In a famous imaginary exchange, F. Scott Fitzgerald said, "The rich are different from us." Ernest Hemingway replied, "Yes, they have more money." Most critics have thought the epigram attributed to Fitzgerald more perceptive about class in the United States than the one attributed to Hemingway. But if we're looking for a wry take on how class has been understood, in the media and among college students, Hemingway's comment is pretty good.
To be sure, runs mainstream ideology, rich people have a lot of money. So what? They earned it, and in America anyone who works hard can do likewise, or has a fair chance of doing likewise, or at least has a fair chance at a chicken in the pot and a car in the garage (as Hoover's 1928 campaign flyer put it). Neither individuals nor families are stuck in place. And besides, there are no social places; anyone who carries on as if better than others is a snob. There is or should be no class culture. Certainly there is no class system--maybe in the old country, but not here. We have a pluralist social order, not one in which wealth is power. And so on.
When Radical Teacher published a mini-cluster on "Teaching About the Upper Class" a few years ago (issue 85), that powerful myth was our starting place. Our students knew there were rich people--some of them were rich people. Others resented rich people. Few knew how rich rich people are, and those few did not by a long shot see rich people as a class that ruled a society. Their blindness "was and is an impediment to understanding the world," said Frinde Maher and I in our introduction. To overcome that impediment was the aim of all three Radical Teacher authors, especially Richie Zweigenhaft, in his "Teaching an Interdisciplinary Course on the American Upper Class." He listed as his top three aims: (1) trying "to help students understand that there is a class system in this country and that it has worked in rather predictable ways throughout the last 110 years"; (2) showing students that "those in the upper class are clearly connected to, but not the same as, those who run the institutions of power"; and (3) helping them "realize that those ... who are at the bottom of the class structure are very much affected by the advantages that those in the upper class have and work to maintain" (6).
When Greg Meyerson, Marcial Gonzalez, and I began working on this topic, I first suggested titling our MLA session, "Teaching About the Rich, After Occupy." I wondered if Occupy's emphasis on the 1% and the 99% had come out of a new awareness of inequality and had spread that awareness, along with a lot of anger, to ever-wider segments of the 99%, including, especially, young people. Occupy's highlighting of student debt certainly brought the theme of inequality alive as a reality in almost every classroom where progressive teachers work to demystify the social order. Most students probably know not only that most of their classmates will owe lots of money when they finish college, but also that a national economic crisis is intensifying around student debt (more than a trillion dollars now, larger than the total of credit card debt, and so on), and that a political movement for non-payment arose during Occupy and continues today. Among many examples, see the web sites of Student Debt Crisis and Strike Debt; the latter organization's free booklet, "The Debt Resisters' Operations Manual" would make an excellent text for a unit on this subject.
More than Occupy brought rich people into the light: the practices of rich Wall Streeters had tripped off the crash of 2008 and the Great Recession that followed. The 1% lost a lot of their wealth before the turnaround in 2009, but bounced back quickly, while poor and working class people and most of those referred to as "middle class" lost ground at an even faster pace than they had during the previous three or four decades, and almost all the wealth that was recovered or newly created in the next five years went to the richest few per cent of...