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Culture wars: contemplations of ‘class’ from an academic caught in between

  • 20 May 2024
  • By Glenn Fosbraey
  • This HEPI blog was kindly authored by Glenn Fosbraey, Associate Dean of Humanities and Social Sciences at the University of Winchester.

Enter the inverted snob

Last Wednesday, I set my first-year Creative Non-Fiction class the task of embarking on an experience that pushed them out of their comfort zones (safely, legally, and in accordance with their moral compasses, of course), and, in a show of solidarity, I foolishly promised them I would set myself the same challenge. Come Monday, though, I was still sans idea, and fighting the lazy part of my brain which insisted that watching 10 minutes of England vs Ireland in the Six Nations was far enough out of my comfort zone to make good on my promise to the students.

The actual idea came, as ideas often do, when I wasn’t searching for it. Browsing the racks at HMV on my way home from work, I felt myself involuntarily recoil as my eyes fell upon the Jazz section. Jazz. Elitist. Snobby. ‘Difficult’. ‘High cultured’. Jazz. But why this reaction to what was, essentially, a collection of inanimate objects? Why this immediate outpouring (well, inpouring, I guess, as these were just thoughts, but I’m not convinced inpouring is a word) of indignation and distaste? And, indeed, why did I have similar reactions to champagne, cummerbunds, The Booker Prize, ballet, polo, and so many other things that I also considered examples of ‘high culture’ or elitism? This, I decided, would be the new experience I had been searching for: I would finally take myself to task and explore why I felt so strongly about these things.

For decades, I’ve classed myself as an ‘inverted snob’, which Cambridge Dictionary defines as ‘a person who makes it known that they do not like things related to high social position but approve of things related to low social position’. Hardly a desirable trait, and one I’d rather not have, truth be told, but I have worked it so deeply into my personality for so long that it’s just who I am, and has, until now, been beyond deliberation. But here was my opportunity to change that. After all, as a lecturer, was it not my duty to keep my mind open and my opinions fluid? I picked up a John Coltrane CD, but, not quite ready to invest financially in the ‘new me’, quickly put it back and went for a rummage in the bargain bin. Clutching Wu Tang Clan’s The 36 Chambers, I made my way out onto the rainy streets beyond, my head filled with thoughts of class, culture, and how I was going to resist the Kebab shop by the station.

In the beginning…

I like to say that I’m ‘from a working-class’ background, and although that’s not a lie, it’s not exactly the truth, either. I was born, as I’ll tell anyone who will or won’t listen, on the Isle of Sheppey, an unglamorous island off the east coast of Kent, and spent the first eleven years of my existence ten miles away in a similarly unglamorous town called Sittingbourne. Although, like most children, I never questioned my living conditions at the time, life during these formative years was a mess of contradictions, and it’s likely they shaped the confused 40 year-old who sits writing this now. For example:

  • Our house was small, terraced, pebble-dashed, and filled with battered second-hand furniture, but it was stocked with plenty of books and records, and, until I was 5, there was even a gigantic and ancient upright piano in the dining room. Its main function may have been something for the telephone to sit on, but it was still there.
  • My paternal grandparents were undoubtedly working class, living in an even smaller terrace a few miles away, without central heating, double glazing, and vehicle, but my maternal grandparents were comfortably middle-class, both in management roles at the Ordnance Survey, and living a two-car existence in a semi in Southampton.
  • My dad liked to go to Puccini productions at The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden (when he could get bargain-price tickets up in the Gods) but did so on the way home from the terraces at White Hart Lane, dressed in threadbare home-made jumpers and wellington boots caked in manure from his allotment.
  • We were a single-income family who could never afford to go on holiday, and my dad had to take on plastering jobs so we could go to Chessington or Thorpe Park once a year. Yet we always ate well, and my sister and I never went short at Christmas or birthdays.

Things became even more confusing in 1994 when my dad – who did something for Shell Research Centre that I’ve never really understood – was given the option of either being made redundant, or moving us all over to Holland, where he’d work in Amsterdam for significantly more money. So it was that I moved from an under-funded state primary school and terraced house in an undesirable area, to a private school which cost thousands of pounds a term (paid for by Shell), and a house in leafy suburbia that was probably twice the size of our old one (rent also paid for by Shell).

Even though we were only there for three years, after which we moved back to England and the more familiar territory of money troubles and under-funded state schools, any designs I had on being ‘working class’ should have disappeared. Right?

A different class?

Well, no. The media might like to compartmentalise people into neat little packages based on class, political status, occupation, or many other pigeonholes, but life is rarely that neat, and such over-simplifications are unhelpful and potentially destructive. If we don’t feel we fit into these restrictive definitions, then we may feel like certain opportunities are closed off to us, or that we don’t ‘belong’. And even if we dare to cross these compartments and become ‘social climbers’, as Lee Elliot Major notes in his article ‘Confronting higher education’s class divide’, such instances ‘only help to ensure that the class inequities in our education system remain unchallenged and unchanged.’

