Monday, September 24, 2007


I'm finishing up my senior year at Metropolitan State University and am thrilled to be getting my undergraduate degree at 40 (well, I'll be 40 by the time I walk across the stage on December 18th).

Over the past three years, when I would tell Friends that I'm in school, they would ask if I was getting my master's degree or Ph.D.

I learned to say, "I'm at school getting my undergraduate degree."

Even then, some Friends would ask if it was my second degree. And now they're asking about graduate school.

I'm realizing that as someone who grew up working class, I was trained to do tasks efficiently and right. Activities that don't lead to a product that is discrete, finite and, in the end, worth money aren't worthwhile.

As a writer, this puts me in great conflict with my upbringing. And the conflict, for me, is almost on a cellular level.

Ask me to write something for the joy of writing. Or write a novel that has no chance in hell to be published and purchased. Then I will feel a deep aversion that borders on disgust. I'm not choosing this consciously. I would like nothing more than to write for the joy of it. I do it in school because my writing at least gets read by classmates and instructors. And I have fun. But only because it's finite, discrete and worth a grade.

Friends are befuddled when I describe this feeling. Yet when I talk to other students who grew up working class, they can relate. One friend who grew up working class is getting her degree in creative writing but her goal is to become a magazine writer. She, too, can't imagine writing for fun. Another friend went on to get her degree in library science because she needed to do something that involves a steady income. Even though she doesn't need the money because her husband supports her.

I read about a humongous gift made to a Quaker school out east and then I read this New York Times op-ed about elite universities serving "less as vehicles of upward mobility than as transmitters of privilege from generation to generation" and this New York Times article about public universities charging more for majors that lead to more lucrative careers.

Metropolitan State University is not an elite institution. It is, in fact, just the opposite in some respects. We're the most diverse four-year school in Minnesota, with over 26% people of color. Our most popular majors are: Business Administration, Accounting, Criminal Justice, Nursing and Law Enforcement. We are primarily working adults (working class adults) trying to get a bachelor's degrees to better compete in the workforce.

I'm aware that I'm getting a huge leg up with my degree: knowledge and a piece of paper saying I've jumped through hoops. I can play ball in the majors now. Or at least act like I can play. Just like I did before I got my degree. Only now I feel entitled to be in the game.

I'm also aware of what I'm not getting.

I'm doing my senior thesis on writer Kathleen Norris. She went to a private high school, then Bennington College in Vermont. One of her professors got her a job at the Academy of American Poets where she met the literary elite. These connections got her first book of poetry published before she was 25.

The only connection I have is an alumni knows someone who works at a place where lots of trade magazines are published. Every year I've gotten an email, along with all the other writing majors, inviting me to apply for an internship out in Minnetonka.

So, all this makes me wonder where education fits into the Quaker testimonies. We say that all are equal. But we send our children to fine institutions without thought to the privilege we've given them or the privilege that gets denied another. Or we are ignorant of the privilege we've gotten ourselves.

And I wonder what I will do with my privilege once I have it.


Anonymous said...

"One friend who grew up working class is getting her degree in creative writing but her goal is to become a magazine writer. She, too, can't imagine writing for fun. Another friend went on to get her degree in library science because she needed to do something that involves a steady income. Even though she doesn't need the money because her husband supports her."

I relate to this very strongly. Thinking about it brings up feelings of panic and frustration and embarassment. I feel like if I can't be producing something that someone pays me for, then I become invisible in a really creepy way.

(When I get ready to start cutting myself down for doing something as useless as acting, I remind myself that my mom calls it "real work." I don't know if I would've had the courage that my Mom did -- to do an art that didn't pay terribly well and that her very working class family saw as frivilous.)

I've always thought that I focused on writing for money because I lacked self esteem.

Now that I have a disability that won't let me write for money, I'm training for a job that I can do. Even thought I'm not really sure God called me to do that job. I started training for it in sheer panic, even though our finances weren't in serious trouble.

About going to an elite college ... It was formative for me, certainly. And yet there were so many things that I couldn't picture myself doing -- and didn't do -- because it didn't seem like "me." Or because in ways that I couldn't explain, they made me feel "disloyal."

Picturing myself "making those connections" that you talked about made me feel frozen and a little panicy. And somehow half invisible. I benefited from them even so because I met my husband there and got a nice freelance writing gig that lasted about a year. Beyond that, I'm not sure how much benefit I've gotten from them.

