Posted by: MC | June 3, 2013

Social Class and Knowing

Delores waiting for the bus and on the way to a job interview  June, 2012  mmc

One of the things I do in my work is to serve as a reviewer for scholarly manuscripts that social science researchers submit to academic journals – vying for one of the coveted publication spots so necessary for advancing in higher education professions.


Well first, let’s go back and take a look at that sentence.  The one I just wrote and you just read.

Its message could easily invoke a yawn.  That’s how compelling academic writing is to everyone but academics (and more academics than you might imagine, if they were really telling the truth, would also say of the genre – BORING–).  At the same time, a more charitable reading could lead to curiosity about the review process for this pretty narrow reach of thinking and writing.  It can be cool to consider how the research authority quoted in news media are crafted and selected.

Then there’s the length of that opening sentence.  Together with the language … well, it’s not the most stuffy phrasing, but there are a lot of words.  Of course clarity is always good, but what is clear varies depending on who’s attention the writer wants to get.  That alone – the consideration of the audience the writer wants to engage – is a subject fraught with implications of power, privilege and access.

OK, so yesterday I completed a review of one of those academic manuscripts.  The biggest problem with the document was its super-crazy-convoluted narrative.  At the close of my two pages of single-spaced comments (we academics like to be credited for our efforts…), I actually wrote this:

WOW, this is important data.  The investigation’s potential is great for supporting vital adjustments in educational practice with what appear to me as profound implications for social justice.  At the same time, what a frustrating read!  With apologies, I often felt I was wrestling a really big but dead fish.  Nonetheless, I remain fairly certain that this appearance is only the masquerade of the otherwise powerful ideas within.        

Now, I must admit I push the envelope on formality – and I think I also have lost some of my need to appear erudite (thank all the mysterious forces everywhere!!).  My main interest now is in supporting great scholarship that can make a real difference.

The focus of the article I reviewed was kids faced with learning tasks.  The question was how does internalized oppression related to social class affect learning performance?  Or, I think that’s what the question was – the authors language was so obtuse, I couldn’t really tell (and, believe me, I’ve read a lot of obtuse stuff.  I’ve written it too, I’m afraid).

So, why am I writing about this here?  I want to think more and to see what you think about the premise beneath the obscurity of the authors’ prose.  It seems they’re looking at something really vital and immediately relevant.

Of the many rich things I learned driving around the country in early 2009 talking with everyday Americans about change was how really listening to one another reveals our wisdom.  Listening deeply unmasks intelligence of all kinds – big, legitimate, immediately relevant intelligence that may or may not be recognized within the walls of a classroom or on the pages of the Wall Street Journal.  I learned that we as a collective have all the brilliance we need to get ourselves out of the messes we’ve made, but that we may never do it because we keep being competitive in afraid, hostile and socially classed ways.

The authors of this study want to show in scientifically credible ways what seems believable even without such validation (but I get that we often use, and even rely on science to verify what we already know).  Kids who are raised in lower social classes (generally defined by money and access to education – and by extension, access to the material stuff that signifies having) learn and pretty deeply internalize the critical, even disparaging attitudes toward them, their families and communities that society holds.  These attitudes too easily become part of the fabric of self-esteem and identity.  But the activation of these internal slams to confidence and character don’t happen in safe settings, like when these kids are with friends, family, kind people.

The authors of this study were attempting to get empirical evidence of the subtle and significant shift that happens when otherwise bright and confident children and youth face academic tasks – tasks many of them associate with being told they can’t, they aren’t good enough, and they never will be.   Big surprise – when people feel-less than, the noise of that feeling interferes with the confidence necessary for learning and demonstrating what they’ve learned.

As you can tell from my closing comments in the review, I want the evidence these researchers found to make it into the realm of “authority.”  Mostly, I want this so that those in positions (whether they know it or not) of defining what is an isn’t valuable in the world — those social values that permeate everything — have information they recognize as real, because it’s scientific, because it comes from people who have similar power to their own.

I could go on about this.  I could develop my argument that part of the reason low-income people in our country, particularly white people, are drawn to Tea Party ideas is the platform and permission they find there finally to thumb their noses at social messages that judge and demean them.  I can’t say I appreciate the aggression and related door slamming in the face of public dialogue, but I do get the frustration.

So, we’re back to listening.  And we’re back to the subtlety of access and privilege and the benevolent paradox in that – the precious responsibility (consistent, btw, with the fundamental and ancient values of all spiritual traditions) to use privilege and access to identify and dismantle any system of privilege that exists off the back of anyone.

Carl Sagan showed us decades ago – using his privilege, access and power – that we’re all stardust.  It’s just the truth.  Here we are.  We’re together like it or not.  In that we face the possibilities of renewal and well-being every instant.


  1. I think the idea is pretty well established that low self-esteem or lack confidence may inhibit learning. Whether it encourages some individuals to adopt Tea Party ideas is a question I have no answer for. Most people vote the way their parents voted (Political Science 101), and there are a lot of conservatives in the lower socio-economic classes.

    I had a journalism instructor who told us to always strive to use the “precise word” that conveys the meaning we were looking for. But we were also instructed to keep our sentences short and not to use a “big word” when a “little one” would do. The important thing was to write for our readers.

    When I was a newspaper reporter, I complained once to an editor that the sentences in my news stories were getting too long. “You know how to fix that?” he asked. “How?” I said. “Use that period key in the lower part of your typewriter more,” he said.

    For my MBA, I did the research and wrote a professional paper entitled, “The Application and Evaluation for Business Purposes of a Fortran Computer Program That Calculates the Net Energy Efficiency of Wood Fuel Systems.” In evaluating my paper, the forestry professor on my team wrote a comment: “Avoid short, choppy sentences.” On the other hand, one of the business professors said, “That was the most readable professional paper I’ve ever read. Most of these are boring, but this one read like a feature article.”

    Carl J. Walter.

    • In the precious bit of time I’ve spent in the company of poets and writers I’ve heard the wise advice, “show and don’t tell.” Seems to me you are both a fine reader and a fine writer.

      Thanks for taking time for both here.


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