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This article was originally published in bell hooks' book, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. NY: Routledge, 1994.

"Confronting Class in the Classroom"

bell hooks

Class is rarely talked about in the United States; nowhere is there a more intense silence about the reality of class differences than in educational settings.  Significantly, class differences are particularly ignored in classrooms.  From grade school on, we are all encouraged to cross the threshold of the classroom believing we are entering a democratic space – a free zone where the desire to study and learn makes us all equal.  And even if we enter accepting the reality of class differences, most of us still believe knowledge will be meted out in fair and equal proportions.  In those rare cases where it is acknowledged that students and professors do not share the same class backgrounds, the underlying assumption is still that we are all equally committed to getting ahead, to moving up the ladder of success to the top.  And even though many of us will not make it to the top, the unspoken understanding is that we will land somewhere in the middle, between top and bottom.

Coming from a nonmaterially privileged background, from the working poor, I entered college acutely aware of class.  When I received notice of my acceptance at Stanford University, the first question that was raised in my household was how I would pay for it.  My parents understood that I had been awarded scholarships, and allowed to take out loans, but they wanted to know where the money would come from for transportation, clothes, books.  Given these concerns, I went to Stanford thinking that class was mainly about materiality.  It only took me a short while to understand that class was more than just a question of money, that it shaped values, attitudes, social relations, and the biases that informed the way knowledge would be given and received.  These same realizations about class in the academy are expressed again and again by academics from working-class backgrounds in the collection of essays Strangers in Paradise edited by Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey.

During my college years it was tacitly assumed that we all agreed that class should not be talked about, that there would be no critique of the bourgeois class biases shaping and informing pedagogical process (as well as social etiquette) in the classroom.  Although no one ever directly stated the rules that would govern our conduct, it was taught by example and reinforced by a system of rewards.  As silence and obedience to authority were most rewarded, students learned that this was the appropriate demeanor in the classroom.  Loudness, anger, emotional outbursts, and even something as seemingly innocent as unrestrained laughter were deemed unacceptable, vulgar disruptions of classroom social order.  These traits were also associated with being a member of the lower classes.  If one was not from a privileged class group, adopting a demeanor similar to that of the group could help one to advance.  It is still necessary for students to assimilate bourgeois values in order to be deemed acceptable.

Bourgeois values in the classroom create a barrier, blocking the possibility of confrontation and conflict, warding off dissent.  Students are often silenced by means of their acceptance of class values that teach them to maintain order at all costs.  When the obsession with maintaining order is coupled with the fear of “losing face,” of not being thought well of by one’s professor and peers, all possibility of constructive dialogue is undermined.  Even though students enter the “democratic” classroom believing they have the right to “free speech,” most students are not comfortable exercising this right to “free speech.”  Most students are not comfortable exercising this right – especially if it means they must give voice to thoughts, ideas, feelings that go against the grain, that are unpopular.  This censoring process is only one way bourgeois values overdetermine social behavior in the classroom and undermine the democratic exchange of ideas.  Writing about his experience in the section of Strangers in Paradise entitled “Outsiders,” Karl Anderson confessed:

Power and hierarchy, and not teaching and learning, dominated the graduate school I found myself in.  “Knowledge” was one-upmanship, and no one disguised the fact….  The one thing I learned absolutely was the inseparability of free speech and free thought.  I, as well as some of me peers, were refused the opportunity to speak and sometimes to ask questions deemed “irrelevant” when the instructors didn’t wish to discuss or respond to them.
Students who enter the academy unwilling to accept without question the assumptions and values held by privileged classes tend to be silenced, deemed troublemakers.

[5] Conservative discussions of censorship in contemporary university settings often suggest that the absence of constructive dialogue, enforced silencing, takes place as a by-product of progressive efforts to question canonical knowledge, critique relations of domination, or subvert bourgeois class biases.  There is little or no discussion of the way in which the attitudes and values of those from materially privileged classes are imposed upon everyone via biased pedagogical strategies.  Reflected in choice of subject matter and the manner in which ideas are shared, these biases need never be overtly stated.  In his essay Karl Anderson states that silencing is “the most oppressive aspect of middle-class life.” He maintains:

It thrives upon people keeping their mouths shut, unless they are actually endorsing whatever powers exist.  The free marketplace of “ideas” that is so beloved of liberals is as much a fantasy as a free marketplace in oil or automobiles; a more harmful fantasy, because it breeds even more hypocrisy and cynicism.  Just as teachers can control what is said in their classrooms, most also have ultra-sensitive antennae as to what will be rewarded or punished that is said outside them.  And these antennae control them.
Silencing enforced by bourgeois values is sanctioned in the classroom by everyone.

