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The impact parents have on their children's educational aspirations and occupational success has long occupied center stage in the sociological literature. This body of research, consisting mostly of large-scale surveys, suggests that parents' attitudes toward education have a significant effect on their children's educational aspirations (Coleman and Hoffer 1987; Henderson 1987; National Center for Education Statistics 1982; Sewell, Haller, and Portes 1969). If the attitudes of parents toward their children's education are important, then it is vital to understand how these parental attitudes are shaped.
It is commonly argued that social class plays an important part in the formation of an individual's attitudes toward education. One problem with the survey research in this area is its inability to delineate the process by which social class affects an individual's attitudes toward education. A key question remains to be answered: Just why are there differences in attitudes toward education among social classes? To help answer this research question, I conducted intensive and lengthy interviews with forty middle-class and forty working-class parents (using a cluster-sampling technique) residing in a medium-sized city in the United States.
This study, drawing on the work of Rubin (1976, 1994), Sennett and Cobb (1972), Willis (1977), and Anyon (1980), suggests that two concepts -- resistance and conformity -- are central to understanding the process by which parental attitudes are shaped. The probability that parents will conform to or resist the meritocratic ideology of acquiring a college education to help ensure occupational success tends to depend on their social-class background and, concomitantly, on whether they have experienced "hidden injuries of class" (Sennett and Cobb 1972). This reformulation of some classic sociological and social psychological concepts -- which helps explain the attitudes of parents toward education by their class-specific experiences in their own family, at school, and at the workplace -- suggests a new way of understanding the process by which social class affects parental attitudes toward education.
This study explores the attitudes that develop in response to the educational, familial, and occupational experiences that people in different social classes encounter in a capitalist society. Families, as well as schools, are a critical site for reproduction of educational aspirations; working-class parents hold more diverse and more complex orientations toward their children's schooling than previous research has reported. Middle-class parents are much more homogenous than working-class parents in their view of American education and its impact on occupational success. A culture of professionalism drives the attitudes of middle-class parents toward education.
LITERATURE: DISPARATE EXPLANATIONS AND FINDINGS
Social reproduction theories, which explore the mechanisms by which social-class relations are maintained, have had some success in outlining the processes influencing a child's aspirations but usually limit their analyses to the peer group and the school to the exclusion of the family (Bourdieu 1977, 1984, 1988a, 1988b; Bourdieu and Passerson 1977; Bowles and Gintis 1976; Giroux 1981; Giroux and Simon 1989; Willis 1977, 1981). At the same time, intensive studies of working-class families have not focused on class-specific educational attitudes and aspirations (Berger 1960; Gans 1962; Halle 1984; Howell 1972; Komarovsky 1962; Komblum 1974; Levitan 1971; Rubin 1976; Sennett and Cobb 1972; Shostak 1969). This study links both of these research traditions.
There are several competing explanations for the different ways middle-class and working-class parents approach education. Kohn (1969) argues that parents know from their workplace experiences the skills and education their children will need; working-class parents teach traits such as conformity, punctuality, and obedience, while middle-class parents try to instill other traits in their children such as independence, creativity, and self-actualization. Using the same argument, Rubin (1976, 207-08) adds that the working-class families she encountered were lacking educational role models and information concerning college admissions, but were not overly concerned because this meant that they did not have to worry that their children would be lost to an alien way of life.
A more recent version of this kind of argument posits that working-class parents are actually raising their educational aspirations for their children based on the parents' reading of the changing economy (Weis 1987). The deindustrialization that took place in,the 1980s has forced working-class parents to consider a college education for their children.
A different reason given for low educational aspirations among the working class is that working-class children see their chance of upward mobility as slim, given their environment, and choose to drop out of school, figuratively if not literally (Ogbu 1978; Willis 1977). Willis (1977) contends that dropping out of school is a "penetration" into the workings of capitalism and an act of "resistance." Resistance to schooling, however, only solidifies social-class reproduction; working-class children (and I would argue parents, too) ensure their place in working-class occupations by participating in acts of resistance to the meritocratic ideology of upward mobility.
