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Becoming Educated: Young People's Narratives of Disadvantage, Class, Place and Identity

reviewed by Stephanie Jones - August 08, 2014

coverTitle: Becoming Educated: Young People's Narratives of Disadvantage, Class, Place and Identity
Author(s): John Smyth & Peter McInerney
Publisher: Peter Lang Publishing, New York
ISBN: 1433122111, Pages: 174, Year: 2014
Search for book at Amazon.com

“I don’t want them to be…Broke.”

Sherri (pseudonym) focused on the stove, stirring the food already cooking in two skillets. Her words were chosen carefully and I stood quietly, leaning against the refrigerator, waiting to hear what she had to say. We were discussing her children’s experience with the neighborhood-based gardening camp in which they were participating, and Sherri brought up the children’s school experiences and grades. I had been a researcher in the neighborhood for a year, studying the ways in which place and economic discourse shape and are shaped by lived experiences of working class children. They all received good grades, Sherri said, and they were all doing well in school. She just didn’t want them to be. Broke.


The word hung in the air then fell flat. Silence followed and we locked eyes for a few moments of heaviness. We exchanged the unspeakable, both knowing well the devastations of being broke—or what politicians, philanthropists and scholars call poverty—and the uncertainty about education’s promise of economic security.

Being broke isn’t only a matter of economics: a matter of not knowing how you will feed your children tomorrow, how you will pay the rent, or how you will have gas money to get to a part-time job you finally secured after four years of unemployment. Being broke is also a matter of psychological and social injury: fear, unpredictability, uncertainty, worry, stress, or being looked down upon. Being broke in a society that claims “egalitarianism” such as Australia or equal access to a “Dream” such as the United States inflicts additional damage to the psyche. Shame, embarrassment, and resentment can easily be folded into one’s perception of oneself, one’s family, or one’s neighborhood when dominant discourses perpetuate the illusion that those who work hard enough or who are deserving will be financially rewarded. Sherri, a young mother in the United States, had worked very hard. Now she hopes that, somehow, the hard work of her children and her parenting will result in a different economic outcome. She doesn’t know how that will happen if not through education, and she doesn’t want her children to endure the material and psychosocial hardships that come with being broke as an adult.

That same hope and optimism regarding the promise of education is strung throughout the narratives of youth in Smyth and McInerney’s book, Becoming Educated: Young People’s Narratives of Disadvantage, Class, Place and Identity. The authors alert readers that “One of our main tasks as ‘political authors’ is to interrupt the deficit discourses and contest those social practices which oppress particular categories of young people” (p. 31). The category of young people they are most concerned about is the financially-strapped and socio-educationally categorized as ‘disadvantaged’. The scholarly journey the authors embark on is chasing “social class and how it does its ugly and deforming work” and how class and place impact upon the project of what the authors call becoming educated (p. 64). At a time when research manuscripts, journalistic articles, academic and popular press books, and social media proliferate on the subject of grossly inequitable societies resulting from state-sponsored neoliberal capitalism stretching its tentacles across every exploitable domain, this book is both timely and important.

Smyth and McInerney offer a significant contribution to how the injustices of neoliberal capitalism are shaping the lived experiences, psyches and aspirations of 21st century youth across the globe. Woven throughout the book are portraits of young people from two locations in Australia crafted from ethnographic interviews that illuminate adolescents’ explanations and descriptions of their perceptions and experiences of schooling. Most of the narratives describe a hopeful future acquired through education in their public schools that provide a lot of choice, a range of academic and vocational offerings, and a sense of responsibility for one’s own learning and engagement. Participants talk about desires to work in creative industries such as hairdressing, music, events management, and graphic design for video games. Others have hopes for pursuing forensic science, physiotherapy, and veterinary medicine. Many participants eloquently point out the classism they must endure because of their families’ socioeconomic situation and the physical places they call home, while more affluent participants disparage their working-class counterparts’ behaviors and aspirations, perpetuating a mind/body dichotomy of academic pursuits and manual labor (e.g., Rose, 2014). However, none of the participants spoke explicitly about social class per se, raising the question of access to a language that speaks to the systemic grip of classism on discourses and psyches of people at all levels of the social hierarchy.

Smyth and McInerney explore that grip of classism in Chapter Four, Bringing Class Out of the Closet, through scholarship and participant portraits. They give readers a succinct overview of relevant theory and research in class and education with an emphasis on the work of British sociologist of education Diane Reay and the psychosocial nature of social class and classism. Readers not yet familiar with Reay’s work will get a nice introduction to one of the most important contemporary scholars concerned with intersections of social class, education, and subjectivity. But it is Chapter Five, Celebrating Space, Place, and Neighborhoods, that makes this book unique in its combination of analyses of class and education and critical human geography. Postmodern geographers argue that geography “hides consequences” of exploitative capitalism (e.g., Soja, 1989, p. 71) and its inherent uneven development (e.g., Harvey, 2006; Massey, 2007). Smyth and McInerney bring place-specific perspectives and experiences to reveal those consequences through their use of Lefebvre, Wacquant, and the authors’ counter narratives against the “socio-spatial nature of stigmatization and its devastating impact on the identities of people living in neighborhoods categorized as ‘disadvantaged’ (pp. 102–103). For example, the stereotype of a ‘westie’ is tied to a particular space (a government housing area on the west side) but then becomes linked to the bodies of people from that space or similarly classed spaces. Place, then, marks a body, and even if a body traverses physical space, outsiders may read that body as belonging to a particular place. In this way, a ‘westie’ becomes anyone who looks as though they are associated with lower socioeconomic places and thus viewed as suspect and deviant. Place and identities are shaped through one another, a socio-spatial process that can both perpetuate privilege and marginalization, as differently “placed” people are perceived differently and offered differential treatment, opportunity, access, and expectations.

