Going to University: Family Histories & Post-Secondary Credentialing in a Cape Breton Working Class Town

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Going to University:

Family Histories & Post-Secondary Credentialing

in a Cape Breton Working Class Town

Paper presented at the Higher Education Close Up Conference 2,

Lancaster University, 16-18 July

Jane McEldowney Jensen

131 Taylor Education Building

University of Kentucky

Lexington, KY 40506



“The market based competition that characterizes the acquisition and disposition of educational credentials gives the process a meritocratic set of possibilities, but the influence of class on this competition gives it a socially reproductive set of probabilities as well” (Brown, 1995, xvi)

This paper presents, through the histories of two extended families, how experiences of education and work are intertwined in a community whose public record tells us mainly about the history of coal mining. Through these family stories, I show how educational aspirations and attitudes toward the efficacy of education have changed from one generation to the next in Glace Bay, Nova Scotia--a company town now facing the end of an industrial economy. The stories of Frank, a retired civil servant; Millie, a retired nurse; and conversations with their friends and families offer narratives that help build our understanding of education and social mobility in de-industrializing communities. This research paper places the discussion of post-secondary educational decision-making within the context of a local community.

The community studied is a coal-mining town on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. Although much of the island is rural, the area surrounding Glace Bay was developed in the early part of the twentieth century by large coal and steel corporations located off-island, first in Britain and later in central Canada. Unlike mining in Appalachia and the Alleghenies, local industry in Cape Breton has never been locally owned (Obermiller, P.J. and Philliber, W. W., 1994). Glace Bay is a company town populated by workers, dependent upon the vagaries of global coal and steel markets with a strong history of labor activism and economic upheaval. Over the last twenty years, the most recent owner of the coal industry in the region, a government entity called Cape Breton Development Corporation (DEVCO), has closed all of the remaining coal mines in industrial Cape Breton and the steel mill. Glace Bay is also known for its fishing industry, primarily in-shore fishermen who harvest lobster and, until recently, cod. The decline of cod stock in the Atlantic fishery has meant substantial downsizing of fishing in the area resulting in the loss of jobs for both fishermen and those who work in the fish packing plants. Economic development in industrial Cape Breton has shifted toward a “cluster” model concentrating on the potential petroleum industry, information technology, and heritage tourism.

I completed the main body of fieldwork for this study in 1995 with follow-up visits over the last five years. In 1996, Glace Bay became part of the amalgamated Municipality of Cape Breton along with a number of neighboring colliery communities. At the time of my fieldwork DEVCO was going through a process of turning over management of the mines and mill to local leaders, long after potential buyers had lost interest in Cape Breton coal or steel. While small groups in Cape Breton still talk about reviving the coal industry, this study is literally about the end of an era for an industrial region. Public histories of the town concentrate on its industrial past. Education and other social institutions are rarely mentioned except with regard to mining. In investigating the decisions individuals have made and the ways that the community talks about the possibilities of education, I uncover more of the cultural history of the town that increases our understanding of how Glace Bay residents see their future.

My research focuses on the ways that the people of Glace Bay have interpreted the modern ideology of achievement. An achievement ideology rewards individual aspirations for success and requires public confidence in the meritocratic potential of educational credentials for economic opportunity. The town of Glace Bay has a strong heritage of solidarity and self-sufficiency that simultaneously accepts the potential of formal education while publicly eschewing individual ambitions that compete with a perceived ethic of cooperation. How is this paradox of individual versus community ambition resolved? How is the hegemonic weight of an ideology of success born by a community that has been and continues to be economically marginalized? As requirements for educational credentials have changed over the last century, how has educational decision-making changed from one generation to the next? In what ways have community members’ understandings of self-improvement, family, community, and knowledge transformed as the economy has moved from an industrial to a service model and, more recently, to a knowledge-based global marketplace?