Anonymous said...

I'm so grateful that you're writing about classism in the Society of Friends! Because, just as with our blindness to our own racism, sexism and the like, so many of us _just don't know_ how much hurt we cause by the assumptions we give expression to in our everyday speech and behavior. And so many of us _just don't get it_ about differences in our cultural background, like about attitudes about doing things that are worth money vs. ones you can't make any money from. _I_ never got it about that one till you opened my eyes about it. I'm glad to have found your blog!

Thy Friend John

max said...

Glad this blog exists to further discussion about an important topic. My own thoughts go farther back than the 20th c. Alas, my comment got a little long and I put it on my own blog at

Max Hansen

blue gal said...

What you do with that privilege is absolutely the key. I would rather my children have the best education money can buy at the most elite institution possible, if I can afford it.

Harvard has made it clear that NO undergraduate who is admitted will be limited by income to attending the school. They have the money to do that, which is a huge inequity in our educational system, but it does allow bright children from diverse and indeed, poor, backgrounds to attend what is perceived as one of the best institutions in the country. I think many of those who come from that background will use their opportunity to make the world a better place, and I am grateful for that.

Friendly Mama said...

Your blog is very interesting to me. I, too, come from a working class background and sometimes find myself intimidated by the well educated and unassumingly privileged in my Friends Meeting. Unlike you, I'm 42 and have never felt a calling to go to college for a degree, although I struggle with that frequently. I, too, sometimes feel like an outsider due to some of the basic assumptions of my fellow Quakers. They are, without a doubt, well meaning, being compassionate and good-hearted people, but they often “don’t get” the reality of being poor or working class. My husband and I both work (I guess the term is) "grey collar" jobs which allow us to "pass" as well- educated (he is a book buyer and I do field interviewing for a university social research company) but we are economically middle/lower middle.

I applaud the courage it took for you to go to school and get your degree. I’m sure you had to overcome many challenges to do what you are doing, beginning within. The reality is that in today’s society, one simply has many, many more options when one has an undergrad degree.

Thanks for being willing to open this discussion by sharing your experiences and questions. I'm curious; would you have begun this discussion if you hadn't taken the leap into higher education? Has that given strength to your voice or perspective to speak out in a way you might not have done a few years ago?

earthfreak (Pam) said...

Jeanne - interesting stuff!

Of course you know that you already have a lot of privilege now that you're financially owning class. As for the how-you-were-raised stuff, you'll probably NEVER fully have that privilege (no matter what you do with the rest of your life, you will never get a new childhood) - that's part of what's so interesting, and frustrating, about this discussion.

I heard about the George School grant too. On MPR. the head of the school was listing off the quaker testimonies and the interviewer's next question was whether having this kind of money might conflict with any of the testimonies. I think I actually hooted to myself, driving along...

I felt like there was tangible silence, and them hemming and hawing, and eventually she said it depends on what you do with it. I really wonder, short of giving it all away, or spending it all on something radically class-defying (unlike a few scholarships for exceptional poor kids - many of whom, like me, will likely be kids who were raised with a high value on education, but just without money.)

Jeanne said...


Yes! Very interesting stuff.

And about having financial privilege's the thing.

I think some part of me thought that once I had financial privilege, something would change (about my interactions with other people with privilege, like Quakers). But it didn't. Because I still don't get middle-class indirect communication, because I'm loud and brassy and emotional. Because middle-class and owning-class people unconsciously 'manage' me. All that stuff.

What my financial privilege is getting me is this education, and the freedom to choose my vocation. And it gives me time to wait for doors to open that wouldn't otherwise be open for me (you know, get an internship, then volunteer, then get a part-time position, etc., when most of my classmates are searching for jobs and paying mortgages and paying off their student loans).

While that is huge, it won't get me the job I really want. It won't open doors for me that a degree from Macalester does. And, as you said, it doesn't erase my working-class origins, nor the impression I make on people. I have a middle/owning class teacher now who just dismisses just about everything I do and say. I now know it's not me.

The best thing my privilege does for me is to be able to bring up this issue of class and ask people to look at it. (And enables me to get an education so that others might consider valid what I say).

I heard the same broadcast on MPR and I thought the school director was earnest. But I wondered what would really be different. If they can pay their teachers more, that just means they can get more 'prestigious' teachers (which is one thing that happened recently at Metro) which only reinforces class oppression.

