Class bias in higher education

Just discovered an interesting blog by a law professor, Jeffrey Harrison, called Class Bias in Higher Education. He comments on how elites signal their status through a visible non-engagement with others, a sort of bodily disdain, a “stiff upper lip”; he remarks on how people choose to spend or invest their social capital (suggesting that elites tend to hoard it for spending on themselves); he suggests that practically no law professors want to talk about class; he comments on the irrational selection process for new hires; he also suggests that there is an enormous (and unjustified) bias in favor of job candidates from elite schools.

Without knowing much about law school or anything in particular about this blog, I have to say that I am incredibly happy to see someone willing to talk publicly about class as it plays out in higher ed. I hear a lot of informal gossip about this topic (especially about the well-off backgrounds that many grad students at chicago appear to come from), but no willingness to publicly confront the situation, much less to alleviate class bias. Given that status in elite academic circles depends largely on a command of a highly aestheticized technical dialect (with its careful use of the conditional “I would argue–“, its myriad scholastic distinctions, its euphemistic approach to concrete social reality), and given that this dialect requires years of practice that can only be obtained in fairly elevated circles, it seems that a new system of academic status and recognition would be in order, one more tolerant of a range of ways of talking and thinking.

I note in passing that Jeffrey Williams has written one of the best analyses of class behavior in academia that I’ve read, “Smart“, and I implore all readers of this blog (there are about 12 of you as far as I can tell from the stats on google blogs) to read it immediately. Williams argues that smartness is the ultimate marker of academic class distinction — a disturbing observation to hear at the University of Chicago, where the highest possible compliment is to say that “X is the smartest person I know.”

2 thoughts on “Class bias in higher education

  1. I liked this blog post because there is one particular student in my lit mag class (ah, ex-class, since I am no longer enrolled in the class) and from “day one” she would not even look at me. She ignored me. As the fall semester went on, she warmed up a little to me. But she still kind of ignored me, made me feel slightly less interesting (less important?) than everyone else in the class, whom she addressed more often than me. Then, this semester, she really warmed up to me when she learned that I’d submitted several poems/essays to the magazine. Maybe she figured there is something to me, after all, if I am a writer. However, when feedback was being offered (last week) on my essays, her praise of my pieces was lukewarm, at best. She was one of the editors-in-chief from the last issue/volume–I can never remember what it is called, volume? issue? I’ll go with Volume. I am still completely baffled about it. At times, last semester, she made me feel dumb when I would make certain comments. I am new to the world of proofreading and editing so I would often suggest italics where none were needed and so on. She was usually happy to point out my errors and she would add, “I have NEVER seen it done that way. Never.” The strange thing is, I must be about 8-10 years older than her and I have several college degrees under my belt. Not that anyone can tell this about me, since I show up to class in my worst clothes (clean, of course, but not flashy, laid back, just like everyone else at the magazine). Still, doesn’t it show? That I am educated and all, smart and all? And even when it does show, as clearly my sweet poetry reveals, why do I still get this cold reaction from her? Not that I crave warm attention from anyone, but I think maybe the idea of “class” and “background” has something to do with the way she has treated me. The strange thing is, it never occured to me to ignore her. Or anybody else, for that matter. I was just happy to have the chance to work on a magazine. But right now, my big goal is, START ignoring people. That way, I’ll seem mysterious and less eager to please. And maybe I’ll even seem CLASSY. Ok, I need some new clothes. 🙂

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