Brundage ’15: Brown’s bigger elitist problem

Opinions Columnist
Sunday, November 25, 2012

Earlier this month, Adam Asher ’15 suggested that a sign on Pembroke campus addressed to construction workers is indicative of our condescending attitude toward the working class and that this is a big part of Brown’s elitist problem (“Brown’s elitist problem,” Nov. 7). Among other rules, the sign states: “Please display the highest levels of respect for the Brown University students and their campus at all times. No swearing. No inappropriate comments.”
First of all, the sign was likely put up by the construction company itself, not by Brown. Construction companies often use such self-imposed regulatory signs when working in community spaces. It really shouldn’t matter much, though, given that one possibly condescending sign wouldn’t be an accurate reflection of our collective elitist attitude toward the working class. What does matter, though, is the lens through which Asher viewed this issue. It reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of how each respective class currently operates, which prevents us from tackling any sort of “elitist problem.”
It is a well-established sociological phenomenon that middle- and upper-class families tend to raise children with elaborated codes of communication, meaning that rules are specific to the situation and person at hand. But lower-class families have a tendency to raise children with restricted codes of communication, and therefore, rules are stated within a limited context lacking specificity and precision. These codes of communication tend to exist along the same class lines in school and thus become a fundamental difference between the operation of “elitists” and the working class.
So why does this matter? Why do we even need to recognize the different modes of communication and their potential effect on our respective working environments?
These codes of communication affect the fundamental structure of our society. If we are too quick to view restricted codes of communication manifested in the workplace as simply condescending, rather than a function of different upbringings, then we fail to recognize any sort of real solutions to an elitist problem whereby classes are divided without any of us really knowing why!
The shock factor of these signs is that we are not used to seeing such explicit and authoritarian rules. We, the elitists of Brown, are exempt from petty rules like “No swearing.” We are quite often allowed to create our own rules through analysis and consideration of the specific situation at hand.
Luckily for us, rules don’t matter much. We are not tied to the binds of the working-class American, who follows rules because if he or she does not, there might be real consequences. Companies are free to require their workers follow a strict set of rules because if the workers do not, then they can always be replaced, particularly when unemployment is high.
There are no such consequences for us. If we do not follow the few rules that are in place, we get to talk it out with an advisor or dean whose interests are aligned with our own. They don’t want to fire us from Brown. They want to work with us to ensure that we understand that sometimes in life we ought to follow certain rules because at some point there might be real consequences for our behavior. But don’t worry, that won’t happen here or now. Have a cookie.
Nothing about the rules on the construction signs ought to be surprising or viewed as condescending. I certainly agree with Asher that humans are capable of operating outside the boundaries of such explicit rules, but the issue with the signs is not that we elitists at Brown have a condescending attitude toward the working class.
If the goal is to minimize the barrier between classes, then yes, it is an appropriate goal to operate by more similar codes of communication. I tend to agree with the elitist sentiment in that I think questioning rules and determining an appropriate behavior for myself without explicit commands is certainly better than being forced to follow rules no matter what. But this must be done within reasonable limits, with the full inclusion of all classes and with greater consequences than the removal of any stain of failure from our University transcripts.
Consider the behavior of Congress and Wall Street, institutions where elitists were recently left to their own devices and decided rules for themselves with little regard for real consequences. From this, we should recognize that the elitist problem is greater than the comparatively explicit and restrictive rules of the working class. It is also our own lack of rules and personal consequences for bad behavior. Imagine what the working class might think of young elites who pity workers’ lifestyles because they have to follow explicit rules. The underlying implication is that we have done just fine without them.

Matt Brundage ’15 thinks class shouldn’t be a taboo subject. He can be reached at