The sensible pursuit of class goals

What is a “class goal?”

When I was in high school, one of the traditions was to collect money so that the graduating senior class could give a gift to the school. We did the same thing in college. The amount of money needed to give the gift we had chosen was, or could have been, identified as “the class goal.”

That’s not what I’m talking about here.

I am thinking of “class” in the Marxist sense, although not defined by the Marxist logic. [1] I am going to be working in this essay with a notion of the working class. It’s hard to say exactly who I am referring to—all the authors cited in the works I have been reading struggle as well—but this class is bounded on the down side by the “hard living “ poor and on the up side by the professional/managerial class.

I want to be specific about that because the class I am going to be thinking about calls itself “middle class.” It is the way the working class differentiates itself from those just above and those just below that identifies them. The “hard living poor” are undisciplined and waste their resources and behave shamefully. We don’t want to go there. Or, in the case of a working class family that has risen out of “hard living,” go back there. The professionals are ugly people—pretentious snobs—and we don’t want to be like them in any way. So we are who we are, the “settled living” working class. [2]

How to keep from going back to “hard living”

In this section I am going to introduce the main point—the practices of the working class are a sensible pursuit of class goals—and apply that general point to working class childrearing practices.

How should children be raised? In the view of this class, “the working class,” they should be raised so that they don’t have to sink to the level of “hard living.” Very often, the families making these calculations have been there and know they don’t want to go back so the implicit question is, “What do we have to do so that we and/or our children don’t have to go back to hard living?”

That means that people like me, who have never experienced “hard living,” but respect 1nevertheless, have views on how children should be raised, have a dilemma. I learned what the right goals of childrearing are from my parents and got a refresher course by being a parent and a step-parent. I know what is right and why it is right. I have never asked what would be the right kind of childrearing if the goal were, as in the case of the working class, to ensure that no one sinks to “hard living.” So in confronting this question, I am facing a question I have never faced before. I need to ask, of the child rearing practices of the working class, “Will they meet the goals of the parents?”

That question feels odd to me. I don’t remember having heard it asked before, with the possible exception of some anthropology texts, in which the fathers train the sons to be hunters and the mothers train the daughters to be gatherers. They inculcate in the children whatever virtues will enable the group to survive, “courage,” let’s say in the hunters and “patience” in the gatherers. But here is that same distinction, with what I hear as anthropological overtones, being made about my own fellow citizens. Here is a paragraph from Joan Williams.

As the Great Recession of 2008 showed, many less affluent families are only few paychecks away from “hard living”: losing their homes and sliding into a chaotic life. This specter dominates their approach to child rearing, where the focus is on raising a “good kid,” defined as one who finishes school and lands a stable job. Self-regulation, not self-actualization, is the underlying goal of child rearing in the Missing Middle. Workers place a high value on comfort and predictability, as opposed to innovation and openness to change.

These working class parents want their children to be “good kids” as they define good kids: finishes school and lands a stable job. That’s what good kids do. They reject “self-actualization” the default choice of parents from the professional class, and emphasize, instead, “self-regulation.”

I can feel any way I like about the childrearing practices these parents use, but if I want to criticize them, I need to say either: a) these emphases will not produce the kinds of children you are trying to produce or b) you shouldn’t want to produce that kind of child. I don’t see myself being able to say either of those. On what basis would I say them?

Here’s another one from Williams

The working- class approach is succinctly summarized by class migrant [3]and journalist Alfred Lubrano, whose father was a bricklayer: “In the working class, people perform jobs in which they are closely supervised and are required to follow orders and instructions. [So they bring their children] up in a home in which conformity, obedience, and intolerance for back talk are the norm—the same characteristics that make for a good factory worker.

Notice that. Like the father who is a hunter and who raises his sons to succeed as he has, the bricklayer raises his sons to succeed as he has. That is the point of similarity. I am not saying that there and then is the same as here and now. In an urban and industrial society with a highly individualistic interpersonal style, the choice is not being a good hunter or a bad hunter.

unruly 1But there are some differences as well. Lubrano’s father raised him to be a really good bricklayer, but Lubrano became a journalist instead. A father in our society in preparing the sons to do the same kind of work he does, is closing off a lot of other economic choices that the sons might prefer. That’s not true of the hunter.

