To my surprise Pierre Bourdieu’s Distinction (1979, English translation 1984), based on field work in late 1960s and early 1970s France, still makes perfect sense today. I don’t know whether this is because Spain is till catching up with the France he portrays, or because, essentially, Europe’s patterns of consumption have not changed that much since the pre-internet time when it was published. I’ll leave aside for the moment his insightful idea that so-called student failure is actually due to working-class students’ resistance to a devalued education that guarantees them no future. I’ll focus, instead, on a peculiar gap in the book. Although the tastes of primary and secondary teachers as consumers of goods and culture are often commented on, university teachers seem not to be there at all, unless, that it, Bourdieu assumes that in that France they were all upper-middle or upper-class. It’s puzzling.
This leads me to one of my pet projects: a sociological study of all those who teach English Studies in Spain. Coming from a working-class background –my father, now retired (or rather, made redundant at 57), was a printer; my mother is a housewife– I am myself very much class-conscious. I can only recall with a shudder the many difficulties during my student years to combine working and studying; my later academic career has always been marked by that and by a constant preoccupation with the sociology of culture, which is why I practice Cultural Studies. What I mean is that this kind of autobiographical musings are usually bypassed in the Spanish university. I myself only started wondering in earnest when, during my period as Head of Department, I was interviewed by two different research teams investigating whether women do admin tasks in a different way. I had to think hard and came to the conclusion, as I explained to both teams, that class could not be left aside. In my experience upper- and middle-class women in English Studies have a very different style of management from mine or that of my university female colleagues from my same social background.
My pet project would consist of asking everyone who teaches English Studies in Spain from which class they come from, to which class they think they belong now and how class conditions their choice of speciality or field, and of teaching methodology. It is a key factor, believe me. When ‘Filología Inglesa’ started back in the 1950s and until the 1980s when my own generation came on board, the whole field was upper-middle or middle-class, both teachers and students. With no English taught at all in public schools and no money to afford private tuition, it’s easy to see why the working-classes had little access. My generation (born 1960s) must have been the first one to be taught some English (irregularly, often by ill-qualified teachers) in public primary and secondary schools and also the first one to make up for the many gaps by going to England to work as au-pairs or waiters (Erasmus only started in 1986). None has examined what (popular) cultural baggage we brought onto English Studies, nor how (badly?) we fitted in an environment run entirely in a second language that remains a mystery to most Spaniards. Other factors, such as who got what grants and scholarships also bear examining, together with the history of the introduction of Cultural Studies as a discipline and of new subjects such as popular texts and/or film (Film Studies still has no degree in Spain, would you believe that!?).
I guess this survey will never be carried out to begin with because I’m not sure where it could be published and, second, because it’s somewhat a taboo. In English Studies the impression is that we’re all part of a big, nice family quite inexplicably ignored by the other ‘Filologías’. It would be regarded as in very bad taste to ask people for their class credentials, I assume, which is in itself a typical upper-middle-class position. In the meantime, I’m asking myself the relevant questions and I’m starting to think that perhaps I should ask my own students. I already know that teaching English Literature in the downright blue-collar UAB has nothing to do with teaching the same subject in Navarre’s private university but I don’t what the exact differences are. As for my students, whereas I have assumed, seeing that 68% of the first-year ones work, that they are working-class indeed, I might be in for some surprises. Who knows? This is why I’d like to ask.
Or have we come to a time when people will be tempted to conceal a middle- or upper-middle background? (By the way, do we have actual upper-class people in English Studies in Spain? And in the whole Spanish university?).