You are on page 1of 7


Laughlin 1

In this paper I will be reflecting upon the readings, conversations, and personal work I engaged in throughout the semester toexplore the emotional and societal effects of class. Much of my writing will be based around Madeline Levine¶s (2008) work, ³The Price of Privilege,´ but I will also be bringing in Oliver James (2007) book, ³Affluenza´ and bell hooks (2000) piece entitled, ³Where We Stand.´While I deeply agree with much of Levine¶s writing, I also attempted to explore it with a critical eye and open mind.I will write on the obscuring of class and how that impacts the individual and perpetuates class inequality. Then, I will conclude with observations made around the Prescott College community, reflections on conversations with friends, and a bit about the personal work I have done in this course. Madeline Levine has been a therapist for over twenty years, and in ³The Price of Privilege,´ she writes extensively on the troubling rise of affluent youth appearing in her office with severe and complicated issues and challenges. Often the youth are coming in with substance abuse issues, eating disorders, severe depression, anxiety, self-injurious behavior, suicidal tendencies, and feelings of emptiness and hopelessness, but these things are frequently masked by academic perfection, athletic achievements, and the ³right´ crowd. What is baffling to people across the psychology spectrum is that these are the kids that are supposed to have everything. They are supposed to be ³okay´ because they are primarily white, have money, education, a family, and a white picket fence. They have ³privilege.´ I would like to problematize the use of the word privilege when used in place of the term³class,´ andwhen referring to, higher classed bodies. The term privilege implies a solely positive advantage, leaving no space to explore the detrimental effects produced by class position and class history. It annihilates lived experience, invalidating emotions and perpetuating the vicious cycle of guilt and shame for not being ³good enough´ or ³okay.´Through the use of the term ³privilege,´ as


Laughlin 2

opposed to the term ³class,´ the inequality inherent in the hierarchical structure of class is reinforced by obscuring the nature of thisoppression as a class issue, presenting it instead as an issue of privilege. Levine sums up her perspective of the plight of these youth in writing, ³Not only are many of these kids expected to perform at the highest levels, they are also expected to make it look easy. Heavily dependent on their µpublic¶ success for a sense of self, many of these youngsters have little in the way of authentic purpose in their lives, leaving a void where conscience, generosity, and connection should be´ (Levine,2008,p.35). According to Levine, what many of these youth are lacking is an internal structure. Without that structure, when one fails to meet a perceived expectation or standard, there is nothing safe or solid for them to fall back on. They are climbing a fragile ladder constructed outsideof themselves, its stability dependent upon their ³success.´ The pressure to achieve begins early for many upper classed youth, from Ivy League feeder schools to beauty pageants, dinner parties, ballet, volunteer work, andFrench lessons. As I wrote in my ³Annotated Bibliography´ paper, ³When childhoods are spent striving to meet others expectations, believing this is the way to gain love, approval, and acceptance, how can belief in meritocracy be anything but expected? When our perceptions tell us that we have to ³attain´ love, like it is something to be worked for, earned, and kept through successful completion of tasks and a checklist, why would we be anything less than performance oriented; competing to prove to others why we deserve their love and attention? If something as basic as our need for love and support must be procured to be fulfilled, and love is equated to achievements, why wouldn¶t we be drawn to tangible expressions of our status?´ Obviously, this is deeplyenmeshed with capitalism and the ³American Dream.´ In Affluenza, Oliver James (2007) utilizes Erich Fromm¶s term ³Marketing Character´ to describe


Laughlin 3

the state in which he finds much of humanity: ³experiencing themselves as a commodity, with their value dependent on success, salability, the approval of others´(James,2007,p.10).I will argue that the problem Levine defines as ³the price of privilege´ transcends the bounds of class. Imbedded in a belief in meritocracy, coupled with a society fixated on performance, we are trapped in a system in which we have no choice but participate. Without awareness of this, we are at the mercy of our class position and a capitalistically motivated culture.Inherent in this trap is pecuniary emulation, the unending drive to make one equal to or greater than those they perceive as better off. ³Pecuniary´ pertains to financial matters, but I think this idea of pecuniary emulation goes beyond economic value, reaching far into the core of our culture of conspicuous consumption. As bell hooks writes, ³Tragically, the well-off and the poor are united in a capitalist culture by their shared obsession with consumption´ (hooks, 2000, p.46). Materialism and conspicuous consumption are seductive forces. They perpetuate beliefs that we are our achievements, our possessions, and our status. They sustain beliefs that other people are their achievements, possessions, and status.They enforce class stratification, furthering inequality and discrimination.They reiteratea negative perception of self and encourage greed and perception of greed in society. They entice the poor with promises of equality with the rich if only they wear this shirt, weigh this much, and work a little bit harder, all the while sending subtle reminders of the poor¶s worth-less status. Without awareness, it is impossible to take the personal responsibility required to engage in social change. We are kept distracted from inequality through things ranging from

prescription medication to war, clothing, movie stars,and trying to get ourselves and/or our kids ³there.´ Who has time to fight class inequality when they are working two jobs so their kids can eat, wear clothes, have a place to sleep at night, and maybe, just maybe, not have to worry quite


