The Psychic Landscape of Social Class & My Cleft Habitus | Part 7: What School Should I Send My Children To? Am I Also Choosing What Social Class They Will Be?

In the previous article in this series, I looked at aspects of the disease Borderline Personality Disorder through the lens of Bourdieusian social theory. I was able to show how some of the diagnostic criteria misses out how social contexts can influence symptoms, further evidence of Reay’s claim that psychic responses to social class are usually individualised. Also, I showed Bourdieusian sociology can explain individual choices as the result of social contexts imprinting on personality- by continuously shaping the “habitus” and seeing how it tends towards congruence with its current field or position.

In this article, I will return to Reay’s article and have a speculative discussion on how this work can be used to assist in personal reflexivity. In the section following about where I left off last time, Reay talks about the everyday humiliations that are often the result of social class. From the broader works of Bourdieu that are beyond the scope of this essay, we understand that certain types of knowledge are considered more legitimate as forms of cultural capital. Here Reay alludes to this when mentioning how even more intelligent pupils, as evident by academic test results, may be put down by their more upper-class peers because they do not have such capital.

This kind of behaviour and rhetoric also leads to common reductionist tropes wherein being working class is correlated with being stupid- a trope which was not unique to student discourses but even appeared in that of teachers. And I’m sure there is plenty of writing about the cultural products that reinforce such notions but as Reay points out, there isn’t much about the psychic impact this has on developing children.

In my own experiences, I remember often feeling the need to hide my good grades in order to get along with people or risk being called a “swot”- slang in the UK which in this context we can understand as the result of class jealousy. In later years, especially before, during college, and even at university, trying hard at academic pursuits, in certain contexts, was seen as pointless.

This new understanding of academic pursuits was increasingly explicitly due to a kind of pseudo-class-consciousness. Especially in the context of when I went to university in the past decade, where there is increasing awareness of how an elite education is generally ineffective at helping one become or stay upper-class when compared to being someone who was born that way. This sentiment also helps explain the current downwards trend in university applications as prospective students, especially from working-class origins realise that there is a high chance that university education will simply mean working a job corresponding with the same socio-economic position as if they had just entered employment immediately, except now they have tens of thousands of pounds of debt!

Pursuing higher education as a means to become upwardly socially mobile also reflects the hyper-competitive individualistic culture of contemporary society and universities, especially their marketing departments, are partly to blame for this. For me personally, academic pursuits were not a means to the end of greater financial security, although when I was younger this was seen as an obvious benefit, but I was drawn to them because it is in my habitus, as explained in earlier parts of this series.

However, there is still a lingering feeling of anxiety and sometimes guilty shame about my choices regarding my education. With more upper-class people, I still feel anxious about my social position. I worry that others, and sometimes even I believe, it is a true reflection of my poor intelligence, shown doubly by my lack so far to mobilise my new cultural capital for more lucrative employment and a more upper-class lifestyle, and how thinking individualistically, this is my own fault because ultimately I was the one who chose to study the things I did. The guilty shame comes from recalling this feeling of inferiority with upper-class people at times when with lower-class people, even often those in the same economic position as myself, seem to be impressed by my educational credentials which at times admittedly imbues a slight sense of superiority followed by guilt, especially as I understand that my circumstances have been created socially and by chance.

I’m unsure if this might make me come across as some sort of nervous wreck, especially after having confessed to being diagnosed with mental health issues in the past. However, this is not something that stops me in my day-to-day but I hope reinforces Reay’s point about how social class has a psychic landscape, an emotional component. Further, writing this down can help me practice being reflexive and understand my own motivations and habitus, such that I can have a better control of it and have more freedom in the world to act in my own interests, for my own reasons.

In the next section of Reay’s article, she discusses how parents’ experiences of social class and inequalities influences their parenting practices, specifically regarding choosing where their children study. Reay points out how often middle-class parents “opt for safety and sameness”, meaning they send their children to schools in which most people are of a similar class background. However, she also highlights research that shows there is a “middle-class egalitarian” type of parent that through their choice to place their children in lower-class majority schools, “confront and engage with difference”. These choices too, have psychic effects and emotional costs.

Reay’s research shows how some parents felt guilty about not sending their children to the best school possible and how they struggled balancing their own values with normative notions about good middle-class parenting. Although evidence from the children via their optimistic narratives about their educational experience suggests what Reay calls “psychic reparative work”, I think it does not do enough to counter the societal narrative which the parents are implicitly aware of, as shown by their guilt. Reay concludes this section similarly pessimistically by recalling from other research she has carried out, that as much as the children at the bottom having hope is nice, it doesn’t really change the material and cultural effects of being in that social position, effects which will be compounded throughout their lives.

Insecurity about social class, although perhaps I didn’t know that’s what it was at various times, has been a regular occurrence throughout my life. I have been right and wrong about this. Overall, at university I think I was correct to think my lower-class origins would inhibit me from making friends generally. However, some of the best friends I made at university were mostly from middle-class backgrounds. Long ago I feared my class background would mean my partner’s parents would disapprove of our relationship and, although those fears are mostly assuaged now, there are times in which we are struggling especially financially that I wonder if they wished she had fallen in love with someone better off.

My partner and I plan on having children someday and have discussed schooling before. It is a struggle, especially having studied education from a sociological perspective, to balance guilt about complicity in this unfair system and best wishes about our children’s success. For me, education and the various forms of capital imbue one with more freedom and as much as there are lessons about class and inequality that might be more easily taught through experience, seeing how my partner is so aware and compassionate regarding these issues makes the choice easier.

As much as I loved my experiences of education, I can’t help but feel much of that sentiment is due to hating much of my home life experience. Further, seeing how my partner loved school, how one can still be privately educated without becoming a snob if one is taught well in other circumstances such as at home, seeing the extra opportunities that simply make life easier, and wanting that for my children, if I can afford it, I would send my children to private school. Does this make me complicit in this unfair system? I want to believe and in time will study about if these things are not as zero-sum as some narratives make them seem. Is the privilege of choosing a lower or middle-class school also a choice about what social class one’s children will be?


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