Teaching an Interdisciplinary Course on the American Upper Class
by Richard L. Zweigenhaft
Dana Professor of Psychology, Guilford College
I teach a course entitled "The American Upper Class." I first taught it in the early 1980s after having spent the previous few years writing about the extent to which Jews were and were not allowed into the Protestant Establishment. Drawing especially on the work of E. Digby Baltzell, an upper class sociologist from the Main Line of Philadelphia, and the work of C. Wright Mills, a radical sociologist from Texas whose father sold insurance, I had written a series of articles, and then coauthored a book titled Jews in the Protestant Establishment. In the process of studying upper class Protestants, and the ways they had and had not allowed Jews into their midst, I began to focus more on the relationships between the American upper class (including elite boarding schools, exclusive city and country clubs, and debutante balls) and the American power structure.
Most colleges have sociology courses on "Stratification" that seek to teach students that there is a class structure in the United States (a big surprise to some students). By the 1980s most colleges had courses titled "Race, Class and Gender" (I've taught that one, too, though I title my course "Class, Race and Gender"). So, too, do most colleges include courses that focus on poverty in the USA. Not many have courses on the American upper class.
In this class I have sought to address some basic issues. First, though most students, like so many Americans, deny it, I try to help students understand that there is a class system in this country and that it has for the most part worked in rather predictable ways throughout the last 110 years. Second, I hope to show students that those in the upper class not only have a lifestyle that is much-admired, and much-emulated, but that they are clearly connected to, but not the same as, those who run the institutions of power in the USA. Third, I hope that students will come to realize that those who are not in the upper class, and especially 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. Fourth, although the class differs substantially from the course I teach called "Class, Race and Gender," I try to help my students understand that one can't really understand class without also considering race and gender -- the three (and other forms of oppression or discrimination) interact in complex ways. Fifth, I encourage students to think about how the American upper class is now part of an international upper class, and the way those atop the class hierarchy in this country connect with those in the upper classes around the world (hint #1: there are now far more international students at the most elite boarding schools in the USA than there used to be; hint #2: there are now a number of foreign-born CEOs of Fortune-level corporations, men from upper class backgrounds in their home countries).
I teach at Guilford College, a Quaker liberal arts school in Greensboro, North Carolina. Guilford is somewhat selective, but not nearly as selective as many New England colleges. The students are geographically diverse (mostly from up and down the east coast, but some from the west, and some international students), and there is considerable diversity in terms of their class backgrounds. These days the tuition, room and board runs about $33,000, though most students do not pay the full rate, and some are here mostly or fully on scholarships. Some students are from very wealthy families, many are from the upper middle class, and many are from middle and working class families. Many students are from rural North Carolina, or from small southern towns, and they see Greensboro as the big city. Therefore, when I teach this class, I do not assume that my students are from economically privileged backgrounds, or that they have ever heard of schools like Choate, or Andover, or Exeter, though some have (and one or two may have attended those schools).
I use a chronological approach in this course, not only because it makes intuitive sense, but because I have become more and more aware of how limited my students' knowledge of American history is. Although I have varied the reading in different iterations of the course, I've tended to use four books that I consider classics, published in 1899, 1924, 1956, and 1984. This allows us to consider what was going on in the country at those times, to examine the ways the upper class was portrayed in these works, and to explore the extent to which things seem to have changed (or not) since then.
I lead off with Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class. Veblen's book provides historical perspective, not only because he wrote it in the late nineteenth century, but because he begins with an anthropological look backwards to earlier civilizations and a (very) hypothetical treatment of the evolution of systems of stratification. His erudite and flowery (but also humorous) language is very much of a bygone era, but, surprisingly, most students like his book, and appreciate his sense of humor. Many of the concepts that Veblen introduced, most especially "pecuniary emulation," "conspicuous leisure" and "conspicuous consumption," are quite useful as we move to the other books, and move forward chronologically to the present.
When we finish reading Veblen, I ask the students to take a driving tour of Greensboro, and to use Veblen's ideas to write a paper about what they have seen ("Thorstein Veblen Comes Back From the Dead and Takes a Driving Tour of Greensboro, NC"). Like every American city of about 240,000 people, Greensboro has opulent houses (mansions really) and it has crowded projects. I detail a route for them which takes about an hour to drive. It sends them through the downtown, right past the Woolworth's where in 1960 four students from nearby North Carolina A&T University sat in at a segregated lunch counter in a protest that is generally considered to have sparked the sit-ins and economic boycotts that were central to the civil rights movement. The route also includes the projects where in 1979 at a "Death to the Klan" rally, sponsored by the Communist Workers Party, five people were killed, and several others were injured, by members of the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party (six Klansmen and Nazis were later acquitted in a state trial). The route also includes working class neighborhoods, middle class neighborhoods, and the neighborhood that surrounds "the" country club (this neighborhood, with the unlikely name of Irving Park -- which always reminds me of one of my Jewish relatives in Brooklyn -- provides ample opportunity to write about conspicuous consumption).
