Monday, April 18, 2005

Rullsenberg's random ramblings on class, culture and education

Have recently been in correspondence with the lovely John over at Counago&Spaves (coo-ee!) discussing class origins and culture. There we were, intellectuals with degrees, postgraduate qualifications and academic/literary based jobs comparing notes on working class origins. Yet the truth is always so much more complicated than a straightforward ellision of working with labouring. Do we control the means of production, our labour properly rewarded for the hours invested, for our benefit? So despite much joshing over how to be prolier-than-thou, the correspondence nevertheless stirred some interesting thoughts on how we identify ourselves and our class. What makes for a working class identity, mentality, history, state of being?

Since one always speak best from personal experience, and it seems pretty arrogant to try and speak on behalf of others who may or may not share my sentiments or experiences, I'll present a case study in shifting cultural, social and economic class identity (or not so shifting as the case may be).
Back at the turn of the 20th century, my maternal line was in Lowdham, Notts and subsequently the Leicestershire regions of Wymeswold before coming back to the city of Nottingham. Farm/general labourers, seamstresses and cleaners/housekeepers mostly. Great gran did sewing work for Griffin and Spalding (who used to own the store that is now Debenhams in Nottingham). My nan was unmarried at the time her only child (my mum, 1931) was born - a fact not known till after nan's death - and made a living through house cleaning: a job she didn't give up work till around the time mum gave birth to me (she'd have been around 70).
It wasn't well paid work, but she worked hard. Indeed, this observation is at the heart one of the biggest fallacies of current political thinking: hard work is rewarded. Is it boswellocks. You can work all your life shovelling shit 20 hours a day and it doesn't make it well-rewarded. What if you train / get lucky with the hierarchy and become the manager? You know, you're still shovelling shit (you're just getting other people to do it). And whose shit are we talking about? Who granted the options that got you into shit-shovelling?
I mean, come on, there's all this talk of opportunities, but most of the time it isn't about actively chosing against certain opportunities : it's about them being conceivable, practical on both an ideological basis and within real social relationships.
Anyway, to return to the history, my maternal family was pretty much rooted in being working-class and wouldn't have comprehended concepts such as owning their own house. It was council rented accommodation all the way. 2up/2down terraced house with yard and no bath till age 8 (just visits to gran with tin bath in front of a coal fire: you should see the eyes widen in incomprehension on the part of some of the utterly middle-class students I have taught over the years!) and it was a big step up to move to gardens front and back and a porch located toilet with a bathroom off the kitchen.
Interestingly my parents didn't have much truck with those who purchased the council houses: not just financially how, but why? Why was 'owning' property such a good thing? - my parents didn't have the working income or working lifetime (married late) to finance purchasing a house. My dad's, by then ongoing and ultimately life-long, ill health would have scuppered meeting mortgage costs. All the talk of rent being wasted money was a mystery to them: we had a roof over our heads, the council covered repairs. Leaving it to me? Me benefit from something I hadn't worked for and that took a roof away from another potential council tenant? - even the idea of it was baffling and abhorrant.
But despite the difficulties, there was always a sense of engaging with culture in the house. Music (classical and pop, operettas and musicals, country, folk, some jazz). Reading was key: enrolled at the local library aged 3 as soon as I qualified for my own ticket but already well-read to at home. (Remember public libraries, with books, open at least 5 days a week till late evening?) Dad had been a languages student in his youth - nine languages! - but had been drafted into the German army, located to Italy and captured as a POW by the Allies before he could reach university. Being the stubbon ass that I am, as a teenager learning languages at school I shunned his help, believing that I had to learn on my own abilities or it misrepresented what the school was trying/able to do. I felt it would be taking an unfair advantage to get dad to tutor me at home (I was a self-righteous and ultimately failed languages student at school).
And history: mum had loved history at school and she undoubtedly instilled in me the importance of understanding not only what happened but also why; the little details within events. Personal histories, political histories: people whose stories went untold or ignored and observational details of the world around us (date marks on buildings, architectural features above street level, the life histories within grave stone marks, dates of death).
It was from these beginnings that I developed my sense of culture, but also my sense of self and how others would always seek to define me. That the practicalities of life, my place in the social hierarchy could never be entirely undone by acquisition of money per se, or knowledge, but that I could certainly use the latter to gain greater understanding of the structures - to teach others how to understand and fight to undo the inequalities built in to the systems of power.
As Dark Willow says: "I get it now, it's about the power".
To draw on an art historical analogy, it is insufficent to add on women artists to the history of art or to ghettoise these into separate disciplines (women's studies): this just lets the existing hierarchy continue to define itself with reference to all that it is not. But it leaves it fundamentally intact. To truly challenge the system, you cannot just have an feminist approach to art history: you have to reinvent the structures, the very foundations of power that allow the structure to marginalise and keep down the role and contribution of women. Whatever you are looking at, you have to explore the power structures and the cultural knowledge that keeps people in their places.

