Beyond the Class Ceiling: Education and Upward Social Mobility

Photo by Piedmont Virginia Community College | CC BY 2.0

One of the major differences between working and middle to upper-class parents, when it comes to their children’s education, and specifically how to best maximize their chances at upward social mobility, is that the former – in America, especially, since this nation pretty much purged its radical Left long ago – essentially believe that they ought to control their children’s behaviors and actions directly; the belief being that one is determined primarily by one’s actions (e.g. “to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps”) – often the jurisdiction of authoritarian Dads, or Moms. Whereas the latter (i.e. middle to upper-class parents, also known globally as the “Bourgeois”), although they superficially agree rhetorically with the former that one is determined by one’s actions (as the very legitimacy and persistence of their class privileges partly rests on this social belief – meritocracy! –), actually know, deep down, that one is primarily determined by one’s environment – considering many of them inherited a substantial part, if not all, of their start-up economic, and even cultural and social capital (connections) – and that therefore the key is to provide the right environment to shape the individual, as opposed to trying to control their actions directly.

Hence, Bourgeois parents, unlike their working-class counterparts, deliberately align the proper “determinisms” by actively controlling and shaping their kids’ environment. For example, by making sure that their kids attend to the right – private, preferably prep – schools, learn the right foreign languages early (in America: French, and increasingly nowadays Mandarin; while in Europe: English, German and French), take the right classes (AP in high-school), partake in the right activities early-on (ex: piano, tennis, golf, sailing, horseback riding, dance, ballet, etc. – not Brazilian Jujitsu! –), hang out with the right kids from so-called “good” families, are exposed to the right stimuli, such as:  the right books, the right toys, the right clothes, the right words, the right ideas, the right tutors, the right learning methods (analytical, ahead of so-called “global” or memorization-based ones; ex: for reading, phonics over “sight words”), often the ability to think and talk relatively independently – executive functions! –, rather than rigorous obedience and conformity, or adherence to some “lowest-common denominator” manufactured dreams (like some commodity cults, devotion to “Jesus”, playing the lottery, …), little or no screen-based media, etc. An entire carefully selected, class-based sociocultural environment, largely concomitant with their chosen place of residence, in the right neighborhoods!  For the wealthy, the idea is to systematically transmit their class habitus – succinctly: internalized psychological and kinesthetic predispositions shaped by a specific class environment, i.e. the incorporation of the experience of class – (*), which of course comes naturally to them, but is obviously a much more difficult, and even risky proposition, particularly for aspiring members of the lower-middle class (and I don’t mean objectively, considering what they own, but rather who the parents are and where they come from culturally and psychologically, class habitus-wise) who typically lack the right “codes”, and often have overly rigid and caricatural ideas as to what those might be. As a result, working and lower-middle class kids frequently get “stopped” by their peers, or by some other gatekeepers – including some teachers! –, if they have the misfortune of making it far enough to hang out with what Pierre Bourdieu called the “Heritiers” (the inheritors). I guess one might call this the class ceiling.

And often, the psychological and/or physical pressure – physical intimidation, if not beatings, are not unheard of – exerted by working, and more often lower-middle class parents on their kids for them to succeed, as well as conform to ill-perceived upper-class cultural norms – or “codes” – is so great, longstanding, insidious and pervasive, that the child, or more likely by that time teen, winds up seeing it for what it is:  his parents’ unbridled status ambition and implicit class-bound shame, through the reckless, if at times ruthless instrumentalization and denial of his or her authentic self, producing a feeling of alienation – i.e. dispossession –, since these injunctions likely went on since childhood, frequently ending in either open rebellion and/or self-destructive behavior (ex: drugs or other addiction, including video games):  the “rocket” exploding either on the launch pad, so to speak, or soon after launch, at the first setback (ex: such as getting ostracized or ridiculed by upper-class peers, or other gatekeepers, for failing to be endowed with the “correct” habitus or status markers – should he or she make it that far). I believe that in most cases, the sum of whatever may have been gained – and lost – in such a “transaction” likely results, at best, in a small upward increment: near class replication, and a lot of bitterness. The point being that upward social mobility is an inherently morally hazardous and generally slow process, over generations, despite high-profile exceptions – if it happens! –, and that it is probably best – meaning smarter –, for eager parents to temper their vicarious class ambitions, lest they be counterproductive, if not outright destructive. Who knows?  This may well be the most effective strategy for their children’s long term health and even “success”.

