Chapter 12: Social Class

Education and the Common Good: A Moral Philosophy of the Curriculum
by Philip H. Phenix

Chapter 12: Social Class

The subject of social class takes us as close as any other to the very core of democratic values. Nondemocratic societies essentially are ones in which people are separated into distinct strata, and the classical conception of democracy emerges from the attempt to organize a society of equals, free from the privileges or stigmas of "superior" and "inferior" rank. The American Dream has centered about the creation of this commonwealth of equals, without the levels of prestige that divided men from one another in the older and more traditional societies. Foreign observers of the American experiment, such as de Tocqueville in the mid-nineteenth century, as well as more recent ones, have been particularly impressed by the degree to which this dream has been realized in American life. In no other respect does our society seem to have succeeded so well in demonstrating the possibilities of respecting the dignity of all men.

On the other hand, there are many evidences in American life that rank and privilege are still with us, and that the pure vision of democratic equality has not been fully realized. Moreover, the idea of equality, on reflection, turns out not to be a simple one, so that the meaning of the democratic social ideal needs to be examined and defined. Are we a classless society, and if so, in what sense or senses? If we are not, ought we to work for the elimination of classes? What does it mean to say that people in a democracy are equal or should be equal? Can status and rank be abandoned, and should they be? These are questions that can be approached only through a careful analysis of the nature and uses of classification.

We begin with a look at the general meaning of classification. A "class" is any collection of things sharing some common property or set of properties. Classifying has two main purposes. First, it is the basis for all understanding of the world. Our experience becomes intelligible only through the formation of concepts, and concepts are kinds or classes of things. All cognition and recognition take place against the background of earlier experience organized conceptually. By means of classification we avoid the frustrating confusion of experience as a mass of disparate and separate items.

The second chief purpose of classifying is to facilitate control of things. When similar items are grouped together, they may be handled alike, within the sphere of relevance of the qualities defining the class. Thus, the classification of books by subject and by author in a library makes it possible to manage even a very large collection without confusion. Without such organization one could scarcely ever find any desired volume. Again, the classification of rocks according to certain types enables engineers to carry out mining or building operations with maximum safety and efficiency. Similarly, knowledge of kinds of foods is the basis for dietary control.

Of particular interest for our present discussion of social class are the ways in which the activity of classifying applies to people. First, it is possible to distinguish an inclusive class of entities called "persons." This is the species man. To be a person is to possess certain essential qualities and capacities which do not belong to any things in the nonhuman world. Persons share with some nonpersons such qualities as being mammals, animals, and living things. On the other hand, they are a special group in respect to such features as rational capacity, imagination, memory, foresight, language, and the ability to create and transmit culture.

This unity of all persons within the bounds of a single inclusive class is a fundamental fact for democracy. It is one basis for human equality. All persons are at least equal with respect to those qualities by which they are distinguished from all nonpersons. The special capacities of man -- the glory of his knowledge, art, and invention, the wonder of his powers for sympathy, love, and reverence, as well as the tragedy of their perversion for selfish ends -- have for centuries been faithfully acknowledged and appropriately celebrated through arts, letters, philosophy, and religion. In the past century, however, under the influence of evolutionary theory, the kinship of man with the animals has been more strongly emphasized. Nevertheless, the classical humanistic tradition, with its emphasis on the common distinctive qualities of man, provides stronger support for the democratic ideal of human equality than does evolutionary naturalism, with its concern for the continuity of man with the lower forms of life.

