Essentialism follies: class edition

Am currently embroiled in a bit of a debate elsewhere about declining standards in language education being a bellwether for declining education in general (and the subsequent serious social ills that come along with that.)

As usual, I’m getting blowback from people insting that high language education standards are prescriptivist, and apparently somehow classist.

Let me be perfectly frank: what’s actually bigoted is the assertion that a lack of education is somehow endemic to being poor, instead of a condition imposed on the poor by a capitalist power structure bent on keeping their companies in cheap, profit-generating worker bees.

My usual rageflailing about essentialism is in regard to feminist issues. The championing of femininity somehow always seems to come down to championing things that women do in the service of others. Power-neutral or -positive traits that we gender as feminine almost never get any airtime. Women, for instance, are supposedly better with language. So, why aren’t we having femme pride moments over spelling bees instead of lipstick and extended breastfeeding? Gee, could it be because being adept at language is actually a way in which women can become empowered? Hmmm!

Which, of course, brings me to the current topic of how essentialism sucks.

First, let me be clear: All people, regardless of their education, have value and deserve respect and support. Withholding basic services from people because of their lack of literacy, for instance, is appalling, and something that should never be done in a civilized society. (This is why having public services available in multiple languages is critical.)

But when it comes to other issues of merit, yes, education matters. Everyone has a right to an opinion, but opinions that come from a place of experience and knowledge must be given precedence. This is not a slight to the basic value of people with little or no education. It is a recognition that some things are too important to be left in the hands of people who don’t know what they’re doing. Noting that a given person is ignorant in a certain field is not a value judgment. The value judgment only comes in when they insist on maintaining their ignorance.

Most sensible people would agree that only people who have advanced education and experience should be allowed to perform surgery or build rockets, yet many don’t seem to want the same standards for non-STEM fields. We seem to believe that things like history, politics and the conveyance of vital information are things that can be left to amateurs with no subsequent hit to our social well-being. Surely, eight years of Dubya should be evidence enough that lowering educational and competency standards for political leaders is incredibly dangerous.

Competency in formal communication is vitally important to success in virtually every field. When we declare that it’s no big deal, and use that as an excuse to withhold education, we are dooming people to never having much in the way of economic power. Unless they’re lucky enough to be born with other major advantages, such as having a daddy who was once president himself, people without language competency are absolutely screwed when it comes to economic and political autonomy.

So when people argue that an inability to use apostrophes correctly is somehow a legitimate expression of working-class culture, what they’re actually saying is that they believe those people to be unworthy of economic or political power.

It should be no surprise that the vast majority of people making these arguments are white, upper-middle-class and were educated in expensive private schools. The power structure they rely on to keep them at the top of the heap requires that other classes never have a chance to work their way into power. (This is, by the way, the same reason that most econ classes in private schools teach the fallacy of supply-side economics; they themselves benefit from a power structure built on maintaining a servant class.)

What makes me the most sad, however, is the contingent of working-class people who have apparently bought into the lie that it is education itself that is elitist, and not the rich assgaskets who want to keep the power of education only for themselves. Like women who seem to believe that economic independence is masculine, and therefore a denial of their femininity, these people have come to buy the hype that they are unsuited for the elements of life that contain actual power and autonomy.

Which is exactly what the ruling class wants them to believe.


About Shawna (A Mediated Life)

Writer, singer, parent, fan, media maven, and general ne'er-do-well. Fierce protector of the rights of the disadvantaged and endless pontificator on subjects both ridiculous and sublime.
This entry was posted in Ethics, Human Nature, Intarweebz Drama, Politics, Writing. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Essentialism follies: class edition

  1. alisonc700 says:

    Interesting post, particularly given the language situation here in Quebec. The current party in power puts a lot of weight on making sure that French is, as much as possible, the *only* language in the Province, in the home and in the workplace. But Quebec is in North America, where English is the dominant language, and people who can’t speak or write English with a reasonable competence aren’t going to be able to work anywhere else in North America. The political elites here all send their kids to English private schools, all are very fluent in English (except, oddly enough, the new Premier, who is the first female Premier this Province has ever had); but for keeping the working class down, all they need to do is what they actually do: create the idea that English is bad and French is all you need. Hence keeping the underclasses in Quebec because they have nowhere else to go. This is something that Anglo intellectuals mention from time to time, but the whole language debate has become so politicized that it’d be worth the skin of a Franco intellectual to agree and say the same thing.

  2. Deb Pekin says:

    Oh my goodness, I am so glad to have found you. The pundits spin, of course, and some say useful things on occasion, but they are almost always buried under the hype of making hay or making excuses. They focus on a detail and worry it until there is a hole in the fabric, and my brain, for listening. But you are smart. And you are observant. And you seem to cut through the mayhem to the core condition with such directness. I literally feel physically better having found some ‘smart’ in the blogosphere. There may be more out there, but I haven’t seen them. Thanks for the clarity, and the irreverence too. Makes me feel less crazy to read your stuff.

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