One of the principal ironies regarding orthodox (or even hyper-orthodox – ex: conservative “Libertarians” –), often lower-middle class parents attempting to emulate upper-class norms and culture, in the misguided hope of increasing their offspring’s chance at upward social mobility – “success” –, by turning them, often forcefully, into “good” little boys and girls, who are obedient and respectful – reverent – of political authority (i.e. of the power-structure), is that upper-class kids are, in reality, quite the opposite; being frequently self-entitled, arrogant and cynical “smart little shits”, who know – often at a gut level –, that these sort of meritocratic, slavish attitudes are for peons!  I would know, having been exposed to a fair number of them: a relative’s cohort at an elite liberal arts college, in Lakeforest, IL – one of the top 10 prep colleges in the United States (as listed in Lisa Birnbach’s The Official Preppy Handbook). By the way, contrary to what’s being pushed on the rest of the unsuspecting population, the upper-class fully appreciates the value of a Liberal Arts education (i.e. of arts and language as cultural capital) – up to a point, naturally!  These kids know, often from an early age, that the game is rigged in their favor and that there is no meritocracy, and therefore that “the system” (e.g. Calvinist ideology) is on some level a lie to be used but not to be believed, which is why they are typically cynical, often crassly so (see Jared Kushner’s – President Trump’s son-in-law’s – entrance essay to Harvard, leaked in The New Yorker). For example, their first car, in high-school, is not uncommonly a $40,000+ luxury SUV: inertial safety – read: mass and momentum as capital – and status, combined.  And usually, they are exceedingly good at understanding and using power, either overtly, or more often covertly (ex: through bluff or symbolic violence, including the use of words and pronunciation, body language, manners, etc.; basically in using the force of their inherited class habitus and “natural” self-assurance as a domination instrument) – which, I suppose, is a form of intelligence –, if for no other reason that they are typically around politically powerful – influential – people, such as their parents. However, and this should come as no surprise, they are also frequently lacking in moral intelligence, in its true philosophical – humanistic – sense, and are themselves or rapidly become, somewhat paradoxically, slavish tools of “the system” – drones, as Chris Hedges would say –, the same as most everyone else, and perhaps even more so, considering that they are so richly rewarded by it. They are, in a subjective but very real way, not free, for being so effectively and thoroughly determined by their class environment. This often leads, in time, to profound alienation (i.e. spiritual – and social – dispossession), a good example of which is what happens to the mother character in Robert Redford’s Oscar winning Ordinary People, 1980, or to the father character, at the start of the movie, in Robin Swicord’s recent Wakefield, 2016 (see also: Stephanie Land’s I spent 2 years cleaning houses. What I saw makes me never want to be rich, published in Vox).