The problems of social class derive not from this classifying of men with the animals but from dividing the inclusive class of persons into subclasses. Human beings may be grouped according to any number of indices of similarity. Some of the features commonly used for classifying people are as follows: ( 1 ) Physical characteristics -- sex, age, height, weight, color (of hair, eyes, or skin), blood type, body build, medical history. ( 2 ) Intellectual factors -- "Intelligence Quotient," aptitude (mathematical, verbal, manual, etc.), achievement level in various special fields of study, area of specialization, academic grades and ranks, educational level reached, memory, imagination, abstractive and logical ability. (3) Emotional, social, and moral traits -- degree of aggressiveness, initiative, maturity, self-understanding and self-acceptance, extraversion or introversion, neurotic or psychotic conditions, confidence, poise, friendliness, adaptability, selfishness or unselfishness. (4) Occupation --owner, executive, professional, clerical, manual, unemployed, plus various individual occupational classes and subclasses. (5) Residence -- nation, state, city or town, district, or street, whether presently or by origin. (6) Affiliations -- religious, political, civic, professional, social. (7) Economic income, assets, and sources of each. (8) Marital status. (9) Ancestry. (10) Citizenship.

Why do we classify people? For the same reason that we group together other entities: for intellectual simplification and greater efficiency in management and control. It is more economical of thought and effort to deal with many people in the same manner than to devise a new scheme of idea and action for each person separately. When people are classified, they are necessarily regarded as things rather than as persons. A person is a unique individual. As a member of a collection he loses his concrete wholeness and is dealt with as an abstraction. Classification is a way of considering people impersonally and partially rather than in their singular completeness.

Class designations are a prime instrument of social regulation. In stratified societies each person is tagged with a class designation which fixes his place in the social structure. This allocation process serves to maintain social stability. Everyone is expected to know his proper place and to stay in it. Complex systems of ritual and symbol are evolved to make visible and vivid the class lines which separate one group from another.

The extreme form of tight and exclusive class structure is the system of caste, in which each person is permanently fixed from birth in a particular group. Various bases may be used for determining class characteristics -- for example, color or occupation. The essential point is that each person must assume the caste to which his parents belong. He cannot by any decision or act of his own change his caste, and his activities in every department of life -- particularly in such matters as marriage, eating, and education -- are governed by caste regulations. The caste system is the ultimate form of undemocratic use of classification, throwing into sharp relief the relation of class to the preservation of social order.

A society organized along sharp class lines tends to be static. Its members are concerned more with maintaining it as it is than with risking experiment or modification. The social structure is closed, and the pattern of organization is regarded as complete and sacrosanct. It is generally believed that the laws, customs, and rituals by which the particular system is defined are written into the nature of things, and that the social structure is but a true reflection of the innate qualities of human nature in its several kinds.

Systems of human classification tend to be self-perpetuating and self-confirming. Persons who are initially grouped together according to some particular feature come to be treated as interchangeable units and thus are driven into identification with each other and into similar patterns of life which extend the range of likenesses. Class distinctions are converted in this manner into real divisions between people, with far more comprehensive significance than the particular differences in traits or functions by which they are defined. Aspects of persons that should have relatively superficial descriptive meaning are at length interpreted as basic qualities defining exclusive subspecies of humanity. "Executive," "laborer," "Catholic," "Southern Baptist," "Jew," "Democrat," "Republican," "Socialist," for example, are proper designations of occupational, religious, or political affiliation, but may under undemocratic pressures become class symbols which divide people into comprehensive separate groups for other than occupational, religious, or political purposes.

In this self-confirming propensity of the class structure, education plays a major part. Each new generation is instructed in the ways of the group. The young are initiated into the customs that have come to characterize the particular classes into which they are born. In this manner it comes to appear as though group characteristics are part of the very substance of personality. By their powerful educative effect class divisions are perpetuated and class lines are hardened, unless deliberate countervailing democratic influences are brought to bear. It is in this regard that universal free public education is so essential. It was pointed out in the last chapter that schooling is an extension of the educative function of the family and that parents should be at liberty to send their children to nonpublic schools. Such schools often develop along class lines, thus accentuating the existing cleavages among people. For this reason it is important for a democracy to have a strong public school system, and parents who cherish democratic ideals do well to send their children to schools, either public or independent, in which traditional class distinctions are minimized.

