Jane Anyon and Social Class

In Jane Anyon’s “Social Class and School Knowledge,” the Rutgers University professor argues that a school’s pedagogy and curriculum, the knowledge imparted to students by teachers, can reinforce social class. She writes:

In advanced industrial societies such as Canada and the U.S., where  the class structure is relatively fluid, students of different social class backgrounds are still likely to be exposed to qualitatively different types of educational  knowledge. Students from higher social class backgrounds may be exposed to legal, medical, or managerial knowledge, for example, while those of the working classes may be offered a more “practical” curriculum (e.g., clerical knowledge, vocational training). (Anyon, 1981, p. 3)

This “social reproduction” helps keep children of the working class in the working class and children of the elites among the elites. That is, our education system is a sedative to social change. Anyon observed five elementary schools, from the bottom of the social structure to the top, in New Jersey. This essay will focus on her findings in the working class schools, as I will compare her thoughts to my own observations at Silver City Elementary, a poor school in Kansas City. I will explore whether or not Silver City is reproductive or nonreproductive of the social class.

Anyon writes of social class:

While one’s occupational status and income level contribute to one’s social class, they do not define it. Contributing as well are one’s relationships to the system of ownership of physical and cultural capital, to the structure of authority at work and in society, and to the content and process of one’s own work activity. (p. 4)

In other words, those who have greater cultural capital (“historical knowledge and analysis that legitimates […] dissent and furthers [a] class in society and in social transformation” (p. 32); e.g., the power of knowledge), ownership of businesses and industry, authority within a workplace, and more independence and flexibility in a profession, will be a part of a higher class. It is education that can lay the foundations for upward mobility for America’s students, but it appears only the schools that are already affluent are doing so.

The working-class schools Anyon studied are in an area where most parents are unskilled or semiskilled workers, with low incomes (p. 5). Silver City Elementary is similar, though significantly more diverse. The school is 41% black, 33% Hispanic, 13% white, with a growing Asian population. 30% of students are English Language Learners. The neighborhood is poorer than 96.3% of U.S. neighborhoods. 39% of the children live in poverty, and 94% are on the Free and Reduced Lunch Program (Neighborhood Scout, 2010). Harvesters donates “snack packs” for the teachers to give out to the hungriest students, but they are usually not filling enough for growing children. Only 12% of area adults have a college degree, and most parents are laborers in manufacturing or the restaurant industry (Neighborhood Scout, 2010).

Anyon reports that teachers and administrators in her working-class schools were disinterested in student success. “If they learn to add and subtract, that’s a bonus. If not, don’t worry about it,” a principal told a new teacher (p. 7). They do not aim to challenge their students, nor themselves. They are hypocrites, believing their students to be uninterested and lazy, while relieved that they themselves are not suburban teachers who have to “work too hard” (p. 7). “You can’t teach these kids anything,” one teacher said (p. 7). The teachers concentrate on presenting basic skills to the students and keeping them busy with copy work and other menial tasks (p. 7). With such hopeless teachers, it is easy to see how the poor quality of such an education will hold children back and help keep them in a lower class.

The Silver City Elementary staff is not like this. One stark contrast provides an excellent starting point. While Anyon writes, “Neither principal knows the history of his or her school building” (p. 6), at Silver City, “Principal Rivers” can talk on and on about the area’s history of smelting silver, building railroads, its economic downturn and recovery, the construction and renovation of the school, its place as the first open-spaced school in the city, the changing enrollment demographics, etc. And he has only been there for three years. He takes great pride in his school and his students’ remarkably high test scores.

The contrasts continue. While fifth-grade mathematics instructors at Anyon’s schools avoided pages that “call for mathematical reasoning, inference, pattern identification, or ratio setup” (p. 7), the fifth-grade math class I observed used prior knowledge to infer steps to solve higher concepts. While both the books and teachers at Anyon’s schools focused on routine tasks and rote memorization of facts, the learning I observed was active (and interactive), challenging, and meaningful. Students often came in front of the class to help demonstrate a concept with the teacher. Students worked in small groups, or played academic games. They got up and moved around. They wrote in journals, not merely copying information, but answering questions in their own words. Music and art were used to aid comprehension. They did experiments, such as growing plants or breeding mold, and discussed and wrote about procedures and results. One girl was eager to tell me all the disgusting details of Rolly-Pollies, and excitedly showed me her science book. These children like and respect their teacher, are generally interested, and overall are surprisingly happy despite their circumstances. The teachers are likewise pleasant and engaging. Hearing them talk about the poverty and hunger that hurts their kids, it’s obvious they are compassionate and committed people.

