In a series of comments on a previous post, Murfmensch, a young philosopher who has just started teaching at The Elms College in Chicopee, Massachusetts, says, of the students there, "The working class character and ethnic diversity of its student body puts most schools to shame." That got me thinking about the changes I saw at nearby UMass during my thirty-seven years on the faculty there. I have written about this in my Memoir, but since, for some mysterious reason, not everyone has read every word I have written, I will reprise the observations here. They say something in a larger way about social, cultural, and class changes in America that underlie a number of important political phenomena, including the Tea Party.
When I joined its faculty in 1971, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst had almost completed a period of rapid expansion and transformation that changed it from an 8,000 student agricultural college, Mass Aggie, into a mid-sized State University campus of 23,000 undergraduate and graduate students. Coming as I did from Columbia University, I was immediately struck by the contrast between the students of the two institutions. The Columbia students were mostly urban upper middle class young men who had a very strong sense of themselves as embarked on a journey to the professional upper middle classes. Although only a few of them actually chose an academic calling, they clearly viewed the faculty as older versions of themselves. There was a great deal of eye contact and easy banter between them and us, heightened in many ways by anxieties over the Viet Nam War and the draft.
The UMass undergraduates could not have been more different. In those days, much of the student body was drawn from the working class and lower middle class. There was a major Catholic presence, which manifested itself in an attitude of deference and dutiful silence in the classroom. Many of the students came from the Greater Boston area, of course, but UMass is situated eighty miles west of Boston in what was then a predominantly rural area, and there were plenty of non-Ivy League schools in the Boston area to which the Boston kids could go -- Boston College, Boston University, Northeastern University, among others.
In countless small verbal and behavioral ways, the students exhibited the cultural markers of their working class origins and of the fact that they were, in many cases, the first members of their family to continue their education beyond high school. They spoke of "tests" rather than exams." They referred to their "teachers," not to their "professors." It was clear that they thought of UMass as a continuation of high school. Students regularly kept dogs and brought them to class [a rather charming rural feature of the campus]. Perhaps most strikingly, each Friday, buses lined up at the north end of something called the Haigis Mall and loaded up undergraduates who then went home for the weekend. Even though they lived on campus in dorms, their minds were still at home. Some came from reasonably big cities -- Boston, Worcester, Springfield -- but for many, UMass was the biggest town they had ever lived in, and their behavior revealed that in countless ways. The very few students of color found the campus especially intimidating, coming as they did from de facto segregated high schools with majority minority populations.
The students in those days were clearly headed for the lower and middle ranks of the middle class, not for the prestigious upper middle class jobs with the big salaries and the great benefits. Relatively few of the pre-med students were admitted to any medical school at all, let alone to one of the prestige med schools, and Suffolk Law School in Boston, which a Harvard student would have disdained, was a catch for a UMass pre-law senior.
Over the years, things changed. As college became steadily more expensive, increasing numbers of upper middle class families decided that the heavy extra costs of second tier private colleges were not worth beggaring themselves to meet. If a child won admission to Harvard or MIT or Amherst, then perhaps the sacrifice might be acceptable, but as the word got out that UMass Amherst was actually a rather good school, more and more young men and women began to show up exhibiting the cultural stigmata of the upper middle class. The quality of the clothing worn by students began to change, until by and large they were better dressed than their professors. Students stopped taking a bus home, and started bringing cars to campus.
As I have written in my Memoir, the iconic moment of change for me came in the late 80's. I had accumulated enough frequent flyer miles to pay for two round trip tickets to Europe, but the restrictions were so severe that I could not find a time when Susie and I could go. Finally, I decided to use them up on an extended weekend in Paris. On Thursday, I told a class that I was going to Paris for the weekend, and would see them on Tuesday at the regular class time. After the bell had rung, a young woman came up to my desk, opened her purse, and took out a half used carnet of Paris Metro tickets. "Here," she said, "you might need these."
UMass was no longer a working class school.