College Quarterly
Winter 2009 - Volume 12 Number 1
Reviews Class Degrees: Smart Work, Managed Choice and the Transformation of Higher Education
Evan Watkins
New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Forty years ago, I listened attentively as French philosopher Roger Garaudy (b. 1913) spoke of the future of social class in Western society. He presciently noted that the emerging “proletariat” would consist not only of outdoor labourers, factory workers and office clerks, but of highly skilled and highly paid employees such as members of the “professions,” scientists and technologists, middle managers and teachers at all levels of education. His message was not universally well-received.

Disapproval of Garaudy’s opinions will not be surprising to people who have followed his career. A philosopher and, in stages, a Protestant, a Catholic and a Muslim, the “renegade” Garaudy was booted out of the French Communist Party in 1970 for his irrepressible criticism the 1968 Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia. His later conversion to Islam in 1982, and his repeated denial of the Holocaust got further publication of his book, The Founding Myths of Modern Israel, banned in France; and, at the age of 95, he was put on trial, fined 240,000 French Francs (roughly $50,000US at the time), and given a suspended prison sentence for his views. He has since changed his name to Ragaa and, as far as I know, lives in Spain anticipating his 100th birthday.

Whatever his other opinions, on the matter of changing class relationships I thought he was on to something. And when, a few years ago, I listened to a college president tell a room full of professors that henceforth they would “own their own jobs” and be personally responsible for keeping their “skill sets” and “competencies” fresh and relevant to the demands of an ever changing labour market and the market demands of business and industry, I thought back to Garaudy’s old lecture. When, earlier this year, a current college president issued a moratorium on hiring full-time teachers without the explicit (and doubtless rare) approval by a senior management “human resources” team (i.e., the president and a couple of selections from an growing number of vice-presidents), I was convinced that Garaudy had been right.

Notions of collegiality and community are now largely bankrupt. Already well over 50% of postsecondary educators in North America are “sessional lecturers,” “contract employees,” “adjunct faculty,” “teaching assistants,” and other euphemisms for part-time help. By fiat, professorships are now “McJobs.” College teachers have become the incipient “professoriat.”

The topic of social class is, of course, a subject of longstanding controversy. The rigid distinctions and dialectics of traditional Marxism, which saw societies increasingly polarized into the bourgeoisie and the proletariat en route to the “final conflict,” has failed to materialize. Social stratification rather than social class is the model of inequality preferred by official sociology. Partial ownership of the means of production by workers’ pension funds and small personal holdings of stocks, bonds and mutual funds by individuals of even modest means has blurred the division between wealthy shareholders and manual labourers. The rise of the managerial class has partly usurped the effective control over enterprises, and the introduction of “flexibility” into the labour market has removed the possibility of lifelong employment from many occupational categories: hence the admonition to “own” our own jobs and, in effect, to turn as many people as possible into “freelance” workers.

Those with a knowledge of economic history will surely notice parallels between this process and the creative self-destruction of feudalism in such developments as the passage of the Enclosures Acts in England and Wales in the seventeenth century and the Highland Clearances in Scotland in the eighteenth century, all of which abruptly denied common people their traditional access to common lands, contributed live bodies to the creation of the industrial working class and constructed the far-famed “reserve army of unemployed.” We are, it seems, in the early phase of a similar transformation. So, as “Margo Channing” (Bette Davis) is often misquoted as saying in the film All About Eve (1950): “fasten your seat belts, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Evan Watkins gets it. Although the topic of social class has been of major concern for Marxist and liberal pluralist social analysts alike, the attitude toward it in North America is apt to recall R. H. Tawney’s remark in his 1931 volume, Equality: "The word 'class' is fraught with unpleasing associations, so that to linger upon it is apt to be interpreted as the symptom of a perverted mind and a jaundiced spirit."

Although the current troubles experienced by global corporate capitalism have shaken some people’s ideological presumptions and, more dramatically, have called forth pained shrieks of “Socialism!” from Republican politicians whose comprehension of political ideologies other than their own is, to be generous, uncertain, it remains that most people in the United States, from the well-to-do to the working poor, self-identify with or aspire to be considered as belonging to the “middle class.” And, although there has been much attention drawn to the economically destitute in both dense scholarly treatises and more popular, influential books such as Michael Harrington’s The Other America (1962), Bowles and Gintis’s Schooling in Capitalist America (1976) and Sennett and Cobb’s The Hidden Injuries of Class (1993), the deprived, the disadvantaged and the dispossessed both in education and in economic life have normally been regarded as a “social problem” to be repaired like a broken wheel or remedied like a medical patient, rather than to be recognized as an essential and defining structural feature of society itself.

