It’s not that this isn’t a complicated topic. It’s not that there aren’t working-class and poor people who are anti-intellectual and shun education of any kind other than “practical”, not only for themselves but for family members. I know people who grew up in families like that, and they suffered horribly just for liking to read, or wanting to go to college to learn something other than a trade.
But that’s not what I want to talk about right now.
I want to talk about my family.
My family, until my generation (which I’d call mixed-class — it’s complicated and I don’t want to get into it or I’ll never write the rest of this post), were poor and working-class as far as we can find record of them.
My mother’s father, who mostly worked in a mill (although he had other working-class jobs along the way, and long stretches of joblessness too), had an eighth grade education, formally. However he was a proud autodidact, read a lot, and certainly believed in self-education. This is a common thing in some working-class families who don’t have formal education.
My father’s grandfather never graduated from junior high. My father talked about graduating from junior high, and realizing that at the age of 13 he was doing something that this man he looked up to so much, had never gotten the chance to do. He was awed by this. My great-grandfather was a huge believer in formal education, partly because he never got a chance to get one himself. When my father graduated junior high, his grandfather told him that he had enough money saved up to put any grandchild of his through college who wanted to attend college.
My father did not actually want to attend college. He wanted to be a farmer, like his parents and grandparents before him. But his father was adamant that this was not okay. He saw that in the area of the country they lived in, the family farm would be destroyed by the time my father got a chance to try to have one. I never understood this growing up, and constantly wished that my father had chosen to stay on the farm. It wasn’t until I was an adult and my father took me to the sites of his family farms growing up, and they were eaten up by huge tracts of corporate farmland staffed by migrant workers, that I realized there was no way we could have had a farm when I was a kid, not in California.
Especially since my grandfather was already in serious debt at that point, trying to run a sheep farm in Oregon (my family were part of the Okie migration to the San Joaquin Valley in California, but then spent some time in Oregon as well). He basically asked my father — very angrily — “Do you think you’re smarter than I am? Do you think you can pull this off without putting yourself, your livelihood, and your family, into serious debt? Because you can’t, you have to go to college.”
So my father grudgingly went to college. The first day, they got a lecture about how being in college would make them better than people who didn’t get into college. The classism he encountered in college was so demoralizing that he flunked all his subjects. Back then, though, report cards were written by hand, and before he showed his to his parents, he had changed all the F’s to A’s by adding a line.
He’d taken electronics in high school, and he had also spent most of his childhood up in the attic taking apart electronics and putting them together again to see how they worked, building radios, that kind of thing. So he was self-taught in the area that he ultimately turned to for an education and a career. When he and his friends saw that they weren’t getting a quality electronics education at the school they were at (their teacher knew less than they did), they decided to go check out this place they’d heard of, Oregon Technical Institute (OTI — these days it’s OIT, Oregon Institute of Technology). They found that it met, and possibly exceeded, their expectations for a good electronics education, and transferred there.
My father ended up with a two-year degree that qualified him as an electronics technician, which was his job title throughout most of his life. At the place he finally settled down to work, a government research facility with a linear accelerator, though, the technicians did a lot more than building and repairing electronics. Some of them, including my father, designed electronics. And they also had to do things like dig ditches and set up experiments. It was a perfect job for my father’s skills, and as he spent a lot of time there, he not only learned a lot, but taught things to graduate students in electronics engineering who supposedly had more education than him (but were often sorely lacking in anything that wasn’t theory — so he taught them the practical side of things, and from everything I heard he was a good teacher).
When he retired from that job and began to take jobs with corporations (rather than publicly funded research facilities), he had educated himself so well that he earned the job title of engineer without ever having a degree in engineering, or even any degree beyond the two-year degree. But they had to recognize his talents and he finally became an engineer in name and not just in skills. That was just the last few years of his working life, however. Before that, he said his employer had felt obligated to call him a technician because of the lack of formal engineering education.
At any rate, I hope that these stories have told you a little bit about how education can be valued in working-class and poor families just as much as it can be valued among middle and upper class families.
It’s not always the same kind of education — there’s often a huge element of being self-taught, whether or not the person actually attended college or university; and there’s often but not always an emphasis on practical skills, even if there’s theory required to understand them — but it’s education. And sometimes it is the same kind of education. My great-grandfather on my dad’s side firmly believed that any of his grandkids should have the right to the formal education that he himself was denied.
Anyway, I’d been meaning to write something about this for awhile. Poor and working-class people often face barriers to education, and there is sometimes a cultural attitude that’s anti-intellectual that throws up even more barriers for anyone in the family who wants to break out of that mold. But there are tons and tons of poor and working-class people who either want a college education, get a college education, or educate themselves without need of a college education (or in addition to, or instead of, the college education they’re getting). And that’s actually extremely common. People stereotype working-class and poor people as anti-intellectual, brutish, stupid, all brawn and no brains, but that’s no more true of poor and working-class people than the opposite of true of middle and upper-class people.
I’m glad I wrote this. I’m having a hard time writing lately. I think it may be due to my brain reshuffling itself again — I’m gaining other skills and that usually gets taken out of somewhere. And right now I’m having trouble writing posts above one paragraph. It may not show, because I’m not posting all my failed attempts, but it’s true.