Education and Class

February 22, 2004 | 16 comments
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As someone not that far removed from a “redneck” heritage, I think that Gordon has hit on something very important: often our discussions of R-rated movies and such is, for both sides, really a discussion of class. One side sees itself as sophisticated and informed. The other side sees itself as obedient and faithful. The first sides accuses the second of being anti-intellectual. The second side accuses the first of being proud and unwilling to take counsel.

But in the US there is a complication to that picture that I’m not sure how to understand. LDS are generally more educated than comparable church groups. (Though that phenomenon is probably more pronounced in Utah than outside it, I don’t think it is only a Utah thing.) We often take that as a point of pride, yet I worry that it is true because those with blue-collar jobs and high-school or less educations don’t feel comfortable among us. I live in a blue-collar part of Provo where having a Ph.D. makes me a rare specimen, and that is one of the reasons I like my ward. But even there it seems clear to me that those without college degrees of some kind or another nevertheless have a life-style and culture that is more like that of college and white-collar types, and that those who do not share in that culture do not feel comfortable among us. For example, part of what we expect is that people will dress in business-like dress when they come to church, though that is likely to be more difficult for many who do not dress in that way for any other occasion.

One finds a similar expectation of dress in many black churches and they tend not to be havens for intellectuals and businessmen. And there are many in my ward and others who are comfortable putting on a suit and white shirt for church and for nothing else. So the expectation isn’t necessarily a deterrent. But it does seem to me an example of having cultural and class-based expectations that can make it difficult for some to feel like they are part of us, sufficiently difficult that those who are already weak in the faith are less likely to come to church.

I think both Gordon’s observation and mine are true, but there seems to be some kind of contradiction between them.

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16 Responses to Education and Class

  1. Bob Caswell on February 22, 2004 at 3:57 pm

    I have a slightly different take on this, being the “R” watcher that I am. I don’t generally accuse the “other side” of not being educated. In fact, it can be quite the opposite. But I think Jim’s observation is more accurate while Gordon’s is more perceived.

    Where my problem lies is in the constant attack on my personal decision to not really give the rating system much credit.

    If someone decides to avoid rated R movies, great, more power to them. But why can it rarely be a “personal” decision? It’s more often than not a “the prophet said” or “direct commandment” type of reasoning. Can Brother Smith not make a decision that is the opposite of Brother Jones and *gasp* both of them be active members of the Church? Whenever I try to explain this concept to a non-R watcher, the majority of them just can’t grasp the idea.

    Now, don’t take this personally because I’m not referring to anyone on this blog. And Gordon has already excluded himself from the group I mentioned above. The two of us think differently about movies, but I think it’s fair to say that neither of us sees the other as making a “mistake”.

    And in all fairness, Gordon could point out all the weaknesses of the group I indirectly belong to. It can be sad to be thought of as a person who feels others are not educated if they don’t think the same way I do. But alas, that’s a misconception with which I continually have to deal.

  2. Dave on February 22, 2004 at 5:31 pm

    I must admit that, in general, the Church does a pretty good job of finding a classless middle ground: suits are nice but nothing fancy, and if you don’t wear a suit, no big deal these days. And I can’t say I’ve ever heard a pulpit talk or a class lesson that would make even a high school dropout feel out of place. In church, it seems, the rich don’t flaunt their wealth and the educated don’t flaunt their vocabularies.

    Part of this comes, I think, from the Mormon practice of mandatory attendance at a designated ward according to geographical boundaries, so there is no self-sorting into congregations that feature a certain type of minister or a style of worship services that cater to one’s class or educational orientation. The only self-sorting Mormons get is by choice of state or neighborhood, and even then ward boundary lines promote local mixing. People in other denominations seem to look for a congregation that appeals to them on some attribute of interest. My next door neightbors, Catholics, shopped around to find a “friendly” Catholic church to attend when they moved into town. When they found one, that’s where they stayed.

  3. Gordon Smith on February 22, 2004 at 6:29 pm

    Bob, No worries. Some of my best friends watch R-rated movies. ;-)

    Jim, this is an interesting topic. I have had the experience, as a young Elder’s Quorum President, of having a Quorum member blame his inactivity on me. According the Bishop, who relayed the story, this person felt that I was excluding him in my lessons, which he found “too intellectual.” (Imagine that!) Ultimately, I concluded that I was being used as a scapegoat (at least that was part of the story) by a person who had never been very active and wanted to pursue a life that included, among other things, alcohol and tobacco. But the experience made me much more conscious of class in Church.