Anyon asked fifth graders in working-class schools if they thought they would go to college, and a majority said their grades would not be high enough. Resigned to such a notion in elementary school! She writes, “Responses to these last questions suggest that many of these children already ‘know’ that what it takes to get ahead is being smart, and that they themselves are not smart” (p. 11). My experience at Silver City was different. A boy asked me if college was hard, and when I said it could often be a lot of work, he said, “I’ll be there someday.” Principal Rivers made sure to point out that staff diplomas were hung near the school doors as a way to encourage students to see college as a possibility, not a fantasy.

Students caught in the system Anyon saw often pushed back against the system, stealing from or pranking teachers and peers, being loud, rude, inattentive, or even setting fires and breaking windows (p. 11). They wanted to make the teacher upset, feeling that a real teacher should “teach us some more” and “help us learn” (p. 11). These acts of resistance demonstrate how bored and starved for knowledge students become when force-fed meaningless facts and mechanical skills. Such knowledge will only prepare students for futures in menial labor, perpetuating class. Anyon writes:

What counts as school knowledge in these two working-class schools is not knowledge as concepts, cognitions, information or ideas about society, language, math, or history, connected by conceptual principles or understandings of some sort… sustained conceptual or “academic” knowledge has only an occasional, symbolic presence here. (p. 12)

What a dreadful education that must be. Is it any surprise students would be restless and resistant? Fortunately, Silver City students, from what I could tell, do not have such a compelling reason to resist, thanks to their caring teachers and student-centered curriculum. The school is an orderly and pleasant place for students, teachers, and observers alike. The students were polite to me and to their teacher, never hesitating to help her with sharpening pencils, or erasing the board, or picking up the room. They would quiet down when she asked, and listened carefully to her instructions. The students enjoy being there. Their interest has been sparked.

In conclusion, from what I have seen, Silver City Elementary is nonreproductive of social class. I will admit I wish I had observed social studies classes rather than math and science courses, in order to better assess how societal knowledge and cultural capital was imparted to students. The history education Anyon saw was especially weak; one class used a textbook for “educationally deficient secondary school students” that contained “one to four paragraphs of history in each lesson,” and focused its efforts primarily on vocabulary recall (p. 8). Further, and most importantly, Anyon writes:

Students in these schools were not taught their own history–the history of the American working class and its situation of conflict with powerful business and political groups, e.g., its long history of dissent and struggle for economic dignity. Nor were these students taught to value the interests which they share with others who will be workers. What little social information they were exposed to appears to provide little or no conceptual or critical understanding of the world or of their situation in the world. (p. 32)

If knowledge is power, students with low socioeconomic status who aren’t taught how and why things are the way they are in their community will be powerless to make change. Studying Silver City’s history courses would have proved valuable in seeing if this was so. However, what is clear is that overall Silver City embodies many of the positive aspects Anyon found in higher-class schools: active learning, creativity, critical thinking, positive reinforcement concerning college, and high expectations for students. The teachers and administrators are focused on assisting children escape poverty through education, and this shows in both ideology and practice. Principal Rivers, a native of the area, stressed that education was the key to turning this poor area of Kansas City around and bringing about social change. As Anyon writes, “What is important is to make available to working-class students the cultural and ideological tools to begin to transform perspicacity into power” (p. 33). Silver City Elementary is doing just that.

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18th st expy/ruby ave neighborhood profile. (2010). Retrieved from http://www.neighborhoodscout.com/ks/kansas-city/18th-st-expy-ruby/#desc.

Anyon, J. (Spring, 1981). Social Class and School Knowledge. Curriculum Inquiry, 11(1). Retrieved from http://faculty.rcoe.appstate.edu/jacksonay/anyon.pdf.