When my family and I emigrated to Canada from England in 1987, we left behind a country with a deep-seated history of social class division and class-consciousness. Britain has long been obsessed with social class. My memoir, Moving (2020) – about growing up and being educated in a working-class community in Northern England – describes how social class differences affected every aspect of my own education.
My own struggles were with upward mobility – how to reconcile the culture of my selective grammar school with that of my working-class community. My two brothers had different struggles. At age 11, a standardized test marked them out for failure. I eventually made it to university on the other side of the country. They ended up in factories at the bottom of the hill. Social class mattered a lot in England then. It still does.
But in 1987, I was leaving all this behind. My Dean envied me. He had just returned from his first visit to Canada, the world’s first constitutionally bilingual, multicultural society. How lucky I was to be going there.
I arrived in a country that didn’t really talk much about social class at all. There were other serious sources of inequality to attend to instead. Race, immigration, language, poverty, and disability were foremost among these. Attention to inequalities in Indigenous and LGBTQ2+ communities would follow later. In our research, Dennis Shirley and I (2018) witnessed how assiduously Ontario educators addressed these issues from 2014–2018. But Canadians didn’t really seem to be concerned about social class at all. Working class inequality was a silent and invisible feature of the educational and social change agenda.
The coronavirus pandemic has suddenly brought the health and education of working-class people and their families to the forefront of our attention. They are the most likely to contract COVID-19, to have no one on hand to supervise them when they need to learn at home, and to live in overcrowded and unstable conditions unsuitable for learning or health.
What it means to be working class is a matter of debate, with some commentators defining it in terms of poor income or low level of education, for example. Traditionally, though, social class is about the kind of work people do and how that structures people’s opportunities and identities. In general, working class people do manual work (either skilled or unskilled), and/or have little control over their work conditions – think call-centre employees, people who have to work on contract in multiple care homes, or employees in the gig economy, for instance.
Social-class inequality is closely tied to student achievement and well-being, but compared to other causes of educational inequality, like race or poverty, it has received little attention. There are four explanations for this neglect and for why coronavirus is changing all that.
Don’t mention the white working class
Why has Canada’s commitment to diversity not included social class? One reason is that acknowledging the struggles of the working class might be equated with acknowledging the white working class. That would risk associating whiteness with disadvantage instead of with its historic racial privilege.
The coronavirus crisis, though, has made clear that the working class is actually very diverse. Vulnerable, essential front-line workers include migrant farm labourers, immigrant care home workers, hospital cleaners, Uber drivers, and virtual shoppers. Whatever their race or ethnicity, they are all working class. They have the low pay, contractual insecurities, and vulnerability to COVID-19 to prove it.
In 1989, Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality. Her study of battered women’s shelters (1991) showed that the experience of an abused white middle-class woman was different from that of a low-income immigrant woman speaking English as her second language. So, we had to examine the intersectionalities of oppressed women’s multiple identities. Working-class identity intersects with many other aspects of diversity. Social class needs to come back into our reckoning about inequality – and the coronavirus crisis is doing that with a bang.
We’re all middle class now
Joan Williams (2017), author of White Working Class, says that the U.S. has become “clueless” about social class. Canada has its own (working class) cluelessness, expressed in the widespread belief that the vast majority of Canadians are middle class.
“Most Canadians think of themselves as middle class,” says Julie Cazzin in Maclean’s magazine (2017). Around 70 percent of Canadians self-identify as middle class, according to a poll conducted by the magazine. In another Maclean’s article, Shannon Proudfoot (2019) reflects on her own working-class background. She warns that “the way we elide, erase and ignore socio-economic class in Canada” makes it “like an invisible fact that shapes everything, but is acknowledged nowhere.”
Wolfgang Lehmann, Professor of sociology at Western University, has studied social class and education in Canada. The son of German immigrants, Lehmann grew up in a working-class family and, like me, still struggles with his identity as a middle-class academic. Lehmann’s research (2014) with 70 university students from working-class backgrounds shows how their experiences of educational success are corroded by “conflicting relationships with parents and former friends.” The upwardly mobile students’ new knowledge, experiences, and relationships set them apart from family members and friends in their former communities. They are also more likely to disengage or drop out from their studies. They feel caught between two cultures, belonging to neither one nor the other.
“Conflating class in Canada” and “making everybody middle class who isn’t rich” is “maybe dangerous,” says Lehmann. My own biography and 50 years of research support Lehmann’s findings that the particular culture of academic success is constantly tugging students away from their class identity. There has been a positive movement for schools to enable young people to retain pride in their race or gender identities, for example, as they strive to succeed. But working-class identity seems to be something that upwardly mobile students feel pressured to leave behind.
Our schools must accord as much dignity to the labour and values of working-class life as they do to other aspects of identity.
Coronavirus has witnessed displays of appreciation for front-line workers (many of whom are working class) on signs by the roadside and in pots being clattered on balconies. But we must do more. The hard work, labour, dedication, and sacrifice of these workers have kept the rest of us alive. Post-pandemic, we must no longer condemn workers in the gig economy to job insecurity and working multiple, contract-based jobs just to get by. Our schools must also accord as much dignity to the labour and values of working-class life as they do to other aspects of identity in a diverse and inclusive society.
Working class does not equal poor
Poverty continues to have massive consequences for student achievement and well-being. Several of the Ontario school districts that Dennis Shirley and I have studied instituted a wide array of anti-poverty strategies. But it is impossible to turn poverty on its head and celebrate it in the way we do with Black power, gay pride, and other kinds of diversity. And being working class is more than having a certain income level.
