Friday, September 19, 2008

Class Bias - The Real Enemy

This article first appeared in the winter 1999 issue of Independent School magazine.

Good literature and life experiences suggest that biases among people are often rooted in class — more so than in race, culture, sexual orientation, religion, or gender.

My own awareness of class differences heightened as I moved from my public school education to the military, where people were slotted into one of three classes — enlisted, non-commissioned officers, or officers — to teaching in a boarding school, to teaching in a day school on the North Shore of Long Island, and finally to my current position as head of a school in Connecticut. But it was while my wife and I were living and teaching on Long Island that class distinction — the invidiousness of it — was most dramatic. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby accurately describes the class-conscious segment of society in which my family and I were immersed. Independent schools are often seen as institutions that perpetuate class distinction. For me, however, the sharp contrast in class separation inspired me to fully appreciate and embrace the value of independent education.

As faculty members at a Long Island independent school in which our children were enrolled, we found ourselves in a world divided into two classes. Our parenting skills were often tested as our children straddled both of these worlds — living in a family of teachers, on one hand, and having wealthy classmates and friends, on the other. This was made clearest during holiday breaks when our choice for vacation was markedly different (read “less exotic”) from the choices of their classmates’ families. As we witnessed our own children comparing material differences, we realized they had difficulty understanding and accepting their own social status. And why shouldn’t they in a broader culture that too often equates success with wealth, with having it all?

It has been a great challenge for us as parents to help our children realize that who they are is so much more important that what they are — that material wealth is not the goal of life, not the pot at the end of the rainbow. This is the same challenge that many of today’s independent schools face. Some families are affluent while others invest their life savings in their children’s education, and others are grateful for scholarship or financial aid that allows the opportunity for a quality education. The good news is that the class structure that challenges independent schools evolves from the diversity of families our schools now enjoy serving, and that underlying everything is a unity of purpose among families: their appreciation of high-quality education and care given to children. It is the combination of this unity of purpose and our newly found dedication to embracing differences that validates my belief in independent education.

Keeping issues of diversity in the forefront reminds our schools of the constant need to move forward. Ultimately, each school must be sensitive to individual differences and promote a parenting style that embraces unified yet diverse school communities. At the same time, our similarities — those traits that bind humanity — need also to be emphasized. I am informed inspired by the work, writing, and life of Robert Coles, which transcends class distinctions and represents a valid map with routes to the essence of people understanding each other. Cole’s The Call of Stories is one of the most eloquent books on the subject. Whether a family enjoys eating at Pizza Hut, Denny’s, or at a gourmet restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan; or whether the color of its skin is not in the majority; or its children’s education is supported by financial aid, the subtleties of class should never dull a family’s sense of its humanity, of its connectedness to others.

I understand that the independent school system is not above perpetuating its own class system. The "old-boy network" subtly pushes against gender diversity and tacitly yields to class distinctions and legacies within school communities; it can unconsciously nudge teachers, heads of school, children, and families away from our schools. By the nature of a school’s many diverse constituencies, there is inextricably woven within the fabric a class thread which can unravel the prevailing mission to educate children. But I believe the combination of dedication to high quality education, embracing of differences, and emphasis on shared values is leading us toward becoming truly inclusive schools that reach beyond class. The blueprint is drawn; people can envision the structure; now it is a matter of finding the raw materials — courage and perseverance — to complete the construction phase.

The human migration from England to America provided much to compare and think about regarding biases among people; oddly enough, it was class oppression which many of our relatives fled in the seventeenth century. But with all of America’s class struggles, I am grounded by how John Steinbeck set a common denominator and described America’s people in Travels with Charley. “If I were to prepare one immaculately inspected generality it would be this: For all of our enormous geographic range, for all of our sectionalism, for all of our interwoven breeds drawn from every part of the ethnic world, we are a nation, a new breed.”

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