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Strangers in Paradise: Academics from the Working Class

reviewed by Suzanne Hildenbrand - 1986

coverTitle: Strangers in Paradise: Academics from the Working Class
Author(s): Jake Ryan, Charles Sackrey
Publisher: University Press of America, Lanham
ISBN: 0761801421, Pages: 308, Year: 1996
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I may have moved physically and economically into a new class but my psyche is dragging (p. 303).

The role of American higher education in maintaining capitalism and the impact of that role on those of the working class who achieve upward mobility within institutions of higher education comprise the major themes of this book. Authors Jake Ryan of Bucknell University and Charles Sackrey of Ithaca College, both of working-class origin, have presented a provocative and unique work that is, however, most uneven in quality. Their well-argued Marxist thesis is supported by evidence that, while fascinating to read, is highly vulnerable to methodological criticism. Stylistically the work is a near disaster. Nonetheless, taken as a whole, it has the potential to spark creative thought and research on American higher education.

Challenging both the myth of widespread upward mobility based on individual merit and that of the distance of the university from the marketplace, the authors note the peculiar burden of those who choose the university as their route to upward mobility. Since a major role of the university is the reproduction of the cultural relations of capitalism, these individuals may find themselves internalizing the class conflict. If at elite institutions — and few of lower-class origins are — they will find themselves training bosses who will supervise their own families and friends. If at less prestigious institutions, they will find themselves acting as gatekeepers, weeding out youth who most resemble themselves and their families and friends. In either case the psychic pain can be enormous. The universities, far from being a sanctuary, play an increasingly important role in maintaining the system. The authors provide a review of American higher education since World War II that well illustrates the growing linkage of the universities to the state and to major corporations. This linkage fostered both the enormous expansion that, according to the authors, was more responsible for upward mobility than was individual merit, and the increasingly repressive or managerial atmosphere on campus.

Noting that most studies of higher education and stratification deal with aggregates, the authors set out to explore the psychological dimensions of the issue. In this they have taken Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb's Hidden Injuries of Class (1972) and Lillian Rubin's Worlds of Pain (1976) as models. This was a brilliant idea, but its execution leaves much to be desired. In finding participants the authors appear to have relied on a word-of-mouth technique that, not surprisingly, recruited respondents who resembled themselves on many if not most significant variables, including political perspective. Of the twenty-four respondents whose statements were included, all are white, twenty-two are men, and most had finished their graduate study by 1975. All were in the liberal arts, most in the social sciences, and only six were untenured. While the authors deplore the unrepresentativeness of their group, it is not clear what they did to avoid it nor is it clear that they understand how a different selection might have yielded different responses. The absence of faculty from engineering, technology, and other fields that have weathered the academic doldrums of recent years is especially unfortunate.

Participants were asked to write brief essays about their feelings on having made it in academia and the responses make fascinating reading. Resentment, disappointment, a fear of being "found out," and anxiety are major emotions displayed by many if not most respondents. Even being complimented with "you could have prepped at Choate for all anyone can tell now" evokes resentment and memories of destitution, with its accompanying hunger and bad teeth (p. 139). (Dental problems were widespread in the group.) One measures his personal cultural distance from his colleagues in terms of his dislike for Impressionism, Schoenberg, and Joyce. Several express disgust at the careerism of their colleagues from middle-class backgrounds and note their own idealistic attachment to learning and scholarship.

Most are in less than top-rank institutions and would probably agree with the professor in the small Catholic university who observed that "the academia I hoped to get into ain't here" (p. 158). Not given credit for the distance traveled, they are continually reminded of the low status of their institution in the academic universe. The role of the military in promoting the careers of these men is striking, as is the indirection of the route many pursued. At least two began in engineering or science and later decided on social science; others dropped out for varying periods of time. Many had mediocre academic records, at least at the outset. Since some of these latter evidently tested well, underachievement, that psychological albatross, might well be investigated in terms of social class. Several point out how much more comfortable they are with upper-class people than with middle-class people.

Although several credited their mothers with a major role in their advance, a surprising number acknowledged hostility toward their middle-class women students. This latter group included one who was also in the fairly large group of those who married students. One is left with a kind of class-oriented whore/madonna view of women with the good, poor, self-sacrificing mother contrasted with the well-dressed, spoiled "coed."

For all their trials and tribulations —one spent seventeen years as an assistant professor! — none would voluntarily leave academia. The autobiographical sketches are, as one might expect, clever, witty, and sardonic. The authors' contribution does not always match them, however. Using a style vaguely reminiscent of sixties New Leftism, the authors too often trivialize their material. Railing against the alliance of the "Great Kissinger" and the "Great Harvard" and the "Great Nixon" (p. 83) does not substitute for an analysis of the academic backgrounds of top government policymakers. Quoting a respondent's brother-in-law who said, on viewing the books to be read over a holiday, "You read all them books and you're going to turn into a geek," and observing that this is "interesting theory, perhaps true, on occasion" (p. 121) advances Marxian analysis of academia not one bit.

In summary, this imaginative use of Marxist theory to explore the personal experience of people from lower-class origins in academia may stimulate new perspectives on and investigations in American higher education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 88 Number 1, 1986, p. 113-115
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 646, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 6:57:22 AM

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