A Study Broad: Class

The dates, times and airport-sitting below are outdated: my computer met an ill-placed cup of English tea a few weeks back and has been in and out of repairs ever since.

Currently, I’m sitting at the Philadelphia International Airport. My most recent visit to PHL was with around 200 fellow members of Millville Senior High School’s class of 2010, all of us en-route to Florida for a senior class trip to Disney World. It was many of my classmates’ first time on a plane. This, however, wasn’t my first rodeo.  I’d been on planes before. Lots of them. Compared to flights going across oceans and continents, our hour and a half ride to Orlando had been a breeze.

Growing up in post-industrial Millville, New Jersey, travel—along with my parents’ masters’ degrees—was what set me apart. From the time I was three, every other year my family would do home exchanges, usually to the UK. Through a program called Intervac, we’d be matched with another family in our location of choice. It’s a little like OkCupid for the home-owning, slightly more DIY international traveler set. They’d come stay in our house, and we’d go stay in theirs. While still cheaper than more conventional vacations, flying a family of four back and fourth across the Atlantic isn’t exactly cheap. Looking ahead to my potentially costly college years, we stopped doing home-exchanges once I entered high school. Even so, by the time I was a senior in high school I considered myself “well-traveled,” but without much of an understanding of why I was and my classmates weren’t.

Given this, coming to Swarthmore was a culture shock all its own. Hearing of people’s experiences abroad—volunteering in countries I’d never heard of, months and years off spent organic farming, etc.—was surprising to say the least. While I knew these experiences existed, I’d never actually talked to anyone who’d had them. Here were those sun-kissed smiling kids from the brochures, the ones who graced the pages of the New York Times Education section deciding between Harvard, Yale and, of course, Swarthmore. More often than not, they also had some accompanying title indicative of a well-developed and undeniably impressive talent: string virtuoso, national debate champion, published author. I knew I was a small fish, but I was just now seeing the size of the Marlins all about me. My travel experiences were an important, formative part of my life, just not of my college application process. Our family vacations were meticulously designed to maximize the number of cultural attractions we could visit in the span of a month, not to provide a standout line in a list of extra-curricular activities. Moreover, travelling to another continent to volunteer was too expensive, especially since we’d stopped taking lengthy family vacations so that I could attend the college of my choosing, a choice that was itself a benefit of my own class privilege and cultural capital.

Travelling, but more so taking time off from activities considered productive in the traditional, market-driven sense of the word, is something everyone should be able to do. Everyone should have the chance to do organic farming, backpack across a few mountains, and otherwise find themselves—provided “finding yourself” doesn’t look like this. Or this. My issue isn’t with gap years or the people who take them, or  with the idea of taking time off in general; the myth that working class folks need be “productive” all their lives is one of society’s most toxic misconceptions. Learning new things in new places is good. Deviating from a seemingly set-in-stone career or educational track is also good.

What isn’t good is that there’s little to no discussion about what these experiences mean for the majority of applicants who can’t have them, what options they make available to those who can, and how this informs their respective college experiences. What also isn’t good is that these experiences so often become the currency through which rich experiences become even richer. Given that these experiences make prime fodder for essays and Common Applications, the ability of a privileged few (or many, depending on the institution) to embark on impressive spring break trips and years off has become a new norm against which all prospective students might be judged. Where working a minimum-wage job can provide high school students with plenty of valuable life experience, it doesn’t necessarily carry the same worldly clout with admissions officers as a volunteer trip to some far-off destination. For U.S. high school students, international service trips abroad are kind of like the unpaid internships of the K through 12 years.  Like going to a high school with “above average,” or even “average” AP or SAT scores, or one with classes on James Joyce, hell, even classes that read Joyce, volunteer trips to the Global South, even the American South, always seemed just slightly out of reach. Here I was trying to figure out what the SAT II was, and people who already had perfect scores were off building orphanages. As I tried to fulfill the most basic requirements for entry into my dream schools, those already equipped with the benefits of an impressive transcript and test results conferred to them through years in above-average educational settings (and, to be fair, plenty of hard work) were doing the things that would set them apart, in no small part because many could afford not to work. Why spend 12 hours a week preparing to get into college when a for-hire college counselor or SAT tutor can prepare you in three hours? Now that we’ve all somehow ended up in the same place, all of those experiences  and the factors that led to them lurk just beneath the surface. They are made manifest in sometimes unexpected contexts, but are relentlessly informing our encounters inside and outside of the college classroom.

That’s what class division at Swarthmore looks like: invisible but pervasive. While few brag too much about exotic vacations, plenty of people can raise their hands in art history lectures that yes, they have seen the work of Italian masters in Florence, and they can speak intelligently on their extra-curricular experiences in Africa or Latin America. There’s a lot we don’t talk about at Swarthmore, and class is pretty damn near the top of the list. Class permeates what it means to be a Swarthmore student; it is in the names of our buildings, in the unspoken and sometimes painfully collegial terms of our “open and robust dialogues,” in the ways we relate to the people who don’t look or sound like us in our community, and in the five and six figure debt many of us will graduate into. If class isn’t worthy of discussion at Swarthmore, I’m not sure what is.

When I first visited Swarthmore, I was excited to see—among other things—signs, flyers and what I would later learn to be the usual campus event accoutrements for Class Awareness Month. By the time I arrived on campus the next fall, they were nowhere to be found. While nothing I’ve learned since being at Swarthmore leads me to believe that the fall of 2009 constituted a golden era of class discourse at Swarthmore, few events in my time here since have addressed the issue head-on. Outside of classroom discussions or sporadic events catering largely to activists like myself, classism tends to sink to the bottom of those isms which we, thankfully, do talk about: sexism, racism, cis-sexism, homophobia—none of which, to note, receive nearly the space for discussion they deserve in broad campus dialogues. At all. In no way should this suggest that class occupies an inordinate discursive place “above” these varied oppressions, as orthodox Marxists might have us believe. We cannot understand the ways in which we experience these dynamics without also understanding the ways in which class gets mapped onto them, and how they in turn map themselves onto class and onto one another.

Of course, simply talking about the many-headed hydra of class division on campus is a necessary but ultimately insufficient strategy for confronting it. “Only talking” about class in a place like Swarthmore, however, shouldn’t be thought of as a passive process, because the resounding silence around class on campus and in the rest of the United States is extraordinarily active. When the mere mention of a working or owning class as distinct from the ever popular, amorphous and ubiquitous “Middle Class” of electoral-political fame evokes such words as Marxism and Class War from even the best of liberals, it becomes clear that we’re not supposed to be talking about class. The culprit isn’t some secret government conspiracy, it’s transparent attacks from “both sides of the aisle” and the people who fund them on organized labor, as well as the criminalization of poverty and popular protest, not to mention the blatant lie that we’ll all graduate into a well-paying job that will make all that debt worth it. Talking is only the first step in combating these problems. Joining the people, communities and organizations already fighting against them is the next. And we must all the while link these struggles with those for racial justice, gender equality and countless others. If we actually want to be a “college with a conscience,” silence isn’t an option. Whether it’s the revival of Class Awareness Month or the beginning of another campus-wide conversation, we’ve got to start somewhere to get anywhere.


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