Class & Education: Shattering the Meritocratic Illusion of Education

Due to the neoliberal individualistic discourse in which most Canadians are surrounded by, it seems almost natural for most people nowadays to view education as the vehicle to social mobility. Evidence surprisingly shows that this is relatively rare. Instead, at its very core, the Western education system is an engine of class reproduction (Ravelli & Webber, 2010). The scope of this paper is to explore the ways in which ascribed socioeconomic class affects the educational endeavours of individuals. By examining the lives of students from two polar extremes: working-class and upper-class—this paper tries to elucidate just how the educational and authoritative discourses their respective socioeconomic classes are steeped in affects students’ preparedness towards pursuing higher education.

Discourse Differences

In her book, Class Construction (2007), Freie’s study illustrates how there are key differences in the discourses the educational institutions of either upper-class stature or of the working-class utilize. Her interviews with grade eleven students from a working-class, homogeneously Caucasian high school in a deindustrialized community expose a pervasive ignorance among the students of the higher education application and enrolment process (Freie, 2007). Referring to St. George’s study on an isolated upper-class institution, Freie illustrates how in higher class educational institutions, the students are groomed specifically towards succeeding in a post-secondary environment. These upper-class students are exposed to everything from “the specifics of the application, recommendation, and interview process” to the extracurricular activities they require to be competitive for post-secondary education (Freie, 2007, p. 57). In essence, these students are awash in a culture that not only encourages and stimulates success but instills a modus operandi that is designed specifically for this success. Students in working-class schools lack this environment, which is one subtle yet significant hindrance towards class mobility.

Additionally there appears to be contradictions in the ways students in working class schools prioritize and in some ways impede their education through the embracement of their working-class identity. According to Freie, some students articulate the necessity of education for their future goals while at the same time contradict these statements through actions that seemingly stunt their chances toward success. They maintain part-time jobs while avoiding almost all extracurricular activities within the school and do not partake in the authoritative hierarchical structures within. These conflicting actions limit the development of skills and the necessary cultural capital these students need to flourish in higher education. An important note is that the working-class students Freie interviews neither conceptualize nor connect their class-distinctions. Through their inability to see their struggles as part of a larger dynamic—along with their held discourses of individualism—many students come to see their cultural, academic or economic struggles as personal or isolated, which ultimately permits rise to these contradictions (Freie, 2007). These factors illuminate the stark differences in discourse between upper and working-class institutions which give upper-class students both an academic and cultural advantage.

Authority & Streaming

The authority structure of working-class schools promotes the working-class discourse, which solidifies the inescapability of reproduction of their class. Freie documents a culture of misinformation (either late or unavailable if even correct at all) that the working-class students consistently encounter. Freie finds students constantly lack the necessary information needed regarding secondary education enrolment. More appalling is the fact that only a fixed number (often 50%) of graduating working-class students are able to attend information sessions regarding post-secondary enrolment. This is mainly due to costs, and in this economic
barrier is another obstacle that limits students from success in college and university-level education. As already mentioned, upper-class institutions have in place the authoritative structures that allow for the cultural and academic development unavailable to working-class students. Teachers and counselors also perpetuate the working-class dynamic by streaming students towards lower-level institutions (like community colleges) or trades-oriented educational paths. Generally citing reasons of cost economy as reason for this streaming, these instructors and counselors are in fact inhibiting working-class individuals from acquiring the education needed often necessary for intragenerational class mobility (Freie, 2007).
Class Reproduction
While notions of meritocracy run deep in both classes, there are subtle immovable structures along with a pervasive hidden curriculum within the respective educational institutions that assist in reproducing class for each strati. Upper-class students are trained by ways of the school culture, discourse, and authoritative hierarchal structures to be more prepared for success in a post-secondary institution. Lower-class high schools tend to behave similarly but lack the necessary training for their student body to succeed after they graduate. Both of these dynamics assist in perpetuating class reproduction in the face of the meritocratic ideals most of
us are lead to accept—often in presupposition.
One must consider the surmounting evidence of  how the ascribed socioeconomic class of secondary students affects their chances of success in post-secondary institutions to understand that it consequently limits their ability for intragenerational class mobility. Much of
this is caused by cultural and class-specific discourses that are utilized by the respective schools’ authorities. It is therefore safe to conclude that much to the disillusion of commonplace individualistic or meritocratic ideals, these dynamics leads to class reproduction. It is along these lines that individuals are limited in achieving a real unhindered ability for class mobility based solely on merit and academic performance—which is what education is widely believed to endorse.
Freie, C. (2007). Class construction: white working-class student identity in the new millennium. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
Ravelli, B., & Webber, M. (2010). Chapter 12, Education. In Exploring sociology: a Canadian perspective (pp. 306-330). Toronto: Pearson Canada.


This was written for an introduction to Sociology class lead by Dr. Amir Mirfakhraie at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *