Sunday, September 30, 2007

intellectual equals elitist?

  • I write this in response to various posts I have read regarding classism among Friends. I tend to be socialist in my perspective but am loathe to glamorize the working class. You see, I grew up in the working class. My people were shopkeepers, farmers, and blue collar workers. Some bloggers have suggested that middle-class, well-educated Friends are insensitive to the realities of the working class. That's probably true. I certainly know what it is like to spend time with folks far richer than I. I am familiar with that growing sense of astonishment with their cluelessness regarding wealth disparity. On the other hand, I have difficulty buying into the idea that Quakers should be taken to task for their love of learning for the sake of learning or for their assumption that others share this passion. The argument goes that working people haven't the time or resources to be intellectuals, artists, or activists. Such activities belong to those with privilege. Are we working class people actually trying to proud of our ignorance? Are we saying that our call to serve humanity is somehow less real because we have less money? Does intellectual work truly belong to the upper classes?

  • I have heard folks say that Friends are classist because they are willing to engage in work without counting their wages. The argument goes that only rich people insensitive to the needs of the poor can revel in a job that feeds the soul but not the belly. Very well. To a degree, I share this concern. Rich folks don't get it. I'm the first to point that out. But I speak as a poor person who chooses to feed the soul before I feed my belly and I come from a working class background. I am therefore uncomfortable with the notion that the choice to work in a creative or intellectual field is an indication of classism. I always felt it was an indication of one's love for the world.

I am a low-income person reared by a social worker and liberal clergyman. We lived in working class communities and never had much money. Still,my folks reared me to believe that the only work worth doing is work that combines passion and compassion. I borrowed so much money to achieve my degrees that I will be paying for it for the rest of my life. I never considered quitting even as the debt mounted and we learned that we could not own a home, could not afford a second car, could not buy clothes first hand. I could have quit and found a decent job but that would have betrayed my calling.

This mindset alienated me from my community and from my extended family. It alienates me from the students I teach at the community college who often react negatively to intellectualism. I joined a community of Friends because I was so tired of being an outsider in a working class community that mocked my passion for education and my indifference to earning money. I wanted to be with people who didn't believe that work as an artist, intellectual, or activist doesn't qualify as "real work." I am proud of my rural, working class family and community. I am proud of their ingenuity, humor, kindness, hard work, efficiency and modesty-- but I take no pride in their dismissal of intellectualism. I have always felt such narrowness marred their otherwise beautiful spirits. Their ignorance makes them less receptive to difference. It douses the fire in their souls and limits their service to humanity. I cannot accept that being a working person must also mean being a passionless, ignorant person.

My grandfathers were both working class men. My paternal grandfather reacts to difference and intellectualism with scorn. When I earned a scholarship to attend college, he did not congratulate me. Believing that intellectualism makes a man effeminate and that a college education is a waste on a woman, he suggested that I become a waitress instead. My other grandfather, Theodore, was always proud of me and my choices. He went to agricultural school then ran a little paint shop in town and worked hard well into his eighties so that we could follow our dreams. He told all us kids that the function of education was to broaden our minds and increase our joyfulness. Money was merely a secondary concern. Both men worked all their lives and never had much in their wallets to show for it but while one grandfather scoffed at "college educated idiots" the other grandfather reaped a bounty of joy.

So let's ask each other to become more sensitive of class differences. That's a great goal but don't ask me to glorify the working class belief that intellectual work is not real work. Don't ask me to believe that a narrow budget justifies a narrow mind.

1 comment:

Ravin said...

Another fabulous post (actually, I've enjoyed all your posts, but some speak to me more directly than others). I was raised to think of myself as "middle class", but I was also raised in a small town by parents who were both of working class backgrounds and lacked college educations. Dad got a good job when I was 9 working for the federal governement, so we had the middle-class house, etc., and my parents always guided me to assume I was college-bound. Which I was, eventually. I took the scenic route (via the Navy), decided people were more worthwhile than machines, and majored in anthropology. I plan on going to grad school someday, but have decided to wait so I can be more present for my daughter, who is 4 and who I intend to homeschool. We can't afford for me to stay home, quite, so I work nights at Wal-Mart, where many of my fellow associates think I'm nuts for working there when I could have some much higher-paying office job somewhere.

Silly me, I choose people over money, too, and I spend my breaks reading books from the library, the shoestring-budget bibliophile's friend.

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