Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America

Reading Classes: On Culture and Classism in America - Barbara Jensen This book is an interesting combination of a personal memoir and an analysis of theoretical and sociological studies addressing class issues in the US. The author is a psychologist who grew up in a working class family and due to her education and job has “crossed over” (her terminology) to the middle class. Her experience seems to be primarily rooted in the Midwest. She writes about class bias in the US, mainly as it effects school children and patients in counseling but as to others as well. The author’s theory is, “the most common form of classism is solipsism, or my-world-is-the whole-world, what I call class-blinder. The inability to see beyond one’s own world. The unspoken assumption is that everyone could know these things but that some are too primitive or unevolved to want to know.. Solipsism is often accompanied by judgments of taste: another form of classism. ‘Oh my God, she had plastic flowers and the couch was orange plaid! So tacky ….’ ” One of the characteristics of people in the middle class, posits the author, v. working class, is that work and careers are the center of the middle class adult’s life, rather than working to live – a career defines a life. “For middle class people like me, too often, work is our life. Not only is this lonelier, it leads to problems like workaholism and emotional devastation if one loses one’s jobs.” I for one can completely identify with this. My career and its demands swallows everything up; it seems like my family revolves around my job demands. But when I visit with family and friends where I grew up, this concept just seems so foreign to them. I can’t help wondering who has it better? Class is something I think about a lot. I work in a career that has me surrounded by upper middle class and upper class individuals. Most of my colleagues and clients came from this kind of background and married someone from a similar background. I live in an economically diverse community, to a certain extent but again the majority of people I know and who I socialize with are upper middle class and came from that type of background. I grew up in a small rural factory town and while my parents are professionals, there is no real segregation in such a small community. Everyone knows and socializes with everyone else. I thought that was normal growing up – but I learned quickly in college and in my professional career that what I thought was routine is not normal for other people. Most of the people I know, their only exposure to working class America is through movies or when they hire someone to do work for them. And unlike most of the people I know from college, grad school or law school, I married a working class man – our family straddles multiple lines and categories. Thus, going in to the book I felt very sympathetic to this author’s position and role. I started this book with high hopes and looked forward to new revelations. I am not sure it brought me new revelations, but it definitively helped me identify my own class judgments and prejudices. The analysis of theory and sociological studies is very well done. Ms Jensen posits some interesting ideas concerning how middle class and working class families socialize their children in very different ways and that American schools are set up to be institutionally biased in favor of middle class children. She writes that working class parents socialize their children to survive in a group and work with other people as a group; whereas, middle class parents socialize their children to be focused on themselves and be an individual. For example, “middle class children were trained by their parents to name, hold and retrieve content from books and other print materials. They were further taught (1) to ask questions frequently; (2) to expect answers they can understand; (3) to answer questions themselves; and (4) to elaborate.”Her observations and summaries are interesting stuff. They made me think and continue to make me think about my role, my family and how we fit into American society. I think it is worthwhile for most middle class and upper middle class people, particularly educators, health care workers and counselors to consider how class bias and class structure influences their way of thinking and approaching people. Ultimately though, I thought the memoir sections were not well written and didn’t add much to the story. If it was entirely memoirs, I would have rated this book around 2 stars. In the end, I skimmed these parts. The personal narrative should have been edited significantly or written with a different tone. I do think that this book is worth the read to encourage readers to think about class, how so much judgment and disdain is built in to our daily thought process and ideas for changing this. So much of what we consider to be racism and xenophobia is tied into class as well. This book was enlightening to me and provided my husband and I a lot to discuss. Coming from such a different background he often has very different ideas on how our kids should spend their free time and this book opened my eyes to see his point of view.