    There is probably some tension between your observation and mine, but not much, really. I agree with Dave that the Church does a pretty good job of keeping the class war to a dull roar. I live in a ward now that covers a big geographic area and has the resultant wide spread in economic classes. People sometimes make comments, but I feel like we are all pitching in to do the work of the ward.

  4. Julie in Austin on February 22, 2004 at 9:45 pm

    I’m going to disagree with Dave based on some personal experiences, and suggest that geographically based wards help, but don’t eliminate, problems.

    (1) The ward system probably helps the most, ironically, in areas where the Church is small and an entire city is in the same ward. But that isn’t the case in Austin (300,000 people in Austin, three stakes). 70% of our ward fits the following description: temple married couple in their late twenties, stay at home mother (with college education) of 2-3 kids, husband in high tech work (IBM, Motorola, Dell, NI). (I fit this, as well .) But the ward immediately south of us includes the city core. We were there for a year before boundaries changed, and it was *an entirely different universe*. Just the tip of the iceberg is that public transportation to our meetinghouse is a nightmare.

    (2) We were poor, poor, poor students for a while in a ward were most people were middle class. I was amazed by such ‘requirements’ as 25$ for a Scout shirt (what about that woman with five boys?), or my husband having to go on overnight training things for Scouts(I was not in a neighborhood that I wanted to be alone in overnight) or have me sew patches onto that stinking shirt. Or the assumption that anyone could spend 10 or 20$ for supplies for an activity and not care about being reimbursed. I knew our situation was temporary; but if I were a working class member new to the church I would have bagged the whole thing.

    (3) A dear friend griped about temple prep: ‘He started with 20 minutes explaining what a symbol is. Ugh.’ Well, maybe if you have a decent education. I don’t know that migrant farmworkers have much contact with symbolism on a daily basis.

    I guess that I don’t see members deliberately flaunting wealth or education, but rather making the assumption that everyone is on the same page. In some ways, this is worse. Flaunting can easily be called on the carpet; assumptions leave you feeling alienated until you work through them.

    Jim’s original post made me think about all that we require of members besides decent Sunday clothes: planners/calendars and their upkeep, jobs that allow you to commit to events weeks in advance (ask me what it was like scheduling stuff during my student/waitress days when I didn’t know in advance–which is the case for most service workers–when I would have to work), phones (a friend in jest–but not really–said, “We told the missionaries to quit baptizing people that didn’t have cars or phones.”), cars, lesson prep materials (church books, pens, paper, quiet place to think). As much as I like getting email reminders of Church stuff from our ward, you are seriously out of the loop here if you don’t have email (computer in your home, net access).

    Done rambling.

  5. Jim F. on February 23, 2004 at 12:43 am

    Gordon, I don’t dispute that people often use class issues to excuse their inactivity, and this works both ways, accusing the priesthood leader of being too intellectual or accusing him of not being smart enough. I’ve heard plenty of academic LDS say that they find it difficult to go to church–or they’ve quit going–because it is so unstimulating intellectually, as if that were the relevant issue. But I’m more interested in the kinds of things that Julie mentions and the effects that they have. When our EQ or RS presidency is trying to reactivate someone in the ward who doesn’t fit culturally, how comfortable does that person feel? I think their discomfort may be higher than we think, and it may not be something that comes to mind for them, just a vague feeling of not belonging.

    Nevertheless, my experience suggests that Julie is right that wards that cover large geographical boundaries or include a large non-LDS population work better in this regard. I’ve seen that at least twice, once in Pennsylvania when I was in grad school and our branch covered more than the county and, so, had a wide array of backgrounds among its members, making it easier for almost anyone to feel that they could be part of us, and once in Paris where our ward covered about half of the city and the members came from dozens of different countries, with a similar result. In contrast, I was once a member of a ward in another country in which the Americans and Europeans in the ward were known as “Brother Faulconer” and “Sister Jones,” but where the African and Filippina members were known and referred to over the pulpit only by their first names. I don’t think that was a conscious decision on anyone’s part. When I raised the issue, they were embarrassed and changed immediately. But if that can happen unconsciously, what else are we unconscious of?