Regardless of whether a school is public or nonpublic, there are ever-present pressures for education to be conducted along class lines. Education is costly, and one of the ways of keeping expenses down is to put students into classes and to treat them as far as possible alike. Large classes and standardized lessons are much more economical than individual instruction. Furthermore, it is easy for teachers to fall into the attitude that their task is to fashion young people after the pattern of some ideal model. The idea of a standard set of virtues and accomplishments by which all should be measured is a class idea. Teaching in accordance with it presupposes manipulation and control of persons to shape them for membership in a collection of some particular character.

Class assignment in education may be determined in any of a number of ways. The most common determinant is chronological age. According to this method of classification, all students of a given age or age range are treated alike educationally, even though they may differ widely in the characteristics that are relevant to learning -- as age is not. Another common mode of grouping is by some measure of intellectual aptitude or achievement. Such homogeneous ability grouping in schools is urged on behalf of increased learning efficiency. It has the defect of emphasizing only one kind of learning and of tending to create broad prestige rankings along intellectual lines. Pupils may further be put into classes on the basis of prospective occupation or occupation type, as in the European multiple-track system, in which at a certain age -- say, twelve -- pupils are separated into "industrial" or "vocational," "business" or "commercial," and "academic" or "college preparatory" segments. In some schools, chiefly nonpublic ones, the sexes are segregated, and in other schools racial and religious factors are crucial in deciding which students will be taught together.

Regardless of the criteria used for class placement, the purpose of such grouping is either to enable the teacher to manage the students more effectively or to use the school to sustain class distinctions recognized in the society of which the school is an agency. Whenever pupils are organized into classes and treated as classes, the tendency is always toward uniformity and conformity, toward externally imposed and defined discipline and order. Freedom and individuality, experimentation and creativity are not fostered by education in which class membership is regarded as important.

How do democratic commitments modify these undemocratic structures and tendencies in a class society? One answer has been that of revolutionary transformation, in which established orders of society are challenged and overthrown, and traditional modes of grouping people are discarded. The feudal aristocracies of the Middle Ages were one by one overturned by the forces of modern political, economic, and religious life. In communism and the new nationalisms of the present century established orders are being upset at an unparalleled rate, in the name of democracy. Whenever such revolutionary overturning of the traditional classes occurs, arbitrary traditional restrictions on individual human activity are removed, and great new resources of personal energy are released.

Despite the apparent gains for democracy through such revolutionary movements, the concomitant or eventual losses may be substantial. Anarchy and chaos may follow the destruction of the traditional social orders. Civilization is a balanced design of customs, principles, and expectations woven into the fabric of social institutions. When these established orders are all at once demolished, the injury to civilized values may be fatal. Furthermore, since no society can endure or make progress without some determinate structure and graded authority, new class distinctions quickly arise to take the place of those abolished by the revolution. They may be as rigid and exclusive as the ones they displace -- though the relative rankings and the membership are usually quite different. The communist movement is a dramatic illustration of the present point. Although Marxist theory teaches the establishment of a classless society through the expropriation of the bourgeoisie and the dictatorship of the proletariat, in actual practice the self-styled "Peoples’ Democracies" contain well-defined new classes.

The revolutionary approach to the democratization of the social order is characteristic of the democracy of desire. Attention is focused on the disparities in rank and privilege among various classes in traditional societies and upon the changes necessary to secure a larger share for the disadvantaged. Antagonism, conflict, and social tension and disorder are increased, and new class divisions are generated to counteract the destructive conflict. Manipulatory techniques are used in order to force people into the patterns that the new dominant groups prescribe. The manipulators represent themselves as true friends of the people, as "liberal" and "democratic," and as opposed to "authoritarian reactionaries," but all the while they are destroying the people and denying their freedom. Finally, the interest philosophy entails a general destruction of qualitative standards. Distinctions are obliterated in the name of democratic criticism of traditional classes, and a pall of mediocrity descends over the whole culture.