Cultural Production and Credentialing

This study draws upon two conceptual frameworks, cultural reproduction and theories of credentialism. These theoretical constructions overlap in the study of educational decision-making, especially in the ways individuals understand the efficacy of post-compulsory education. Studies of cultural production, such as Willis’s (1977) Learning to Labor and more recently MacLeod’s (1994) Ain’t No Makin’ It, demonstrate that public confidence (or a lack thereof) in education is an important variable to understanding the ways that the processes of education serve to reproduce social inequality. If individuals or groups of individuals, such as the lads in Willis’ study or the hallway hangers in MacLeod’s work, perceive education as useless or demeaning, then achievement is most likely to be low. After all, why participate in an endeavor that appears to disdain your cultural identity or the values of your family? The students and their families in these two studies are generally unsuccessful in school and work environments and the meritocratic tenets of an achievement ideology place the blame for that failure squarely on their individual weaknesses rather than other social factors. Proponents of resistance theory recognize that resistance to the authority of education is a response to an often-astute grasp of the inequalities inherent in the social system.1 Thus strategies of resistance are understood as cultural production.

While we can understand how strategies of resistance can result in low academic achievement leading to the reproduction of social stratification (intergenerational) and how this kind of social reproduction continues to subjugate marginalized populations, the negative consequences of under-education are increasing. In a post-industrial economy, post-compulsory credentials and the hierarchy of post-secondary programs are as important to a discussion of social reproduction and education as is schooling. It is not enough, in today’s economy, to successfully finish compulsory schooling. Further or higher education is now required for almost any kind of work—despite the fact that the nature of that work may not require more technical skill than before. What happens in this context to those individuals who resist the dominant culture’s institutional processes and as a result fail to acquire the necessary “tickets” for success in mainstream society?

Critical theorists studying resistance base their examination of education as a site of conflict on a Gramscian notion of hegemony where hegemony is both contested and accepted (Apple, 1982). Willis (in Foley, 1989) acknowledges the lived aspect of cultural practice, but does not offer a liberating solution of empowerment. He states

For me, the crucially interesting thing about cultural reproduction is how (really and potentially) critical resistant or rebellious forces become contradictorily tied up in the further development and maintenance of the "teeth-gritting" harmony of capitalist formations. (p.xi)

From Willis' perspective, our efforts to capture cultural practices as "living critiques and penetrations of dominant ideology" should be, in effect, efforts to understand how the cultural system "goes." Is this the only alternative? Is there no possibility for the transformative effects of education?

Indeed, what happens to those individuals who do go along with society’s rules, those who assimilate, who finish the programs, who acquire the credentials and who sometimes (and sometimes not) succeed. What happens to the ear’oles and the brothers, those students in cultural studies that followed the hegemonic success ideology? Unlike the Native-American students in Brayboy’s study who are conscious participants in the post-secondary credentialing game, most individuals who acquiesce to the increasing educational requirements of the new economy are not necessarily conscious of the structural inequalities inherent in that system.

This is, in fact, what defines hegemonic ideologies as “actively constituted…in a variety of specific places” (Apple, 1982, p.12). While conscious, in the Marxist sense, of their working-class identity, individuals seeking to survive in the “new economy” often do not see or are not conscious of the stratification of outcomes within post-secondary education. Gray (in Hogan, 1982) might refer to this as the way “subordinate classes follow a ‘negotiated version’ of ruling-class values” (p.37). What happens to those who succeed at school and manage to climb the ladder, if only a little? What happens to those who experience educational success, but fail to succeed economically? In places where deindustrialization has resulted in severe economic stress and education or retraining is offered as the solution, these questions are particularly important. In Glace Bay, as increasing numbers of each generation have achieved progressively higher educational credentials, concurrent economic success has failed to occur for all players. What explains this discrepancy and how is this differential success (or failure) interpreted within larger tensions between individual and community improvement?

Credentialism, introduced by Randall Collins in 1979 and later revisited by David Brown (1995) in his work Degrees of Control, provides an intellectual foothold for examining this problem. As a sociological study of how institutions work within the social system, credentialism examines the expansion of educational institutions and programs as the reproduction of social classes across generations. By directly examining the assumptions underlying a theory of human capital development, these scholars reveal the seductive nature of political rhetoric that heralds increasing educational achievement as a solution for economic development. Collins describes the primary driver for public acceptance of the expansion of post-secondary education and the certification it offers as the myth of technocracy--that increases in requirements for credentials are driven by the needs of new technology. Collins (1979) states:

…the Technocracy story does have some facts in its favor, and it is important to see just what they mean. One such fact is that existence of a very considerable amount of technological change over the last two centuries (indeed, even further back) with especially visible effects in the twentieth century on economic productivity and the organization of work. The other fact is the increasing prominence of education in our lives. p.3

In reality, he argues, most of the acceleration in requirements for credentials was caused by conflict among social groups over control of post-secondary educational institutions and competition for social status. Educational policy based upon the correlation of educational achievement to technical skill and therefore to economic success masks the ways in which the educational system continues to sort individuals and create social stratification. Brown critiques Collins’s emphasis on the conflict between ethnic groups, but agrees that educational expansion is rooted in a process of social conflict. Yes, government policy makers and stakeholders create institutions and programs, but it is the product of individual decision making that leads to attendance (or not) thus making educational decision-making a site of social conflict as well—a space in which hegemonic ideals are contested and confirmed.

The study of post-secondary education differs from arguments about schooling because, as stated above, individuals choose to continue to post-compulsory programs as opposed to being required to attend school. Post-secondary education automatically includes an element of agency because students of post-compulsory programs decide, for a variety of reasons, to attend. Why do individuals choose to continue their education? Why do community groups advocate for the expansion of post-secondary educational offerings? Why does the state invest in the continuing education of private citizens when the purpose is no longer public education?2 The same processes of cultural production and reproduction that occur in schooling do occur in post-secondary institutions. The outcomes of educational achievement and economic mobility continue to provide evidence for the argument that schooling, whatever the level, reproduces the social structure, but how do the everyday processes of post-secondary educational aspirations affect that structure and make it dynamic?

Brown defines his socio-historical theory of educational credentialism as follows:

Whether one admires or despises higher education in the United States, the fact remains that the life chances of Americans are shaped by the educational system of the country. This point is reflected by the fact that disadvantaged Americans seek out educational advancement as a panacea for political and economic impoverishment and by the fact that privileged citizens seek to send their children to schools at least one step above the ones to which aspiring, poorer people send their children. The net result of this culture of educational aspiration has been expansion of the educational system, particularly in postsecondary education, and ever-increasing inclusion of otherwise power-bereft groups in stratified sectors of education. (1)

Brown expands upon Collins’s analysis of educational expansion as competition among ethnic groups in an important way. He describes the increase in employers’ desire for credentialed workers as a social process of organizational control. Organizations, especially corporate organizations, need to “reduce the uncertainty involved with some aspect of organizational work” in order to remain competitive (72). Post-secondary educational credentials may provide workers with some technical expertise, but more importantly credentials provide the claim that their holders will understand and comply with an organizational culture. This includes a preference for global or bureaucratic knowledge over local ways of knowing. Professional cultures override the personal and community value systems of their participants—at least they should, if the participant is to be successful. Brown argues that the potential of educational credentials to produce professional/bureaucratic workers is the main drive in a post-industrial society that needs more service and knowledge workers. This is a crucial point for my understanding of how educational credentialing can be detrimental to community development…in effect, professionalization can undermine what makes local culture valuable.

In summary, the achievement ideology emphasizes the meritocratic potential of individual effort and masks social inequalities that may affect that potential. Furthermore, in the political economy of the post-industrial era, the individual is called upon to take an entrepreneurial approach to seeking knowledge that will allow him or her to compete in a global marketplace. Institutions sell knowledge to the individual and the cost of that education increases as sources of public funding diminish. As a result, the onus of success falls upon the individual’s ability to become what Brown calls an “organization man” [sic], separating himself (or herself) from locally-based loyalties and acquiring the social as well as technical skills to manuever within the corporate world. The educational process indoctrinates a certain set of values but the credential is in itself a “claim” against potential economic participation. Post-secondary education therefore becomes a process and a commodity. In the neo-conservative political climate described by Lewis (2001), post-secondary educational institutions are being pushed to commodify education and the credentials they offer are often further stratified by “get educated and therefore rich” schemes of short-term training programs that boost enrollment. In the long run, what claims a credential holder might be able to make are subject to their ability to play the hierarchical system of post-secondary education.