And then I think, I can't do anything about George School. And so I do research into schools conducting college classes in prisons and giving four-year degrees to the incarcerated. I ponder ways to give money to Metro once I graduate so that the money encourages the school to look at class when considering their tenured professor hiring decisions.

I just don't know how to upset the class cart all by myself and I don't want to just talk about it!

:-) Jeanne

earthfreak (Pam) said...

yeah, maybe one of the few things lots of money won't help you all that much with is dismantling class :)

But I think it's great that you're trying.

I also find, though, that it's more complicated than that, sometimes.

As someone who went to an elite quaker school (even played field hockey, the sport of preppies, against George School) and then Macalester, I don't feel like I have all that much access. I can tell that with people I really don't know, who live around here, saying I went to Macalester gives a better impression than saying I went to Metro State, but on the other hand my parents didn't actually have great contacts, and I'm not a schmoozer by nature, so I actually have very little "networking" advantage. I went to high school with people who went from h.s. to grad school to jobs with their dad's law firm or whatever, and have most likely never washed a dish in their lives, but that was never an option for me (I may have had a shot at it if I had a clue how to "play" people - because I've had a lot more opportunity to meet people with access, but I don't feel like I have that much access)

It reminds me of what I've heard said about working class white men reacting to constantly being told how much privilige they have. In one way it's true that they do (they are much more secure from being raped or having another hate crime committed against them than many others, for example) but they aren't running things either.

I'm also much more blunt and emotional than most people I meet here. I think it also might have to do a bit with being east coast folks in the midwest, though I think you're right about class differences as well.

I liked your idea about wearing a button or something saying thank you for working to support me, or whatever - you phrased it much better. I think a lot of it is lack of awareness. Most people want to fight battles they can get a hold on, and class is very slippery.

Jeanne said...


You're right. Privilege is a slippery thing. People think they don't have it if they don't use it.

For example, it's easy for me to forget that I have financial privilege when I just go about my daily life. It's easy for me to forget that I have white privilege when I'm not using it.

But this doesn't mean I don't have it.

That you graduated from Macalester is a privilege, even though you haven't yet schmoozed to get access to some of that privilege.

All you have to do is put it on your resume.

If you and I applied for a job and our resumes reflected equal qualifications, you would have the edge.

If you went to a reunion and hooked up with someone who owns a business and they give you a job because of your connection...

At a magazine networking meeting last week, the 'experts' said that one way to get gigs is to go to our school and ask to write for the alumni magazine because they have a preference for alumni.

Because you haven't schmoozed or used your alumni connections doesn't mean you don't have the privilege granted you by your degree from Macalester.

One privilege we will both have once December 18th rolls around is a four-year college degree. Only 25% of Americans have a four-year degree. And lots of jobs 'require' a college degree when in fact you don't need a college degree. Yes there are some jobs where a college degree should be required. And you'd think that a college admissions dean would be one of them but it turns out that someone without a college degree not only did that job but did it so well she was promoted to dean.

Hmmm. I hadn't thought of the idea of a button. I think I said that when the new people I met asked what I did for a living I'd say that I live off their labor. But a button is a very very good idea. Could hand out lots of them to folks at Quaker meeting. Anyone who has a retirement account. Or a savings account with more than a few hundred dollars. Anyone who owns a business. Or is a manager supervising working people.

I just have to come up with something catchy that will fit on a button. Got any ideas? Anyone?

Robin M. said...

"we send our children to fine institutions without thought to the privilege we've given them or the privilege that gets denied another. Or we are ignorant of the privilege we've gotten ourselves."

Is this common around you? I don't think I know any parents sending their children to our Friends School who aren't aware that they are extending their children a privilege, either those of us who are receiving tuition assistance to do it or parents for whom the money is not an issue.

I need to take a deep breath and not feel so personally defensive about this. I want to write long descriptions of my own credentials to enter this conversation, but I'm afraid it will just come through badly. Maybe I will come back when I have collected myself and can speak in a calm voice. Kind of like what I try to teach my children.

Jeanne said...


I am so busy with school that I have only responded to Pam. For this I am sorry.

And I thank you all so much for coming by and taking the time to read my blog and think about the things I'm saying.

I'm working on another couple of posts and will post again soon.

Thank you Elizabeth, John and Max!

Friendly Mama, thank you for writing. You write "one has many, many more options when one has an undergrad degree."

I've come to think of it as "Our society limits those without college degrees much much more than those with college degrees."