We then read Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, published in 1925, and set in New York during the years following World War I. Many students previously have read this book -- it is a favorite in high schools -- but they have not focused on the text as a source for a class analysis. They know Daisy and Tom Buchanan are rich, and that Nick is not so rich, and that Tom's mistress, Myrtle Wilson, is from the working class, but they have not really thought much about Nick's family background and why it is important to understanding what Fitzgerald is saying about the Buchanans, about Gatsby, and about the Wilsons. They know that Gatsby is rich, and that he grew up poor, and that the source of his wealth is shady. This book provides a nice opportunity to look at the relationship between class and wealth, the distinction between new money and old money, the difference between celebrity and power, and the way that the relationship between wealth and class can change over two or three generations. (I ask my students if Bruce Springsteen is part of the upper class. What about LeBron James? What about Ice Cube? How might the children of these wealthy athletes and entertainers become part of the upper class? Would sending them to Lawrenceville, or Andover, help? Why?).
Batting third, bringing us into the 1950s, is C. Wright Mills' The Power Elite, a book that resonates now, over fifty years after it was written, more than one might think. Mills address directly some of the questions raised by Gatsby. Mills presents a readable, though extensively documented, argument that by the 1950s power in America no longer resided in wealthy families but was in the hands of the white Anglo-Saxon protestant men who held the highest positions in three institutions -- more specifically, those who were in the corporate elite, the political elite and the military elite. Mills showed empirically that those in the upper class were very much over-represented in these powerful positions, but he also showed that they were not one and the same (there were some Horatio Alger stories -- but not as many as the publicists claimed). Still, he argued, the system functioned to perpetuate the wealth of those who had it, and those in the power elite who were not from the upper class were typically, though not always, doing the bidding of the those in the upper class. Mills admired Veblen (he called him "the best critic of America that America has produced") but he also provided an important critique of Veblen's limited portrayal of the upper class (and indirectly of Fitzgerald's as well).
The fourth book that I assign, published in 1984, is Susan Ostrander's Women of the Upper Class. Based on interviews with 36 upper class women in a Midwest city, Ostrander looked at how these women fit into their families and into the local upper class. The book includes poignant descriptions of their work with the Junior League and other volunteer organizations, their relationships with their husbands and children, and their attitudes about the cultural changes taking place around them. They were clearly privileged economically, but many were also quite subservient to their husbands, and Ostrander's portrayal is rich with nuance. Here, especially, given the considerable changes in women's worlds that have taken place in the decades since the book was written, my students have a great deal to say about the changes they think have occurred, and we often spend time designing the follow-up study on this topic that I would love to see someone do.
I've taught this course three times since 1999, and in those classes the last book I've assigned has been either the first edition or the second edition of a book that I coauthored; the first (published in 1998) was titled Diversity in the Power Elite: Have Women and Minorities Reached the Top? And the second (published in 2006) was titled Diversity in the Power Elite: How it Happened, Why it Matters.
This book updates C. Wright Mills' The Power Elite by examining the extent to which Jews, women, African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans and gay men and lesbians have become a part of the corporate, political and military elites. When Mills wrote his book, all three institutions were run by white Anglo-Saxon Protestant men, but, as was quite obvious in the spring of 2008, as Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton vied for the Democratic nomination, there are now some African Americans and some women in positions of power. In the book, we detail just how many people from these various groups have made it to the top of these three institutions of power, and we look at the class backgrounds of those who have made it. It will not be a surprise to the readers of Radical Teacher that each of the Republican and Democratic Presidential nominees in the 21st century attended an elite boarding school (Bush: Andover; Gore: St. Albans; Kerry: St. Paul's; Obama: Punahou; McCain: Episcopal), but it is news to some of my students, and as we read and talk about this book we put the role of elite boarding schools into the larger context of understanding the upper class and the power elite.