It’s been 29 years since I left Sittingbourne, and I’ve spent 15 of those working in various academic roles at The University of Winchester, which is, let’s face it, probably as far as you can get from ‘working class’. I also spent 3 years at university in Bath, and although my student house made the Sittingbourne terrace look luxurious by comparison, it was still in Bath, so not working class, either. I have letters before and after my name. I have my own car. I occasionally eat out at places that aren’t Wetherspoon, The Harvester, or Toby Carvery. I’ve written academic books, chapters, and journal articles. And, the icing on the middle-class cake: I have been on a number of cruises with my wife and daughter. I’m getting further from being ‘working class’ with every passing year, and every centimeter my hairline creeps back. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve become a fully paid-up member of the middle classes (at least not mentally, anyway).

High and Low

And I think that’s due to my occupation. The Higher Education sector, despite the herculean efforts my own institution and many others up and down the UK, still struggles to get the message across that university can be for everyone, regardless of socio-economic status. A House of Commons Research Briefing from January 2023 observed that pupils eligible for free school meals are much less likely than other pupils to go into higher education, particularly to more ‘prestigious’ universities (cue inverted snob reaction… and breathe), and that even when they do they are almost twice as likely to drop out before the start of their second year. It shouldn’t be like this, of course. One of the things I enjoy most about working at a university – and there are many things to enjoy – is the coming together of people from different backgrounds, with different experiences, and different viewpoints. Put them in a classroom, start a discussion, and watch as their minds expand as they realise the world isn’t the echo chamber they’ve constructed via social media. If everyone is coming from the same background and socio-economic status, this vital component of higher education begins to fall apart.

A university is about intelligence, of course, but it’s also about self-exploration, personal growth, experimentation, bravery, and honesty. And in the interests of honesty, I’ll confess that it’s likely my own insecurities that lead to my rejection of things I consider elitist or ‘high-cultured’. My qualifications and publications may be evidence to the outside world that I belong in my position here in academia, but that’s very different to feeling I belong. And so I rally against things I don’t ‘get’. I rally in order to protect myself from feeling inferior. I shouldn’t, but I do. And if I feel inferior, 29 years on from my humble beginnings that weren’t even that humble, I can only imagine how that working-class 18 year-old feels as they weigh up whether university is for them or not.

In a recent article on the HEPI blog, independent educational consultant Neil Raven highlighted the importance of ‘listening and responding to the learner voice, recognising and working with key influences, and drawing on relatable role models’. And it’s this last which resonated with me the most. I may not feel like a role model, and I certainly don’t act like one a lot of the time, but my job naturally makes me at least a candidate for being one, so I need to get over my imposter syndrome and accept I might be able to make positive change in someone’s life. And if that means, as The Guardian’s Melanie Reynolds suggests, that working-class lecturers should ‘come out of the closet’ to make students from similar backgrounds feel less alienated, then perhaps we should do just that. My working-class credentials may be built on shaky foundations, but they’re foundations nonetheless, and I should be more willing to talk about them. Like I am now. So, in the spirit of that Guardian article, and to appropriately mix higher and lower cultures by bringing in some Eminem to go alongside it: would the real working-class people please stand up? The next generation of graduates needs to feel they’re not out of place in academia, and the best way to get this across is not by telling them, but by showing them.

It may still be a while before I take the plunge and buy that John Coltrane CD, and when I do, I’ll likely accompany it with a can of Pepsi Max instead of a robust red or floral white. But, if socio-economic backgrounds shouldn’t be a barrier to Higher Education, nor should my preconceived and silly ideas about culture be a barrier to trying something new. I draw the line at the cummerbund, though. I just don’t have the figure for it.

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  1. A Aleksiev says:

    We shouldn’t need ‘role models’ to believe we can.

    We should be brought up, or at least educated in away that develops our beliefs that we can.

    Otherwise, people (who were brought up with) lack of self-belief would highly likely never go on to do the things they may have aptitude for.

    I’d have never come to this country to do a PhD in animal behaviour. No one in my own country had ever done research in that field, after all. I just really wanted to and seemingly believed I could get a studentship for it.

    And while I didn’t grow up exactly in the ‘working class’ ‘way’, I still did so in a communist country that didn’t allow my mother to go to university or get certain jobs because of her father’s alleged link to a banned political party (any party other than the communist party was banned).

    There really isn’t anything wrong with being the first to do something, or believe one can do something without an identifiable ‘model’ to ‘show them the way’ (or, the plausibility of doing).

  2. John Quicke says:

    I came from a poor background, went to university in 1961 and eventually became a Professor at the University of Sheffield. Although I’ve always felt class was important, I still don’t understand the psychology of the imposter syndrome. For a 1960s radical if anyone was an imposter it was the establishment figures who didn’t realise times were a changin!

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