How the Economic Class Structure Affects our Learning

(An edited version of talks at the 1978 summer Educational Change Workshops)
Julian Weissglass


At the basis of the oppression that exists in the society and gets transmitted through the schools is the class society in which we live. The motivating force behind racism, anti-Semitism, sexism, and many other forms of oppression is the exploitation for economic gains of one group by another group. If we understand how the class structure affects people’s learning, we will have a good foundation for understanding many other forms of oppression.

It’s useful to have an historical perspective. How did the hurtful things that exist in society and in our schools get started? How are they perpetuated? The hurts that early human beings suffered must have been violence and the threat of violence and the fear of death—of not being able to survive the physical challenges that the world presented. As humans became aware of themselves and of the environment, they became aware that death was possible from volcanoes, earthquakes, storms, beasts or at the hands of other human beings. Most of the distress recordings that humans acquired at that time were probably related to their attempts to survive. For example, our conditioning against emotional discharge probably stemmed from the time when controlling it had survival value. If you were hiding from an animal or other humans, you couldn’t be sobbing or shaking. So the patterns of suppressing our natural discharge processes probably seemed to have survival value at one time. As human civilization progressed and people began to get some control over the physical environment and feel more secure, the terror of not surviving was still present. As people began to feel a little secure, of course the terror would push them to want to feel “more” secure. As they got a little control over the environment, the insecurity patterns must have urged more control in order to be more secure. We know how distress patterns continue to function even though the actual situation has changed.

As certain groups sought to accumulate the resources to provide for their safety they would, as a result of their fear, subdue other groups. There is a history of various groups of people fighting against and destroying other groups of people and taking their resources. When it became economically and technologically possible for a human being to produce more than he/she could consume, it became profitable to enslave them in order to exploit their labor. Thus the institution of slave societies developed. Thousands of years later, as slave societies foundered in their own internal contradictions, feudal societies overthrew them, and after several hundred years, were overthrown by capitalistic societies.

In each of these societies, the working groups of people (slaves, serf, wage-workers) are exploited for the economic gains of the ruling groups (slaves, feudal lords, capitalists). In order for this process to begin and continue, certain things had to happen. Human beings will not willingly submit to oppression unless they first feel less than human about themselves. They must be made to feel that they deserve the oppression. On the other hand, the people doing the exploiting would not do so if they had not also been victimized. In order to perpetuate exploitation as an ongoing institution in the society, some behavior patterns must be installed: such as violence and the fear of death and these patterns are transmitted from one generation to the next. Remember, it wasn’t too long ago that violence and death were openly organized. Almost all of us have witnessed brutality, violence, and death of loved ones caused by the oppressive forces in society. Women, young people, and gay people all live with violence and the threat of violence in their lives. Violence is the ultimate force behind adultism. Adults are bigger than young people and can enforce their will. We have all faced that every day of our lives as young people. The resulting feelings of powerlessness need to be discharged.


It is not necessary to resort to violence to keep people feeling powerless and less than human. Another way is to interfere with their learning and make them feel stupid or incompetent. Our ability to learn is a source of great power. We can learn many different things. We can learn how to make clothing, grow food, type, construct bridges and airplanes; we can learn theories about matter, stars, and mathematics. We can learn about people and how they live, about their cultures and how they have been treated. If our learning weren’t interfered with, we might not put up with any oppression. We need to find ways of reclaiming our power over our learning.

One step is to find out exactly how the economic system in the world affects learning. What is going on in the schools in this regard? How are human beings treated by the school systems and other educational institutions. Getting information is the first step in not letting our learning be interfered with any further and not letting others’ learning be interfered with by a rigid system. The next steps will be action—actively intervening to change the situation for ourselves and others.


Remember that each of us has had his or her learning interfered with by the economic structure. It doesn’t matter whether you were rich or poor, what your parents’ occupations were or where you grew up. Each and every one of us has been affected by the way class values are institutionalized in the schools and by the attitudes around learning that exist because of the economic structure. No one has escaped. In a way, this is encouraging, because economically advantaged and dis-advantaged both have a common interest in changing the situation.

The learning of people from different economic classes is interfered with in different ways. Different groups of people are made to feel inadequate in different areas or made to feel that learning certain things is not important or is not an option for them. For example, people from upper economic classes were often not encouraged to learn how to do things with their hands. They were not taught how to produce things since productive labor, especially by men, was devalued in their environment. But every human being is capable of learning to do all sorts of things. It is hurtful not to be encouraged to learn to our full potential. A serious effect of this is that the division of skills tends to cement the class structure in place.

Working class people are often encouraged to learn about productive labor, but academic or artistic areas of learning are frequently made inaccessible to them. If they do pursue academic learning, they either have to struggle against deep feelings of discouragement and receive little encouragement from their friends and family, or they come under pressure from families which see academic success as a way out of the oppression. This last is a traditional United States process. Oppressed groups often send their children to school to learn skills to join the middle class. In the process, they can become alienated from friends who haven’t done the same thing—the people who are closest to them, their natural allies. Friends and relatives may make statements such as “You’re too good for us now that you’ve gone to college,” and the student often “buys into” embarrassment about his or her working class parents.

The pressure to succeed academically affects children from many economic classes. Parents are aware that success in school often leads to privileges in the society. If you aren’t able to succeed academically or choose not to function in that way, then you may have to confront parents’ and teachers’ disapproval. Being told that “you have let me down” or “you didn’t do as well as I expected you to do” installs feelings of guilt and inadequacy.

One can’t generalize too far, of course. Everybody has been affected by the class structure in a unique way. Other forms of oppression also affect learning. For example, the learning of men and women in the same economic class can be markedly different.

Examine the effects of the class system in your sessions and be aware of it in your lives. How does it affect your learning? How does it affect the people around you? We can play an important role in contradicting the effects of the class structure on young people both in the way we relate to them and in changing educational policy. Some suggestions are contained in Classroom 4, p. 54.

Last modified: 2015-07-21 17:36:24+00