Why I can’t look down on the working class

 

Like many in America, I have been thinking a lot about class, race, and elite education recently. I have been taking a hard look at my position in society.

The truth is that I have lived most of my life in educated, upper class circles. I grew up in a wealthy suburb of Chicago, and both my parents have graduate degrees. I attended an elite (though public) college and married a man who did also. We currently live in a town that is famous for its liberal politics and the education level of its populace. If I’m honest, the progressive, upper-middle class are my people.  But I have never assumed they were the only people that mattered.

I have never felt at liberty to look down on the working classAnd this is for at least one reason: they are more skilled than me in lots of ways. The truth is that they can do all sorts of things I cannot.

Yes, I can hold a conversation with you in French, and can knowledgeably discuss particular moments of world history. I cannot, however, fix a broken sink. If the car breaks down, I am no help. So, why would I disrespect those who can do those things?

My grammar is impeccable, my vocabulary extensive, but my mastery of real world skills limited. I could no sooner plough a field than design a rocket ship. If something needs to be constructed or re-wired, you’d best look elsewhere.

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Far be it from me to disrespect the people who work this Wisconsin field

I can give a killer toast that will bring you to tears as well as make you laugh, but if the toaster breaks, I’ve got to find someone else to fix it. I understand the importance of buying fair trade, local, green products. I believe in recycling and shrinking our carbon footprint and will eat arugula and artisan cheese with the best of them, but my cleaning skills are remedial. Doing the housekeeping for floors upon floors of hotel rooms would surely exceed my abilities.

Even beyond that, I doubt that I have the mental fortitude required for hours of manual work. I can persevere in writing this essay, but could I stand a whole day on an assembly line? Do I have either the physical or the mental strength for long days of farm work? Or for driving busloads of children? I suspect not.

Sometimes I imagine what would happen to me in an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world scenario. Without the ability to build, repair, and labor physically, would I survive? In such a moment, the value we assign to those who work with their hands would likely sky rocket. When it comes to building a shelter or killing dinner, I got nothing. The best I could do would be to organize and lead a prayer meeting. If you need to collect and mobilize a team for an intellectual endeavor, I’m your girl, but if you need to collect logs to build a fire without a match, you had better look elsewhere.

I do not look down on the working class because they can do many, many things that I cannot. I deeply respect people who do hard jobs with skills and physical strength I do not possess. I do not believe that my education and my talents are the only ones that matter.  Nor do I think our country could run if it only included white collar professionals. I cannot imagine treating people who do back-breaking work that requires great perseverance with anything besides respect.

Plus maybe if I pay them proper respect now, they will help me during the apocalypse.

©Laura Goetsch and Thinking About Such Things, 2017

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2 thoughts on “Why I can’t look down on the working class

  1. Jon Carlson

    Laura:

    There are probably two reasons why it is easy for those in your generation and social set to overlook the contributions and unique skills of blue collar and manual workers, and both reasons may be a result of your lack of personal, one-on-one exposure to these individuals. It is true that you grew up in a highly educated and upwardly mobile Chicago suburb and that your parents and grandparents fit the profile of the typical residents of such communities. However, my grandparents (i.e., your paternal great grandparents) did not fit this profile. They were farmers and small town businessmen on my mother’s side and Swedish immigrants, who largely had blue collar jobs, on my father’s side. I was, therefore, closer generationaly to people with a different background, which is often not the case for your contemporaries. Secondly, I served a two year stint in the U.S. Army, and it is populated by people from all ethnic, economic, racial,and cultural backgrounds. It has been fashionable in recent years to attribute the growing divide among Americans to differing educational backgrounds and/or to the differences between urban/suburban America and rural America. Interestingly, the political, economic, and cultural implications of being someone with military service vs. someone without military service are seldom, if ever, analyzed or discussed. These implications could not only help explain a person’s attitude toward people of different jobs and backgrounds but also would be a great topic for a Ph.D. thesis.

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    1. Yes, I think you cite good reasons why someone of my profile and generation are more removed from the working class than my own parents were. And your point about military service is very, very important. I have become increasingly troubled by how, in the absence of the draft, service in the military has become largely class based. The working class serves in the military, and the great majority of the elite does not. This is a problem for a number of reasons.

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