The Increasing “Burden” of Education in Glace Bay

Throughout interviews with residents of Glace Bay regarding the history of education in the town, the expression "it's no burden to carry" was used often to refer to “getting your papers” (acquiring educational certification for a particular job or profession). Alternatively, the term was used to refer to seeking out knowledge for everyday life, such as consulting automotive manuals, reading novels, or learning the names of a nephew’s playmates. Education, broadly defined, was and is valued in Glace Bay with its high graduation rates and strong tradition of self-improvement through reading.

Going to university was never unusual for Glace Bay residents, even for the sons and daughters of laborers in the mine. Almost every family has a college graduate, in fact, a group of siblings in a Glace Bay family might include a corporate CEO, a coal miner, a nurse, and diesel mechanic living across North America. The “burden” of education, however, has become heavier. Over the past forty years, as coal mining has declined in the area, going to university has become a necessity rather than an opportunity. Differences between educational certification and everyday or on-the-job learning have increased, often at the expense of local knowledge systems.

The liberal politics of equitable access to opportunity of the 1960s and 1970s in Canada contributed to the rise in public support of post-secondary student grants and loans and the development of regional institutions. At first quite generous, student grants and loans lifted restrictions of funding from the public demand for education further increasing the size and shape of post-secondary programs. A shift in the goals of post-secondary institutions whereby education became a product to be sold and a business to be run rather than a vehicle for democratic advancement, however, followed this generosity. For economic survival in Atlantic Canada, in fact, the commodity of education is a product that everyone must buy or be in the business of selling or economic survival is uncertain. Government policy in Cape Breton places ever-increasing emphasis on education as the answer to economic development, but rather than investing in general education, provincial and federal dollars go to “economic and technical innovation” and to 1-2 year certification courses that further generate a hierarchy of outcomes.

The increase in educational credentialing and the commodification of higher education is true for most of North America (Brown, 1995, Shumar, ). When Frank and Millie finished high school in the 1930s, there were on-the-job training opportunities for most positions. Working in a local hospital, Millie eventually finished her nursing degree and became a nursing instructor. Frank was successful in his government career without further formal education and he actively pursued an informal education in regional history through reading and attending local heritage events. Frank and Millie’s grandchildren, however, have no choice but to go to university if they want to make sustainable wages. The rise of credentialing means more than just the increase in educational investment required of an individual. For towns like Glace Bay, the changing economy and changing educational requirements have affected the form and structure of families and communities—going to university often means going away, regardless of the desire to stay. The pursuit of educational credentials exacts a toll, not only on the resources of the learner and his or her family but also on the sustainability of community values and norms as external knowledge is privileged over local ways of knowing. As requirements of educational credentials have risen, the burden of education in terms of its costs and affect on the community has shifted.

Based on twelve months of ethnographic fieldwork, this research includes participant observation, focused life history interviews, and historical document reviews. This paper reflects the intersection of biography and history wherein we learn not only what residents believed to have happened in their town, but also what they were doing at the time—the decisions they made and the ways that they interpreted the options and obstacles before them.3 I recruited individuals for interviews through a variety of methods. These included snowball sampling (following one lead to the next, especially from one family member to the next), and convenience sampling (seizing opportunities to talk to local residents in public venues such as coffee shops, the library, the bingo halls, my landlady’s kitchen, etc.). I also contacted a random sample of alumni from one of the two high schools in town (now consolidated into one institution) from a reunion mailing list. Using these interviews, I created, for this paper, two fictitious families. These are composite families, made up of pieces of stories of real individuals who are not related. They are, however, family histories that would be familiar to any Glace Bay resident. They are representative of the kinds of family stories I heard and recorded. Pseudonyms and slight changes to the facts are intended to protect the privacy of these citizens.

Visiting Frank

I called Frank to make an appointment after learning from his son that he had lived in the same mining neighborhood on the east side of town for over 70 years. I wanted to collect oral histories of the early years of Glace Bay to supplement the recorded history available in books and at the Glace Bay Miner’s Museum and Frank sounded like a perfect source. When I arrived at his door, Frank was waiting for me. He was nervous but friendly and he escorted me into his house.

