Social Class Affirmative Action

An increasing number of colleges are using “social class affirmative action” to increase the number of disadvantaged students in their classes. Maimon Schwarzschild critiques this trend, arguing (among other things) that a) class is too malleable a concept to reliably identify the disadvantaged, b) a projected predominance of immigrants receiving this “largesse” will lead to backlash against immigration, and c) such preferences invariably undermine academic standards.

Though I disagree with all 3 points, I’d just like to take on point c) here. Schwarzschild has very little to say about the benefits of having working class students in the classroom. In fields like physics and math, I can understand his sense of a straightforward tradeoff between inclusiveness and credentials (though I have some reservations). But it strikes me that some of the most important and interesting voices in the humanities are people whose unique life experiences have permitted them to see the bias or blind spots in existing patterns of inquiry. [more after jump]

Consider, for instance, the career of Terry Eagleton. He’s an extraordinarily influential literary theorist who’s leading the discipline forward by asking “big questions” about “morality and metaphysics . . . death and suffering . . . truth, objectivity, and disinterestedness.” Though Schwarzschild would probably view the modern humanities academy with some disdain, it’s people like Eagleton who might be able to return “high theory” to human concern. And once one has read his memoir, it’s evident how that realism is rooted in a life experience far different from most of his donnish colleagues:

‘Boring’ was their code-word for the lower classes, ‘amusing’ was their highest term of praise . . . They sported a distinctive Oxbridge combination of pedantry and frivolity, the latter providing some light relief from the former. . . Many old-style academics have preferred to be thought colorful rather than honest. Their aim is to be fine, not good. (140-41)

Sure, an aristocrat may have also come up with such observations. But the more one reads of Eagleton, the better one sees the urgency and acuity of his observations rooted in the trying world he barely escaped (in no small part due to some “social class affirmative action” described at the end of the book).

You can see glimmers of this kind of insight in many academics, including this essay by a pseudonymous columnist. Here’s a moving excerpt:

The night of [my father’s] death, my mother told me that they had had only one child because they wanted to give me the best chance in life they could. My father, in particular, wanted me to escape the circumstances of his life. “That’s what he wanted, mainly, for you. And you did it. He was so proud of you,” she said.

A few days ago my mother gave me an old manila envelope containing my father’s military GED and his tattered diploma from the “Keystone Sewing Machine Repair Institute.” He spent his life working at dangerous, dirty, and low-paying jobs so that I could sit at a computer, beneath a wall full of framed diplomas, writing about poetry.

Again, I think that the columnist’s extraordinary series of clear-eyed works on academia (including his “Seven Deadly Sins” series) are rooted in an “outsider” perspective, a critical distance developed out of intimate knowledge of a world long excluded from higher education and skeptical of the modish debates that can consume it.

Of course, I have not even touched on here troubling class biases in education, or their effect on professional schools. But what I’m trying to get across is that, at least in the humanities and social sciences, some increased social class diversity can enrich our perspectives in ways that getting a few more questions right on the SAT have little to do with.

Hat tip: Larry Solum.