Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Colleges and Universities as Working-class Institutions

Have American leftists fully grasped the implications of the changed relation between the working class and post-secondary education in the United States?

(The fancy word "academia," whether used to venerate or disparage post-secondary education, doesn't quite capture its reality in the United States, as the first two years of instruction at four-year colleges and universities as well as community college education function not unlike remedial classes for deficient high school education.)

A majority of American workers today experience post-secondary education. "More than half the U.S. population 25 and over in 2000 (52 percent) had completed at least some college education" (emphasis added, US Census Bureau, "Educational Attainment: 2000," August 2003). The younger workers are, the more likely they are to have college experience: "The rate of completion of some college was 58 percent among those in the 25- to 29-year age group" (emphasis added, US Census Bureau, August 2003). That's a momentous change since the 1930s and even the 1960s, two upsurges of class struggle in the United States (as well as the rest of the world).

Given the change, it's time to consider colleges and universities as working-class institutions rather than elite redoubts, without however putting blue-collar workers who have no college education (some of whom work on campuses as janitors, food workers, clerical workers, etc., colleges and universities being main employers in many cities and towns in America) on the political back burner. Because of the declining weight of mass production factories in the US economy (reflected in the big US trade and current account deficits), colleges and universities -- along with elementary, middle, and high schools -- are among the few remaining institutions where you can still find working-class youths en masse.

It's still important to organize workers at points of production, but the points of production have become increasingly fragmented (due for instance to the rise of mini mills, deregulation, outsourcing, offshoring, etc.), so it's more crucial than ever to organize workers at other working-class institutions such as schools as well as in working-class neighborhoods (in the form of community organizing).

3 comments:

bajowe said...

I think that even public universities are still elitist.
As a working class student at Penn State (just fifteen years ago), I had no peers. But then I was in Fine Arts, which is especially elitist. And I have yet to meet a central Pennsylvania artsit (modernist dilettante?)who will even acknowledge class distinctions or the fact that dominating economic/cultural forces determine the extent of our creativity...

How do we organize conservative workers--that is, those who don't want to be organized or unionized?

Anonymous said...

Yoshie: I have to admit to some deep-seated anti-university attitudes, which come from a close working class friend who never went to college. I have a Masters degree from Wisconsin, so I've seen my share of the university.

Your comments are interesting, because I see this here in Kansas City. Most of the working class people I know are involved in attending the university full time, or are at least taking clases in addition to work. Still, I think there is still a tier system of colleges. My alma mater, Kansas, has evidently turned into a sad dumping ground for kids who come from wealthy suburbs who couldn't get into the elite schools. I've been told that this trend has pushed out the working class students from KU.

Chuck Munson

CEJ said...

A different aspect is the unsustainable 'pricing bubbles' the US has, which include up until recently:

1. real estate
2. housing (a particular part of real estate)
3. medical care and medicine
4. post-secondary education and training

The fact that so many people attending college and university are now on food stamps shows that something has got to give, is giving--if not collapsing.