The discomfort of the working class graduate
As Brexit reveals the social and cultural disconnect between the educated and uneducated, what is it like to have a foot in both camps? Michael Merrick explores the political and social implications from his own experience as an education professional from a working class background.
I think I was 14. It was an English lesson, as I recall. And the words were delivered with the hint of a smirk.
‘Well of course, the Sun has a reading age of eight.’
Innocuous enough. And I didn’t know if it was true, nor much care. The truth was less important than the implication, to be honest, veracity less important than meaning. I knew what was going on, what was really being said: ‘here are people who are not like us, we clever ones, we sophisticated ones, we who can see through the ruse to the ignorance of folk. We, children, know better, are better.’
I wanted to be part of the in-group. I wanted to have real status and authority, too. To be like you, Sir, all knowledgeable and self-assured and authoritative. I didn’t want to be one of Them, so subtly scorned with a barbed comment and the raise of an eyebrow. So it seeped in. It became true. Those stupid Sun readers – thickos, bigots all.
Only, my Dad was a Sun reader. And many of my family. And most of the folk on the council estate where I grew up.
My father, no academic but a bloody good soldier, and in many ways our salvation (I need not go into details), with all his coarse dependability, became an awkward moment, to be transcended, to be left behind.
When I graduated from my degree course. My gramps, an Irishman who came looking for work in the chemical factories in the North East before finding work driving wagons and settling in Stockton, proud enough of my achievement that he had tears in his eyes. I’ll never forget the hug he gave me. It might have even been my first, aged 22 – you didn’t really do that kind of thing in the Merrick family.
I’ve always idolised my Gramps – he was different, from somewhere else, with stories to tell. And so when we talked, and he began to give his sage advice, I lapped it up. And then he said, without hint of humour or irony, ‘Michael, you’re a bright boy – have you ever thought about running a pub?’ As my memory tells it, I guffawed, and assured him I had my sights set on greater things. He fell quiet.
His Dad, it turns out, my great-grandad, ran a pub. In Dublin. And his Dad, my great-grandad, was a great man, a source of pride. I had just guffawed.
It is a long established truth that graduates tend to be much more liberal than their non-graduate compatriots. Indeed, since the referendum, plenty on the Remain have been quick to point out the education gap between Leave voters and themselves. The observation is innocent enough, though it too often contains all the smirk and subtext of that teacher from my youth.
Thus the graduate professions take on a particular character, with norms of outlook, of worldview, indeed of morality. The moral compass of the liberal outlook is distinct from the conservative, and these things split broadly over class, which correlates with level of education; these tribes value different things, draw lines in different places. But when the deck is stacked so heavily toward one over the other, the chances of any effort to comprehend the difference diminish whilst self-certainty proliferates. And liberals, contrary to assumption, tend to be as intolerant as conservatives, who have a broader moral outlook, though less understanding of the conservative viewpoint than the other way round. In a profession which is graduate dominated, and with graduate-level education so tightly correlated with liberal outlook, so we might see the roots of an important disconnect. Conformity to the norms of the in-group becomes the mark of the sophisticated, the cultured, the educated. And transgression comes at a cost.
As such, if you arrive from a working-class background shaped by these subversive norms, the graduate professions are not always a comfortable place to be. You must grow accustomed to the objects of derision and mockery being people like your family, those you grew up with, those you know and love. Whilst the derision might be delivered in the abstract – against a general viewpoint or unidentified Other – the barbs are felt personally. The word bigot, or any of its linguistic manifestations, is chucked about casually, but it hits specific targets, especially when it addresses a common viewpoint amongst those who comprise your upbringing. Those ‘xenophobes’ and ‘racists’ who voted Leave, for example, are not disembodied, theoretical people, but those who you know to be nothing of the sort, such as grandparents, who were always so loving and kind, and parents, who have lived a life of service to others, friends, who are decent and hardworking, the folks who live next door, the lady who you see at Church each week, the priest who baptised your kids. It becomes personal, and it jars.
The current creation myth of the teaching profession is one of a virtuous battle against intolerance, bigotry and demonization of the Other – yet those who pursue such accounts of virtue do not always realise, or do not care, that these are precisely the sins they commit in the eyes of those on the receiving end of their evangelism.
And yet… it is more complex than a simple to-and-fro between two competing accounts of the good life, a power play with only one plausible winner. Neither side are entirely wrong, even if heart battles fiercely with head in trying to work out the worst of the two. If you join the affray from a working-class background, you inevitably have a foot in both camps. One may get defensive when those whom you know and love are targets of censure, but you also carry the knowledge that, in some sense, you also chose to leave this tribe behind. And, uncomfortable as it might be, one can also see the validity of some of the analysis, even if its descent into moral judgement and lack of charity becomes sufficient motivation for fighting it. We often see the faults in those we love, but we naturally get defensive if somebody from the outside decides to make it an object of their own crusade. Maybe the same applies here.
Needless to say, this high-minded detachment does not solve the feeling of disconnect. For a working-class kid in a graduate profession, having a foot in both camps means not really belonging in either, an outsider to each, wishing it did not have to be either-or but finding it difficult to see how it might be otherwise. The norms of one are the enemy of the other. One might mourn the perceived conflict of heritage or professional flourishing, but it is difficult to deny. The world that formed you, that helped you fly, can be the world that holds you back, a world which you both reject(ed) and embrace at the same time. And it is always the rejection that each side of this conflict remembers, never the embrace.
And so you crash along, feeling like an imposter wherever you stand, looking for allies in the cause. But it can be a lonely place. And who wants to be lonely?
Michael Merrick works for a federation of Catholic schools in north Cumbria – he has been a middle leader in a secondary school and a senior leader in a primary school, and has given various bits of CPD and support to schools on a range of topics. He is also on the advisory council for Parents and Teachers for Excellence and can be found on Twitter as @Michael_Merrick. He is a contributor to the Blue Labour book of essays and also worked on its close kin, Red Tory. He regularly contributes to debates and broadcast media, and writes his own blog here.
An unbridged edition of this article can be found here.