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  • Colin Burnett

A Danger to Power

"There is nothing more dangerous to power than a working class person with a thirst for knowledge"

It was a very proud day for both myself and my family when I was accepted to study BSc (Hons) Public Sociology at Queen Margaret University in Musselburgh, which is located outside of Edinburgh. When I attended my first day, I was, I have to say, reminded of the theme tune from the TV sitcom Cheers - ‘’Nobody knew my name, and nobody was glad I came’’. This feeling never stirred from any negative experience I had on my first day. But was indeed, a symptom of the insecurity I felt coming from a working-class background, entering higher education. The arena of university never appeared a natural environment for me. As most of the guys I grew up with entered blue collar occupations, going to university appeared an alien choice.

See, growing up, I felt I was part of a lost tribe, a condition of being working class in a post-affluent society. The possibilities available to my generation, such as going to university, are in opposition to the choices available to my grandparents. Men and women who worked either in the mining pits or in the factories. I knew pursuing a trade wasn’t a viable option for me as I have a diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome (AS) and Dyspraxia. But through the encouragement and support I received from my parents, I recognised my academic potential. I was spurred on by them to go onto university.

I was very fortunate in the choice of university I made and the subject I chose to study. Throughout my time at Queen Margaret University I was supported immensely by all my lecturers and other members of staff. These people always believed in my academic potential, and it was their belief that gave me the motivation to succeed in my studies. I never directly encountered any negativity from being working class, except from the self-doubt I initially internalised from being a working class student. During class discussions, I felt in some ways inferior to my middle class peers. I couldn’t imagine myself being able to engage them academically in a debate. Places I had read about they had been to, and some books they had read I had never even heard of. It just seemed their cultural exposure had situated them in a more advanced position to succeed in academia. But as I got to know my lecturers on a more personal level I soon realised that they shared a similar working-class background to myself. This led me to the realisation that my potential to thrive in academia wasn’t limited, but instead, it was limitless.

As I undertook my sociological apprenticeship. I was able to engage with the subject in a way that gave me meaning and understanding of the barriers I had to overcome. Through reading the works of Pierre Bourdieu and Paulo Freire, to name a few. This enabled me to identify and decipher the anxiety I experienced from being working class in a dominantly middle-class environment. For example, my natural tongue is urban Scots, a vernacular which is widely recognised as the language of the working-class in Scotland. But when I entered university or other formal settings my vernacular would deviate its self to the more socially esteemed standard English spoken by the middle classes. This important use of language was documented in the work of Pierre Bourdieu, so not only was I learning about this topic, I actually had first-hand experience of how this identity crisis can surface amongst working-class students. So, in some ways, being working class helped me to engage with public sociology with a sense of realism that may not have been open to my middle-class peers. I was living and encountering some of the issues I was studying.

A lot of the barriers I faced during my studies stemmed from sources out with the university itself. These factors impacted my ability to remain focused on my studies. I lost my dad not long before I undertook my degree and my mum passed away during my final year. Obviously, these were the most traumatic events of my life, but, again, the support I received from my lecturers and the university was overwhelming.

As I previously mentioned, I have Asperger Syndrome. I claim state benefits, including housing benefit, and Personal Independence Payment (PIP). My benefits were stopped in my final year, so I ended up in rent arrears and had to attend a tribunal to see whether my PIP benefit would be reinstated. The title of the hearing ‘tribunal’ is misleading. It was in fact, more of a trial with a judge presiding over proceedings. The way I was made to feel in the hearing left me somewhat in disbelief. I was made to feel as if I should apologise for being born with AS and it was evident that the state equates disability with stupidity. My attendance at university somehow appeared to be an issue. As the tribunal panel never seemed able to understand a person with disabilities can achieve just as much, if not more, than someone born without a disability. The financial hardships I faced were something my middle-class peers could never understand. They didn’t have to rely on the state for support, and thus were given a clearer space to succeed at University. As much as my situation caused me a lot of stress, the experience reaffirmed my belief that the working class must produce more of its own academics. The more working-class academics active, the greater potential there is for progression, aiding the positioning of the working class as producers of social change. Not merely relegated to being passive spectators.

My advice, to any potential working-class student who is considering entering higher education, is don’t let your postcode decide your life chances. Take control of your own destiny and use education as a vehicle to achieve what you want to in life, both, to the benefit of yourself and the wider working class. I truly feel there is nothing more dangerous to the powers that be than a working-class individual who has a thirst for knowledge, and a desire to learn. And even though our middle-class peers may have stronger networks available to them that can present gateways to more opportunities, we all have the right, and indeed the potential, to succeed in any subject matter we choose to explore.

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