Takes the burden off those for whom a college degree either isn't accessible or isn't a leading. I know many fine people who don't have their degree. But that fact is a lack only in the eyes of the system, not in their humanity or worth.

You ask: "would you have begun this discussion if you hadn't taken the leap into higher education? Has that given strength to your voice or perspective to speak out in a way you might not have done a few years ago?"

The short answers are No and Yes but not for the reason you think.

Just getting an education hasn't given me strength, but being affirmed by my instructors and classmates for the gifts I bring. This combined with the George Lakey workshop on class and Quakers, and the noticeable difference between how I'm seen acknowledged at Meeting and at school. I think if I'd been at, say, the University of Minnesota or at a private institution, I don't think I would have gotten the same kind of appreciation. My school is a school for working-class adults and many (not all) instructors recognize this. Some are even culturally working-class themselves too.

Robin, thanks for stopping by too. And it's okay to get defensive. And angry.

So if you're sending your children to private school, and are aware of the privilege you're giving them, what are you doing to dismantle the system that bestows privilege on those who can afford it?

I'm not asking you to defend yourself, but I'm truly curious. And I'd love to share your strategies for dealing with privilege with anyone who wants to know about it. Including myself.

As you may have read in Pam's post, I married into money and have financial privilege right now. I struggle with it and do my honest best at trying to make my privilege transparent and therefore hopefully shed light on class oppression.

So what Light do you have to shine on this issue?

HysteryWitch said...

Funny. I would have had so much more money if I hadn't gone to college. I kept following my passion to serve more and more deeply into debt. Turns out my folks did the same thing. My mother had more support as the child of rural shopkeepers with college degrees but my father was the first in his family to attend college. They chose to become privileged, well-educated people because that made them better able to serve the poor. Turns out that as laborers, they couldn't have worked with rape victims or with the dying and bereaved. We couldn't have become educators or have had access to the tools to reach as many people with our public speaking and writing skills. We're aware of our privilege. My education allows me to move in circles I could not approach without my degrees. I still can't afford to eat lunch with them.

Turns out that the working class folks in my family have more disposable income than my husband (who takes care of the developmentally disabled) and I have. My private school college education qualifies me to teach working class kids at a community college as an adjunct where I earn between 4 and 8 grand a year. I don't feel like a hypocrite at all when I teach them to challenge capitalism.

I resent the wealthy, as a general rule. They always make me think of camels and the eyes of needles, but let's not be simplistic about class, privilege and money especially in relationship to education. My father always told me that he could never make me rich, but he would educate me so I could move among them. Why? So I could use the master's tools to dismantle his house.

Jeanne said...

HysteryWitch, thanks for stopping by in your very busy life to read my blog.

And way to go. You're doing good with your privilege. You're choosing not to use the privilege you have to better yourself but to better the world and as you say, 'use the master's tools to dismantle his house.'

Unfortunately, in the aggregate, Quakers use their privilege to benefit themselves. We are the second wealthiest (in terms of household income) among all the religions. I think #1 is Judaism and #3 are Unitarians.

And to be clear, I'm talking about SYSTEMS and not individuals. Individual actions can deviate from the system but that doesn't mean the system isn't broken.

I'm wondering what class issues you see in Quakerism. Care to share them here?

QuakerMom said...

I have been thinking a lot about class in my meeting. We're in a university town, and there are many professors in our meeting. In addition, people seem to very uncritically value academic achievement and to buy into standard views of academic standards. i remember when one of the kids in our meeting was accepted to Smith, her mother announced it during Joys and Sorrows, and there was an audible, "Oooh, Smith" through the room. Things like that make me very uncomfortable--do we value less the young man who hasn't gone to college but is apprenticing in carpentry instead? I don't think, if asked, anyone would say so--but we act like we do, and I wonder how that affects our kids.

We're also in the process of building our meetinghouse, and this has brought issues of money and affluence into view. The number of families who have been able to give $10,000 or more to the meeting for our building has staggered me.

Even though I am a good fit for the meeting in terms of my own class background, current family income, and academic history, I am becoming less and less comfortable in it, in large part because of the way these issues seem largely unacknowledged and unexamined. I've been brining some of them into the light as way opens; we'll see what happens.

HysteryWitch said...