As for the few working and more likely lower-middle class kids who somehow make it past the class ceiling, objectively realizing their parents’ wildest upward social mobility dreams, they are very often haunted by the contradictions and conflicts arising between two distinct, incorporated class habitus:  that of their original milieu, and of the one they ultimately acquired. And typically, in order to sustain the legitimacy of their newfound privileges and group belonging, they must actively suppress the former, i.e. their native class tastes, values and patterns. This is never more so evident than in the embarrassment, shame, and sometimes even contempt, these kids – now “successful” grown-ups – often feel with regards to their parents and formative class environment (both material and social); especially in the Anglosphere where the predominant puritan, Calvinist view is that being of a lower class, especially poor, is a reflection of one’s character, and that consequently one must somehow deserve this standing (which is the flip-side of the meritocracy myth, and a potent form of social control). This is one of the basic ironies of rapid social ascension:  the original class stigmashame – that commonly spurred this often vicarious journey endures, if secretly, regardless. I suppose one might call this a case of “split-personality”: one essentially at war with itself (note: the “bastard-king” or “princess-housemaid” archetypes come to mind, for ex: Game of Thrones’ John Snow, or Cinderella) – incidentally, never a good omen for long-term mental and physical health! –, which is, in a way, entirely fitting, considering that the ethos of fervent class promotion is inherently a conflict-ridden and inducing – warlike – one. This is not a “Care Bears” ethos, as it does not only involve the denial of other “lesser” people’s intrinsic value, often former-class members (frequently including parents, siblings, and relatives), through the process of implicit and explicit class exclusion and domination (ex: disparities in wealth, opportunity and experience, symbolic violence, overt class contempt, etc.), but is a veritable form of self-denial in this case, as well, despite outward appearances; which is bound to leave its marks…

As we have seen, class ceilings exist not only between the working-class and the Bourgeoisie (i.e. lower-middle to upper-class), but also between the petite-Bourgeoisie (i.e. lower-middle class) and the Bourgeoisie proper (the actual middle-class). Another, somewhat more porous barrier also separates the true upper-class (our very rich), from the classes immediately below. Other obstacles also exist within classes, erected by various class fractions engaging in the struggle for supremacy. According to Bourdieu’s in depth – and often breathtaking – sociological analysis, published in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, originally released in France in 1979, and said to be one of the top 10 sociology works of the 20th century by the International Sociology Association, the various classes and class fractions are determined not only by the amount, but also by the relative distribution of their economic and cultural – learned – capital, as well as, to a somewhat lesser extent, by their social capital (social connections); the various types of cultural capital possessed (e.g. arts, literature and philosophy, human sciences, science and technology, or economics and politics) often playing a decisive role in how the inter and inner-class game of social domination is played. In other words, this is not a one-dimensional “game”, one presumably based on economic capital alone, as most Americans are culturally predisposed to believe, but a multi-dimensional one, reflecting the fact that there is more than one way to dominate, or to define and justify a social hierarchy (knowledge being one of them). These class walls, or “ceilings”, form redoubtable obstacles, not simply to achieving much sought-after (and in my view, overrated) upward social mobility, but more importantly, to evolving a happier, saner – more equal – society: one where human development would be widely shared (as measured, for example, by the UN’s Inequality-adjusted Human Development Index).

In my opinion, and contrary to popular belief, the pursuit of happiness, self-worth and realization through upward social mobility ultimately delivers none of these things. It is yet another one of those empty dreams which we are fed by the ambient capitalist, consumerist environment – probably the most seductive and widespread: a “fake dream”, as Slavoj Zizek would put it –, and yet another form of power-structure (i.e. status) worship, which has, in the end, very little to do with most people’s true personal development, in the sense of looking inwardly to know themselves better Know Thyself – and hopefully deriving a genuine sense of value, purpose and meaning through it, one not based on money or fame – outward “success” –, and which therefore could not easily be lost or taken away, and everything to do with serving the interests of those very few at the top, while ironically hoping to themselves be served. Hence the trope: “getting the success one deserves” – or, more likely, not.


(*) Class habitus is a loose but highly operative concept, elaborated by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, referring to the set of subconscious predispositions (i.e. likely actions and reactions), attitudes, perception schemes, beliefs, tastes, biases, including the way one moves (“hexis”), talks, and even one’s physical attributes, which are common to members of a particular social class, as defined by the amount and distribution of their economic, cultural and social capital. Habitus can thus be succinctly summarized as “internalized, or incorporated social class”, or more loosely as “the tastes and manner (French: manière)”, or the “the likely way” of its members.