• Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

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Class war cease fire

OK, I can admit when I'm wrong. I shouldn't have used the term "social class" to refer to various strata of folks on campus. While sociologists may disagree about how many social classes exist or what the criteria for differentiating among them are or how stable a particular class hierarchy might be, they pretty much agree on the definition of class. That definition includes (in the words of William Domhoff), "patterned ways of organizing the lives of its members from infancy to old age that create a relatively unique style of life, and ...

June 25, 2009
 
 

OK, I can admit when I'm wrong. I shouldn't have used the term "social class" to refer to various strata of folks on campus. While sociologists may disagree about how many social classes exist or what the criteria for differentiating among them are or how stable a particular class hierarchy might be, they pretty much agree on the definition of class. That definition includes (in the words of William Domhoff), "patterned ways of organizing the lives of its members from infancy to old age that create a relatively unique style of life, and ... mechanisms for socializing both the younger generation and new adult members." On that basis, my hierarchy of physical manipulators, symbol manipulators, faculty and "hats" breaks down into physical manipulators vs. a single class of symbol manipulators in various forms. And I may have been unclear, but I never meant to imply that entire classes existed within the campus community, only that the campus community intersected various classes.

As a former farm kid, I incorrectly analogized the hierarchy of social classes to the traditional hierarchy of farming classes -- gentleman farmer, yeoman farmer, tenant farmer and hired hand. The gentry owned land which was farmed by someone else, from whom they collected "rents" in the traditional meaning of that term. Yeoman farmers worked their own land, while tenant farmers occupied and worked land they didn't own, paying someone else rents in cash or kind. (American tenant farmers include sharecroppers, who invest all the labor for a half, or sometimes as little as a third, of the crop yield). Over time, the hierarchy based on land ownership broadened into a hierarchy determined by ownership of more generalized "productive property" which, as we now experience it, is capital. Thinking along the lines of ownership (or at least control) of the productive capital of the university led me to my original conclusion. "Hats" became the gentry, faculty the yeomen, and the rest of us tenants of various kinds.

Oddly enough, the one true class rift that intersects campus cuts straight across this "tenant" category. Physical manipulators are, as a rule, members of a so-called lower/lower-middle class. Whether they're unskilled laborers or skilled tradesfolk, they grew up with working-class values and attitudes (that "infancy to old age" thing), and they see the world through working-class eyes. I've heard my boss speak of some employees on campus as having a "union attitude", but it's not based in union membership -- it'sbased in a relationship to employment and employers which understandably often leads to union membership. Symbolic manipulators, while still tenants, see life in terms more consistent with the perspectives of faculty members and above. Their socio-economic status may be low (often, lower than that of skilled tradespeople), but their objectives are more abstract.

It's this differentiation -- the beginnings of an understanding of the differences between physical manipulator and symbol manipulator perspectives -- that primarily informed my previous thinking. (That and, as I mentioned earlier, the remembrance of images of a lifestyle only deans, executives and occupants of endowed chairs can hope for.)

But the experience has been instructive. Whether I think of them as a class or a group or a random collection of individuals who happened to make similar choices, I've been reminded of the sensitivities of faculty members (and not just at Greenback). I'll tread more carefully (if not necessarily more lightly) in future.

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