Even those professors who embrace the tenets of critical pedagogy (many of whom are white and male) still conduct their classrooms in a manner that only reinforces bourgeois models of decorum.  At the same time, the subject matter taught in such classes might reflect professorial awareness of intellectual perspectives that critique domination, that emphasize an understanding of the politics of difference, of race, class, gender, even though classroom dynamics remain conventional, business as usual.  When contemporary feminist movement made its initial presence felt in the academy there was both an ongoing critique of conventional classroom dynamics and an attempt to create alternative pedagogical strategies.  However, as feminist scholars endeavored to make Women’s Studies a discipline administrators and peers would respect, there was a shift in perspective.

Significantly, feminist classrooms were the first spaces in the university where I encountered any attempt to acknowledge class difference.  The focus was usually on the way class differences are structured in the larger society, not on our class position.  Yet the focus on gender privilege in patriarchal society often meant that there was a recognition of the ways women were economically disenfranchised and therefore more likely to be poor or working class.  Often, the feminist classroom was the only place where students (mostly female) from materially disadvantaged circumstances would speak from that class on our social status as well as critiquing the class biases of feminist thought.

When I first entered university settings I felt estranged from this new environment.  Like most of my peers and professors, I initially believed those feelings were there because of differences in racial and cultural background.  However, as time passed it was more evident that this estrangement was in part a reflection of class difference.  At Stanford, I was often asked by peers and professors if I was there on a scholarship.  Underlying this question was the implication that receiving financial aid “diminished” one in some way.  It was not just this experience that intensified my awareness of class difference, it was the constant evocation of materially privileged class experience (usually that of the middle class) as a universal norm that not only set those of us from working-class backgrounds could assimilate into the mainstream, change speech patterns, points of reference, drop any habit that might reveal them to be from a nonmaterially privileged background.

Of course I entered college hoping that a university degree would enhance my class mobility.  Yet I thought of this solely in economic terms.  Early on I did not realize that class was much more than one’s economic standing, that it determined values, standpoint, and interests.  It was assumed that any student coming from a poor or working-class background would willingly surrender all values and habits of being associated with this background.  Those of us from diverse ethnic/racial backgrounds learned that no aspect of our vernacular culture could be voiced in elite settings.  This was especially the case with vernacular language or a first language that was not English.  To insist on speaking in any manner that did not conform to privileged class ideals and mannerisms placed one always in the position of interloper.

[10] Demands that individuals from class backgrounds deemed undesirable surrender all vestiges of their past create psychic turmoil.  We were encouraged, as many students are today, to betray our class origins.  Rewarded if we chose to assimilate, estranged if we chose to maintain those aspects of who we were, some were all too often seen as outsiders.  Some of us rebelled by clinging to exaggerated manners and behavior clearly marked as outside the accepted bourgeois norm.  During my student years, and now as a professor, I see many students from “undesirable” class backgrounds become unable to complete their studies because the contradictions between the behavior necessary to “make it” in the academy and those that allowed them to be comfortable at home, with their families and friends, are just too great.

Often, African Americans are among those students I teach from poor and working-class backgrounds who are most vocal about issues of class.  They express frustration, anger, and sadness about the tensions and stress they experience trying to conform to acceptable white,  middle-class behaviors in university settings while retaining the ability to “deal” at home.  Sharing strategies for coping from my own experience, I encourage students to reject the notion that they must choose between experiences.  They must believe they can inhabit comfortably two different worlds, but they must make each space one of comfort.  They must creatively invent ways to cross borders.  They must believe in their capacity to alter the bourgeois settings they enter.  All too often, students from nonmaterially privileged backgrounds assume a position of passivity – they behave as victims, as though they can only be acted upon against their will.  Ultimately, they end up feeling they can only reject or accept the norms imposed upon them.  This either/or often sets them up for disappointment and failure.

Those of us in the academy from working-class backgrounds are empowered when we recognize our own agency, our capacity to be active participants in the pedagogical process.  This process is not simple or easy: it takes courage to embrace a vision of wholeness of being that does not reinforce the capitalist version that suggests that one must always give something up to gain another.  In the introduction to the section of their book titled “Class Mobility and Internalized Conflict,” Ryan and Sackrey remind readers that “the academic work process is essentially antagonistic to the working class, and academics for the most part live in a different world of culture, different ways that make it, too, antagonistic to working class life.”  Yet those of us from working-class backgrounds cannot allow class antagonism to prevent us from gaining knowledge, degrees and enjoying the aspects of higher education that are fulfilling.  Class antagonism can be constructively used, not made to reinforce the notion that students and professors from working-class backgrounds are “outsiders” and “interlopers,” but to subvert and challenge the existing structure.

