Snakes and Ladders

Reviewed by Janet Zandy

Degrees of Inequality: Culture, Class, and Gender in American Higher Education. Ann L. Mullen. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010.

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic. Professor X. New York: Viking, 2011.

Ann Mullen’s Degrees of Inequality: Culture, Class, and Gender in American Higher Education is a comparative sociological study based on recorded interviews with students from two institutions, Yale University and Southern Connecticut State University, just two miles apart. An associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, Mullen (whose PhD is from Yale) begins by naming the paradox embedded in her research: although access to higher education has increased significantly, what constitutes “college,” whether it is perceived as an intellectual journey or as vocational job training, depends on students’ cultural capital—their family economy, level of education, academic and experiential preparation. In short, to draw on the language of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, as Mullen convincingly does, it depends on their habitus, that is, their social-economic status and the state of mind it produces.

Mullen’s study exposes (despite the small sample) how the class-power-knowledge nexus reproduces itself. She acknowledges that her project makes scant reference to race, ethnicity, and immigrant status. She also excludes foreign-born students to ensure social-economic comparability. Buttressed by statistics and the sociological literature of higher education, Mullen moves from general observation to specific evidence by following the trajectory of Yale and Southern Connecticut students from the guidance and preparation they receive in their high school years, to their decision to go to college (an assumption, never a “decision,” for the Yale students) and their “choice” of a college (a loaded word, since choices for the working class are very constrained), and on to their experiences attending college (either enjoying it or getting through) and their selection of a major. In her chapter “Majors and Knowledge,” Mullen demonstrates how knowledge is not neutral but rather is reproduced along class and gender lines—that is, through the students’ majors and the intersection of life experiences and economic forces. While career goals influence the choice of majors for Yale and Southern Connecticut students, Yale students possess (in the language of Bourdieu) “distance from necessity”—time to pursue the liberal arts before graduate school—while Southern Connecticut students face proximity to necessity that shapes the practical job application of their choice of major.

The most interesting and telling interludes in the book are the excerpts from student interviews. Mullen interviewed a random sample of fifty Yale and fifty Southern Connecticut juniors and seniors. Not surprisingly, the disparity between the Yale and Southern Connecticut precollege experiences parallels the separate solar systems of their college years. From their earliest experiences with school, Yale students typically had parental and peer support, good teachers, expansive life experiences, and a middle-class language that was normative and not acquired. Although Mullen acknowledges exceptions of attitude and achievement among Southern Connecticut students, high school for them was usually something they got through or a place where they hung out with friends and had fun. What’s clear, as Mullen observes, is that “expectations drive achievement,” not the other way around.

Mullen’s student respondents also embody the class system in their interior perceptions and assumptions: individual success comes from intrinsic worth rather than numerous advantages and individual failure from personal weaknesses rather than the weight of the obstacles faced. Mullen sums up the difference: for Yale students, college is “a path toward assuming one’s identity”; for Southern Connecticut students, college is “an escape from one’s destiny.” Except for the highly competitive pre-med students and the student athletes, the major at Yale matters less than the institutional name itself: “I’m getting a diploma with four letters, Y-A-L-E, on it. I should be able to have the sky be my limit.” Southern Connecticut students, on the other hand, know that they have to be “market-ready.” Jobs are scarce. Without the credentials, acquired often through the accumulation of debt, most Southern Connecticut students fear they will lose out on a middle-class existence. Few considered applying to an Ivy League school, even one, in this case, literally in their own neighborhood. These students may inhabit a universe of limited possibilities, yet many benefit from a culture of mutual and necessary support, a working-class sense of home that Mullen doesn’t fully explore.

Degrees of Inequality is frequently predictable, too often repetitive, and frustrating in the author’s compulsion to summarize her subjects’ responses. This reader gets it.

Does educational expansion reduce educational inequality, and, more telling, does it lead to greater income equality? No, Mullen concludes. Instead we have “the illusion of equality of opportunity while turning a blind eye to increasing inequality.”

In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic takes a very different approach. A memoir of sorts, the book begins and ends with the housing bubble. Professor X, the “accidental academic,” purchases a house beyond the limits of his salary as a government employee. To supplement his income, he takes a job teaching composition and introduction to literature courses at private and community colleges.

He teaches at night. He grades papers. He gives Fs. He pegs students by their diction and clothing. He mows his lawn. He argues with his wife about the house. He teaches the canon to exhausted students taking the requisite courses for their credentialing in criminal justice, health care, and civil service jobs. He doesn’t get his novel published. He categorizes. He judges. He ranks. He acknowledges the “smallness” of his spirit. He takes potshots at compositional theorists. He likens unprepared students to unprepared homebuyers. He is aware that he is a member of the majority—the army of adjunct faculty who maintain the infrastructure of higher education at nonelite institutions. He gets his story published in the Atlantic; columnist David Brooks chooses it for an award. He expands it into a (poorly edited) narrative published by Viking Press.

In describing two women faculty members interviewing him for an adjunct position, Professor X writes that they remind him, “in both round shape and apparel, of a pair of nuns who had just gotten the directive not to wear the habit anymore.” His students, with whom he claims to sympathize, get the same stereotyped licks. He ruminates on why they can’t compose decent comparison-contrast essays on Civil War generals or why the literature he pulls from the anthology doesn’t resonate with them. Just as Professor X is not current on the pedagogy of teaching writing, so too he has missed the availability of working-class literature and labor history that might connect with his students—and himself.

Professor X (also the name of a Marvel Comics superhero) could have written a profound book about higher education and how it survives on exploited labor and student debt. But that would have involved a deeper penetration into his self-serving assumptions, a shake-up in his thinking—a revision of the kind he wants his students to write—and a penetrating analysis of the grammar of the world he inhabits. He could have explored more fully what is beneath the weak writing—not just the structure of a complete sentence, but the structure of a class-determined educational and economic system. Instead, he settled for an annoying book that, because it shakes up nothing, was sure to get some attention.

Beneath the crude meanness of his style, Professor X does name the rigged credentialing game of the educational infrastructure, as does Mullen. Some time ago, corporations and businesses discovered the cost savings involved in colluding with institutions of higher education so that students rather than employers pay for job training. College administrators proliferate; human resources departments expand; tenure lines evaporate; cheap part-time labor is plentiful; students go deeper into debt; and, as the New York Times recently pointed out, the master’s becomes the new bachelor’s degree.

Surveys, books, organizing efforts—all seem for naught. Naming the problem does not disrupt the corporate hold on the business of higher education. Kurt Vonnegut presciently sized up the situation in his 1952 novel, Player Piano. In Vonnegut’s dystopia, machines replace skilled labor, aptitude tests determine scarce job options, citizenship slips into slavery, doctorates proliferate, and corporate eros trumps human relationships. Defeated in his efforts to overthrow the system, the engineer hero gets conflicting final messages: “This isn’t the end, you know.” And, “Hands up…forward march.” As Vonnegut readers well know, “so it goes.”

Janet Zandy is emerita professor of English at the Rochester Institute of Technology and author of Hands: Physical Labor, Class, and Cultural Work and other books on working-class culture. She currently writes and lectures on photography and class. Her e-mail address is jnzgsl@rit.edu.

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