn’t operate). The difference is that with learning basics about biology, the technology is not the core concept that enables the student to be a biologist. The technology needed for something like brain surgury, is the person’s job and the place they went to to learn about it probably provided it and didn’t expect each student to have their own since grade school to mess around with in their free time. However, the technology isn’t what makes a brain surgeon a brain surgeon, so if they studied the courses they needed beginning at a two year before they moved on, they can’t fail all those courses and make up for it by learning how to use some remotely operated robot to do the procedures they do, without knowing what the hell they’re doing. This means that it is the course material which must take precedence over the technology while in the process of learning the core concepts; even more so in more complex courses.

    The technology gap is one of the examples that causes some misconceptions about a student’s level of understandig that has less to do with self discipline, study habits, i.q, focus or even time management skills and is mainly to do with limited resources both socially and economically, that are associated with poverty. I’ve noticed that communication works in this circumstance to do the work that needs to be done to learn the material, not to get out of learning something new because of laziness.

  5. Michael M

    I’ve been teaching in social sciences at the college & university level for over 20 years. I see one of the most significant sources of classism on college campuses is the professoriate. Such irony …. and hypocrisy! Through their subtle, dismissive voice inflection, to their explicit exclusion of students they perceive to be “needy,” too many college professors perpetuate classism in the classroom. For all of the research, publishing, and grant-writing many college professors focus their “heavy lifting” on, they can be relationship-building lightweights! Indeed, some – not all! – college professors are lacking in both their interest and their work ethic when it comes to the rigor of relationship-building with students. Limited office hours, too-long-delayed email replies (if they reply at all), foisting their responsibilities for student support onto their over-worked and under-prepared TA’s. Why? Sometimes, it’s inconvenience. Sometimes it’s apathy. Many times, it’s simply – and sadly – laziness. In the meantime, too many traditionally-underserved students are left without the support they need to succeed. And, the frustrating hypocrisy of it all is professors’ posturing as elite experts on social change. I find that the changes about which the pontificate and publish need to begin with themselves.

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