When I entered my first Women’s Studies classes at Stanford, white professors talked about “women” when they were making the experience of materially privileged white women a norm.  It was both a matter of personal and intellectual integrity for me to challenge this biased assumption.  By challenging, I refused to be complicit in the erasure of black and/or working-class women of all ethnicities.  Personally, that meant I was not able just to sit in class, grooving on the good feminist vibes – that was a loss.  The gain was that I was honoring the experience of poor and working-class women in my own family, in that very community that had encouraged and supported me in my efforts to be better educated.  Even though my intervention was not wholeheartedly welcomed, it created a context for critical thinking, for dialectical exchange.

Any attempt on the part of individual students to critique the bourgeois biases that shape pedagogical process, particularly as they relate to epistemological perspective (the points from which information is shared) will, in most cases, no doubt, be viewed as negative and disruptive.  Given the presumed radical or liberal nature of early feminist classrooms, it was shocking to me to find those settings were also often closed to different ways of thinking.  While it was acceptable to critique patriarchy in that context, it was not acceptable to confront issues of class, especially in ways that were not simply about the evocation of guilt.  In general, despite their participation in different disciplines and the diversity of class backgrounds, African American scholars and other nonwhite professors have been no more willing to confront issues of class.  Even when it became more acceptable to give at least lip service to the recognition of race, gender, and class, most professors and students just did not feel they were able to address class in anything more than a simplistic way.  Certainly, the primary area where there was the possibility of meaningful critique and change was in relation to biased scholarship, work that used the experiences and thoughts of materially privileged people as normative.

[15] In recent years, growing awareness of class differences in progressive academic circles has meant that students and professors committed to critical and feminist pedagogy have the opportunity to make spaces in the academy where class can receive attention.  Yet there can be no intervention that challenges the status quo if we are not willing to interrogate the way our presentation of self as well as our pedagogical process is often shaped by middle-class norms.  My awareness of class has been continually reinforced by my efforts to remain close to loved ones who remain in materially underprivileged class positions.  This has helped me to employ pedagogical strategies that create ruptures in the established order, that promote modes of learning which challenge bourgeois hegemony.

One such strategy has been the emphasis on creating in classrooms learning communities where everyone’s voice can be heard, their presence recognized and valued.  In the section of Strangers in Paradise entitled “Balancing Class Locations,” Jane Ellen Wilson shares the way an emphasis on personal voice strengthened her.

Only by coming to terms with my own past, my own background, and seeing that in the context of the world at large, have I begun to find my true voice and to understand that, since it is my own voice, that no pre-cut niche exists for it; that part of the work to be done is making a place, with others, where my and our voices, can stand clear of the background noise and voice our concerns as part of a larger song.
When those of us in the academy who are working class or from working-class backgrounds share our perspectives, we subvert the tendency to focus only on the thoughts, attitudes, and experiences of those who are materially privileged.  Feminist and critical pedagogy are two alternative paradigms for teaching which have really emphasized the issue of coming to voice.  That focus emerged as central, precisely because it was so evident that race, sex, and class privilege empower some students more than others, granting “authority” to some voices more than others.

A distinction must be made between a shallow emphasis on coming to voice, which wrongly suggests there can be some democratization of voice wherein everyone’s words will be given equal time and be seen as equally valuable (often the model applied in feminist classrooms), and the more complex recognition of the uniqueness of each voice and a willingness to create spaces in the classroom where all voices can be heard because all students are free to speak, knowing their presence will be recognized and valued.  This does not mean that anything can be said, no matter how irrelevant to classroom subject matter, and receive attention – or that something meaningful takes place if everyone has equal time to voice an opinion.  In the classes I teach, I have students write short paragraphs that they read aloud so that we all have a chance to hear unique perspectives and we are all given an opportunity to pause and listen to one another.  Just the physical experience of hearing, of listening intently, to each particular voice strengthens our capacity to learn together.  Even though a student may not speak again after this moment, that student’s presence has been acknowledged.

Hearing each other’s voices, individual thoughts, and sometimes associating theses voices with personal experience makes us more acutely aware of each other.  That moment of collective participation and dialogue means that students and professor respect – and here I invoke the root meaning of the word, “To look at” – each other, engage in acts of recognition with one another, and do not just talk to the professor.  Sharing experiences and confessional narratives in the classroom helps establish communal commitment to learning.  These narrative moments usually are the space where the assumption that we share a common class background and perspective is disrupted.  While students may be open to the idea that they do not all come from a common class background, they may still expect that the values of materially privileged groups will be the class’s norm.

