Philanthropy, Education and Class (what are we thinking?)

I would like to share a reference to an article I distributed to several Nord Family Foundation trustees a few years ago when it first appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2005. The article is by Adrie Kusserow and Professor in the Department of Sociology/Anthropology at St. Michael’s College in Vermont.

It is I suggest a must-read for anyone in philanthropy or private institution that is involved with improving schools. We must be mindful of the values we bring to the table when hoping to improve schools. We must be careful to recognize the sources when our efforts are met with suspicion and even derision.

Professor Kusserow’s research focuses on the role of class in schools. The study is conducted around one simple word, “Individualism.” Members of three very different economic neighborhoods throughout the greater New York City area were asked to define that word in relation to their own identifications with that concept, and how that concept is reflected in how their children should be reared and educated.

Through my fieldwork in Manhattan and Queens, I identified two styles of individuals: a “soft” upper-middle-class individualism, which focuses on the cultivation and expression of unique feelings, thoughts, ideas and preferences and a “hard” working-class individualism which focuses on the cultivation of self-reliance, perseverance, determination, protectiveness and toughness. These two styles of individualism aren’t rigid boxes; people of all social classes can and do fluidly use each style. However the working-class Queens residents in my research learned more toward a hard individualistic style, just as the upper-middle-class Manhattan residents tended more toward soft individualism.

“Class,” she describes,

…penetrate(s) the core of our being, down to the way we hold our forks, tell our stories, console or discipline our children, talk to our neighbors, remember our pasts, or view our futures. Social class is not simply shown and taken off in the manner of a Harvard degree or a gold wristwatch, but lived in the flesh, held in the cells of one’s own self-image and one’s visions of life’s possibilities.

But as Harvard assistant professor of sociology Prudence Carter points out:

School is predicated on the values and practices of the middle class and so lower and working-class kids are automatically at a disadvantage.

Included in the middle-class values and practices of school are those of soft individualism. In a few of the Head Start programs I observed, for example, the clash of working-class hard individualism with the more softly individualistic middle-class educational culture often manifested itself with the lower-working-class children simply being silent, as if mystified by the fairylike teacher who moved around the classroom with a constant glow and smile, showering praise upon them. When these children scuffled with each other, I saw how confused they were when their middle-class teachers took them aside and asked them to explain why they wanted to hit each other and how it made them feel. Coming from families where they were used to being spanked, shamed, or simply ignored for fighting, they seemed bewildered by this new, therapeutic way of dealing with conflicts. Working-class children may also be flummoxed by some of their more softly individualistic academic requirements. “I tell these kids to use their imagination, and they say: ‘What do you mean? I don’t have an imagination,’” says O’Neil. “It’s so strange. I can see some stony old man not having an imagination, but a 12-year-old?”

When I read this article two years ago, I was part of a community discussion on the topic of improving the quality of the public schools in the City of Oberlin, Ohio where I live. A brief word on the town would help. Although it is a City by charter, Oberlin is a small town of about 8,000 people almost of half of whom are students at the famous Oberlin College. The town divides into three broad-stroke classes – there is the professional class mainly professors and college administrators, health care professionals, lawyers and a small gathering of business people. There is a large rural/farming and trades community, and there is an interesting community of poorer families many of whom are housed in public housing projects built in the 1960’s primarily for the African-American population at the time. The African-American community in Oberlin is by no means heterogeneous, although in the schools, reference to African-American children is (mistakenly) understood to mean, “poor”.

The catalyst for the topic was a proposed tax levy to introduce laptop computers to the public schools which, for years has struggled with low outcomes on the State Achievement Tests. The blog post called “Community Diaries” allowed people to post with real names or anonymously. Most, from what I read, chose anonymity claiming that if you used your real name, “What” you post would be tainted or less important than “Who” posted.

As I watched the conversation emerge, it was clear to me that there were distinct groups of interest reflecting their concepts of what schools are for, and how children should be taught. Laptops were clearly not appealing to those from lower economic classes. These people felt there was too little discipline in the schools and children needed to be more obedient. These were primarily from people who I would assume struggle from one pay-check to the next. Their seemed to be support for the laptop initiative from the professional educated community who felt this initiative would push the community forward to much higher quality education. There was one person whose posts reflected an eagerness to find out as much as possible and she later revealed that she was running for the school board. This woman self-identified as a person from “the townships” which are located outside the city in the farmlands.

The entries validate the study that Dr. Kusserow conducted but curiously, study was conducted in three neighborhoods in New York City which is a real City! Oberlin represents the collision of several conceptual approaches to education that are shaped and determined by class and which can account for radical differences we see in schools across the country. When schools are run by school boards comprised of local community members, the more homogeneous the community, the more likely it will reflect the cultural values and biases of its members. I share it with you for your information. It leads me to believe that trying to conduct a legislative fix to create schools that will prepare students for 21st Century skills; we may be at a point where local control of schools might be a thing of the past. The role of the web and social software will add increased pressures to communities that when threatened with change, will make efforts to shut it down.

I continue to refer to Clayton Christensen’s book, “Disrupting Class” He states at the outset of his book, “

“Further, we say disrupting class with some intent. For some, class will mean social class…for too long and in far too many ways, our system of schooling has best served those who hail from homes where parents were themselves well-schooled and who support their children with adequate resources and experiences. Class is also the venue in which most of our attempts at education take place. In many ways, what goes on in these classes profoundly affects social class for good or for ill. Our nation has embarked on a commitment to education every child. No nation has ever sought to do that. The societal stakes in improving our schools are high” p. v-vi Acknowledgments.