Thank you for your important and challenging post, Jeanne. I do have many thoughts on class and its relationships to spirituality which I am beginning to explore in my own blog. I wish to note that I tend toward a socialist perspective and am therefore quite sympathetic to your view. On the other hand, 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 low-income 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.
Does intellectual work really belong to the upper classes?

Canine Diamond said...

I would be the last to argue that Quakers don't have at least the appearance of being overwhelmingly "middle-class" (I don't have any stats on Quakers, education, and economic status, so don't quote me on anything) or that they don't make a lot of assumptions about the level of formal education among their religious peers. However, I would caution against using the New York Times as a sounding board for the "middle class". Don't get me wrong: I like the Times, but I come from what I'm sure you would consider a solidly middle-class background (daughter of a PhD and an almost-PhD, graduate of respected private liberal arts college) and what the Times seems to assume is a cultural and economic norm bears no resemblance to the lives of my parents or myself.

Elite universities have always been transmitters of privilege: At least now they (theoretically, at least) have to let in women and non-whites. How do you think our favorite owning-class underachiever George W. Bush made it through Yale? Furthermore, for every privileged student who uses his/her connections to early advantage, there are thousands of us who graduate without any connections at all and go home to the same pedestrian jobs as our less-expensively educated peers. (I probably make less in my job, which requires a B.A., than most of my vo-tech trained high school classmates.)

Hysterywitch is right: Education and credentials should be seen as tools, not as the be-all, end-all, and their intrinsic value should not be overestimated. As you've learned firsthand, education is power, even if you choose to use that power in small ways. I'm a member of Live Oak Friends Meeting in Houston and we had to go to the local art community for funding for our meeting house because, as a congregation, we couldn't pony up. Too many social workers, teachers, young families; people without a lot of disposable income (very, very, few who could put up $10,000). (That whole story is a long and messy one.)

Which begs the question: If you feel isolated at meeting because of your working-class background, what are you doing to educate the rest of us?

Thee, Hannah

Holmes said...


I just discovered this blog and have already benefited from the insights posted. I am under
the impression that class is something one is
born into and is defined by family income and
education. If this is not a similar definiton to
others in the blog then please let me know what
you think. If this is an acceptable approach to the
issue then none of us can escape our class even
though the class of our children may be different.
One concern I have in reference to much of
the above discussion is the use of the term "middle class ". I think of myself as middle class
but as a Quaker on the east coast I am as isolated
as anyone who considers themselves as working
class. Regional class differences explain a lot
of the friction that exists between the branches
of Friends. Here in the mid-Atlantic area the first
two things one is often asked during Quaker gatherings is 1.were you born a Friend ? and 2. Which Friends school did you go to ? The first thing we have to do is stop this approach to communication and networking.
I really relate to the blogger who mentioned the
Smith College incident. I have seen this play out
over and over again so those of you who may think this as rare must live in a different area of the country.
A basic question to be asked is " what can we do about this problem? First I believe this blog
is really helpful. A look at the book of discipline
in each meeting will reveal the attitude toward
public education. Regardless of the condition of
schools in the area where we live, the idea that
Friends schools allow one to either escape or
make you a better person ( this was actually
stated in public forum during a yearly meeting)
cannot be a working hypothesis or assumption
for the application of Quaker principles. Too
often wealthy Quakers want to " help " the poor
while snubbing the desire of working class and
middle class users of public institutuions. The thought that we may actually take pride in the schools and communities where they live is usually missed. Often the query relating to public school is one of helping the poor wretches improve while the language reserved for Friends school is that of adulation and affirmation.
The problem I encountered is that the demand for equal treatment was considered an attack on Friends schools and much energy was spent arranging for worship speakers to share stories
of Friends schools and lobby at business meeting.
The lesson learned here is that most of the leadership on the east coast is tied to Friends schools as well as money.
Personally I would be happy if we all mutually
affirmed the school choices we make for our own
children and work harder to stop the use of
academics to define class access. Pretty hard thing to do.
In addition I have come to realize that some of
the class loyalty issues are driven by the odd status we Friends have in the genearal society. If
others question us a little more closely about what
we believe the result can be one of rejection. I consider this simply the cost have having Christian
( in my case ) principles which are often painful
for mainstream society to stomach and is a cross
one expects to bear. However, these differences
are easir to smooth over if class loyalty is seen as
the primary criteria for acceptance. This tactic
works for those who have suffered for their pacifism but can compensate by being gaining
admission to elite organizations.
Thank you all for a somewhat cathartic dialogue. I look forward to reading more