Caste in a Box: Silencing poverty-class higher education diversity policiespolicies


Final Research Paper

Elaine Laberge

EDPS 547: Educational Leadership and Social Justice

April 7, 2016

Ivy league American universities (e.g., Stanford University) have varied forms of widening access to higher education initiatives for students from low socioeconomic status (SES) families. One such strategy makes “space” for these students in the form of first-generation and/or low income (FLIP) initiatives. One approach that has gained traction makes visible a social justice paradox: the anonymous, online, Facebook “class confessional.” Students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds can post comments regarding the struggles they experience because they lack resources, support, a sense of belonging, as well as feelings of shame, stigma, and being an “outcast on the inside”—without revealing their identity (Bourdieu and Champagne 1999, p. 421). The irony with these confessionals is the need to confess that one comes from a lower social class, as if one has committed a sin. The additional contradiction to the class confessional is the need for a gatekeeper: rather than the confessional being potentially a place of safety and acceptance, comments must be constantly monitored. People attempt to post commentaries that support dominant, neoliberal dogmas of blaming the individual for their circumstances of birth. These insidious statements make visible the deeply ingrained, historical contempt for the dangerous Other occupying privileged higher education landscapes (Aries & Seider, 2005; hooks, 2000; Reay, 2012; Tyler 2013, 2009). These same beliefs are heard on Canadian post-secondary landscapes; students who are seen as polluting the landscape of privileged white Europeans (Tyler, 2013, 2009; Clark & Davis, 1989; Douglas, 1966). Widening access to higher education policies for students from low SES backgrounds and poverty-class students continues to be neglected in this country. This includes the University of Alberta’s (2016) newly unveiled, For the Public Good, institutional strategic plan.

I begin to wonder if creating equity, diversity[1], and inclusivity (EDI) top-down policies to combat higher education institutional classism is the right direction. I wonder if inverting this paradigm might better serve widening access to higher education initiatives for students from poverty. I suggest that a grassroots movement, which starts with pedagogy, can influence responsive and sustainable EDI policies at the top. Pedagogical philosophies and practices that attend to lived experiences and alternate ways of knowing and being, may open up conversations and shift understandings of how growing up in poverty shapes experiences in higher education; to begin to tackle, as the late sociologist Elizabeth Cohen says, poverty—the “unexamined 600-pound gorilla” in the room—“that affects [North] American education today” (as cited in Berliner 2006, 951; Greene, 1995, Clandinin & Connelly, 2000; Clandinin, 2013).

I will explore these wonders by considering Canada’s rich and disturbing history with the poor; dominant social class ideologies; existing pedagogical philosophies for the poor, and alternative pedagogical practices that can have the potential for attending to lives in meaningful ways and opening up possibilities for understandings that bump up against dominant poverty narratives. Finally, I will explore how shifts in understanding open up the possibility of “the extraordinary potential of living, telling, retelling, and reliving stories of experience” as poverty-class students travel “to and within unfamiliar [higher education] landscapes” (Huber, Caine, Huber, & Stevens 2013, 212; Caine, 2010).


Rich Colonial Poverty Histories

Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.

C. Wright Mills

After countless Canadian history and sociology courses, Cohen’s gorilla remains largely “in the shadows, where the light is not as bright” (Berliner 2006, p. 951). Becoming wakeful to this phenomenon means gazing into “the dark” and seeing how violent our history is, and continues to be, towards the poor (Berliner 2006, p. 951; Greene, 1995). The Methodist missionary Woodsworth (1909) wrote:

Perhaps the largest and most important problem that the North American continent has before it to-day for solution is to show how the coming tides of immigrants to various nationalities and different degrees of civilization may be assimilated and made worthy citizens of the great Commonwealths. (p. 3; italics added

Religious evangelists such as Woodsworth, and those in positions of power, mandates of assimilation and being made worthy citizens were of paramount concern. They were fixated on the rush to determine and enforce a “fixed Canadian type […] a certain indefinite something that at once unites us and distinguishes us from all the world besides” (Woodsworth 1909, p. 13). Part of this undetermined something was keeping out the riff raff, the down-trodden, the poor miserable souls—“the wretched of the earth” (Fanon, 2007). This historical contempt for the poor began long before the social activist Woodsworth wrote his treatise, Strangers within our Gates in 1909. He was merely expressing the social and political climate of the time; he was reflecting dogged social class ideologies that were imported from Britain and which plagues us today. It is the American education scholar Polakow (1993) who captures Canada’s complicity in the “commoditization” of poor children; she lays bare how Canadian-British immigration and colonial settler policies painted “a clear portrait of” how poor children’s bodies had their “race and class” stripped “of their humanity” (p. 18).

