Friday, November 30, 2007

Social Class Quiz

I borrow this from Jeanne's blog where she writes, "It's based on an exercise developed by Will Barratt, Meagan Cahill, Angie Carlen, Minnette Huck, Drew Lurker, Stacy Ploskonka at Illinois State University that I found on this Yahoo group around class on college campuses. The exercise developers hold the copyright but have given me permission to post it here and ask that if you participate in this blog game, you acknowledge their copyright.

If you post this in your blog, please leave a comment on this post."

My affirmative responses are in bold print.

Father went to college
Father finished college (a B.S., M.Div., and Ph.D.)
Mother went to college
Mother finished college
(a B.S.W, M.Ed.)
Have any relative who is an attorney, physician, or professor.
Were the same or higher class than your high school teachers
Had more than 50 books in your childhood home
Had more than 500 books in your childhood home
Were read children's books by a parent
(My mother also had fond memories of her British grandmother, a suffragist and "Cousing Emily" one of the first women ordained into the Methodist ministry in England, reading Dickens to her as a child)
Had lessons of any kind before you turned 18
Had more than two kinds of lessons before you turned 18
(piano, French horn, chorus...all but piano lessons were provided by my public elementary school)
The people in the media who dress and talk like me are portrayed positively (sometimes. Other times people from upstate NY are portrayed as hicks and pagans are portrayed as flakey weirdos.)
Had a credit card with your name on it before you turned 18
Your parents (or a trust) paid for the majority of your college costs* (They did this by taking out enormous loans)
Your parents (or a trust) paid for all of your college costs*
Went to a private high school
Went to summer camp
Had a private tutor before you turned 18
Family vacations involved staying at hotels (or motels. Usually we camped or stayed with family)
Your clothing was all bought new before you turned 18
Your parents bought you a car that was not a hand-me-down from them
There was original art in your house when you were a child (my great-grandparents and uncles and aunts were professional and amateur artists)
Had a phone in your room before you turned 18 (It did not have its own line and was used only for local phone calls)
You and your family lived in a single family house (few families in rural Upstate NY live in apartments)
Your parent(s) owned their own house or apartment before you left home (But for the first years of my life, we lived in parsonages owned by the Church.
You had your own room as a child (parsonages are enormous. We lived in one drafty old house with two staircases!)
Participated in an SAT/ACT prep course
Had your own TV in your room in High School
Owned a mutual fund or IRA in High School or College
Flew anywhere on a commercial airline before you turned 16
Went on a cruise with your family
Went on more than one cruise with your family
Your parents took you to museums and art galleries as you grew up (most museums and galleries are either free or very inexpensive so why not?)
You were unaware of how much heating bills were for your family

*These two are edited because Christine pointed out that the previous wording didn't clearly delineate between people who had their tuition paid for them and people who worked for their college expenses.

In the group exercise which was originally designed for college students, staff and faculty, everyone stands in a line and steps forward if any of these things are true for them.

If we were all in a big room, I would have taken 5 steps forward. How about you? How many would you have taken? How many steps will your kids have taken by the time they're 18 (or how many did they take before they turned 18)?

I find this quiz to be a completely unreliable means of communicating class consciousness. So many of the people with whom I shared community, church and school while growing up were from financially more privileged homes than I occupied yet they would score lower on this quiz due to their families' lack of profound interest in education. We lacked many material things that other kids had because my folks believed that as far as possible, they wanted to devote their time and resources to educating us. In contrast, my uncle, a wealthy executive for IBM, had two boys who almost never went on vacation with him and who did not have the educational benefits my sister and I had. I remember my cousins asking us how we could stand having so little money. Every couple of years, their family moved into bigger and bigger brand new homes and bought more expensive cars and technology. Meanwhile, they pointed out, my family's income never seemed to grow and lots of our stuff was hand-me-down and mediocre at best. But I was not jealous of them because their parents were not child-centered and did not go out of their way to enrich their children's lives either intellectually or spiritually.

Likewise, I grew up hearing my mother's (working class) best friend complain that she had no money. The thing was that she always bought brand new clothes from really nice stores, went on expensive vacations, and had a beautifully decorated home. My mother, on the other hand, buys her clothes in a thrift shop and is well-educated. They were next door neighbors, went to the same school, and grew up in families with very similar cultural and economic backgrounds. Mom always says that our economic priorities reflect our values. We make choices.

Of course I acknowledge educational and economic inequalities (and the relationship between the two). In fact, I am reminded of this every day as I live with the enormous burden of debt that resulted from my stubborn refusal to accept that someone with a low income should not achieve an advanced degree from a private institution of higher learning. The other students always seem to have more choices, better internships, nicer cars, fewer debts. I served my passion for learning and I will pay the price for the rest of my working life. My husband and I do not, and will not in the near future, own a home or a new car because we chose to borrow so much money for college. We own cast-off furniture and thrift store clothes and exercise thrift in all our decisions except one...Education.

I also note that while some of the items on the above list are truly indicators of disposable income, others are not. Whether or not one's parents read to them or took them to museums and galleries does not indicate a parent's greater access to wealth and privilege. Libraries are free and so are museums much of the time. We especially enjoyed the local museums in our neighborhoods and the Smithsonian.

Throughout this extended conversation regarding social class and privilege, I have been troubled with the conflation of economic power with so-called "middle-class values" related to education and liberalism. There has not, in my thinking, been a deep enough analysis of the multifaceted differences in people's attitudes toward child-rearing and education nor has it adequately addressed issues of gender, spirituality, ethnicity, culture, or regionalism. I offer my experiences here not to deny the reality of anyone else's experience but to challenge the notion of universality regarding the dichotomies between want and privilege.

After taking this quiz, I am more deeply committed to providing my children with an upbringing that reflects my values. Therefore, my children will be taught to use resources sparingly and judiciously, to spurn consumerism, and to follow Gandhi's adice to "live simply so that others may simply live." However, I will also teach my children to be passionate about their educations, to read voraciously, to haunt libraries and museums, and to be well-acquainted with history, art, music, literature, and philosophy. As my own working class grandfather told me, a college education is not to enhance your ability to make a living but to enhance your ability to joyfully appreciate life. No matter what professions or trades my children choose,no matter how modest their physical homes may be, at the end of the day I want them to occupy a generously apportioned intellectual home.

Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, I have found that there is frequently a correlation between one's political and social perspectives and one's educational experience (whether achieved formally or informally through private study). It is important to me that my children mature into individuals with an understanding of social justice issues in the context of history, philosophy, and social theory. Their ability to act as informed and compassionate citizens will be greatly enhanced by their exposure to the social sciences and humanities. Their ability to make wise medical and philosophical choices in an increasingly complicated technological world will be enhanced by their greater familiarity with the sciences. It is difficult to be "green" when one does not understand ecology. It is difficult to remain unimpressed with political opportunists when one does not understand social science and history. It is difficult to fully articulate one's thoughts and creativity when one is not exposed to the history of literature and art. It is difficult to live a life of spiritual simplicity when one's soul is starved of the riches of the intellect.

I see from this quiz that my parents, despite their modest income, did indeed provide me with great privilege. I feel absolutely no "liberal guilt" for this. All children should have this much love and attention. The details of our educations can and should vary to reflect our families', regions' and personal needs and interests, but each child deserves a library, a museum, a school, and the joy of hearing a good story while nestled in a devoted parent's arms.

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