The democracy of desire cannot provide a satisfactory basis for the criticism of undemocratic forms of social class, for it is infected by the same subpersonal assumptions which render these modes of human classification offensive. For a true perspective on social class we must turn to the democracy of worth. Here the criterion for judgment is right instead of interest. Qualitative distinctions are recognized, and the value of classification as a means of embodying them is acknowledged. Orders of rank, of authority, and even of honor are necessary to social well-being. All civilized life depends on the process of ordering, and wherever there are designations of position or office within society there will inevitably be classes.

To admit the principle of classification is not to deny the need for democratic criticism of actual social class arrangements. Social classes are often unjust, and the order of society is in need of reconstruction, according to principles of right and not of class interest. The fundamental democratic principle for social class is that the orders and distinctions of society should be based upon the contribution made by a person to the good of society and not upon personal privilege. Status should be determined by function rather than by accident of birth or fortune or by success in the struggle for prestige. If one’s personal capabilities and accomplishments fit him for important positions of leadership, he should be accorded the rank and the honor that symbolize the high value of his service. Classifying and ranking people is not inconsistent with democratic justice. Equity depends on a status system organized to objectify ideals of the social good. Ranking people is not in itself unjust. Injustice consists in ranking people incorrectly -- in according honor and status for the wrong reasons, that is, for causes other than contribution to the common weal.

But what of the fact earlier pointed out that classifying is an impersonal process and, hence, in tension with democratic ideals? How does that square with the foregoing affirmation of class in a democracy of worth? While classifying is socially necessary and can be just, in a democracy each person is regarded as a unique individual, valuable in himself and not on account of any class or rank labels attached to him for social purposes. The status of a person ought, then, to be regarded as belonging to the position he occupies in the social structure and not as inhering in him personally. There is a fundamental truth in the idea of democratic equality. As persons all men are absolutely equal, in the sense that each is a singular, incomparable, irreducible self. To this unique, free personhood any and all status and class designations, rankings, and groupings are irrelevant. All are moral equals, answerable only to the claims of conscience with respect to their faithfulness in their individual callings.

Classification is essential to manage the different functions that must be performed in a community of persons with different capabilities. It becomes a source of injustice only when employed beyond the sphere of functional relevance. For example, classifications by age, sex, occupation, and income are relevant to such practical matters as insurance rates, clothing, hours of work, and taxes, respectively. They do not warrant separating people into exclusive classes such as old and young, male and female, workers and managers, rich and poor, and dealing with the members of each class in the same fashion over a broad range of relationships. The key to democracy in classification is found in the twin principles of specificity and relative independence of descriptive designations. Specificity means that a particular label applied to a person is to be used solely to refer to the limited and specific functions to which it is pertinent; it is not to be spread out to become an umbrella concept coloring everything he is and does. Independence refers to the fact that most qualities and capacities are not dependent on one another. Place of residence, intelligence, and political affiliation, for example, have no necessary connection; from the nature of any one it is not possible to deduce what the others must be.

Democracy, in short, is consistent with functional classifications but not with social classes. For practical social purposes people may be grouped according to the relevant characteristics. This grouping applies not to persons as such but solely to the abstracted qualities concerned. Social classes segregate persons into groups. In contrast, classification is an intellectual device which facilitates the effective interdependence of persons. As such, it unites people instead of dividing them.

The democracy of worth makes for an open society. Its openness is a consequence of the way in which classification is used. In a closed society social classes are static and inflexible. In the open society classification is dynamic and fluid. As circumstances change and new social needs are presented, fresh analytical and administrative tools are invented and applied; people are classified and reclassified in ever new ways in response to the needs of the social situation. Furthermore, a closed society tends toward a unitary hierarchical system of classification, in that to each person one basic class designation is applied, and this designation fixes the person’s place in the rank order of society. An open society, on the other hand, is organized on the basis of functional pluralism, in which every person is classified in many different ways, each for a particular purpose, and in which no single general rank order is recognized. There are many orders of precedence and status with respect to the many types of relationships subsisting within the community, and each person is independently placed in each type in the relative position to which he is fitted. Finally, in the closed society a person cannot move from one class to another at all or only with great difficulty. In the open society, if a person’s qualities change, the classes to which he descriptively belongs also change.