The end-of-semester evaluations indicate that the students very much like the class, and think that they have learned a lot. Guilford uses a standardized form with both quantitative measures (24 questions) and open-ended questions asking for narrative comments. The numerical ratings have been consistently high, with scores higher than the college's average and, in fact, higher than I receive in many of the other classes I teach (the last time I taught the course, the scores were between 5 and 6 -- on a six-point scale -- on all 24 items, with 6 as the modal response to most items).
The narrative responses to the open-ended questions indicate that, for many students, the class is an eye-opener. As one student put it, the course "completed changed my perceptions of the class structure." In response to a question which asked what aspects of the course contributed the most to their learning, many students wrote about the short response papers that they were required to write and bring to each class. These short papers were designed to increase the likelihood of students actually reading the assigned material before they came to class, and to enhance the quality of the discussions. It seems to have worked. As one student wrote, "We had assignments due every class which forced us to do the reading and generated GREAT class discussions."
Many students mentioned the class discussions, at times focusing on the way they were structured ("The class discussions were set up to encourage us to interact with one another") and at times emphasizing the diverse make-up of the students in the class ("the varied backgrounds and perceptions of classmates reflected great diversity, and therefore provided an opportunity to learn").
Only one student raised a concern about bias, and this concern seemed to apply to the comments of students instead of (or perhaps in addition to) the make-up of the readings or the views I expressed. In response to a question about how the course could be improved in the future, this student wrote that I should "encourage the class to be open-minded about the upper class."
I, of course, do not tell them what to do with what they have learned, but I do encourage them to think about the choices they make. For those few very wealthy students, I'm always sure to mention Robin Hood Was Right: A Guide to Giving Your Money for Social Change, a book published in 2000 that encouraged extremely wealthy progressives to give their money away in ways that promote social justice rather than spending their lives trying to accumulate more.
I also try to get them to think about the symbiotic relationship between social protests (for example, those who participated in sit-ins during the civil rights movement) and legislative changes (for example, the Voting Rights Act of 1965). The next time I teach the course I plan to tell them about Adam Hochschild's 2005 book about the end of the slave trade in England, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves.
Although his book is not about the American upper class, it does show just how important it is to have both disruptive protest from the outside and people of commitment on the inside to bring about meaningful change.
Whether my students disrupt from the outside, or try to work from the inside, is, of course, up to them, but I do hope that they will do what they can to bring about much-needed change in the way the class system is stacked in favor of those born into the upper class in America.
Richard L. Zweigenhaft and G. William Domhoff, Jews in the Protestant Establishment (New York: Praeger), 1982.
One of my students wrote recently in a paper, "As was the case during Benjamin Franklin's presidency..." Another student, in a response to Frederick Douglass' slave narrative, wrote the following: "The amount of beatings, and the severity of the beatings for simply walking by a mistress watching television, or whatever, is still hard for me to comprehend."
One of my friends, an economist, tells me that in his graduate program this book was generally refered to as The Leisure of the Theory Class.
The Great Gatsby is especially popular these days with high school students from immigrant families. Apparently, they see it more as an inspirational tale than a cautionary tale. See Sara Rimer, "Gatsby's Green Light Beckons a New Set of Strivers," New York Times, February 17, 2008.
Richard L. Zweigenhaft and G. William Domhoff, Diversity in the Power Elite: Have Women and Minorities Reached the Top? (Yale University Press, 1998); Diversity in the Power Elite: How it Happened, Why it Matters (Rowman & Littlefield, 2006).
Chuck Collins, Pam Rogers, and Joan P. Gordon, Robin Hood Was Right: A Guide to Giving Your Money for Social Change (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000).
Adam Hochschild, Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005). Hochschild was raised in a very wealthy family (as a boy he was driven to the Princeton Country Day School in the chauffeured family limousine), but, after attending Harvard in the 1960s, went on to help found the lefty magazines Ramparts and Mother Jones,. He has written about this in a memoir, Half the Way Home: A Memoir of Father and Son (New York: Viking, 1986).
A few years ago, I was asked to give a talk at Middlesex, an elite boarding school in Massachusetts. This was a very different audience than the students I typically have in my classes at Guilford in that many of them, probably most of them, were from the wealthiest and most socially exclusive families in America. For that talk ("Social Class and Social Justice: Changes From Within and Pressures From the Outside"), I focused primarily on the creation of the A Better Chance (ABC) program and on Hochchild's Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves. To see the text of that talk, visit http://whorulesamerica.net/change/zweigenhaft_class_and_justice.html.