Personal stories of class were the focus of the first event of Class Awareness Month, a panel of faculty, staff, and students who discussed their experiences with help from moderator Rafael Zapata, Assistant Dean and Director of the Intercultural Center.
Zapata opened the panel by explaining that issues of class are “rarely discussed on campus compared to those of gender, race, and sexuality.” He also pointed out the irony of holding a panel, traditionally a middle class format, to discuss issues of class. He also thanked the panelists for being willing to, in a manner of speaking, “come out of the closet” about their class backgrounds.
The panelists were Lang Visiting Professor of Education Herbert Kohl, Biology major Wee Chua ’06, English major Caitlin Koerber ’07, Environmental Services staff member Andrea Campbell, and Spanish professor Aurora Camacho de Schmidt.
“How similar is Swarthmore’s class background to the class background in either the area where you grew up or where you currently live?” was Zapata’s first question. Originally from a working-class background in the South Bronx, Kohl described Swarthmore as “culture shock… calm compared to the wildness I’ve known all my life,” and Campbell got a chuckle when describing Swarthmore people as “dry and flat” compared to those in her hometown of Chester. Camacho de Schmidt mentioned that “we wear barriers of class less rigidly at Swarthmore… we need to take advantage of it.” Education is seen as “a tool to get ahead in life” in Chua’s hometown of Levittown, Pennsylvania, but here at Swarthmore he’s learned to see it as much more, and Koerber was “much more aware of class at home… here, we talk about books instead.”
To a question about what being “well-off” meant to the panelists, Kohl replied that his family always had a certain working-class pride. “Being well-off was not being like the bosses–being well-off was meant for a community that’s well-off, not a person or individual.” Campbell echoed his sentiments, defining being well-off as “being hopeful that somebody can make it… hoping to open the door for someone else,” and Chua stressed the importance of family.
On the topic of common assumptions about Swarthmore students, Kohl said that “students here are some of the nicest people in the world… really” but agreed with Camacho de Schmidt that “students as a whole lack experience… those who have had to conquer things, and to make that effort themselves, have an enormously rich background and something to teach to evverybody.” Campbell suggested that students in Swarthmore are “all books,” prompting Kohl to ask “How do you learn to read the world as well as you read the book?”
Camacho de Schmidt made a thought-provoking response to the question of the tension between academia and social change, pointing out that a liberal campus culture has a profound belief in the capitalist system and that “social change takes more than liberalism.” Swarthmore is an elite college funded by a those who have succeeded in the current system and thus can’t dismantle the system, so where does that leave possibilities for change? She stressed service learning commitments as an important part of a Swarthmore education and “a palpable window on the world?”
Once the panel was opened to audience participation, a whole new host of issues were raised, ranging from the visibility of class at Swarthmore to academic qualifications as a class issue to class and the military. If nothing else, the panel certainly succeeded in its goal of opening the eyes of students, and in sparking conversations about class all across campus.