Polakow (1993) brings to light that “when the gold rush began in the 1860s, Canada became a favoured site” for the importation of children who, “if not condemned to the world of the factory or workhouse” in Britain, became “prime candidates for export to the colonies” (p. 14). These were “poor children, illegitimate children, urchins, or ‘street arabs,’ and children from ‘morally depraved’ families” of which the British government and its affluent citizens felt were a blight on society (p. 14). It is a satanic-irony that “philanthropists who were outspoken in their criticism of child labor were also empire builders, and as they turned to Canada between 1870 and 1925, another hundred thousand children” were expelled from Britain and sent to Canada’s borders to begin abject lives of hopeless servitude as indentured labourers and servants (pp. 14-15). This is part of our continued colonial legacy: the displacing and disposing of poor lives; “the brutal indifference to the life of the child, the desperation and powerlessness” of mothers and fathers whose children were devalued as “cast-off” children (p. 16).

Polakow (1993) is willing to engage in these hard dialogues; she makes visible problematic conversations of problematic bodies on education landscapes and in societies. Polakow (1993) dares to talk about the 600-pound gorilla in our midst: this stubborn colonial hangover ensures that the “callous indifference that eroded [and erodes] countless [poor] children’s lives” continues to this day (p. 17). As Polakow (1993) states, “‘the noble savage’ is far removed from the grim realities of a destitute childhood” and how this destitution makes them revolting, disgusting, illegitimate, and wasteful Others and outcasts on education landscapes (p. 17). The disdain of the poor is woven into “the very fabric of the [Canadian] culture and the corresponding lifestyles of the poor and destitute (Polakow 1993, p. 17; see also Tyler, 2013; Adair, 2003; Sayer, 2002). I suggest that the early Canadian-British immigration policies are also woven into education policies and pedagogies such as class confessionals and policies which refuse to make space for poverty-class students lives in the making (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000; Clandinin, 2013; Huber, Caine, Huber, & Stevens 2013). I suggest that as long as these histories are silenced, legacies of displacing the poor, capitalist and neoliberal tales of problematizing the individual, and patriarchal attitudes towards lives shaped by poverty will continue to reverberate over time, place, space, and lives (Young, 2003). Developing responsive and inclusive classroom pedagogies that may influence institutional policies, I suggest, can shift these reverberations. These shifts, however, require taking up conversations that bump up against the popular social class narrative: the myth of the classless society and the American Dream that has been mythologized and that is pathological.


The Myth of the Classless Society

Sayer (2005) helps to understand that as neoliberalism took hold and became elevated to by capitalists and corporations as the divine way of being, so to did the ideology of our societies as being classes (i.e., we are all on the same level playing field). The late American writer Horatio Alger, writing in the nineteenth-century, developed the idea that success is attainable to anyone by pulling oneself up by ones own bootstraps. This narrative is so pervasive that it marginalizes poverty-class students by creating a mythical poster child for success. Rimstead (2001) notes that these dominant narratives produce “meaning that marginalizes [and silences] the poor in concrete as well as symbolic ways” (p. 3). If a student “succeeds,” against all odds, by putting their nose to the grindstone, rolling up their sleeves and using some elbow grease, they can have it “all.”

