I received the following intemperate message on Facebook this morning:
Monte Bute, it’s not paternalist classism — it is what I have to do to survive! We have to have certain grades, pass certain numbers of people, by state law. I can’t have wildly lower grades than my colleagues and still be considered adequate at teaching. Unlike some others, I at least give actual reactions, give them a real sense of where they are competent to transfer to or not, for instance, and at the same time, keep in school a few talented people from troubled backgrounds whom you, Monte Bute, would apparently assign to the trash heap! (I have the impression I really dislike you, Monte … you seem like one of these old-style Marxists who in fact hates the poor. I hope I misunderstand.)
Rather than respond in kind, I am posting an essay I wrote for the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2006.
A letter to a student of a certain class
It’s good to hear from you. I appreciate the candor of your remarks about my teaching and the constructive spirit in which they were conveyed. With this letter, I hope to respond in kind. Thanks for giving me this chance to clarify my ideas.
In your correspondence, you caution me about generalizations and assumptions I make, both intentional and unintentional. Specifically, you question my assertion that many students in this class are transfers from two-year colleges. You also suggest that I may be stereotyping you and your classmates as inferior students.
Rest assured, I am aware that you and every student in this class have a unique history. Yet I am also aware that we are not together in this classroom by mere chance. The makeup of students in this class is an example of a seldom-acknowledged generalization about higher education: that there is a social structure that operates just below our awareness, one that shapes our lives in ways we only dimly perceive.
I refer to social class.
The truth is that 11 of the 15 members in this class, including you, have attended community or technical colleges. None has attended a private college and only one has attended a research university. Some have also attended state universities like Wisconsin-Eau Claire, Minnesota-Mankato or AlabamaState. My point wasn’t that you and your classmates have intellectual shortcomings but that there is a powerful process of social stratification in higher education. Like it or not, this academic pecking order rewards and punishes entire categories of students just because of who they are.
MetropolitanStateUniversity and its students are seriously disadvantaged by this ranking system. Like schools of similar status, MetroState has a disproportionate number of undergraduates who are first-generation college students, a larger percentage of learners who were not blessed with a college-prep program in high school, and a significant number who had adult responsibilities thrust upon them early in life, responsibilities that hindered them from immediately attending college. And this is exactly why schools like MetropolitanState are so often punished: When it comes to the ranking (and funding) of colleges and universities, demographics are destiny.
These characteristics say nothing about the intelligence or potential of our students, who have fully as much ability as students at the University of Minnesota, Augsburg College, Hamline University and even Harvard or Yale. Regrettably, intellectual capability and the opportunity to develop that gift are two different matters.
Schools at the top, like Ivy League universities and private colleges such as Carleton and Macalester, exist for the children of privilege. There are exceptions, but most of their students have considerable cultural, if not economic, capital. The justification is that the students at these institutions are there because of “merit.” But what “merit” often means is that someone has had every opportunity and advantage. This point was memorably made by Texas populist Jim Hightower when he noted the “success” of President George H.W. Bush (Yale 1948)—”He was born on third base and thought he hit a triple.”
Schools in the next tier, including the University of Minnesota, Hamline and Augsburg, are designed for young people of middle-class heritage, those who were born on second base. The next rung down the ladder is where Metropolitan State, Wisconsin-Eau Claire and Minnesota-Mankato reside. Community and technical colleges are on the lowest tier. These last two strata are for those born on first base or glad just to get up to the plate.
None of this is to say you cannot get a fairly good education at most any school. What it does mean, however, is that resources, prestige of faculty, learning opportunities and reputation are inequitably distributed. Like the critters in “Animal Farm,” all colleges and universities are equal, but some colleges and universities are more equal than others.
How do teachers at non-elite institutions respond to these affronts? On the one hand, there are faculty members who teach at these “low-status” colleges and universities because they couldn’t get hired at more prestigious schools. Fueled by their belief in the pecking order and filled with resentment over their humble station, these professors assume that the students at these institutions have a limited capacity for learning.
On the other hand, there are those of us who thumb our noses at the ranking system. We wouldn’t teach at those silver-spoon schools even if we had the chance. Our goal is to prove that our students are not only as smart and as capable as students anywhere, but that they deserve excellence in teaching along with high standards for learning. What’s more, we feel our students are usually a lot more interesting and more likely to change the world.
It is both disenchanting and liberating to discover higher education’s dirty little secret. In addition to their mission of educating citizens, the unspoken function of America’s colleges and universities is maintaining class inequality. Sometimes we need to recognize unpleasant truths before change is possible. This is why, late in life, I returned to academia to earn an advanced degree and teach: my calling is to educate students of a certain class.
You asked me to believe in you. I do believe in you and in your classmates. Furthermore, I am an advocate for all of you. Does that mean I will go easy on you? On the contrary, I will hold this class of students to the highest standard. You deserve no less.
Monte Bute is a professor of sociology and social science at Metropolitan State University in St. Paul and Minneapolis.