So it is that Evan Watkins undertakes his inquiry into how the political economy and higher education relate to and influence each other. The issue is how education functions to reproduce the hegemonic ideology and model the social relations of production while preserving the illusion of openness to upward social mobility.

Watkins begins by giving due respect and credit to John Dewey’s progressive attitude toward students in industrial society. Dewey disapproved of the elite monopoly over higher education. He generally preferred that the emancipatory knowledge of liberal education be included in the training of working people. He insisted that vocational and liberal education be mutually supporting elements of secondary and postsecondary curricula. Unfortunately, although Dewey and his associates won many of the academic arguments, others dominated in the practical world of public policy.

Watkins shows that, while Dewey by and large advocated an educational system that would “foster the growth of democratically minded citizens,” and “made no distinction between those who would manage the company and those who worked on the shop floors,” a more influential man was Charles Prosser, whose public service career saw him move from president of the Indiana State Teachers Association to Massachusetts Deputy Commissioner for Vocational Education and on to the position of Executive Secretary of the National Association for the Promotion of Vocational Education. In that latter post he helped shape the Smith-Hughes Act of 1917, which provided the first comprehensive direction for vocational training and would pretty much define “career education” for the next half-century. Indeed, after a brief, partial but nonetheless invigorating return to Dewey’s principles in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the restoration of a bifurcation between vocational and liberal education seems to have returned and is once again firmly entrenched in the postsecondary educational agenda.

In Class Degrees, Watkins does not shrink from his belief that Prosser’s views were and remain “crude.” He quotes with approval, Howard Gordon’s summary of Prosser’s emphasis on job skills and his advocacy of an “indoctrinational approach teaching work values and attitudes,” and the unreflective obedience to “the ethical standards of dominant society.” Attentive educators will no doubt find parallels in contemporary institutions which, many fear will be accentuated under the control of President Obama’s Education Secretary, the “union-busting, school-privatizing, school-militarizing” Arne Duncan.

It takes little imagination to understand that vocational schools which teach immediately marketable skills and compel an attitude of deference to authority are precisely what is needed to reproduce social class relations, and not to encourage social mobility, much less economic innovation. Add to this the increasing emphasis on accountability through the use of standardized testing, preprogrammed educational objectives and precise, quantifiable “learning outcomes,” and the result is a corporate dream: a skilled, compliant and “permanently temporary” workforce with its members as malleable as putty and as interchangeable as piston rods.

Evan Watkins, however, has imagination. He takes seriously the transformation of the workplace from the industrial system wherein a primary school education and a few days of on-the-job training would set a worker up for life to the new “information age,” “postindustrial,” “tertiary sector,” “service provider” (call it what you will) era. He notes, for instance, the importance of the enthusiastically received but short-lived era of TQM (total quality management), participative management and other strategies ostensibly intended to modify top-down authority structures and invite mass participation in the exercise of “thinking outside the box.” Such initiatives seemed to have been designed for a post-Taylorist era in which employees were expected to take responsibility for adding value to their products (whether physical commodities or immaterial “symbolic analyst services”). These “humanistic” innovations, based largely on the psychology of Abraham Maslow and the organization theories of Warren Bennis were supposedly intended to meet the needs of the new economy. That economy was always imprecisely defined, but it presumably involved better communications, timely advice, collaborative decision making and mutual respect between managers and workers as well as among producers and consumers. In practice, it amounted to little more than compulsory attendance at sessions with motivational speakers and an application of what some called “typical liberal feel-good politics.” In reality, it amounted to little more than an internal morale builder designed for a world in which, contrary to the pronouncements of early postindustrial futurists, there would be a vast increase in employment possibilities for fast food servers, nurses’ assistants and correctional officers, but relatively few high-paid, high-skilled, high-satisfaction jobs.

The challenges of the figuring out the current labour market, the prospects for the economy and the purpose of education in a postmodern age are, of course, daunting for educators who have the genuine interests of their students at heart. Once the domain for “cooling down” life expectations among underprepared and underachieving young people, colleges are now doubly burdened with students feeling entitled to a success that is not only beyond their means, but also unavailable to people with high qualifications. Peer and parental pressure for success is high, and college marketers publicize their commitment to “success” as an end in itself, without even taking the time to say precisely what such success might entail.

