Class on Campus: Breaking the Silence
By Susan E. Borrego, vice president for planning
and enrollment management at California State University-Dominguez
As bell hooks has said, “Nowhere is there a more
intense silence about the reality of class difference
than in educational settings” (2000). On college
and university campuses, everyday practices and policies
are embedded with unexamined class assumptions, and
individuals experience classed norms in powerful ways.
Yet there is little consciousness about how class affects
campus climates and individual lives. In order to improve
our educational settings, we must identify the class-based
norms embedded in how we conduct business, how we organize
curricula, what we teach, and how we shape all these
questions. By recognizing our biases, we will create
more inclusive learning environments governed by more
complex understandings of diversity.
Unexamined and Invisible
In the United States, there is little discussion about
social class. The deeply held but inaccurate notion
that America is a “classless society” stifles
many conversations about the impact of class in our
lives. Furthermore, the recognition that class is an
issue challenges the core American belief that people
can “pick themselves up by their bootstraps.”
American history includes some true “rags to riches”
stories. But these obscure how class background typically
shapes opportunity in a culture where the single most
reliable predictor of one’s class status is the
class status of one’s father (Bee 1987).
Admittedly, class in America is a complex topic. Multiple
definitions of class, disagreement about the significance
of class background, and ambiguity about class categories
all complicate our attempts to understand the subject.
For many years sociologists have studied economic stratification
but have made few attempts to examine how class shapes
life experiences. But, as Julio Alves has said, even
if “the definition of class evades us…the
consequences certainly don’t” (2006).
To understand these consequences, we must first understand
how class shapes individual lives, social policy, and
educational opportunity. In order to create a more diverse
and inclusive educational community and to use a class
lens as a resource, we must acknowledge the complexities
that surround identity.
Janet Zandy describes class as “an aspect of
shared economic circumstances and shared social and
cultural practices in relationship to positions of power….
[Class] shapes our lives and intersects with race, ethnicity,
gender and geography in profound ways” (1996).
In order to build inclusive environments, we must understand
how these multiple identities can also intersect to
“form an interlocking system of oppression”
(Linkon 1999). In other words, we must understand our
own relationships to power.
In reality, individual lives involve multiple and dynamic
overlapping identities. While working-class people,
for example, may share common experiences related to
economic or social vulnerability, their experiences
differ based on other aspects of identity. Working-class
people of color often experience different forms of
marginalization related to racial identity. The same
is true of gender and class, sexual orientation and
class, geography and class, etc. There is no single
class identity: class is always experienced through
Even if we recognize these intersections, we often aren’t
very skillful at describing them. Consequently, our
conversations can dissolve into competitions over who
is most marginalized, distracting from powerful opportunities
to build bridges across difference. By developing class
consciousness that attends to multiple identities, we
increase our ability to provide effective leadership,
create diverse environments, and expand the foundations
of knowledge. We thus open the door to more integrated
learning experiences for all students.
Class in the Academy
The practice of exploring class in the classroom has
powerful implications for all students. Helping students
understand their own relationships to power is an important
first step toward engaging diverse communities. This
understanding is important both for working-class students,
who often feel that they do not fit into the academic
environment, and for students of relative class privilege,
who often are unconscious of how certain advantages
shape their lives.
Like work related to white privilege, discussions of
class privilege can be emotional for students and faculty.
Embedded assumptions about class and merit, including
what is “lazy” or “productive”
and who qualifies as “poor,” can quickly
create tension in a discussion. A stigma attaches to
identifying oneself as working class, with students
often feeling shame about admitting that their experiences
are different from their classmates’ (one student
described not wanting her classmates to know that her
mother worked as a custodian at their school). At the
same time, middle- and upper-middle-class students may
find it easier to deny their privilege than to admit
the ways class status has benefitted them.
Further complicating these explorations is the fact
that education has long functioned as a way out of the
economic restrictions associated with being working
class. The culture of higher education, however, sends
both subtle and explicit messages to working-class students,
encouraging them to leave their communities (and even
their identities) behind in order to be successful in
the academy. Laura Rendón (1996) has described
the space working-class students occupy, located between
working-class (home) culture and middle/upper-class
(university) culture, as “border living.”
