Working Class

February 10th, 2020

“When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty-odd years
Then they expect you to pick a career
When you can’t really function you’re so full of fear
A working class hero is something to be
A working class hero is something to be”

John Lennon

At a certain point in life, a person starts to recognize patterns. There are recurring themes, like in a piece of classical music. It is just necessary to hang around this world long enough to notice the designs. Early on, events may seem chaotic and haphazard, but later a person might say, “Oh, so that’s what all this is all about.”

Many years ago, I went to study at West Point. My father pushed me hard to go there. West Point was/is in many ways an elite school. It is almost Ivy League. It is also somehow egaliterian, because it is not essential to have money in order to go there. The academy is a ruthlessly competitive meritocracy. When I was there, the emphasis was always on performance and loyalty to the institution, not on family background or wealth. However, the school had a rigid class system that prepared the cadet (student) for an equally rigid military class system in the U.S. Army.

I remember coming home once on leave, and talking to my family about life at West Point. My father, a lifelong union man, got angry with me and said,

“I suppose you think you’re better than us now! You’ve forgotten your roots!”

Well, maybe I did. My father, in his relentless efforts to get me a college degree, had thrust me into a world that was not working class. Once I was in that world, he somehow regretted his decision. He wanted incompatible things: he wanted me to move up and beyond his economic and educational status in life, but he also wanted me to retain his attitudes and views of his world. That didn’t work very well for any of us.

Yesterday was Stefan’s birthday. He is twenty-six now. Stefan, like his older brother, did not want to go to college. He wanted to work with his hands, and he early on decided to join the trades. After working a variety of different jobs: auto mechanic, body shop technician, press operator at a newspaper, and furniture restorer, he went to a tech school and became a welder. He has been a welder ever since then. He got into the Iron Workers Union as an apprentice. He is still an apprentice, but soon he will be a journeyman. He makes $30 an hour straight time. He is making more than most of his contemporaries who spent four years in college, and who now have massive student debt.

Stefan has a deep aversion to college graduates. So does his older sibling, Hans. Hans pours concrete for a living. Both of them feel utter contempt for the rich kids whose parents pay for their educations; educations that may not translate into good paying jobs. Stefan and Hans work hard. Their jobs require great technical skill, and they also require intense physical exertion. Their jobs are often dangerous. Hans and Stefan are outside almost all the time, building things in a very physical way. They take pride in that, and they also feel that the hipsters (the college kids) have no concept of what real work entails.

The boys are totally working class.

I know many parents whose children have gone to colleges and universities. Their young people are often quite intelligent and very pleasant. However, they sometimes can’t understand the experiences of my kids, or the experiences of anybody else who is struggling. There lies the class divide. Hans, who served in the Army like me, and who fought in a war (unlike me), has been through a lot in order to become who he is now. He knows what it is to be homeless and jobless and scared. Some of the college kids don’t know what that is like, and they can’t know it. Stefan has worked a number of jobs and has been in all sorts of crazy situations. He has taken great risks, and he has little repsect for those who, in his eyes, have had it easy in life.

Do my sons have a good reason to resent their contemporaries who have pursued more education? Maybe, maybe not. There is a tendency among people to assume that the fact that they have a degree (or degrees) makes them smarter than those who do not. A university degree is not a measure of intelligence. It is a measure of how much bullshit a person is willing to tolerate.

We live in a culture which puts great stock in degrees and titles. I have a college degree. So what? I had a title (I was a captain). So what?

I went to a four year school. I don’t regret it. However, I have learned that academia does not always have a direct connection with real life. I am convinced that my kids have learned more about the world than I ever did.

The working class understands what is real.




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