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Friday, December 31, 2010


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.


Murfmensch said...

This is really interesting. When I drove through UMass, I kept repeating to myself "This is a public school?"

I was struck while watching Michael Sandel's Justice Seminar that is now on-line. (Sandel is another topic, I'm sure.) What struck me is the absolute lack of background presumed by Sandel.

Philosophy offers massive egalitarian potential, if students would only believe it. When Sandel asks Harvard students a hard question, they throw out an answer with a hint of sheepishness that is greeted with a solidaristic laugh. School has been good to them.

Other students who aren't sure of an answer to a tough question conclude that they shouldn't be here. Unions and fraternal organization provide alternative venues that provide recognition.

The denial of recognition is often a matter of pure prejudice. Many people saw school as one long lecture on which fork to use. I mentioned to one class that I was sick of hearing students call each other "faggot". Most agreed. Some saw it as another elitist word game. They are less likely to visit the symphony or listen to a professor's concerns about global warming.

All is not lost. Gains are made if journals and schools are persistent and oriented towards truth.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

That is very interesting, and shrewd. The money quote, as they like to say on blogs, is "school has been good to them." Exactly so. From infancy, those Harvard students have been accustomed to treating formal education as an affirming opportunity, someplace where they do well and can expect to be complimented.

At UMass, I created and ran for some years [on grants] a program for minority Freshmen, helping them make the transition to university education. These were not select students but ordinary kids from mostly almost all minority high schools. Each student was requried to do an independent research project, chosen by the student, and with lots of help from a teacher whose class had five [yes, five] students in it. At the end of the year students, at a final dinner, made brief public presentations of their work, which was then desktop published by me in a volume and distributed to them the next Fall when they returned. It was astonishing how much confidence they acquired as a consequence of this experience.

sam said...

I'm a Harvard student, and I recently started reading your blog (a teaching fellow from my general education class that read your book on anarchism sent out the link.) I can affirm from experience that Harvard is populated mostly by students to whom "school has been good," although I think from comparing experiences with my father (who is 41 years older than me) Harvard has made substantial headway in improving certain diversities of background. Still, you are right that for almost all Harvard students education has been an affirming opportunity for years, if not their entire lives. This was certainly the case for me from childhood.
I was wondering, if the members of the upper middle class began increasingly sending their children to UMass, where did the more economically disadvantaged populations who had formerly attended go?
Finally, I wanted to commend you for your participation in the program you discussed in your comment, Dr. Wolff. It is indeed true that a single successful experience can instill confidence that can completely alter one's academic career, and it is admirable that you devoted some of your time to providing such an experience for some of the most disadvantaged students at your school. I can only imagine how many students had a fundamentally better college experience because of you.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Thank you so much for the comment, Sam. The answer to your question is simple. As the ranks of UMass filled up with more privileged students, those no longer were able to get in went to the growing system of State and Community Colleges, and to the UMass Boston campus [as well as to the UMass Lowell campus and the Southeastern campus, whose official name I forget right now].

By the way, when I went to Harvard in 1950 [yes, sixty years ago], nineteen hundred students applied, sixteen hundred fifty were accepted, and twelve hundred fifty showed up. It was easier to get into Harvard then than it is to get into UMass now.

I hope you are right about the effects of the Scholars Program, as it was called. I believe it had some effect. At the very least, it achieved a very high so-called retention rate -- the percentage of students who return for the Sophomore year.

What are you majoring in at Harvard? I was, by the way, the very first Head Tutor of Social Studies there, back in 1960-61.

coherentsheaf said...

@Sam: It's weird, that's the exact same way I found this blog. I'm not a humanities person, so I was really taking the course in question to fulfill a requirement, but it was more fun than I expected.

And I have to agree -- Harvard is very diverse today, certainly more so than it was fifty years ago. My hometown is suburban; it was a huge and refreshing change to be in a less homogeneous environment when I got here.

sam said...

@Dr. Wolff, I'm an astrophysics concentrator, but I've always been interested in these issues. While not much of a humanities person, I am still a leftist.
@coherentsheaf Cool, I'm glad someone else came. And yeah, the diversity of Harvard was definitely refreshing compared to the environment in which I grew up.