When going on interview visits, I usually tried to steer my hosts into their kitchens. I found Cape Bretoners tended to be more relaxed in their kitchens and it was easier to set up the tape recorder on a table than holding it out over the often-looming divide between davenport and easy chair in a formal living room. Frank’s house had been renovated, however, from the typical Glace Bay company house that included a front room, kitchen in the back, two bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs. Contractors hired by his son had knocked out the walls Frank’s house and created a floor plan that allowed 75 year-old Frank to live downstairs with his bedroom on the first floor. The renovation resulted in a small galley kitchen and pantry along the back of the house leading to a cozy den. My landlady, a widow who had cared for a husband, three sons, and countless male boarders in her two bedroom house, would have resented not being able to sit in her own kitchen, but Frank’s sitting room was pleasant and warm with a view of the ocean and the bay. Frank gestured proudly at the view and told me we would soon be seeing the ferry leaving Sydney harbor for Newfoundland.

Frank had lived in this neighborhood all his life with the brief exception of the three years he spent in the Canadian navy during World War II. He grew up in another company house two blocks away from where we sat and had gone to school across the street at St. John’s elementary school once run by the Sisters of Charity. Most of the nuns lived in the convent across the street and the lay teachers would have also lived in the neighborhood. The elementary school was closed, but the convent was still there and its residents, those that weren’t retired, taught in the public schools. Frank went to St. Anne’s High School. To go to school, he would have crossed the cluster of streets that made up his neighborhood of New Aberdeen, past another cluster of streets called Tablehead, and finally up Chapell Hill, the closest thing to a middle class neighborhood in Glace Bay. The town is made up of over fifteen such neighborhoods, most of which grew up around mines, tunneling deep beneath the town’s streets and out under the Atlantic ocean into one of three coal seams that wrap the southeastern shore of Cape Breton Island.

Frank didn’t finish high school. He worked as a miner in a bootleg mine, one of many small enterprises dug into the cliffs surrounding the town or burrowed down from a mine head hidden in a backyard shed. I asked why the company allowed them to continue and he laughed. “They would come and blow up the entrance every once in a while, but it only took a few days to get back to where you were before. We’d steal timbers from Dominion and some of the older miners would check our work and make sure we were keeping our lines straight and safe,” he explained. When he was seventeen, he went with his father and brothers to work for the company. “I tried several times to get on at the mine,” Frank said, “but with three brothers and a father in the mine I think they thought that was enough from one family.” Frank had told this story many times. For a man of his age, growing up in a company house, in a company town, to have avoided a life in the mine required explanation. Dispensation. It had not been his choice to avoid the mine, his story told, but that of the mine managers. Serendipity--if he had not had three older brothers or, perhaps, if the overmen had been more pressed for labor he might have become a professional miner. He might have begun a job that would require him to work twelve hour days (or more), going to and from work in darkness most of the year, with very little pay or time off, in dangerous working conditions. He would also have joined a fraternity that offered a common bond with the men in his family and community that cannot be overestimated. Frank talked about that bond wistfully.

Instead of going into the deeps, Frank went into the Navy in the fall of 1936. Six months later he was sent to Europe as part of the Canadian fleet sent to protect the English Channel. Although of the age to enlist, his brothers stayed in the mine. Coal was needed for the war effort and many Cape Breton miners were asked to stay on their jobs, despite their willingness to serve overseas. In fact, the need for coal required them to work even harder, despite the low pay and working conditions. After almost thirty years of largely unsuccessful union activity and strikes against the absentee coal company management, any movement to strike was squelched by the weight of patriotism. Union activism in the mines became a more abstract ideal engineered by organizers outside of the area resulting in a stronger union organization (the UMW), but relinquishing the fight for better conditions to the progress of time and technology. Of his three brothers, two remained underground miners until they retired, and one became a diesel mechanic at the steel mill in Sydney.