Some students may feel threatened if awareness of class difference leads to changes in the classroom.  Today’s students all dress alike, wearing clothes from stores such as the Gap and Benetton; this acts to erase the markers of class difference that older generations of students experienced.  Young students are more eager to deny the impact of class and class differences in our society.  I have found that students from upper-and middle-class backgrounds are disturbed if heated exchange takes place in the classroom.  Many of them equate loud talk or interruptions with rude and threatening behavior.  Yet those of us from working-class backgrounds may feel that discussion is deeper and richer if it arouses intense responses.  In class, students are often disturbed if anyone is interrupted while speaking, even though outside class most of them are not threatened.  Few of us are taught to facilitate heated discussions that may include useful interruptions and digressions, but it is often the professor who is most invested in maintaining order in the classroom.  Professors cannot empower students to embrace diversities of experience, standpoint, behavior, or style if our training has disempowered us, socialized us to cope effectively only with a single mode of interaction based on middle-class values.

[20] Most progressive professors are more comfortable striving to challenge class biases through the material studied than they are with interrogating how class biases shape conduct in the classroom and transforming their pedagogical process.  When I entered my first classroom as a college professor and a feminist, I was deeply afraid of using authority in a way that would perpetuate class elitism and other forms of domination.  Fearful that I might abuse power, I falsely pretended that no power difference existed between students and myself.  That was a mistake.  Yet it was only as I began to interrogate my fear of “power” – the way that fear was related to my own class background where I had so often seen those with class power coerce, abuse, and dominate those without – that I began to understand that power was not itself negative.  It depended what one did with it.  It was up to me to create ways within my professional power constructively, precisely because I was teaching in institutional structures that affirm it is fine to use power to reinforce and maintain coercive hierarchies.

Fear of losing control in the classroom often leads individual professors to fall into a conventional teaching pattern wherein power is used destructively.  It is this fear that leads to collective professorial investment in bourgeois decorum as a means of maintaining a fixed notion of order, of ensuring that the teacher will have absolute authority.  Unfortunately, this fear of losing control shapes and informs the professorial pedagogical process to the extent that it acts a barrier preventing any constructive grappling with issues of class.

Sometimes students who want professors to grapple with class differences often simply desire that individuals from less materially privileged backgrounds be given center stage so that an inversion of hierarchical structures takes place, not a disruption. One semester, a number of black female students from working-class backgrounds attended a course I taught on African American women writers. They arrived hoping I would use my professorial power to decenter the voices of privileged white students in nonconstructive ways so that those students would experience what it is like to be an outsider.  Some of these black students rigidly resisted attempts to involve the others in an engaged pedagogy where space is created for everyone.  Many of the black students feared that learning new terminology or new perspectives would alienate them from familiar social relations.  Since these fears are rarely addressed as part of progressive pedagogical process, students caught in the grip of such anxiety often sit in classes feeling hostile, estranged, refusing to participate.  I often face students who think that in my classes they will “naturally” not feel estranged and that part of this feeling of comfort, or being “at home,” is that they will not have to work as hard as they do in other classes.  These students are not expecting to find alternative pedagogy in my classes but merely “rest” from the negative tensions they may feel in the majority of other courses.  It is my job to address these tensions.

If we can trust the demographics, we must assume that the academy will be full of students from diverse classes, and that more of our students than ever before will be from poor and working-class backgrounds.  This change will not be reflected in the class background of professors.  In my own experience, I encounter fewer and fewer academics from working-class backgrounds.  Our absence is no doubt related to the way class politics and class struggle shapes who will receive graduate degrees in our society.  However, constructively confronting issues of class is not simply a task for those of us who came from working-class and poor backgrounds; it is a challenge for all professors.  Critiquing the way academic settings are structured to reproduce class hierarchy, Jake Ryan and Charles Sackrey emphasize “that no matter what the politics or ideological stripe of the individual professor, of what the content of his or her teaching Marxist, anarchist, or nihilist, he or she nonetheless participates in the reproduction of the cultural and class relations of capitalism.”  Despite this bleak assertion they are willing to acknowledge that “nonconformist intellectuals can, through research and publication, chip away with some success at the conventional orthodoxies, nurture students with comparable ideas and intentions, or find ways to bring some fraction of the resources of the university to the service of the…class interests of the workers and others below.”  Any professor who commits to engaged pedagogy recognizes the importance of constructively confronting issues of class.  That means welcoming the opportunity to alter our classroom practices creatively so that the democratic ideal of education for everyone can be realized.