Granfield on Working-Class Students at Harvard Law

Professor of Sociology Robert Granfield from SUNY Buffalo came to campus for the penultimate event of Class Awareness Month–the last event is a Wednesday evening screening of an episode of The Brokaw Report about education and class.

Granfield began by praising the aims of Class Awareness Month, saying “it’s forward thinking and timely… it should be a model for all colleges and universities around the country.”

Granfield himself grew up in a working class environment, his father a factory worker and later a small-business owner. He went to a catholic school and then a state university in Massachusetts where “I realized that I liked school… I discovered reading, writing, and research,” and went on to complete a PhD at Northeastern University. His dissertation was about class socialization at Harvard Law School in the late 1980s, and it is this research his lecture was based on.

He began by citing some statistics about both the powerful impact of class on people’s lives–“it affects how people think about themselves… even how they die”–and its invisibility in public discourse. “Public universities have become increasingly tuition-driven,” so although “we have witnessed a whole slew of efforts to level the playing field for a college education, access for poor kids has not improved and has even decreased.”

He continued with a personal anecdote about his brother-in-law, who graduated second in his class at the police academy but continues to think of himself as “just not very smart.” Granfield calls this devaluation of one’s own intellectual capabilities “the hidden injury of class.” No matter how much people from working-class backgrounds succeed, they may “continue to feel unworthy, just lucky, or, even worse, a fraud.”

During his research at Harvard Law, he found that education “contributes to a culture of inequality… they teach the dominant forms of social relations and then conceal the arbitrariness of those relations.”

When the students Granfield observed entered Harvard Law, he said, “many came in with a great deal of class pride and… came to Harvard with the hope of pursuing public interest careers.” He continued, “despite the fact that they were very proud of what they had accomplished, identification with the working class began to diminish soon after their entrance into Harvard… they began to see themselves as different and their backgrounds as a burden.”

Some of the students felt embarrassed by their difficulties in using “elaborate linguistic codes.” Other sociologists have found that children from the upper class “learn that their views and experiences are unique and important” and elaborate their speech patterns as a result. In contrast, “working-class culture is more collective in its orientation… they learn that there is little incentive to elaborate their meanings… [and] develop restricted speech patterns.” An easy way to see how this comes about is in parenting styles. Upper-class parents give their children license to be inquisitive, while “working-class parents emphasize control and obedience to authority… parents issued directives and children rarely questioned or challenged.”

So how do working-class students negotiate their identity at Harvard? Granfield found that they “often confront these various cultural pressures by feeling like outsiders.” These students reported higher degrees of stress, anxiety, and grade pressure, and often felt that they had a harder time expressing their thoughts than their wealthier classmates. Specific anecdotes included a woman who was upset by a business law class where the professor assumed familiarity with the topic because “you know this from your parents” or another woman who experienced “a growing sense of discomfort associated with being married to a man with a working class job.”

In response to this stigma, most of the students Granfield observed “began to conceal their backgrounds and attempted to pass as middle class… adopted a more middle-class presentation of self.” As they started to go out for interviews, this process intensified with the assistance of professional career counselors, who told students that “unless they downplayed their class background they would be passed over for the most lucrative career opportunities.” One student found that when “I began to play up that I was just like them, the offers started rolling in.”

Firms weren’t just interested in knowledge of the law but in finding a person who “fit into” the firm. Working-class students who performed as middle-class “increasingly described a double-consciousness… they felt proud of their accomplishments but also as through they were an imposter… they were significantly conflicted over their progressive ideologies and their own upward mobility.” Although students had begun law school hoping to enter public interest law, they found this a difficult choice to make from their class background and were frustrated by the dilemma of “selling out.” As one student told Granfield, “my brother keeps asking me whether I’m a Republican yet.”

In follow-up interviews seven years out of law school, Granfield found that most of the former students were still experiencing a sense of marginality in their profession, and in most cases “they remained ambivalent about their class affiliation… unsure where they fit in.” Others “pass by believing that they’ve overcome their class disadvantage… one was much less angry about social injustice, and had disassociated himself from that background.”

But the same student felt that he had a particularly difficult time courting wealthy clients at cocktail parties, and ascribed this not to his background but to himself for being “stupid,” the “invisible burden” Granfield had described earlier. He continued, “sometimes those who are oppressed by class do not recognize their oppression… they internalize and individualize the cause, blaming themselves for not being smart enough, astute enough, or cultured enough.”

He concluded his talk by suggesting to the assembled students that “there is a great need for a book of first-hand accounts of working-class students at elite universities and colleges,” and again praised Class Awareness Month for bringing attention to this little-discussed but all-pervasive issue.


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