I wonder how these narratives shape the experiences of students from poverty-class backgrounds who are composing a life on middle class higher education landscapes. How do these narratives help widen or hinder access to education for students from poverty-class backgrounds? When I think about poverty-class and low SES students posting in the class confessionals, I am left wondering, “Is it really that surprising that their experiences receive backlash from privileged students?” How can we have EDI pedagogies and policies that bump up against the myth of the classless society when our moral worth is so deeply embedded in social class (Sayer, 2005; Tyler, 2013)? As long as coming from poverty is shrouded in shame, I wonder how effective EDI policies can be in creating socially justice education. In relation to education, not only poverty but social class seems to be the hot topic to avoid especially in Canada. The myth of the classless society and avoidance of poverty issues in higher education EDI policies is demonstrated in the University of Alberta’s (2016) For the Public Good, institutional strategic plan.

In the values’ statement, the creators write:

Above all, we value intellectual integrity, freedom of inquiry and expression, and the equality and dignity of all persons as the foundation of ethical conduct in research, teaching, learning, and service.

We value diversity, inclusivity, and equity across and among our people, campuses, and disciplines.

We value history and tradition, celebrating the contributions of students, alumni, faculty, staff, volunteers, Indigenous peoples, and other groups, which bring pride to the university.

The strategic plan does not address social class nor acknowledge the existing realities of students who do not come from privilege. This makes me wonder about deep-seated, institutional classism. I wonder if allowing the poor onto public higher education landscapes brings pride to universities? I suggest that the silence surrounding social class in this strategic plan is indicative of the myth of the classless society; it demonstrates the continuation of poverty being such a problematic issue that educators often take the stance that poverty is not under their purview or simply too hard to deal with (Berliner, 2006; Levin, 1995; Gosh & Abdi, 2013; Shields, 2013). Too often the rhetoric in literature and conversations becomes one of “schools cannot by themselves solve the problem of poverty, nor should they be held responsible for them” (Levin 1995, 211). We did not create poverty policymakers are fond of

I wonder if the UofA’s policy did address low SES students would it then become a tool of punishment as it would unsettle “the mimetic or narcissistic demands of colonial power but reimplicate its identifications in strategies of subversion that turn the gaze of the discriminated back upon the eye of power” (Bhaba 1994, 112 as cited in kulchyski 2010, n.p.).

As Sayer (2002) notes, regardless of research contrary to the myth of the classless society, class “continues to figure centrally in people’s lives, especially for those who […] lack the privilege to be able to ignore it” (n.p.; see also Skeggs, 1997). He explains that class goes far beyond economics; class defines the moral significance of people on the many landscapes they inhabit. As Arowitz (2003) notes, “it remains a salient and powerful category in understanding the cultural processes of advantaging and disadvantaging of students in education” (p. 25; see also Pearce, Down, & Moore, 2008).

I suggest that the lack of research on poverty-class students demonstrates that the lower the students are on the social class hierarchy, the less likely experiences are to surface in research and EDI policies. As Marshall, Roberts, and Burgoyne (1996) explain, the poor “are effectively—and, it is now claimed, unwarrantably—[predominantly] excluded from the research agenda” (p. 22). Research and policy also reveal a lack of understanding that there exists a profound distinction between working-class and poverty-class (Adair, 2005). In reality, within each social class there exist multiple layers (e.g., upper, middle, and lower upper-class); the lowest and most problematic class being the underclass (Wray, 2006; Tyler, 2013). The silence surrounding the experiences of poverty-class students is compounded by an unspoken understanding of the dangerous Other. As Shields (2013) explains, there exists an “insidious fear of otherness in the context of a community based on sameness maintains an elite sense of entitlement and privilege” (p. 54). Shields (2013) goes on to explain that “marginalization with respect to social class […] is more subtle than marginalization due to skin color because class is, in many ways, invisible” (p. 32). However, for those whose lives have been shaped by poverty, poverty has left distinct visible markers, visible at least to those who come from poverty and who fear that their origins may be visible to others (Adair, 2003; hooks, 2000).

