I’ve always thought it strange that, while there’s no acknowledged “class system,” most Americans firmly believe they belong to the “middle class” – an expression prominent in political rhetoric. One hardly dares ask what the other classes are, because it’s somehow “un-American” even to concede the existence of an upper or lower class.
Having grown up in England, I can face this issue with a broader outlook. When I lived there – and possibly even lingering today, the concept of a population containing high- and low-class elements was taken for granted. Among the factors which determined your placement on the scale were: how you spoke, what school you attended, your income, where you lived, the nature of your work, trade, or profession, and many less specific indicators, including dress and manners – even what newspapers you read.
My own youthful class-system experience centered primarily on the British educational system. When my family returned to England in 1946 – after spending the war years in America – children were supposed to take an examination at the age of 11 (called the “Eleven Plus”), which more or less determined your fate, possibly for the rest of your life. Its results decided which of three different types of secondary school you would attend.
The most promising pupils went to what were called “grammar schools,” whose theoretical upper-class aim was to prepare them for university, though only a minority would go that far. (A college education was still very much the exception.) Parents ambitious for their children would do anything to get them into a grammar school. The second-class schools (though never acknowledged as such) were called technical schools. Their role was to provide a vocational-type education. At the bottom were institutions known as “secondary modern” schools.
(But you could by-pass all this, if your parents, unlike mine, could afford a private school.)
When I arrived with my family back in England, I was 12, and had missed taking the Eleven-Plus exam. We were also unable, as originally intended, to move back into our London home, so I had to live for most of a year with my father’s relatives about 100 miles away, in the seaside resort of Bournemouth. We also happened to arrive in the middle of a school year, so I found myself, apparently by default, in a lower-class Secondary Modern school.
One difference between “us” and those who attended the Bournemouth Grammar School was obvious: the latter all wore neat school uniforms, which our school didn’t require. But there were more subtle differences. I remember our headmaster giving us a sort of pep-talk in assembly on the theme that we were really “as good as” those other kids, and that, if we tried hard enough, we could “show them.” One of his favorite metaphorical exhortations was to “Pull your socks up – and pull ’em up quickly!”
The actuality was in my mind, unfortunately, symbolized by the fact that the teacher who taught us physical education was himself handicapped and couldn’t demonstrate some of the exercises he wanted us to perform.
When my family moved back to London, I finally got into a grammar school, the type of school where supposedly I belonged. But even within that school, although we all wore uniforms, I found that a sort of “class system” still prevailed, echoing the divisions outside. We were each put in one of three different “streams,” called “language,” “science,” and “practical,” which (I see now) clearly reflected social class distinctions. “Language” students were college-oriented, “science” were more technical, and “practical” did more in the way of manual skills, such as metal-shop. English was always my best subject, but I was, for some reason, stuck into the “Science” category, which was heavy on physics and chemistry, and where, though I kept up, I never really felt comfortable.
Nevertheless, I somehow assumed that I would next be going to one of the prestige universities, Oxford or Cambridge. But, at a late date, I found – to my horror – that they both required Latin, which, not being in the language stream, I hadn’t been exposed to. By desperate efforts, with special tutoring, I remedied that deficiency. However, I then had to pass a special “scholarship” examination. Despite several attempts, I never made it – and finished up at the lower-status University of London.
After graduating, I‘d had enough of the British class system, and took the first opportunity to emigrate to California, where everybody could always tell that I have no class at all.