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Radical Eyes for Equity: Privilege as a Barrier to Learning

I am deeply skeptical about two things—criticism of “young people today” as if this younger generation is somehow significantly less capable than older generations and student evaluations of teaching (SETs).

So nothing would be worse, in my opinion, than launching into a “young people today” screed based on SETs. Therefore, what follows is intended as an evidence-based observation toward understanding, not a criticism, grounded in both recent SETs and my 20 years teaching at a selective liberal arts university (after teaching 18 years at a rural high school).

My almost four decades of teaching have been in two contexts with significant social class differences. My high school students were mostly working class and poor; my university students are quite privileged in terms of social class but also in terms of the quality of education they received before entering high education (many are from private school backgrounds).

Across both populations, I often am perceived (at first) as extremely demanding, and even harsh (or “mean”).

My high school students, many working class as I was (and I also attended the school where I taught), within a few weeks tended to flip in their opinion of my courses and even me. Many years later, I have very warm relationships with many of those students; and even those who still openly express that they aren’t fans of me as a person confirm that they appreciate the work I did as a teacher.

Achieving that level of connection and warmth with my university students has been rare to mostly absent. My university students, overwhelmingly privileged in many ways, are quite unlike me, having grown up working class and receiving my BA, MEd, and EdD from state universities.

I just reviewed my fall 2021 SETs, and despite efforts to address the negativity (and even antagonism) in my spring 2021 SETs, I once again read a significant amount of negative, angry, and harsh responses to my courses.

A few things are going on, I think. First, I believe the Covid-era has in many ways inflated student stress, which is reflected in the increase of negative comments (a point I am making not to criticize students, but to acknowledge the larger forces at work and how SET data are rarely about teacher quality).

Second, while I reject the credibility and validity of SETs (as reflected in research on the practice), I do think the data say less about teacher quality and more about the students themselves.

Now, putting those two points together allows me to draw some important conclusions about privilege as a barrier to learning.

Before I explore that thought, let me offer a few caveats.

Socioeconomic status is the strongest correlation to measurable student achievement; therefore, wealthy and white students disproportionately are labeled as “good” or “excellent” students.

However, if you dig deeper in that data, you discover that eduction is not the “great equalizer” but a marker for privilege; privilege itself actually trumps having more and so-called better education (extensive research supports that claim); for one example, see the following data:

The Unequal Race for Good Jobs: How Whites Made Outsized Gains in Education and Good Jobs Compared to Blacks and Latinos

People born into socioeconomic and/or race privilege tend to navigate and achieve advanced education degrees, but the privilege itself is the primary driver of their “success” (attaining high-paying jobs), not the education.

My university students often have backgrounds in selective private schools, and almost all of them have completed high school as top students (many having made As throughout their schooling).

When I examine the types of things students are critical of and even angry about, I am increasingly concerned that privilege is a barrier to learning even as these students successfully navigate college and continue to earn high grades.

Here are the types of things privileged students are critical of in my courses recently (again, I am not criticizing these students but offering this as a way to describe and understand why they are struggling):

  • Privileged students are disproportionately offended by feedback and requirements for revision*. Living in privilege that contributes to years of praise and success have created students who are very thin-skinned and frail. As I have examined before, many students perceive all feedback as negative. Many of these students want to submit work once and have it immediately praised, and assigned an A. Being show ways to revise and improve, being asked to revise—these approaches trigger students of privilege.
  • Privileged students have a “banking” concept of teaching and learning (that Paulo Freire criticized). In other words, my privileged students view my job as dispensing for them knowledge as capital; I, however, reject the “banking” concept of teaching and see the role of teacher as facilitator. Privileged students tend to resist having their autonomy as learners increased, viewing a teacher-as-facilitator as negligent or even lazy (not doing their job).
  • Privileged students are very skeptical of and often paralyzed by de-grading practices. Grades for privileged students have been positive experiences that confirm their belief that they are “good” students who have earned those grades. People in privilege often interpret success as mostly a reflection of their effort—and not their privilege. Removing grades removes their safety blanket. (One student from last fall claimed they were reduced to crying often in my course due to my non-grading practices.)
  • Privileged students prefer knowledge-based courses to process-and-product-based courses. Although certainly not exclusively so, privileged students seem to view knowledge as “objective” and process/product as “subjective”; therefore, the latter creates anxiety in them that they will not be successful (not make an A).
  • Privileged students perceive “being smart” as something you achieve and not a journey. Since they have often been told they are smart, they can misinterpret “smart” as their being “finished”; being challenged to learn more or, especially, to re-think their learning is perceived as an attack on their Selves.
  • Privileged students are hyper-sensitive to decorum, formality, and tone. While I recognize some of this point is grounded in my personality, I am increasingly aware that some of the tone tension between my students and me is class-based. I despise formality and do my work at a very high level of efficiency; my emails and my written feedback are terse and direct. Privileged students tend to interpret that style as mean, harsh, and discouraging. This issue with tone overlaps, I think, with my efforts to shift responsibility away from me doing work for students and toward students taking agency over their own learning (many students dislike my use of highlighting when I return written work, for example). As one of the most unexpected examples from my fall SETs, a student recommended I start using “Hi” to start my emails.
  • Privileged students cling desperately to playing school and performing as students. Tests, grades, assignment rubrics and grade scales/weights, lectures, etc., are the environment where they have flourished; anything that deviates from these traditional practices creates anxiety—and skepticism about the teacher.
  • Privileged students (like their conservative parents) fear radical ideas and change. This is basic human nature; when the world works for you, you fear change to that system. I am a critical educator and scholar so my approach to ideas and the world are perceived as not just radical, but threatening to their way of life.

In the grand scheme of my career as a teacher, I realize the folly in SETs because, once again, my fall SETs included dramatically contradictory responses side-by-side—praise for my feedback and willingness to help students learn followed by claims that my feedback is “vague” and “mean,” ultimately discouraging the student to learn.

Again, the feedback says far more about the students than my work as a teacher.

None the less, I believe I have turned a corner in my understanding of the complex nature of privilege in the teaching/learning dynamic.

Yes, on balance, of course, privilege is an incredible advantage, but like being labeled gifted, privilege can also be a barrier to learning—and being happy.

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P.L. Thomas

P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC), taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. He...