By Kasper Hassett

Last week, as I walked past my housemate’s room, I overheard her in an online meeting with her dissertation supervisor. ‘My uncle’s a lecturer in the same topic,’ she said, ‘so he can help me with that.’ At the time, I marvelled at how convenient that must be. But then, I started to think about how frequently I see this: middle class students aided by family or family friends in their studies, often receiving a great deal of support and extra resources. Are there any instances, I wondered, where I as a working class student have benefitted educationally from family connections?

While my peers’ parents and their contacts are lecturers, doctors, solicitors and company executives, many of my relatives have been too busy undergoing financial and personal hardship to even think about chasing qualifications. Beyond the luck of having contacts working in relevant fields, middle class children seem to be brought up on museum trips and troves of old, treasured books to supplement their education. Though I read endlessly as a child, the kinds of texts valued by my lecturers tend to stay locked up within academic circles, and there were no opportunities for me to access them. Parents who are university-educated themselves are able to introduce the trappings of ‘high culture’ into their children’s lives from a young age, so that when these children arrive at university, they acclimatise to academic expectations with ease.

University is an unfamiliar and alienating experience for those of us from poorer backgrounds. The people we meet often seem to be from another world, boasting private school memories and generous gifts from wealthy parents. These differences are not erased when we walk onto campus. It is a common misconception that once we reach university, every student has the capacity to excel at the same rate, and equal opportunity to absorb all that is taught to us. The social and financial barriers to university are troublesome enough, making many marginalised students feel unwelcome, but on top of these, one key factor hinders disadvantaged students from succeeding in higher education, and it lies concealed within the teaching itself.

Before seminars and lectures, students are usually all given an appropriate amount of time to take in the preparatory reading. What this does not prepare students for is the plethora of references to things outside of the curriculum, which, as many working class students learn the hard way, are crucial to understanding.

Not all students have equal access to the same texts and resources before they come to university. Credit: Public Domain

In countless classes now, I have sat amongst a sea of nodding heads agreeing with the lecturer’s reference to a title I have never encountered, seemingly alone in my confusion. On my literature course, I expect to hear about texts outside of the reading list, but periodically, things I cannot predict are brought up, such as sculptures or historical events. It is mystifying to hear a reference to an obscure art exhibition in a literature class be followed by unanimous acknowledgement of its intricacies from my peers, and even to hear that some of them have been to see it.

With this happening across courses, what we end up with is a stratified reading list. The formal list of resources which make up the curriculum is only the first layer – beneath it lies an invisible, unspoken list only known about by the middle classes, made up of external, often expensive materials and in-person experiences needed to truly access the course in full.

The consequences are that working class students begin to doubt themselves. Given how we already stand out among our peers, it is difficult to feel deserving of our university places. When classroom experiences, then, make us feel lost and confused rather than stimulated, we develop feelings of inferiority. Even when we find areas of our subject which ignite passion, our seeming lack of foreknowledge overall makes us wonder if we are feigning our interests in anything remotely academic. We begin to worry that, since we feel like we are lacking ‘common’ knowledge, our enjoyment of academic niches must be a front to pretend to our peers that we are intelligent and that we belong where we are.

‘General knowledge’ only exists within the cultures of certain social classes

The cultural capital possessed by the middle and upper classes means that what they find significant and important becomes the precedent for universal significance and importance. Outside of academia, scorning of people who know ‘less’ and participate less in practices considered ‘culturally significant’ is rightly seen as mean-spirited snobbery. Forms of art and areas of knowledge usually considered out-of-place in academic environments are not naturally inferior. They can even prove themselves worthy of inclusion in academic spaces – a 2019 UEA graduate’s rap dissertation earned a first, exemplifying how mediums originating from outside of middle class ‘high culture’ are capable of attaining a rich level of detail and meaning. The worth ascribed to the knowledge which is valued by the middle class is not inherent, but merely the result of hegemony.

It is dangerously flippant to write university off as an equaliser. The presumption of students’ pre-existing knowledge further impedes the most disadvantaged and prolongs the inequalities in the education system thought to have been overcome. ‘General knowledge’ only exists within the cultures of certain social classes – most of us feel stupefied as quick-witted postgraduates breathlessly shoot down questions on University Challenge before they’ve even been fully asked, even though the format encourages the audience to chime in with guesses, unheard, at home. More effort must be made to make sure that the students who fall outside of the middle class demographic are able to participate fully. Either the nuances of presumed knowledge need to be communicated straightforwardly, or, preferably, they need to stop being prerequisite to fully-informed participation in classes. Rethinking how we ascribe value to different mediums and forms of knowledge would not only be a victory against snobbery, but a step towards enabling disadvantaged students to access, and succeed in, higher education.

Featured image adapted from ECLA of Bard via Wikimedia Commons

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