Research continues to show that viewed through a neoliberal economic lens, modern widening access educational initiatives for marginalized and disenfranchised students are problematic on several fronts (Brown & Strega, 2005; Ahmed, 2012). Diversity and equity initiatives are seen as a social justice measure; education is understood to be a fundamental conduit to improving one’s socioeconomic position in society (Burtch, 2006; Gewirtz, 1998; Walpole, 2003). The assumption seems to be that education is available for all and therefore, levels the playing field. Success or failure then depends on the individual who takes advantage, or fails to take advantage, of the opportunities that draw from education. For this to be true, culturally and socioeconomically inclusive educational systems require an understanding of the experiences of students from poverty-class families to reduce barriers to entering and transitioning through university. However, it remains a salient fact that Canadian institutions are staying with tried-and-true silencing neoliberal poverty-class social justice education policies and pedagogies. As Polakow (1993) explains, “decades have relegated poor children even further to the fringes. The distance between their world and the world of the classroom has widened, as their prior experiences have been devalued and targeted for reshaping” (p. 152). Further, it becomes increasingly evident that policies are really “political spectacle […] much more theatre than substance” (Berliner 2006, 949). Although it is also evident in the research literature that “schools can contribute in important ways to alleviating poverty’s effects” we are a long way from EDI policies taking up this role (Levin 1995, p. 211). As such, this is perhaps the time for a grassroots pedagogical shift in higher education. I suggest that this shift can make visible lives on the edge; make visible poverty-class students who are silently compose lives in the shadows and margins. Green (1995) offers tremendous hope for education and society in moving away from impoverished pedagogies and policies to the “recovery of imagination” and creating pedagogies of resistance that allow for educative not miseducative experiences (p. 35; Brown & Strega, 2005; Dewey, 1938).


Reimagining Impoverished Pedagogies

Injustice had made her sullen, and misery had made her ugly. Only her eyes remained beautiful, and they were painful to look at, because, large as they were, they seemed to increase in sadness […] It was harrowing to see the poor child, in winter, not yet six years old […] sweeping the street before daylight with an enormous broom in her little red hands and tears in her large eyes. (Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, as cited in Polakow 1993, p. 17)

I am drawn to attending to experiences and shifting understanding. I wonder about the potential for “deconstructing existing knowledge frameworks and for co-constructing new ones” (Shields 2013, p. 43). I wonder how to make visible red worn hands[2] and lived experiences on education landscapes. The failure to understand the complex and unique biographies of students whose lives have been shaped by poverty has the effect of silencing their experiences and making them the object of discussion rather than part of the discussion (Adair, 2003); on and off education landscapes, “poverty-talk” […] is always about them” (Polakow 1993, 43). This makes me wonder if pedagogies and policies exist as (un)intentional strategies “to contain” the poor, “to regulate their space in relation to ours, to keep the most destitute and homeless” away from education landscapes (Polakow 1993, 43; Adair, 2003; Lehman, 2013; Skeggs, 1997).

Ghosh and Abdi (2013) discuss the need to contribute to opening up spaces for conversations where “student experiences and their historical, social, and cultural conditions …[are] viewed as primary sources of knowledge” (p. 23). These scholars are speaking about interrupting dominant narratives that silence and marginalize socio-economically disadvantaged students. As important is to open up spaces to understand the “multiplicity” of lives to include the multiple locations we each occupy in life (Huber, Clandinin, & Huber 2006, p. 219).

I wonder at the academic language that has been invented and embraced to discuss the poor: undeserving poor, moral outcast, disposable poor, undeserving poor, the unwashed, the Other, etc. (Gorski, 2012; Hill Collins, 1998). I wonder if these labels further blame students from poverty as deficit and at-risk—stereotype and silence—rather than seeing the potential of lives in the making (Swadener & Lubeck, 1995; Berliner, 2006; Gosh & Abdi, 2013; Sayer, 2005). Hill Collins (1998) writes that, “Unfortunately, many of us who possess the specialized language of academia often do not even try to translate what are excellent ideas into a form that makes them understood by others. I remind these [profs, intellectuals, students], that to read on a high level of abstraction is itself a luxury. Privatizing and hoarding ideas upholds inequality. Sharing ideas through translation and teaching supports democracy” and equitable, diverse, and inclusive education landscapes (p. xiii). This is the kind of pedagogy that can create socially just education spaces and communities. Greene (1995) explains:

“[It] may be in the recovery of imagination that lessens the social paralysis we see around us and restores the sense that something can be done in the name of what is decent and humane. I am reaching toward an idea of imagination that brings an ethical concern to the fore, a concern that, again, has to do with the community that ought to be in the making and the values that give it color and significance. My attention turns back to the importance of wide-awakeness, of awareness of what it is to be in the world. (p. 35)

