Denise Horn, writing from Boston, Massachusetts in the US.
I’ve spent the past two years researching and teaching social entrepreneurship, what works, what doesn’t, and how we can help the world’s poor. I’ve beat the drum against the abuses of neoliberalism, and tried to help my students see the links between their actions and the impact they have on the rest of the world, particularly the bottom billion. Own two or more cellphones? You’re increasing the global demand for Coltan and possibly contributing to human rights abuses. Eat meat that was raised on corn? You’re decreasing the world’s food supply and damaging the environment. Etc. Etc.
Last semester a student responded to this high-minded brow-beating with an angry evaluation comment: “Prof. Horn seems to think that we’re all unaware of what’s going on in the world. Perhaps she should realize that some of us have lived through it.”
This student was absolutely right. I had done what I fight so hard to avoid: made assumptions about certain demographics, particularly class. I had treated everyone in the class as though they were all from the same socio-economic background and unaware of how hard life can be for not just the world’s poor, but the poor in our country.
I could be forgiven for this, of course. With rising tuitions and our university’s quest to climb forever higher in the rankings, we’re well on the way to becoming an “elite” school, and by that I mean “elitist.” Many of my students wear clothes and sport handbags that cost more than I earn in a month. A growing number of them are coming to us from international boarding schools, prep schools and advantaged zip codes. We have courted the wealthy foreign students who have the ability to pay full tuition, and come from top political families. They take international vacations during the breaks, and their parents fund most, if not all, of their needs.
But that’s only half the story. There are plenty of working-class kids in our university who have struggled to get here, who will incur massive debts to attend this school, and who will spend their vacations working so they can afford to take that one trip abroad (and thrive on beans and rice). There are the kids who come from Southie in Boston, who work to change their accents so they can better fit in. There are the kids who sleep on friends’ couches or in the library because they have nowhere to live. There are the excellent students who struggled to earn that scholarship, despite working jobs in high school, taking care of siblings, or dealing with ailing parents. There is the remarkable kid who worked on a fishing boat every summer to pay for his tuition and for his elderly parents’ mortgage.
But these students and their needs are often overlooked. When fees are raised on study abroad programs, or no money is available to fund unpaid internships, these are the students who suffer most, because they can’t afford these opportunities. When tuition is raised every year while yet another layer of administrative staff is added (the salaries of vice-presidents can get hefty!), these are the kids we are affecting.
I often get the sense that their presence is invisible to many in our community–that the assumptions that we often make of the poor and underprivileged in this country don’t really fit with reality of the poor among us. These assumptions, which are often expressed in discussions about taxes or government entitlements, reveal an oddly defensive attitude from students or colleagues who are and have been quite privileged: “they” are lazy, “they” are only trying to work the system, “they” spend their money on things they can’t afford while getting benefits, and “they” are taking up valuable real estate. But we forget that when these things are said, there may be someone in that space who has actually experienced the reality of poverty, and “they” aren’t that obvious because many of these assumptions are simply wrong.
But these assumptions don’t go unchallenged because the burden of class is silencing. The working class students, the ones with real hardships, won’t defend themselves against the subtle ways that class discriminates. Instead they will try to fit in as best they can–not buying books, but making sure they have an iPhone. Not eating properly yet buying the “right” clothes. Not buying the proper medications because they can’t afford them. Not explaining to professors that they can’t keep up because they are working 35 hours on top of attending class. Not speaking out in class because they feel as though they aren’t as smart as the other students.
Class is sometimes obvious, but often it’s not. I was that working class kid trying to make my way the best I could and on my own. I never went away for spring break. I worked in the dining hall so I could take home the leftovers; and when I wasn’t studying, I was working another low-paying job. It was not easy, and like many of my students, I’ll be paying off student loans until I die. I am well aware that where I went to school is often used by some colleagues to judge the quality of my scholarship, when it’s really irrelevant.
Do I know how much privilege I enjoy now? Absolutely. I am acutely aware of it whenever I return to my hometown or do my research. But I should know better than to allow these assumptions to go unchallenged in the classroom, especially when they were my own.
This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed