Classism is never classy

Are our universities disconnected from the real world?

“Which school are you from?” Peter asked.

“Fitzroy High School,” I responded naively.

“Oh, never heard of it,” he said, drawling, “I’m from Scotch College. It was nice to meet you but I have to go.”

That was my first ever conversation with a person I had met in a university tutorial. Only three words in and I already felt shame, anger and disbelief that someone would choose to withdraw from a conversation with me because of where I was educated. In my mind, it wasn’t even a bad school. Peter, whose name I’ve changed out of nonreciprocal, public school courtesy, had almost instantly created the atmosphere that I had always been told lingered over the pristine, green, semi-suburb that is the University of Melbourne.

It was a brief but whole conversation, layered in assumptions, coated with a venomous tone and conducive to a larger sense of classism. Classism is a word I don’t see thrown around too much in an age where levels of privilege are criticised endlessly and individual liberation is a core millennial value. The bloated and malformed flesh that once coated gender is being stripped away to expose Scooby Doo’s average Joe hiding underneath, ‘I would’ve gotten away with the patriarchy too if it wasn’t for you meddling feminists!’ Ideas surrounding race, heritage and ethnicity are constantly challenged, as white privilege has a black-light shone on it, showing the sputtered marks of self-congratulation and ‘guilt’ resting upon its alabaster stomach.

In an educated, elite university, we allow an echo chamber of opinions to enclose our ideas

I find though, particularly at a prominent institution such as the University of Melbourne, that classism is more often seen but not heard nor talked about, quite frankly. From its high ATAR entry scores to the words I’m sure we have all heard, ‘Australia’s Number One University’, the sandstone buildings and centuries-old pathways embody the very essence of privilege. The only times I’ve heard its reputation be contested is by those particular tossers in Year 12 parties you meet, saying, “I would go to the University of Melbourne, but if Cambridge is an option of course I would rather go there.”

What we lose by attending this university is that we’re separated from the wider world of people facing vastly different battles than a late essay or slow lectures. We aren’t caught in homerooms anymore with that one kid who hasn’t washed in several days and who’s come to school with no lunch, nor do we take English classes with that one guy who’s still figuring out how to write full sentences for lack of opportunity to learn when he was younger. In an educated, elite university, we allow an echo chamber of opinions to enclose our ideas and our perceptions of a world outside career climbing and personal progress.

This isn’t to say that we don’t deserve to be here or that I’m not grateful to have this opportunity. Hell, one of the coolest things I got to experience in my O-Week was being around a large amount of people who spoke other languages on campus and interacting with the amazing tutors and lecturers who had dedicated a large part of their lives to pursue a career in academia.

But my experiences during tutorial discussions, learning beside those people who received privileged tuition, is that there is a very clear line between those who have faced greater struggles and those who haven’t. It’s that one girl in your politics class who talks about poverty like it’s a buzzword, as another classmate sits there shocked that a person can be so ignorant of her reality of growing up rurally with a heroin-addicted mother while still managing to succeed academically. It’s becoming tiresome to enter tutes and always have those few people who grew up in a stable environment, were probably in the ‘accelerated stream’ (whatever that means) at their bougie school and talk like they know it all.

I think this naive, arrogant privilege that many are endowed with is best exemplified by the corporate mansion that is the Myer department store. What I saw was almost dreamlike as I made my way through double-beds layered with intricately designed pillows and sheets coated like frosting, and a 10-foot tall living Christmas tree laden with shimmering baubles and tinsel laying across its branches like a plump and brightly coloured anaconda. Young and bright-eyed new parents pushed prams in the shape of carriages around the shopping centre, dressed simply yet, with a polish that made their light-blue jeans and well-fitting shirts look designer. All the attendants smiled as you passed and everyone there seemed to walk with a sense of comfort and confidence as they browsed the latest Apple computer or hand-made picture frames.

I left with a crowd that flowed out the door, neatly in parallel with the people streaming in and up the building. Where the two rivers of people separated sat an elderly disabled man in a wheelchair, calmly holding up a copy of The Big Issue and watching the crowd. Dozens of people passed by him, and even though I knew that many of these people were leaving with hundreds or thousands of dollars of purchases, the $7 for a magazine, tokenistic or not, was well within their reach.

With our education, the money afforded to us by the government (or not) and the steps that have led to us just being able to read this article, I implore you, dear reader, to go to the city and talk with a homeless person. Go to the west side, sit in the Sunshine court and see what leads a person to commit a crime. Understand the reality that for all our academic privilege, we are not invincible nor better nor more equal than others, but that we are all human with an ability to give and to understand.

This piece and illustration originally appeared in Farrago, a student publication of the University of Melbourne. You can check out Farrago’s website here. Republished with permission from the authors.

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