These ideals of the democracy of worth in the field of social class have direct application to education. Not only should democratic class principles be taught as rational ideals, but by being put into practice in the conduct of education, their concrete meaning should be visibly demonstrated. While the need for economy dictates the use of classes for school instruction, the uniformist tendency of class instruction can be moderated by deliberately taking account of individual differences within classes. The class should as far as possible be treated as a unit only for certain purposes of administrative efficiency, such as the keeping of attendance and the assignment of space and facilities. In the most significant aspects of instruction the unique capacities and attainments of each pupil should be recognized. The democratic teacher also does not seek to fashion his students according to some preconceived pattern, stamping them with the mark of his class, but serves as a mediator and helper of each student along the path that seems right for him.

Tests and measurements should be used with great circumspection and not to mark off students into separate groups for all purposes. Every test (for example, of verbal aptitude, reading speed, arithmetical skill) should be understood as a measure of a particular set of competences and should not be employed beyond its field of pertinence. Above all, no single score (such as the "I.Q.") should be accepted as a basis for setting up a rank order of students. Competences are of many kinds and cannot be assessed by any one test. Studies have also shown that most of the common intelligence tests have a social class bias; the vocabulary and thought patterns used in them generally follow a middle class pattern, thus putting the socially and economically more privileged in a preferential position. From a democratic standpoint it is important to devise and use tests that do not have this class bias, and to compensate as far as possible for the distortion introduced by existing measures.

Academic grading systems, as generally used, have two major defects. First, they force the translation of quality into a numerical measure. But personal achievement cannot be judged quantitatively. There are judgments of style, of logical cogency, and of ethical purpose, for example, which cannot possibly be summed up in a single grade. Second, the grading system usually leads to comparisons between students and, thus, to competition for status rather than concern for learning as such. Ideally, in a democratic school, marks would be eliminated altogether. No attempt would be made to classify students or their productions by a single number or letter symbol. Evaluation rather would consist in as full and rounded a description as possible of the students’ abilities and accomplishments -- a discursive critical judgment such as would be made by a competent observer of a work of art, a sensitive and sympathetic biographer, or a seasoned and humane critic. Moreover, the standard of comparison would be not the performance of other students but the best available models of what is true and excellent. In this way the students would be invited to serve the good rather than compete for status, and they would be encouraged to be individuals and not conformists, since their work would be judged by a process of qualitative discrimination and not by simple ranking.

Since relative rankings do have a permanent and necessary place in every social system, some numerical measures of school accomplishment may still be desirable. When an employer is faced with the task of hiring a worker and must choose one person from among several candidates, he is forced to establish an order of preference -- that is, to sum up the many relevant competences in some sort of single numerical index of excellence. Since all social organization requires grades of authority and precedence, and since classification has a place in democratic society for functional discriminations, there is room also in democratic education for comparative grading of the type now common, insofar as the schools are called upon to supply some indices of competence for placement in the functional status system of society. The democratic ideal of unique qualitative judgment is in tension with the ranking requirements of organized society. Both kinds of evaluation have their place. However, it is desirable in schools to shift the weight strongly in the direction of individual discursive qualitative judgments and to reserve the numerical ranking solely for situations where competitive ratings are of the essence, as in scholarship allocation, honors citations, and certain job placement recommendations.

The undemocratic class bias in education extends even farther than the tests that automatically discriminate against students from the lower social and economic strata of society. Students from high status families are usually made to feel comfortable and welcome in school, by teachers and fellow students alike, simply because they are from families of good standing, while students from low status families are usually not shown such acceptance and approval. It is the proper business of the democratic school to serve as an influence against general social class stratification. Education has been and ought to continue to be the major agency for social mobility. Teachers should seek by every means to compensate for status factors imported by children from their families. Boys and girls from the less privileged homes should be given special attention and encouragement to make certain that their individual capabilities are brought to light and are not obscured by feelings of class inferiority. Children from high status families should be treated on their personal merits and should not be accorded special privileges because of their parents’ position in the community.

