Working-Class People in Higher Education: My Story, Part 2

I arrived at the University of Virginia in the fall of 1989, feeling backward but determined to catch up quickly. I imagine that Thomas Jefferson’s neoclassical architecture deeply affects everyone who attends that institution. (At first, I did not reflect on the role of slave labor in building the university; that came later.)

In my case, Jefferson’s “academical village” seemed the exact opposite of the impoverished, ramshackle life I had lived during the previous two years—and of the impoverished, ramshackle person I believed that I was. I wanted to transform myself, but there were limits.

I was still a fundamentalist Christian. Hardship often reinforces religious belief, especially when fear is deeply inculcated in the target (that seems the right word) at a young age. When circumstances seem hopeless, the thought of a lifeline from heaven can be appealing. And what if things are bad because you won’t stop sinning? My life had just started to work out. I figured I’d better not make God angry.

When I arrived at Virginia, I maintained the practice of praying on my knees before bed. I prayed for family, friends, and the members of the admissions committee that had seen fit to let me go to UVa. I prayed that I’d be good enough, and promised not to commit the sin of pride if the Lord helped me.

I was still a racist, too, but the hold of that poisonous system was weakening before I got to Charlottesville. My parents had painted a happy picture of segregation, but old newsreel footage shown on TV was sufficient to show that they were lying. My racism weakened gradually, becoming more subtle than my parents’ version. I still believed in the stereotypes of the black criminal and welfare cheat, for instance. And, if you knew me then, it would have been best if you didn’t get me started on immigration.

I double-majored in government and history. I had no time for extracurricular activities, because I took more than the standard course load per semester: 18-21 credit hours, rather than 15. I did that because I feared that my parents’ tenuous hold on solvency would slip, and that I would have to return to Tennessee and work to bail them out again. I wanted to get as close as possible to graduation while the home front was stable. Then, if I had to take a hardship leave from Virginia, I could return later and finish the degree quickly—maybe even in a summer. As it happened, my parents somehow managed to hold things together and I finished my degree on schedule, with lots of credit hours to spare.

Virginia was, and is, a class-ridden university. It was difficult being the only one who didn’t have a car, or whose clothes were threadbare. That was especially true around the stereotypical UVa. student, who was upper-middle class, possibly a preppie, maybe even southern gentry.

But I found no class barriers or pitfalls in my studies. I worked extremely hard, often reading and going over notes at the libraries until they closed, even on Fridays. I made A grades in most classes during my first set of mid-terms. That convinced me that I had arrived at exactly the right place.

The education was excellent. I developed a keen interest in modern European history, but I also learned a great deal about classical history, philosophy, and culture. Likewise, I was fascinated by the workings of law and government in the U.S. and Britain.

As my knowledge base expanded and my critical skills improved, I start hacking away at fundamentalism and racism. I learned that Christian scriptures fit poorly with science and history, that classical philosophy was better than Christian homilies. I learned how racism always leads to atrocities and how it is used to divide the poor. Those changes took longer than they should have. I kept looking for salvageable prejudices, compromises with reality. But, in the end, they all collapsed. It was freedom.

Since then, I have wanted to ensure that many people from my background would have similar experiences through higher education. Since then, I have been frustrated.

Recalling those experiences now, I remember that when “friends” teased me about my background, I would sometimes respond by trotting out old racist and fundamentalist views as a sort of put-on. As I saw it, I was giving them what they expected, and the joke was on them. Actually, the joke was on me. I should have just found better friends. I’m sorry to say that bad habit persisted for some years after graduation.

Speaking of graduation, I finished my BA studies on a high note. My grade-point-average was 3.88 on a 4-point scale, and 3.96 in major subjects. I wrote a thesis on 20th century British politics in the Department of Government and Foreign Affairs. It won the thesis prize, and the combination of thesis and grades allowed me to graduate with highest distinction. The director of the thesis program told me that no government major had previously received that honor in the several years he had been in charge.

So you can see why I decided to go into academia. I loved learning and felt that I had a mission to share my knowledge. I admired my professors and was grateful to them. I was nobody in the social world of UVa., but that fact had not hindered me even slightly in the academic sphere. I was sure that no field was more open to merit.