Everyday in the United States school children are exposed to rags-to-riches stories. Children gather round on the rug and listen to the teachers they adore read to them about “self-made” men like Abraham Lincoln. They learn from their history and social studies books that the United States is a meritocracy where anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they are willing to work hard 1. Over the course of their public education students learn this lesson well; work hard, take advantage of your opportunities, and you will certainly be successful. By the time students come into my 101 class this is a painfully unremarkable story. When I recount it in class their response is a unanimous, “Yeah. Duh. So what?”
“Is there anything wrong with teaching school children the world is theirs for the taking? You just have to work hard?” I ask them. Typically my students struggle to find a single issue with teaching the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” ideology. “Is it true?” I ask them “Can anyone be successful as long as they work hard and take advantage of their opportunities?” Nearly the entire class smirks at the obviousness of my question. Someone responds with a, “Well, No.” “No? And yet we teach it to our children without a second thought. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”
“What would a conflict theorist ask here?” “Who benefits?” someone chimes out. “Yes, that’s right. So who benefits if we tell everyone in the United States that they can get ahead if they work hard, despite that being at best only partially true?” A hand pops up, “Those who are already successful benefit because it makes them look good.” “Exactly. Ok, now let’s ask the inverse. Who suffers?” Perplexed silence fills the room for the next 120 seconds. “Anyone? Take a shot at it.” No takers today. “Ok then, help me with this: If I am a child and I hear my teacher tell the class that all you need to be successful is a good work ethic and my parents are wealthy, then what must I think about my parents?” “They worked hard?” says multiple students simultaneously. “Yes, of course. And what if my parents struggle to put food on the table? What if I know for certain that my family is not successful or worse what if I know that my parents are poor? Then what would the ‘bootstrap’ myth tell me about my parents?” A single hand raises slowly, “Then your parents must not be hard workers.” “Think about that for a minute. What a powerful lesson to teach our children. If your family is rich, they earned it. If your family is poor, they’re lazy. Why on earth would we teach that in school?”
From here my students are ready to explore stratification, hegemony, justifying rationales, and all the rest of it. It’s starts with an innocuous story and ends with a class on the front of their seats, needing to know more.
1. Loewen, James. 1995. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: The New Press