Now, to return to Lubrano’s account, bricklayers are closely supervised and are required to follow orders and instructions. Therefore, the father brings the children up in a home where “conformity, obedience, and intolerance for back talk” are the norm. Homes like these are the places where the sons are trained in the values that will enable them to earn a living as bricklayers.

Again, I am left with my two questions. Is it really true that this kind of upbringing prepares the sons for that kind of occupation? And, again, in choosing that for your children, are you making a good choice? Are you passing by choices that would be better? Should you be making for the sons choices that they would make better themselves? I don’t see myself in a place where I can ask questions like that.
Here is one final passage from Williams:

Settled families’ insistence on self-regulation may seem heavy-handed [4] to the upper-middle class. But these families live close to the edge. In the upper-middle-class context, children are encouraged to experiment, with the secure knowledge that any “scrapes” they get into will often pass without a trace. Money can buy second chances, something professionals often take for granted. While an insistence on self-regulation may stifle creativity and spontaneity, these may seem worth sacrificing in order to maintain a foothold on the settled life.

This is the other side of the child-rearing commitment. We have seen that the families prepare the children for the kinds of lives they are going to live. Here, we see that the parents try to prevent the kinds of occurrences that will send the kids down to “hard living.”

For professionals’ kids, encouraging them to experiment is fine. If they get into a scrape, they can get through it and money buys second chances. None of that is in place for the working class kids, so a heavy handed regimen of self-regulation may seem worthwhile, even if it stifles creativity and spontaneity. If you can’t buy your way out—and these families can’t—then sterner measures intended to prevent getting into trouble make a great deal of sense.

So if you feel the way I do about authoritarian childrearing practices, then you have earn respect 1the same problem I have. We need to be able to challenge these childrearing practices on either instrumental or on normative grounds. Those are the two I introduced above. We need, in other words, to say, “I understand your adopting those practices as a way to prepare your children for working class life, but actually, they won’t have that effect.” First, I’m not really sure that is true. Besides that, I am sure I am not in a position to say it even if it were true. So the instrumental case against those childrearing practices falls apart.

The normative case against those practices is that the parents ought not to want those outcomes for their children. Presumably, we think they ought to want “a better life” for their children, by which we would mean the kind of life that professionals and managers live. So Alfred Lubrano, the journalist, would say to his father, who trained him to be a bricklayer, “Pop, I know you don’t like the lifestyle I have chosen, but I much prefer it to the one you had in mind for me and it is, after all, my choice to make.”

Of course, I couldn’t make that case, with my thoughtless presupposition that professional/managerial norms are better. Nor would my idea that being able to rise through the class system is a good thing. Lubrano’s parents don’t see it that.

I called this essay a “sensible pursuit,” meaning that the parents deliberately adopted strategies in line with their goals. And I identified the goals as “class goals” because they are determined by the parents’ distaste for the professional/managerial class and by their fear of “hard living.” These are not, on that sense, “personal goals.” I don’t think I can learn to like those practices, coming to the question with different presuppositions, but maybe I could be a little less judgmental about them.

That would be a good thing, I think.

[1] Marx’s idea was that you either controlled the means of production or you didn’t. You were one class if you did and another class if you didn’t. A version of that split was still available enough for Mitt Romney to use the expression “makers and takers” to refer to the two groups.
[2] The case I am going to be making really requires some specificity on who I am talking about. I am following the language choices of Joan Williams, in her Reshaping the Work-Family Debate: Why Men and Class Matter. Williams relies on sociologist Michele Lamont’s work on the working class/professional class boundary and on Julie Bettie for the distinction between “hard living families” and “settled living families.
[3] A term I have never heard before this book and one I think hits all the right notes. People who move from one class, one “way of life” to another, are migrants in the same sense as people are who move from one country, with its way of life, to another.
[4] Here’s an example of what she means by “heavy-handed;” “For the hard living, adherence to traditionalist religion, with its emphasis on ‘ absolute truths and a transcendent moral authority, sometimes offers a path back to settled life.”



About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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