Until the 1970s, skilled manual labour had dignity and worth. Working-class labour and working-class communities were a source of collective pride. In Canada’s Museum of Human Rights in Winnipeg, for example, alongside the harrowing depictions of genocide and the inspiring tributes to champions of human rights, is a compelling display on labour rights that includes the women and men who founded the Polish Solidarity Movement in the 1980s.
What should our schools be teaching about working-class identity? Where in our curriculum is the history of labour, labour rights, and trade unions, alongside business entrepreneurship and financial literacy? We should teach the concept of class through literature, history, and interdisciplinary projects, as robustly as we do race, gender, and gender identity. How can and should our schools engage with the class culture of our students, as well as other aspects of their culture? If equity is now about inclusion, it should be about social class inclusion and addressing socio-economic privilege too.
One consequence of the pandemic will be that some manufacturing will come back home from overseas. The availability of essential goods can no longer depend on vulnerable global supply chains. These new, working-class manufacturing jobs will be highly technical and involve sophisticated training.
In Germany, vocational education for skilled trades has very high status. In North America, though, it has become a second-class alternative for those who have failed to get into university. Commitment to vocational education, traditionally a politically conservative priority, must now become a priority of all Canadians. The labour, culture, skills, and pride of the working class and its educational preparation must be acknowledged, not ignored.
It’s time to talk about wealth as well as poverty
If we say we’re all middle class, this doesn’t just mean we ignore the working class. We ignore extreme wealth, too. We’re all becoming familiar with how the richest 1 percent of the world’s population owns more than half of the world’s wealth. The revenue of any of the Big 5 tech companies is greater than the GDP of many European nations. During the pandemic, the profits of the Big 5 have increased by about one-third. Meanwhile, for 40 years, the bottom half of society has barely advanced in real income terms at all – despite working longer hours and taking on more debt to make ends meet.
In Plutocrats: The rise of the new global super-rich and the fall of everyone else (2012), Canada’s Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, Chrystia Freeland, claims that more and more of the world is now a plutocracy of rule by the wealthy. Although many modern plutocrats worked their own way up from modest beginnings, they now protect these gains for themselves, their class, and their families. The meritocrats have turned into aristocrats, she says.
Along with a growing number of influential economists – most of them women – Freeland lists how the super-elite protect their wealth. They do this by tax avoidance, by lobbying parliament, by establishing not-for-profit foundations where they can shelter their wealth and champion their own causes, and by buying their children places in top global universities with sizeable “legacy” donations.
Plutocrats also hijack the global discourse of improvement and change by defining what is transformational and what is not. In Winners Take All: The elite charade of changing the world (2019), Anand Giridharadas interviews one of the key organizers for the vastly popular TED Talks. This organizer describes how TED Talks might address questions of how to reduce poverty. But one thing it absolutely won’t touch is economic inequality. Poverty and diversity get airtime. Wealth and inequality do not.
It’s time for this to change. Emboldened by the pandemic crisis, Freeland and other economists, like Joe Biden’s Economic Advisor, Heather Boushey (2019), propose a series of measures to combat the effect of extreme economic inequality on society. “Now is not the time for austerity,” said the Throne Speech on September 22. Instead there must be investment to support the vulnerable, restart public education, and create jobs that in turn will stimulate the consumer demand that will regenerate the economy. The new normal should be about prosperity, not austerity. The Latin origin prosperus means, simply, “doing well.” Prosperity is about reducing inequality and improving well-being and quality of life. In education, well-being should not be an afterthought or an add-on. It is integral to creating a prosperous society.
For too long, social class has been the masked face of inequity, disadvantage, and marginalization. We must no longer pretend we are all middle class. This ignores the privilege of extreme wealth and the profound struggles of the millions of front-line workers on whom all our lives depend. It also runs the risk of equating working-class identity with poverty and turning it into the only identity that has to be left behind in the struggle to improve. The role of front-line workers during the pandemic has taught us that working-class identity is part of diversity, not an exception to it.
To be fully equitable and inclusive, our schools must re-engage with working-class identity. They must teach working-class identity as a history and culture of pride involving the dignity of labour, solidarity with one’s fellows, the value of hard work, and the importance of self-improvement. They must resurrect and reinvent vocational education as a high-quality commitment. They must address socio-economic diversity as a fundamental aspect of inclusion, and must approach class inequality as something that entails the privileges of the extremely wealthy and not just the privations of the poor. They must teach students about wealth tax and tax avoidance as well as financial literacy and income tax management. They must, in other words, rethink everything they do on social class lines, as much as they have in relation to all other aspects of diversity.
Photo: Adobe Stock
First published in Education Canada, January 2021
Boushey, H. (2019). Unbound: How inequality constricts our economy and what we can do about it. Harvard University Press.
Cazzin, J. (2017, June 16). What’s middle class? It’s as much to do with values as with income. Maclean’s. www.macleans.ca/economy/why-everyone-feels-like-theyre-in-the-middle-class
Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A Black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and antiracist politics. University of Chicago Legal Forum, 1989(1), Article 8. https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol1989/iss1/8
Crenshaw, K. (1991). Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color. Stanford Law Review, 43(6), 1241–1299. doi:10.2307/1229039
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Giridharadas, A. (2019). Winners take all: The elite charade of changing the world. Knopf.
Hargreaves, A., & Shirley, D. (2018). Well-being and success: Opposites that need to attract. Education Canada, 58(4), 40–43. www.edcan.ca/articles/well-being-and-success
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Lehmann, W. (2014). Habitus transformation and hidden injuries: Successful working-class university students. Sociology of Education, 87(1), 9. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038040713498777
Proudfoot, S. (2019, July 16). What does it mean to be working class in Canada? Maclean’s. www.macleans.ca/society/what-does-it-mean-to-be-working-class-in-canada
Williams, J. D. (2017). White working class: Overcoming class cluelessness in America. Harvard Business Review Press.