In order for students to have holistic and welcoming
learning experiences, educators must identify strategies
to assist students in negotiating “border living.”
Rethinking Middle-Class Norms
If education is a “way out” of working-class
culture, this is not unrelated to the fact that institutional
practices are embedded within middle-class norms. If
we are committed to creating more inclusive learning
communities, we must critically examine our institutions
and our practices to unmask how classism manifests in
organizational structures, whether through the texts
we use, how our classes are organized, or how we reflect
on our social locations.
Scholarly disciplines have broadened the base of knowledge
by illuminating what and who has been missing from canons,
historical analyses, and scientific questions. For example,
the practice of excluding women or people of color as
subjects of study or voices of authority at one time
went unexamined. Scholarship about race and gender has
now revitalized disciplines. Similarly, we need to unmask
narrow constructions of class that diminish scholarship
and limit learning experiences.
When choosing textbooks, for instance, do we include
material that helps students develop capacities to examine
the complexities of class? Do we offer multiple class
perspectives so working-class students can see themselves
as much as middle-class students can? A sociology professor
who taught social stratification for twenty years realized
that her own middle-class training led her to teach
theoretical constructs without considering the lived
implications of class for her students. She redesigned
the course, expanded examples, and incorporated experiential
knowledge. Exploring the lived reality of class became
a common investigation for her students, generating
rich conversations, revealing complex differences, and
producing deeper understandings of the course material.
She transformed the learning experience by breaking
the unspoken norms that had excluded the knowledge and
experiences of some students.
Recommitting to Inclusive Institutions
The Association of American Colleges and Universities
has argued that we must “educate for a just and
equitable future” (Schneider 2007). Fulfilling
this commitment undoubtedly involves cultivating a deeper
understanding of how social class shapes lives and institutions.
By examining our practices through a class-based lens,
we can develop more complex understandings of diversity
and more integrated, inclusive learning experiences
for our students.
A commitment to educating the whole student requires
knowing who students are, what challenges they face,
and what experiences they bring to college. Educators
must develop cultural competency skills to effectively
facilitate across difference. Institutions, too, must
develop policies and programs that support warmer climates
for working-class students, including orientation and
transition programs that help working-class students
learn the unwritten rules of college. And students,
regardless of their class identity, must develop knowledge
and cultural competence that includes an understanding
As we make these changes in our institutions, we must
recognize that class perspectives, like those related
to race and gender, offer a critical lens for our work.
Though a great deal of work related to race and gender
remains, we have made some progress related to these
issues thanks in large part to perspectives provided
by new ways of seeing and new disciplines. Forty years
ago, formal women’s studies programs did not exist.
Today the discipline has shaped pedagogical approaches,
institutional practices, and even what counts as knowledge.
Imagine what might be possible if working-class studies
did the same.
By inviting class culture to influence our practice
and pedagogy—and by opening up the discussion
about class on campus, as this issue of Diversity
& Democracy attempts to do—we can assist
students in tapping their unique class positions as
a source of power and prepare them to become class-conscious
leaders in the world at large. In doing so, we answer
Laura Rendón’s call “to create a
new consciousness in the academic borderlands—one
that heals, one that connects diverse cultures, languages,
realities, and ways of knowing” (1996).
Alves, J. 2006. Class struggles. Chronicle of Higher
Education 53 (8): B5. chronicle.com/weekly/v53/i08/08b00501.htm.
Bee, H. L. 1987. The journey of adulthood.
New York: Macmillan Publishing Company.
hooks, b. 2000. Where we stand: Class matters.
New York: Routledge.
Linkon, S. 1999. Teaching working class. Amherst, MA:
University of Massachusetts Press.
Rendón, L. I. 1992. From the barrio to the academy:
Revelations of a Mexican American “scholarship
girl.” In L.S. Zwerling & H. B. London (Eds.),
First-generation students: confronting the cultural
issues (pp 55-64). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Schneider, C. G. 2007. Civic learning in a diverse
democracy: Education for shared futures. Diversity
& Democracy 10:3. www.diversityweb.org/DiversityDemocracy/vol10no3/schneider.cfm
Zandy, J. 1996. Decloaking class: Why class identity
and consciousness count. Race, Gender & Class
5 (1): 7-23.