class

I'll comment on this in more detail later: story in the Guardian, 
but here are some initial thoughts:

I've been thinking a lot about class over the past few months. It comes as inevitable being a socio-political historian, but I'm also interested in contemporary social categories. One event that really got me thinking was when Lynsey Hanley, the author of Estates, an Intimate History, came to speak at our university. I'd read her columns in the Guardian before, but had only dipped into the book now and again. She spoke mainly about her childhood and transition into university and adult life. I re-read the book, and have been trying to work out what it is about class that she's pointing to. The above article in the Guardian is pointing the same way.

I'm not sure whether I agree or not, and part of why I keep thinking about the topic of class is because I can't work out why I disagree, so these are still my 'thoughts in progress'.

Common themes:
  1. class is determined by education in England;
  2. people generally define their class with reference to what their parents did for a living;
  3. possession of 'cultural capital' is vital for entry into the upper middle class.
1. Both Hanley and the Guardian article focus on education as one of the key determinants of class. Hanley seemed to express great resentment at the teachers at her school in particular for putting working class children in unacademic or indeed unteachable boxes, and therefore stunting their aspirations. It's only when Hanley moved to sixth form, and then ultimately to university, that she realised that she was different in wanting to learn, read books, etc.

2. will discuss later

3. Hanley mentioned 'cultural capital' a lot in her talk, and alludes to it in her book. What I think it means is knowledge of the arts, literature, music, culture - and more importantly, the ability to thread such knowledge seamlessly into conversation. I get the impression that Hanley feels aggrieved that she had to wait until sixth form to begin to obtain cultural capital, whereas the (upper) middle classes and middle-class schools already put their children ahead of the game by instilling this knowledge much earlier.

What I'm not sure is explained is that cultural capital is useful for gaining entry into the upper middle class. You might not need an expansive vocabulary and knowledge of the arts to get onto a graduate training scheme for an average corporate firm, but I suspect it is a great advantage for entry into more upper middle class professions - law, politics, the media. What I'm wondering, therefore, is whether the process that Hanley describes is one of 'coming out', so to speak, as middle class. The anguish of being bullied at school for being a bookworm, the internalisation of worries about not being enabled to learn by disruptive peers and beleagured teachers, then the sheer relief and excitement about entering a world where your new peers are more like you (sixth form, university), and tense returns to your old world where your family and old acquaintances no longer understand you.

Where I'm not sure whether I agree with Hanley or the Guardian article, is on the role of the teachers. I'm explain this later when I have time...

What I've been thinking about is what happened to the auto-didact tradition among the working classes, or indeed, how prevalent that tradition ever was. In Estates and in her talk, Hanley pointed the blame at the loss of this tradition among late 20th century working classes: I think she is arguing that many working class families have lost that respect for knowledge and a desire to learn, despite the odds. Hanley has written the new preface to the re-issue of the Uses of Literacy, but I haven't seen it yet so can't comment here. I will input some of my historical thoughts.

I'll explain these in more detail when I have time later...

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