It is not easy for schoolteachers and administrators to swim against the stream of social custom by such measures, since they have their personal reputations, ambitions, and social status to consider, and since these are closely linked to the manner in which they treat the young people committed to their instruction. Nonetheless, educators who are true to their democratic mission must take deliberate means to counteract social class pressures and must learn to be self-critical in order that their own unconscious class prejudices may be brought to light and as far as possible eliminated. The ability of teachers to resist external social class demands is greatly enhanced by their own success in becoming professionally competent and organized along professional lines. As long as teachers are regarded (and regard themselves) as lay people who make their living by teaching, they cannot readily transcend the class structure in the conduct of their work.

On the other hand, when teachers possess the authority of qualified experts in learning and in the guidance of learning, and when they are organized into strong professional bodies which faithfully exercise responsibility for high professional standards, they can freely teach with sole regard to individual aptitude and need and without fear or favor in respect to social class. Parents, too, can help to counteract undemocratic social class attitudes by supporting the schools in their efforts in this respect, by acknowledging the professional independence and authority of teachers, and by arranging the external social relations of the family on the basis of worth and function without reference to social status.

Several features of the American school system reflect the struggle against social class without denying the need for functional classification. First, we have repudiated the principle of the fixed multipletrack system, according to which pupils are divided at a specified age into mutually exclusive groups with different educational and occupational destinations. We may classify secondary school students for functional purposes into such groups as "practical arts," "commercial," "general," and "college preparatory," but there is nothing to prevent students from later changing to another group which appears to fit better their abilities and occupational plans.

Second, the comprehensive high school has been devised to enable students with different curricular needs to study within the same educational community. Separate schools established along ostensibly functional lines (for example, "technical" and "academic") may turn out really to be social class schools which by totally segregating one group from the other accentuate social class cleavages. The comprehensive schools (and their counterparts in higher education, the comprehensive universities) recognize the necessity for educational differentiation but, by keeping the students together in some classes and in the student activities program, minimize social class divisions.

The tension between class and classification is nowhere more evident than in the continuing discussions over ability grouping versus mixed grouping in the schools. Placing students of similar ability together certainly makes for easier and more efficient instruction; the more able students do not need to wait for the slow ones to catch up, and the slow ones are not made to feel inadequate in comparison with the fast ones. But ability grouping also tends to separate students into self-conscious status groups. Furthermore, as pointed out earlier, there are many kinds of ability; no single measure of general competence suffices for the ranking of students. From a democratic standpoint, then, ability grouping should be used with care and restraint. Students with similar aptitudes and attainments in a specific subject may properly be grouped together for instruction in that subject, but general divisions into inferior and superior should be avoided.

Furthermore, just as comprehensive schools are desirable as a solvent of social class lines, so classes with students of differing abilities are valuable, provided the classes can be internally organized so as to let students proceed at their own pace, with enrichment through greater depth and scope of materials independently mastered by the most able students, and with special assistance by the teacher for the less able. It is also possible in mixed grouping for some of the brightest students to help instruct the less competent. Some schools are now experimenting at the elementary levels with an ungraded school, thus returning in some measure to the teaching patterns of the old-fashioned one-room school. With intelligent management it is possible for pupils of different capabilities to be taught together and to learn values in associated living not available from a stratified educational program.

A fourth feature of American schools aimed at the minimizing of social stratification is the system of guidance counseling. The purpose of this program is to make deliberate provision for the individual needs of the student in ways not possible in ordinary class instruction. In guidance, the student is ideally considered as a unique person, without reference to membership in any group or class. The counselor is in an unusually favorable position to be sensitive to class injustices of which individual students are victims and to open up opportunities for overcoming these inequities.

Finally, the provision of universal free public education is the most dramatic evidence of the American rejection of a class ideology. While freedom for private education is (and should be) recognized, the system of strong common schools has provided a major symbol of the essential unity of the American people and the most important means of insuring the social mobility which is the hallmark of an open society.