Yet, another explanation, class-specific attitudes toward education, is based on presumed differences in cultural capital available to different social classes. For instance, Lareau (1987) looked at two first-grade classrooms in working- and middle-class communities. She noted that working-class parents, as well as middle-class parents, value education (although middle-class parents have higher aspirations for their children's educational attainment); however, because of their social-class position, working-class parents do not have the cultural capital (i.e., educational level, information, occupational prestige, flexible work schedules, kinship ties, leisure activities, socialization patterns, and linguistic structure) that is necessary for their children to succeed in school. This lack of cultural capital prevents working-class parents from participating in school affairs and, therefore, hinders their children's educational achievement and attainment.
Other research has taken a social-psychological approach to the impact of social class on the attitudes of parents toward their children's education (Sennett and Cobb 1972). Working-class individuals, from this perspective, are ambivalent about the benefits of a college education. These parents want their children to have what they did not have -- a college education (Connell et al. 1982) -- but disrespect the kind of work for which the college degree will prepare their children. In short, working-class parents must prepare their children for work the parents disrespect; this is the key to understanding the hidden injuries of class.
Most of the research on attitudes toward education has focused on the working class -- assuming middle-class values to be the benchmark -- and have come up with conflicting results. A series of British studies has documented the anti-educational feeling found in working-class homes (see Craft, Raynor, and Cohen 1972). Most of the work in the United States on working-class attitudes toward educational attainment, in general, has recorded the tendency for the working class to be sensitive to discussions regarding their schooling (Halle 1984; Howell 1972; Rubin 1976; Sennett and Cobb 1972). This kind of reaction is indicative of the hidden injuries of class.
By contrast, some research (British and American) has captured positive working-class attitudes toward education (Cave 1970; Komarovsky 1962; Lindsay 1969). This body of work shows that members of the working class are interested in education and seek information about their children's schooling (even if it only concerns job opportunities). Lindsay's (1969) study suggests that the greater the frequency of parental social contacts, the more likely they will not underestimate their children's future educational attainment. This theme has also been expounded elsewhere. For instance, Marsden (1962) found that working-class parents make decisions regarding their children's schooling based on the neighborhood children's opinions, whereas middle-class parents have a more broadly based network. Similarly, Kahl (1953) uncovered a pattern suggesting that a working-class child has a better chance of attending college if his or her father has friends who went to college. In fact, if Halle (1984) is correct in his assertion that working-class and middle-class families frequent similar leisure establishments and live in close proximity to each other, we should expect to find working-class families slowly raising their educational aspirations for their children.
It is possible that these conflicting research findings reflect the reality of different segments of the working class. Lillian Rubin (1976) described the working-class families she studied as living in "worlds of pain": unfulfilled dreams, boring social lives, miserable jobs, and marriages offering little personal growth. But as Hard Living on Clay Street (Howell 1972) portrayed, working-class lifestyles fall on a continuum from "hard living" to "settled living" families. Based on the data I collected, I will argue that some working-class parents do, indeed, resist the traditional means of upward mobility through higher education, while other working-class parents -- those who have encountered fewer hidden injuries of class-take a more "middle class" approach to higher education. The middle-class parents will be seen, for the most part, as reproducing their culture of professionalism.
The sample for this study was drawn from an old, medium-sized, northeastern U.S. city (population: approximately 100,000). Old City (name changed to protect confidentiality) had been a magnet for immigrants during the nineteenth century; industries such as trade, transportation, foundries, lumber, and railroads dominated the landscape. These immigrants built and lived in ethnic enclaves that, to some degree, still exist today. (A few of these neighborhoods are part of the present study.) Some of the neighborhoods remain stable demographically while others are in flux. Many of the respondents are worried about crime, drugs, and racial minorities. Today, the area's three main employers -- the public, service, and wholesale/retail sectors -- keep the unemployment rate relatively low (around 5 percent). The county boasts a vast and prestigious higher educational system and has a large number of Ph.D.s per 100,000 residents. The large number of students in the vicinity give parts of the city a "college town" atmosphere (as well as pumping up the local economy). The housing ranges from single-family ranch and colonial style homes in the middle-class neighborhoods to two- and three-story (multifamily) row houses, many with top and bottom porches, in the working-class neighborhoods.