The first time Lance Fusarelli set foot on a university campus, he felt surrounded by people who seemed to know more than him – about society, social graces and “everything that was different”.
He attributes these differences to his upbringing. While he didn’t grow up poor, it was in a working-class town in a small rural area in Avella, Pennsylvania. He was the first in his family to go to university – his mother got pregnant and had to drop out of school, while his father went to work in a coal mine in his mid-teens. He lived in an environment where few stayed in education beyond high school.
It worked out well for him. Fusarelli is now highly educated and a professor and director of graduate programmes at North Carolina State University. Occasionally he’s reminded of how he felt in those early days, when a colleague innocently corrected his imperfect grammar. “He wasn’t being mean, we were good friends, he just grew up in a different environment,” he says. “Sometimes I will not always talk like an academic. I tend to use more colourful language.”
While Fusarelli has risen through the ranks of academia despite his background, his experiences have highlighted the social divide that can exist in education. For those who are less educated due to their disadvantaged background, they face a subtle but pervasive bias. A new report in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology named the term “educationism” and for the first time found clear evidence for what Fusarelli and many others have long suspected: educated people are implicitly biased against the less educated. And this has unfortunate, unintended consequences that often stem from the gap between the rich and poor.
It’s a “societal level” issue that creates a significant divide, says Toon Kuppens of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, part of the team who coined the term. “It needs to be addressed.”