Watkins demonstrates that, with about 50% of male high school graduates and 70% of female graduates aiming for “professional” careers, the contradictions in the “education-employment interface” is plain. It is, moreover, especially troubling at a time when the skilled trades, which in some cases offer wages superior to the incomes of most salaried employees, go begging for applicants even at entry-level positions. So, in addition to a want of plumbers, carpenters, electricians, and so on, Watkins quotes the manager of a semiconductor firm: “What we’d really like to have,” he says, “and what we can never really find is [people] that are more or less focused on semiconductor processing. There is no hope of finding somebody out of school who has done anything in plasma processing, or knows what lithography is, or any of the basic diffusion… All that stuff we have to teach on our own because I’m not aware of any college anywhere that we could get qualified students [from].”

In sum, colleges seem to be failing to graduate students with adequate “general education” to understand themselves, their culture, their society, science, technology, civic life, work and the economy. Dewey’s consistent insistence that all citizens should be prepared to participate meaningfully in their communities has been undermined in those systems and institutions in which it was once approved and continues to be wholly ignored elsewhere. At the same time, educational bureaucrats, program planners and curriculum designers are failing to meet the needs for skilled workers in less popular fields of work.

The dream of educating both the hands and the mind appears to be falling through widening curricular cracks. In this context, the much-touted trend toward lifelong education becomes less a matter or moving ahead and more a matter of desperately keeping up or blindly retraining for non-existent jobs in a process of chronic career change under the guiding hand of instructors who, themselves, are desperately trying to cobble a career together out of an unending sequence of short-term teaching contracts.

All of this profoundly muddies the waters of class analysis, and Watkins does what he can to describe current and future categories.

Evan Watkins sees one source of inspiration in “a slight modification of Marx’s famous formula about things seeming to take on a life of their own as commodities.” In addition to being able to distinguish social class by economic markers—the Jaguar driver, the Prius driver, the Chevy Cobalt driver, the low-end Kia driver and the person waiting in the rain at the bus stop—Watkins addresses the issue of commodification itself. He speaks of changes in popular taste being more than the manipulation of consumer preference, but also a postmodern manifestation of alienation as Marx described it in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. If the appropriation of labour is less visible in an era when most people are no longer engaged in the manufacture of material goods (as farmers, fishers, artisans and assembly line workers), it becomes less obvious exactly what is being appropriated for sale by the owners of the means of production except, of course, the labour time of the employee—whether an industrial psychologist, a school counselor, a bar tender or a hair dresser (who may have more in common than they know). At the same time, both work and education have become increasingly commodified. They no longer count as activities, but as articles of trade made available and selected as almost undifferentiated consumer choices. As Watkins puts it: “this does not mean that the material divide between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ is diminishing or even becoming more permeable. If anything, it is getting worse, in the United States and globally. It does mean that we have to look beyond economic inequalities for and understanding of the shift has to tell us about how class processes function.”

Of course, it is commonplace to point out that almost every attempt to formulate a post-Marxist theory of class turns out to be nothing but a warmed-over pre-Marxist theory of class. This is not a problem for those (the majority of citizens) who blithely ignore the fact of class or understand it as mere inequity in the distribution of scarce resources among more or less deserving individuals. It is, though, a serious problem for anyone who acknowledges the existence of social class as more than a calibration of income, status and power, and who wants to understand its relationship to education more accurately and more thoroughly.

Evan Watkins presents a compelling analysis of work and the economy, and he is well-informed about the growth of “academic capitalism,” the transformation of an ideal of education into competing strategies to market the “experience” and to promise “success” to potential clients, customers and consumers (formerly known as students), who will purchase educational consumables and then market themselves as value-added human resources to whoever will take their credentials seriously. Watkins does not succeed in presenting a comprehensive reformulation of class analysis for the twenty-first century, but he fills in a number of important gaps and leaves the unanswered questions open for further development. In the meantime, he will make “shopping at the knowledge factory” a more transparent matter, and teachers—uncritical of their own situation and previously immune to reflection and criticism—will find much to make them rethink their positions, both structurally, politically and (dare I say it?) professionally.

If so, Garaudy’s words about the new boundaries of class—long ignored—may find a new and unexpectedly receptive audience.

p>Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2009 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology