Date of Award
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
The purpose of this study was to learn from 18 adult students, all of whom grew-up working class and many of whom were living working-class lives as adults, the meaning of returning to school and earning a liberal arts degree from an open-enrollment program. Harvard Extension School (HES), which is part of a selective, elite institution: Harvard University. The educational research in the US is sparse on adult, working-class, liberal arts, students. Indeed, these students' experiences go mostly undocumented due to the agreed upon conclusion that adult students, in general, and working-class students, in particular, are more interested in job training than liberal arts learning. From this qualitative, narrative inquiry, I learned that institutional adult education is often about validation and attempting to silence mounting feelings of "marginality and deprivation" (Hooper & Osborn, 1975) much more than about job training. It is about "becoming somebody" (Luttrell, 1997; Wexler, 1999) in one's own eyes and in the eyes of others. As Maxine Greene (1990) would conclude, it is also about looking like Melville's "water-gazers," for something more out of life. But instead of turning to the sea and nature, these working-class adult students turned to books and culture— humanistic education— to break from the everyday routine and to reassure themselves, through the more difficult pleasures of the mind, that there is more to life than just work. Finally, it is about a liberal arts education exerting its academic influence by helping working-class adults claim intellectual identities and "warm up" (Deil, 2001) their academic expectations. But for some participants, it was about finding themselves, using Bourdieu's (1999) language, "outcasts on the inside," holders of a somewhat elite liberal arts degree, but due to the open-enrollment, second-chance nature of the education, not truly benefiting from higher education's standard economic, social, or cultural capital. This study is about the intellectual joys as well as the emotional hurts of liberal arts education for working-class adults.
Creative Commons License
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Number of Pages
Spreadbury, Suzanne C., "Oasis from Learn-to-Earn: Adult, Working-Class, Liberal Arts Graduates Make Meaning of their Learning Careers at Harvard" (2005). Educational Studies Dissertations. 73.