For more than a century, radicals of all stripes and many academics have tried to get Americans to recognize that we have social classes and they matter. How annoying is it that Ruby Payne, the person who’s succeeded at this, is making money at it?

Paul Tough profiled her in a recent New York Times magazine. It’s news to a lot of people (many in her adoring audience are teachers) that there are unspoken rules about how upper-, middle-, and lower-class people behave. “In a few words, Payne explains how each class sees each concept. Humor in poverty? About people and sex. In the middle class? About situations. In wealth? About social faux pas. In poverty, the present is most important. In the middle class, it’s the future. In wealth, it’s the past. The key question about food in poverty: Did you have enough? In the middle class: Did you like it? In wealth: Was it presented well?” Sure, it’s almost as crude as a series of Dave Barry jokes. But you’ll remember it because it ties together a bunch of previously uncategorized experiences make a lot more sense when fit into Payne’s framework.

Tough writes that academics largely scorn her; one such is Dan Butin at Education Policy Blog, who says her sources are out of date, her treatment of them lacks nuance, and in any case she’s asking low-income kids to change instead of making the schools change, which is just not fair. He links to a supposedly boffo article in Teachers College Record that’s behind a pay wall — and then complains that his point of view has been marginalized!

Note that it’s perfectly possible for there to be social markers of class AND for the current class hierarchy to be heavily and systematically stacked against people trying to rise in it. I reported on some of the evidence that American society is less mobile than we think in the Reader November 1, 2002; Clive Cook tells the story smoothly in the Atlantic (alas, also behind a pay wall). It’s a factual question; if you don’t like the facts, go change them.

Here’s teacher blogger Nancy Flanagan at Teacher in a Strange Land on the foofaraw (yes, I know she egregiously dangles a modifier): 

“Payne’s claim that there are patterns of behavior and hidden rules that govern life in chronically poor, middle class and wealthy families is a particular irritant to [her] critics. As a first-generation college graduate from a working-class family, Payne’s description of the values and habits of families aspiring to the middle class ring true for me. …

“The great French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, spent decades and volumes describing the material and intellectual markers of cultural and economic capital, from preferred music to styles of furniture, all buttressed by dense, nearly inscrutable theory and research.  Minus the theory and rigorous research, of course, Ruby Payne has done pretty much the same thing for the very limited arena of classrooms—and made it readable. I suspect part of the anger directed at Payne is because she herself is not playing by the hidden rules of the ivory tower.”