Laughlin 4

so much for their own kids? Who wants to look at class inequality when it¶s working for them? Once again, power is concentrated in a way that keeps people where they are. Prescott College is so interesting. Many of useat out of dumpsters, ride our self-built bicycles, dress to tell the world we don¶t care about its silly materials, and look with disdain at capitalism and the people we peg as major promoters of it. Yet, as we talked about in Declassified, we put an incredible amount of value on cultural capital. Travel, knowledge, language, theability to interact with deep theoretical work, and the ability to engage in social and environmental justice are a few examples of ways in which one¶s worth is evaluated and status is determined via cultural capital at PC. The obscuring of the reality of class stratification in our culture keeps many people from recognizing experiences boosting cultural capital as benefits of class position.At Prescott College, experiences that are directly related to benefits of class are often normalized because many students share similar class positions. For students of a lower class position,internalization of the structural inequality creating these gaps in cultural capital can result in shame, guilt, and self-deprecation for ³not being good enough.´ As I have frequently talked about throughout the semester, one of the most effective ways to keep inequality and discrimination thriving is to keep people from experiencing diversity. It is much easier to remain oblivious to inequality when the majority of people around a person hold comparable amounts of power. I have been thinking a lot about the ways in which education systems are set up to replicate class power hierarchies; how when someone of the ³wrong´ class ends up in the ³wrong´ school, that person becomes alienated, once again, internalizing structural discrepancies as intrinsic flaw. One of the most blatant examples at Prescott College of class obscurity is orientation. If a student comes to Prescott College during winter block, they are required to go on the three


Laughlin 5

week wilderness orientation, unless they have an extenuating circumstance rendering them unable. My specific circumstance was that I was unable to take three weeks off work, as I couldn¶t be guaranteed job security and I would be losing about 115-120 hours of work. Also, I had none of the gear required for three weeks in the wildness, didn¶t know anyone I could borrow from, and couldn¶t afford to rent it. A couple different things happen when a student doesn¶t do wilderness orientation: they are immediately alienated from a very large majority of their fellow incoming students and from Prescott College in general (in the sense of school tradition, unity, and pride), receiving a giant, ³You don¶t belong here!´ sticker the moment they register for orientation. The other thing that happens is courses with any sort of field component become much more difficult to access, as there are multiple hoops one must jump through. I actually had to have Jack Herring sign off on my registration for the fall semester following orientation because I was on restriction for having done community-based orientation, instead of wildness. I am blocked from takingcourses with field components until I prove myself ³capable´ in the wilderness. Obviously, this is not just a class issue. I am considering organizing around this with other students oppressed, alienated, and discriminated against by our current orientation structure, hopefully raising consciousness, creating change, and ripping a hole in the fluffy blanket obscuring class at Prescott College. As this past semester progressed, I was able to hear bits and pieces of several of my peer¶s class histories. It¶s so fascinating and frustrating to see and hear the ways in which class position impacts view of self and society. We talk about our privilege a lot, but I have begun to wonder if we can really know what that means if we aren¶t in the position of the oppressed? What¶s infuriating is that I know I never would have begun moving beyond internalizing structural inequality without access to the critical dialogue taking place at Prescott College. Why


Laughlin 6

are there voiceless populations being represented by those who are knowingly and unknowingly holding a share of power which is not theirs?I already know the answer; I¶m just angry I guess. It¶s been so intriguing to analyze my own shifting relationship to the effects of class. I¶m pretty fired up and pissed off, but also doing the personal work of accepting my class position, history, and its effects. The drive to obscure class is such a powerful player in the formation of my thoughts and beliefs, particularly about me, that I constantly question if I¶m just making things up, that class isn¶t real, that I can get myself ³there.´ I am now typically able to recognize that as structural inequality, but there are definitely still moments when I either can¶t see it as that, or I just need to feel the pain of it for a bit, acknowledging that I am actually human and things actually hurt sometimes. I cannot say enough about how excited I am to organize and challenge class obscurity at school. I am also super stoked to hold some sort of space for people to explore their personal relationship to class. It was so obvious through every single conversation I had that people were being deeply affected by their class position and history. I am scared to challenge the idea of ³privilege´ at Prescott College, but I believe a deeper understanding of self is absolutely essential for true and lasting social change. It¶s going to be beautiful.



Laughlin 7

Resource List: Levine, Madeline. The Price of Privilege: How Parental Pressure and Material Advantage are Creating a Generation of Disconnected and Unhappy Kids. Harper Paperbacks, 2008. James, Oliver. Affluenza. Vermillion, 2007. hooks, bell. Where we stand: class matters. Routledge, 2000.