I think there is evidence in pockets of educational innovation that appropriate use of technology to support curriculum will possibly address how class is currently influencing the way learning and understanding is conducted in classrooms in towns across the country where local control can mean more than just governance.

9 thoughts on “Philanthropy, Education and Class (what are we thinking?)

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  3. Dave

    Hi John,
    Thanks for sharing the article – very interesting! As someone just beginning to make an entrance into education I found Kusserow’s article, as well as your recent posts, very interesting.
    I’m glad you included Carter’s words:

    “School is predicated on the values and practices of the middle class and so lower and working-class kids are automatically at a disadvantage.”

    Not only is the point well made, but in reading the article (which I received from you before I read this post) it rang true for experiences that I have had. Even in my limited experience I have more then once heard reference to the ‘theirs vs. ours’ mentality in reference to specific courses, programs, extra-curriculars, etc.
    Unfortunately, even with the ever increasing alternatives such as computer-based learning, which by its very nature challenges ‘traditional education’, I fear that these differences in ‘Individualism’ and social class are going to continue to plague public education….even programs such as IB, which brings to public education such a unique and empowering curriculum, continue this divide as those wishing to take full advantage of the program (by earning the IB diploma) must pay $65 per subject-test.

    That is not to say that I think that we are all doomed (I, for one, remain very optimistic for the future of education), but that the issues presented by Kusserow should remain at the front of the minds of those looking to reform education; any true challenge to to this problem (or, for that matter, reform in education) is going to have to carry with it a challenge to these long-standing issues.

  4. John Mullaney

    I agree that we really need to develop schools that address class. On further thought, I am intrigued by the success of KIPP schools and faith-based schools such as Cristo Rey and the Nativity schools that take parents from neighborhoods that would be considered lower class by Kruslow’s standards and yet, turn the children around academically. I think their success lies in the way they treat parents and encourage (and in some cases require) they become a partner in the education of their children.

  5. Dave

    Agreed – the KIPP schools are great indeed!

    I had the opportunity to go to a talk this week given by Michael Pollen on “The Food Issue”, a talk based on his recent article in the New York Times Magazine (, and thought I’d go ahead and share a reaction [Note: I guess it’s worth saying I am biased as I agree with much of what he says on a fundamental level]

    One premise of his talk was that, in order to reform things like Health Care, the next president will first and foremost need to deal with the food issue: how it’s grown, processed, and transported, how the government does (or does not) support sustainable farming, as well as making us all conscious and educated eaters. To this latter point he suggested ‘food education’ – a school-based program that would not simply teach kids about the food pyramid but would truly educate students through full working gardens at schools, having them help serve and plan nutritional meals, and hands-on helping with food preparation in the cafeteria kitchens!
    Yes, I am naturally excited as local and sustainable food is a strong interest of mine, but, more importantly for this blog, what a great example of education through responsibility and empowerment!!
    I think that when given the opportunity to actively participate in all aspects of their learning experience students will truly flourish – wouldn’t it be great if his suggestions were implemented? I think we would see great results.

  6. John

    I was so impressed by Scott Simon’s Weekend Edition story on the Agricultural School on the South Side of Chicago. Rather than comment myself, I think folks would do well to listen to the kids in their own words.

    Why can’t public schools be open to trying this in more districts. I get frustrated with departments of education that develop “Standards” that unforutnately turn into lesson plans for teachers in the classroom who are scared stupid that any misstep or divergence will cause them to have kids fail the standardized exam. School officials should really stop trying to control knowledge and allow teachers to be the professionals they are. That will be another blog post, I think
    thanks for your thoughts Dave

  7. John Mullaney

    In re-reading this post I am thinking about my own education. I grew up in suburban New York City in a town that included NYC executives, some of NYC’s elite class as well as groups of returning war vet’s who flocked to the town to buy homes that were affordable under the GI bill. I went to a parish school that included Irish nuns. My classmates where children of people from every class, but we were united by the “One True, Holy, Catholic Church” lol Pretty strong stuff!! We wore uniforms which was part of the reason why we really didn’t know much or care much about social status. The nuns had a job, which was to educate, and get into good high schools (preferably catholic! 😉 We learned latin, diagramed sentences and were drilled in phonics and math. We had to write papers and read them to the class and be open to criticism. All in all it was a pretty good education. When I see where my classmates are, I suppose we were drilled less by parents and more by the nuns and the church which empasized obedience, and service.

  8. Jeff Jaroscak


    An interesting post. I think it goes toward my point about there being no “one best way” to educate students. The education you experienced, transplanted into an urban setting, would be a recipe for disaster.

    I don’t think that the context (parochial school) is as much of a distinguishing characteristic as I am tempted to think. Many of our African-American students attend church weekly and sit through services that last several hours. These are the same students that tune-out after 15 minutes in the classroom.

    I think that the key is to reach consensus around exactly what “well-educated” looks like. Standards are a start, but frequently do not address the “soft skills” we hope for our students. Once we determine the desired outcome, we can focus relentlessly on achieving results. Results, then, become arbiter of success. In that way, learning Latin, diagraming sentences, writing papers AND ebonics, projects, technology, whole language, and collaborative learning can all be judged by the results they produce, not by popularity and relationship to past efforts.

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