Without wishing to get into Ripping Yarns/Python territory for 'so-bad' upbringing, I do still like to upset the apple cart of expectations at places like Nottingham Uni, which has a high quota of "nice" (urgh) middle class boys and gals utterly disconnected from the real world. I like to mention that my secondary school alma mater was second joint worse school on country at one point and is now closed. It wasn't that we were actively discouraged from going further but that our ambitions and options were horribly low unless you already came from the appropriate background. And judging the school by artificial criteria such as league tables helps no one - least of all the pupils.
Nevertheless, having this history, however much one can critique how it occurs (what is education and what is the role of schools?), can be helpful when Nottingham Uni dabbles its toes into the muddy waters of widening participation work: having a local girl come through the ranks as it were. But you still long to explain to them that class - the power to control your own destiny economically, socially etc - is more than just whether you have a certain number of pasta types in your home. Economically at the moment our house could be said to be deeply middle class (though we're far below several averages), but it is unstable income which hardly lends itself to any ideas of controlling or contributing to the control of the economic and social structure. Culturally we have followed early interests in broad bits of culture - both high and popular (come on Cloud you do like SOME examples of popular/mass culture!) - and arrived at a point where culturally we are deeply middle class. But there are plenty of houses who are economically far more working class in this current moment who maintain an interest in all aspects of culture and plenty of those nearer the top who have no books and little engagement with cultural events, social ideas or political understandings of culture.

To follow through on the issue of unstable income, many a wry smile has been generated by me when people would hear I worked in academia (until this recent post I was always in temporary employment). Especially when they heard the hourly rate of pay: anything between £15 and £25 per hour! Good lord. And then I would tell them that that was just for the hours of contact. No travel time or expenses; no preparation time (usually at least 2-4 times as long as were the hours in front of the class); no marking time; no pay for meetings, time spent photocopying materials, or providing tutorial support. Final pay: much less than any minimum, flipping burgers more profitable. And of course no sick pay (up to you to reschedule your classes - nigh impossible in practice), no pay for holidays (so halfterms, Xmas, easter and summer were just months with reduced or no income). I have written elsewhere on this blog on the income /pensions impact that has had on my lifetime of earnings. And whilst I'm currently grateful to be in a proper post, its temporary and at most will turn into a series of rolling ficed term contracts. There's security.

Incidentally, it has always amused me that just as work became less secure, we were suddenly expected to pay for more stuff ourselves directly (school, health, pensions) and take up ownership costs (mortgages) that operate on systems dependent on secure regular incomes. Odd, or a conspiracy against the working classes newly ordered to particular forms of aspiration?

This is a rather incoherent ramble across these issues but then again I am still hungover...


John said...

Hi Lisa--

Good to have you back. Hope the BAAS was a blaast.

Not an incoherent post at all but most enlightening. My folks were factory workers who were intent on me being a professional footballer (!) and when it came to education they left it to the school, at least once I got past junior school. Whether they felt intimidated by the grammar school I got into, when they'd both left school at 14, I don't know: they didn't discourage my desire to read and learn, but I think they felt they couldn't do much to help.

An interesting book on this topic is Jonathan Rose's "The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes," which I think you'd like, because the descriptions in it bear more relation to your childhood than mine. Richard Hoggart's "The Uses of Literacy" includes details of working class life and culture that I found vividly (and fondly) evocative.

Bourdieu's work on the differences between social and economic capital, as well as his stuff on habitus, is all relevant too. If I recall rightly, he argues that economic capital can easily be translated into social capital, but not vice-versa, so that ruling economic classes can buy 'culturedness' far easier than those aspiring to mobility through education can acquire economic power.

Definitely a topic worth exploring in more detail. Maybe we can get more of your readers' biographies.

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

Ta for the refs, some read some not. I like the sound of the J Rose book - I don't think that's one I have ('cos I'm an anal retentive who catalogues her book collection!).

I always quite liked Hoggart's stuff though I sense it is now deeply unfashionable.

I really should own a copy of Distinction. I have some of his essays but that book is really good stuff. Though I confess that being a hums and not soc.sci. person it sometimes takes me a while to disentangle his meaning!

Thanks for your comments: always much appreciated.

And, as indicated, a BAAS report of sorts will be posted forthwith.

John said...


That should be 'cultural' and 'economic' capital, not 'social' and 'economic' capital.

Lisa Rullsenberg said...