  6. Gordon Smith on February 23, 2004 at 1:08 am

    OK, here is one for Julie and Jim: the ward dinner group! We have only lived in Wisconsin for a year and a half, so we don’t know whether there is much history to this function, but our ward has at least one dinner group. “Membership” in the group is not well defined, but it clearly does not include everyone in the ward. Nor is it limited to a particular demographic group (e.g., families with children in high school), though most of the people in the group are in the upper economic tier of the ward. (We do not have a particularly wealthy ward. We have gone from being the a near “welfare case” in Lake Oswego, Oregon to being in the upper tier even though our income has barely changed.) Much of the ward leadership is in the group (RS President, YM and YW Presidents, Primary President, one Bishopric counselor, and others … the former Bishop was in the group, but his family moved, and the current Bishop appears not to be in the group). My wife and I enjoy the company, but we feel very uncomfortable about being in the group. What should we do?

    Mystified in Madison

  7. brayden on February 23, 2004 at 1:36 am

    As Gordon points out, I think the biggest evidence that “class” (if that’s what you want to call it) lines are drawn in wards is the formation of cliques. My ward in Tucson has a great deal of demographic heterogeneity. There are many student-young family types, empty nest professionals, and blue collar apartment or trailer dwellers. Despite the mixing that goes on through church service, most of the interpersonal interaction occurs in well-defined cliques.

    I’m not sure that we should really be too concerned about it though. Homophily (birds of a feather flock together) is present in nearly any kind of social group. We like being with people who are like us. I think this can be a problem if, for instance, it leads to hurt feelings or competing factions within the ward or if it ignites racist feelings, but for the most part cliques are a very natural form of socializing. Should we be concerned if cliques interfere with the proper functioning of the church? Of course, but the remarkable thing about the church is how well it integrates people of different backgrounds and interests into a common project/mission despite the existence of social cleavages.

  8. Nate on February 23, 2004 at 11:43 am

    The starkest example of this divide that I have seen is when I was attending the Cambridge 1st Ward. About two thirds of the ward consisted of a father in graduate school at Harvard or MIT and a (well-educated) young mother at home with one or more children under the age of three. The other third of the ward consisted of “long-term residents,” most of whom lived in Somerville, a working-class town next to Cambridge, often had much lower levels of education, had less experience in the Church, etc. Teaching in the ward was a challenge — how do you talk to everyone at once?

  9. Gordon Smith on February 23, 2004 at 11:53 am

    This isn’t exactly on point, but Nate’s comment about educational levels and Jim’s discussion of unconscious slights reminded me of an experience I had during my judicial clerkship in Louisiana. My judge was on the federal court of appeals, but he liked to do one or two trials every year. In a civil trial, the jurors were asked to provide some information, including “number of years of education.” When the first juror said “six” in response to that request, I thought,”Cool! Graduate school!” Only when the next person proudly said “graduated from high school” did I realize my error. Perhaps I should not have been amazed, but only two or three of the jurors had graduated from high school, and one of those was chosen as the foreperson.

  10. Russell Arben Fox on February 23, 2004 at 12:07 pm

    I concur with Jim and Julie regarding war boundaries. As we’ve discussed before, ward gerrymandering and ward-picking (when one is moving into a community) take place quite regularly. When you’ve only enough members for a single unit, there’s no problem. Once you have sufficient membership for two or more, though, class will invariably raise it’s head. Good neighborhoods vs. bad neighborhoods, suburbs vs. inner cities, etc. The exceptions which some of us are familiar with (in Boston, Chicago, etc.) exist solely because it sometimes happens that top universities find themselves stuck in old, declining neighborhoods, thus forcing aspiring middle and upper-class whites to interact with poor minorities they otherwise wouldn’t have anything in common with.

    Gordon–is the dinner group a bunch of friends who get together regularly, or is something formalized enough that, say, the schedule of where dinner is going to be held is printed in the program, or announced over the pulpit? If the former, well, then it’s just what Brayden said: a bunch of more or less peers enjoying each other’s company. Whether such a thing is exclusive or class-based or not would depend entirely on the motivation of the members. But if it is, in any way, a function of the ward itself…I’d be appalled and would condemn it loudly and long. I’ve seen that sort of classist crap (for example, a special separate Sunday School class with the “Utah” folk, another one teaching the “locals”), and I hate it with a passion.

    Sorry to get started there. Class is a hobby-horse for us social democrats.

  11. Gordon Smith on February 23, 2004 at 12:56 pm

    Russell, As to the dinner group, probably in between your two stylized groups. It is more than just friends; I, too, have no problem with that. But nothing so “official” that it hits the program or the pulpit. The funny thing about this is that it was started (apparently … we aren’t really sure) by the person I would least suspect of being classist, so my inclination is to view the motives as benign. Still, I worry about the unintended slights. Our current plan is to subvert from within.