“Work hard in school so you can get a good job” has long been the mainstream mantra of Western educational systems, perpetuating a meritocratic ideal that doesn’t necessarily exist in the worlds of Smyth and McInerney’s participants and their families. Nor does it seem to exist in the worlds of the children and families with whom I am most familiar in my life and research in the United States. Discourses of upward mobility might inspire “hope” but they lead to a dismal material reality. Stagnant and declining wages, decreased employment benefits, increased temporary work, and grossly inequitable incomes and wealth between the top earners and everyone else is the outcome of draconian social and labor policies that continue to be rolled out across regions, nations, and the globe. Social mobility—or the movement from one income level to another—is almost nonexistent in the United States where neoliberal economic theories were born, and very low in Australia where Smyth and McInerney’s research is situated.  

An issue Smyth and McInerney don’t explicitly engage in their book is what education is for if there aren’t living wage jobs waiting at the end of the credentialing rainbow. This is a key question that awaits our global, capitalist, materialist attention. However, their nod to “southern theory” (Connell, 2007) and denouncing of the over-privileging of Western and Northern hemisphere research might lead us toward some productive paths. Local, indigenous ways of being/knowing outside the self-proclaimed centers of knowledge production in the global North and West will remind us that earth resources are finite and that sustainability is the only way to live within the means of our respective places. Global capitalism not only pushes resources beyond sustainability, it also thrusts toward imperialistic homogeneity with respect to the materiality of lives such as food, home furnishings, vehicles, housing, clothing. Indeed, when participants in Smyth and McInerney’s study mentioned McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken I had to remind myself that they were living on the other side of the globe from where I was reading the book. Besides fried chicken, another gift of global capitalism is the thrust toward imperialistic homogeneity with respect to the discursivity of lives such as processes for tracking people, systems of employment, systems of incarceration, and systems of education. Indeed, once again, I felt as though I was reading a critique of U.S. social and educational policy rather than Australian policy, and I am well aware that such policies are being enacted through many different governments. Putting our policy and educational efforts into understanding local places and the needs and desires of local people could lead toward sustainable policy-making that would have a very different effect than imperialism, a move toward the generation and acceptance of difference and heterogeneity.

Smyth and McInerney are part of a rapidly expanding cadre of scholars across the globe producing empirical research and class-conscious analyses that call into question the very purpose of imperialistic education for youth in socioeconomically struggling families and communities. Their critique of policies incubated in the 1950s and 1960s Chicago School of Economics and scattered across domains never before considered “economic” joins a chorus of colleagues demanding radical changes in policy orientations.

If societies wanted to stop breaking people, and prevent adults from being broke, they could do so, but Sherri and the youth from the study in Australia represented in this book cannot do it alone. The solution is in political will and ethical economics. Despite the brilliant insights, intelligences, and aspirational hopes demonstrated by participants throughout Becoming Educated, their place in society will be largely determined not by themselves, their families, their schools, or their neighborhoods, as so many politicians and educational reformers claim. Their place in society will be largely decided by legislators, corporations, and lobbyists making arguments and decisions about how tremendous wealth and opportunity will be distributed across the social landscape.

Perhaps this is the very education needed in schools, a becoming educated about economics beyond the insidious capitalism (supply and demand as natural and neutral, entrepreneurship and expansion, profits over people, corporate practices in public institutions) that saturates official and unofficial curriculum at all levels. This kind of education would expose the fact that being broke in today’s capitalism isn’t a personal failure or failure of a local community, but rather a predictable and even desirable product of the system. Such a realization may not engender the same kind of hope to which Sherri and the participants in this book cling to now, but it might just inspire a different kind of hope and call to action. Students becoming educated in this way might realize that the “poverty of aspiration”—what Smyth and McInerney call a “cruel phrase” (p. 107) used in the U.K. and predictably exported elsewhere to describe certain categories of people—might more aptly describe the economic, political, and educational leadership of our time.


Harvey, D. (2006). Spaces of global capitalism: Towards a theory of uneven geographic development. London: Verso.

Massey, D. (2007). World city. London: Polity.

Rose, M. (2014). The mind at work: Valuing the intelligence of the American worker. New York: Penguin Books.

Smyth, J. & McInerney, P. (2014). Becoming educated: Young people’s narratives of disadvantage, class, place and identity. New York: Peter Lang.

Soja, E. W. (1989). Postmodern geographies: The reassertion of space in critical social theory. London: Verso.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: August 08, 2014
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17636, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 3:28:40 AM

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About the Author
  • Stephanie Jones
    University of Georgia
    E-mail Author
    STEPHANIE JONES is Professor in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice at The University of Georgia. Her research engages the intersections of social class, gender, literacies, and place across informal and formal pedagogical spaces. Stephanie's work focused on children, families, and teacher education has recently appeared in Educational Researcher, Teachers College Record, Phi Delta Kappan, Gender and Education, Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy, and Reading and Writing Quarterly. She is editor of Writing and Teaching to Change the World: Connecting with our Most Vulnerable Students; author of Girls, Social Class and Literacy: What Teachers Can Do to Make a Difference; and co-author of The Reading Turn-Around: A Five-Part Framework for Differentiated Instruction. Her current projects include completing a graphica/comics-based presentation of a three-year study of teacher education, and an ethnographic study of working-class children's pedagogical experiences of place and economic discourse.
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