On the early education landscape, I failed grade seven drama because I did not know how to play because of a life shaped by childhood poverty. By age 12, I no longer drew or wrote unless it served utilitarian purposes. For much of the time on higher education landscapes I have wondered if I was not “simply a phantom in other people’s minds […] a figure in a nightmare which a sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy” (Greene 1995, 38). I struggled to make myself invisible; I now “ache with the need to convince [myself] that [I] do exist in the real world” and academic world (Greene 1995, 38). This shift comes from both educative and miseducative pedagogical experiences (Dewey, 1938).

In select classrooms, teachers pedagogical practices and philosophies have creates spaces where I have been experiencing the recovery of my imagination. In these moments I have started to find my creative voice again. With a still uncertain and hesitant creatively, I am taking exploratory chances and finding ways to express my experiences, knowledges, understandings, and research wonders. I am having experiential learning moments where I push back against silencing and damaging assessments of students from poverty (Francis & Martin, 2012). Hill Collins (1998) also challenges pedagogies that do not create safe learning spaces. She is fighting against those educators, for example, “who think that the complex ideas of social theory must be abstract, difficult, and inaccessible” (p. xvi). She is talking about people who have so bought into the idea of “academic tribal language” that “needlessly excludes large numbers” of students and people (p. xxii). I am coming into contact with increasing numbers of teachers who do not exclude knowledge because it has not been canonized and therefore, idolized. Hill Collins (1998) is adamant that critical theory and critical theory pedagogy must acknowledge that “Where group- differences exist such that some groups are privileged while others are oppressed, achieving and economic and social justice requires explicitly attending to these relationships” (p. xiv). Greene (1995) and many other education scholars and practitioners understand that in “thinking of community, we need to emphasize” that “community cannot be produced simply through rational formulation nor through edict” (p. 39). She goes on to say that “people need a continuing consciousness of new beginnings if they are to avoid the sense of being fixed by someone else’ categorization or inner eye, of being caught up in trends and tendencies, of behaving not acting, since acting means taking the initiatives” (pp. 39-40). I suggest that categorizations can be challenged through pedagogy, which may bump up against silencing poverty-class higher education policies, which caste students in a box.

Sayer (2002) explains why social class is a troubling and uncomfortable subject for both students and seasoned sociologists and educators. He states, “while the beginning students have not yet unlearned their very justifiable sense (albeit a scarcely articulated sense) of the moral problems of class, sociologists have unlearned them and become de-sensitised to them” (n.p.). Sayer (2002) notes that educational institutes talk about the importance of creating policies and procedures that are inclusive of students from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, however, “what is a fraught and highly sensitive issue for many people has all too often become, in the hands of the sociologists, a dry academic debate about social classification schema” (n.p.). I suggest that the desensitization to social class and poverty change through pedagogy. I am drawn again to Greene (1995) and the extraordinary potential of creating meaningful education spaces that can create social change at the grass roots level.

Greene (1995) writes that “Like freedom, [community] has to be achieved by persons offered the space in which to discover what they recognize together and appreciate in common; they have to find ways to make inter-subjective sense” (p. 39). She tells us that these places “ought to be space[s] infused by the kind of imaginative awareness that enables those involved to image alternative possibilities for their own becoming and their group’s becoming” (p. 39). This is so hopeful. I had not imagined that pedagogy has the potential to shape policy until teachers helped me release my imagination. At the grassroots pedagogical level we can begin to influence and shape higher education EDI policies to shape socially just education systems. We can make noise to drown out silencing neoliberal poverty-class social justice education policies and pedagogies that caste these students in a box.


[1] The term diversity necessitates the existence of Other in the margins and the continuation of the dominant in the centre (Ahmed, 2012; Brown & Strega, 2005).

[2] This phrase is shaped from Shaun Lessard’s doctoral dissertation title Red Worn Runners: A Narrative Inquiry into the Stories of Aboriginal Youth and Families in Urban Settings. I am using it with Shaun’s gracious and generous permission for which I am deeply grateful.


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