    A separate class for Utah folk? Is that so the teacher can speak slowly without irritating the locals? ;-)

    In our Hyde Park Ward, some of the Ph.D candidates in Near Eastern Studies convinced the Bishop to create a separate Sunday School class. I find most Gospel Doctrine classes incredibly boring, so I attended. That class was definitely not boring, whatever else people said about it. I think most members saw it as a way for people to intellectualize their way out of the Church, but I’m still here.

  12. clark on February 23, 2004 at 3:33 pm

    I personally think that had most wards multiple Sunday School classes with different approaches, a lot of the complaints would dry up. The advantages to differences are quite strong. (Indeed I find one problem with Utah is the lack of diversity in a ward) But I must admit that I *hate* Sunday School because the lessons offer me nothing. At least in Sacrament you can say you get the sacrament and there is diversity in speaker. But Sunday School? Dang, the lack of diversity is very annoying.

    BTW – when my Dad got a job as a college professor in Nova Scotia, many of the leadership in the area couldn’t even read. It apparently was a bit of culture shock. He spent a lot of time filling out paperwork for the leadership who couldn’t read them.

  13. Greg Call on February 23, 2004 at 4:20 pm

    This was a constant concern when I was in an EQ presidency in Manhattan. The student and professionals wanted challenging, high level lessons, but there were new converts and others who were turned off by that stuff. It was tough to please everyone. The bishop eventually pulled one of the great, challenging, unorthodox teachers out of Elders and had him teach the High Priests. It was a loss for me personally, but the more simple, foundational lessons certainly engaged the newcomers better.

    A skillful teacher, of course, can reach all levels. Richard Bushman taught Gospel Doctrine for a time in that same ward and *no one* ever complained about anything.

  14. Jim F. on February 24, 2004 at 12:34 am

    Gordon, my suspicion is that your dinner group is much closer to being a group of friends with similar interests than something to be condemned. I.e., I bet Brayden is right.

    We have two Gospel Doctrine classes in my ward, one for those who like the way I teach and one for those who don’t. I have to confess I have a secret yearning to see which is bigger, but I can’t figure out any way to do so without revealing my embarassing secret desire. So I remain in the dark.

    Greg, obviously we need more Richard Bushmans in the Church, though I don’t know where we are going to get them. As Elder Oaks pointed out a few conferences ago, teaching in the church is not very good. (He was much more diplomatic than that, but that is what he meant.) But figuring out how to improve it isn’t easy.

  15. Chris Goble on February 24, 2004 at 12:29 pm

    Actually I find the quality of teaching in most programs and conferences in and out of the church to be lacking. For example, every year at the high school I am at we have a rather large (for our area) career fair with public relation inclined individual from numerous diverese fields. I am usually amazed that the students manage to sit through as many bad presentations as they do. I don’t think we can underestimate some of the tricks there are to being an effective teacher (ironically, most of which educational programs are incapable of teaching).

    Looking at the standard gospel doctrine teachers I have seen in my life, I think one of the big challenges is finding a way to involve the class, without having it taken over by verbose commentary, or meaningful tangents that don’t continue to develop the theme chosen by the instructor. As was mentioned earlier in this thread, it is tough to direct others comments without being offensive or insensitive. Of course how much interaction happens depends on the teaching syle of the individual. However, I think many instructors I have had have failed to realize the importance of tempo changes (meaningful questions being one example of this). I also think many classes tend to be more expositional than thought provoking. Of course the reason for this is fairly easy to see. Exposition doesn’t require much in the way of teaching skills, making it better suited for novice instructors. Getting people to think usually requires a grasp of the way people are going to put together the ideas. Usually tempo changes are a way to engage different styles of thinkers. For example, rhetorical questions are usually a good way to get the more creative thinkeres engaged while giving more concrete thinkers a break from information overload.

    However, it looks like I had better get back to my class and give them some thought provoking questions on appropriate noise levels :)

  16. clark goble on February 24, 2004 at 2:37 pm

    One thing I thought was helpful was the teacher training classes they used to have in Sunday School. In some wards I was in they’d have six people assigned to the class for two months. Then they’d have a good teacher teach the others how to teach (in theory anyway). As I recall the church even had a standard manual, although one that wasn’t terribly good.

    But I think Chris is right, what makes a good teacher isn’t usually something that can be taught. The problem often is that the good teachers are “taken” for other callings.