Friday, April 05, 2013

British Class System

The BBC posted this very interesting editorial on the British class system. The title of the article is "An American View on the British Class System," though the article is himself British. How exactly the article came by this title, I have no idea. It seems to be based on some research done by various American newspapers, but the article seems to take that research seemingly applied to Americans and pastes it haphazardly onto the British social scene. I don't quite understand the methodology, but it is interesting nonetheless, particularly the Great British Class Calculator that is interactive.

Americans have some historical fixation (one might say morbid curiosity) with the old British class system, which no doubt explains the popularity of TV shows like Downton Abbey and farther back in time Upstairs, Downstairs. Having lived in Britain for a time, I have a unique perspective on the current state of the British Class system.

Before I go into that, let me preface that by saying I grew up in the American South, which, of all the places in the United State, has historically had a very regimented class system. It was never really referred to as such, but that's what it was. I am convinced this is why the British Government got along so well with the American South during the Civil War and got very close to recognizing the Confederacy as an independent nation because of the similarities of class strata. The Old South class system has long since passed away (so much the better) but there is still a very discernible class system in the American South. I say this in some jest, but any Southerner can clearly define to you the differences between Good Old Boys, Rednecks, and White Trash, as they are very distinct social classes that have very unique group characteristics. On Sunday morning, there are the churches the rich white folks go to, the churches the middle and working class folks go to, and there are the churches that African Americans go to. Sunday morning is still the most segregated time of the week in Southern culture. There are some churches that have effectively mixed race, but very few that have mixed social class.

Everyone wants to blame the South for all its race problems (and there are several, don't get me wrong), but in the American South, for whatever "melting pot" paradigm we like to imagine, social class is just as much a problem as race is. I think this is true for broader America as well, though we seldom analyze our society this way because most people like to pretend to be "Middle Class," which can be really anyone making anything from someone making $500k+ a year to someone living just above the poverty line. We subdivide the Middle Class moniker into "lower" and "upper" tiers, but somehow we like to pretend we are all really the same under the checkbook.

With that background, I had a very unique experience when I lived in Cambridge, England. I am was American, from largely a red, white, and blue, working class background, living in perhaps the most snooty and definitively class based university system in the world aside from perhaps Oxford. The University of Cambridge is really more of a confederation umbrella of several small colleges like King's College, Queen's, Westcott House, Trinity, etc. To get admitted to the University of Cambridge, one has to apply to a particular college, who grants you admissions, as there is not a centralized admissions office. Layered on top of this is Anglia Ruskin University which is a few blocks away, which is its own somewhat lower class university, which is not officially affiliated with the University of Cambridge, though many of their students can take the same classes with the same professors at the University of Cambridge, though ultimately their degree will have Anglia Ruskin and not the University of Cambridge on it.

At Cambridge, each school has its own social demographic. Case in point, the now retired Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, is now principal at Magdalene (pronounced Maudlin College by locals) College. This is hilarious to me because that college in the University of Cambridge is basically the jock school; it's the school where well to do parents send their none-too-bright but can-still-play-rugby-well strapping young lads so they can get a "respectable" Cambridge degree with their "gentleman's C," but everyone knows that Magdalene College is the school that always wins the intramural rugby and boxing competitions but never takes home any academic competition trophies.

Even around Cambridge, the town, there are places that the townies shop and the places that the gownies shop or go to pub. All the while, the Westcott House folks were convinced that there was a brave, new Britain going on above the class system, which I always found a riot because it was so class based. We had servants at Westcott house that cleaned our rooms and cooked our food. It was very regiments. It wasn't quite Mr. Carson in coattails from Downton Abbey, but it was the 21st Century version thereof.

For kicks, I took the entire British Class System survey (there is a short one and and a long one on that page linked above). I came up near the top of the "social" and "cultural" capital segments of that survey, which meant I have a broader circle of friends and social interests than most Brits. Seeing as I am comfortable in most social settings regardless of class, I can see why I skewed that way. I was a bit on the poorer side in the economic scale. I was amused that the free "coat of arms" the site provides you at the end based on your status included images of a computer screen, an open book, a PlayStation gaming control console, and what appeared to be a tree of life, though that one was somewhat vague as to what that symbolized.

I think British culture and the class system has been somewhat Americanized, if I may be so bold. I think the American ideal of the "Middle Class" has an appeal, or at least some notion of equality, though I can't imagine England ever truly becoming a classless society unless there is a major cultural revolution. As long as there is some semblance of a House of Lords and a Monarch, I don't see that really going away. It is possible if a future reigning monarch finally ends up making such a obscene mess of their lives that the British people finally get rid of a monarchy entirely. But the Queen is to Brits what the Stars and Stripes are to Americans: a symbol, a living flag if you like. I don't see that going away entirely. It may change and morph, but it will always be there, haunting in the background. I could be wrong, but Brits do love their traditions.

As do their American cousins, for that matter.

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