When he returned from the war, Frank took the civil service exam. “I had the second highest score that year,” he told me proudly. He went to work for the government and stayed in that job until his retirement ten years prior to my visit. Frank was ahead of his time. In 1950, when he was 25 years old, the town population was 23,000. 12,000 of those people were miners. Frank worked above ground in a clean job that paid decently and allowed him to come and go from work in daylight most of the year. His work experience was categorically different from that of the other men in his family, his classmates at school, and most of the men in his neighborhood. 25 years later, however, the town population was still over 20,000 but only 3000 men worked in the mines. Frank was one of many people who worked for the government in civil and social service jobs; above ground jobs that paid decently, although not extravagantly, and offered few occupational hazards. By 1995, when Frank and I sat in his renovated company house, watching the Newfoundland ferry round Phalen Point, the mines were all but closed with less than 300 miners still employed.

Frank is also typical of many Glace Bay residents in his generation. He is an avid reader. He pushed his seven children to finish school. He worked hard and saved enough to improve his home and buy a summer bungalow on the Mira River. He kept his family as close as he could, but mourned the fact that most of his children live away in Central and Western Canada. He follows local politics closely and keeps up with local news down at the Tim Horton’s coffee shop. He complained about the closing of St. Joseph’s hospital and what he called a decline in medical services, but applauded the building of a new high school that he believed will help close the gap between Catholics and Protestants in the town. And he told stories of the old days: the pit ponies, the strikes, the bootleg mines, and the days when miners filled the sidewalks of the town shoulder to shoulder with blackened faces on their way home from work.

Frank spoke proudly of his nine children. Two died as young men, one in the Navy and the other in a fishing accident. Three of his daughters have college degrees and live away. Two others went to work in the Northwest Territories after high school and still live out west. One son went to work for the company after dropping out of a training program and one lives nearby and works as a hospital administrator. I asked Frank what he thought the future held for his grandchildren who live in Cape Breton. He sighed and said:

When I was growing up, I thought we were worse off as anyone, but the young people now have it worse. We had anarchy, burning the pluck-me stores, soldiers in the streets, and the labor wars, but now the prospects for work are so bad. It’s not just political but economic. It’s even harder for people to deal.

Millie’s Story

A few weeks earlier, I was escorted into another sitting room; this one occupied by Millie, a 78-year-old retired nurse. Millie’s house was new, built for her by her doctor son but still less than a mile from the company house in which she grew up. Eastern European Jews, her family lived in a neighborhood that was a mix of European families: Italian, Belarussian, Polish, and Ukrainian. Glace Bay was not segregated by ethnicity, but the ethnic community clubs in which the language and culture of the immigrants’ home regions were most persistent were on Millie’s side of town. Most of the houses in the town were company structures like Frank’s, clustered together in rows on numbered streets around the mine heads, and sold to their owners by the coal company in the 1960’s. In contrast, newer houses like Millie’s popped up along the connecting roads between the mines and on the roads leading out of town. Further back from the sea than Frank’s house, the windows in Millie’s sitting room offered a view across the road to the shrub covered headlands of the coast.

Millie’s father had been a clerk at a store in Caledonia, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Glace Bay. Millie’s family was luckier than most as her father was less likely to be laid off by the company. She was visibly upset, however, when she talked about the strikes of her childhood when families in her neighborhood would be put out in the street and her classmates were often hungry. Millie finished high school at Morrison Glace Bay High School, the public school that served most of the non-Catholic students in town. She remembered her Catholic neighbors walking past Morrison on the way to St. Anne’s. Millie went to nursing school in Montreal for a year after high school and then returned to train on the job at the public hospital.

Millie was proud of her education and her family. “When you went to college in the forties,” she began, “it was a big deal! My mother stood on the step of the house and cried!” She went on to talk about how important it had been to her to “get out” of Glace Bay. “I couldn’t wait! To get away from this close knit clannishness.” Millie spoke both fondly and with bitterness about the closeness of her family and those of her neighbors. She explained that what she called clannishness extended beyond the Scottish families that made up the largest ethnic group in the town and reduced the antagonism that might have existed between ethnic and religious groups. “It helped us survive,” she exclaimed. “We knew too much to ignore each other’s pain.”

Millie and her sisters and brothers all went to college. The two of her sisters became teachers, one brother moved away to “the Boston States” and went into business and the other became a doctor. “My parents lived for three things: food, shelter, and education,” she exclaimed. She and her husband, a clerk for the coal company, carried on this tradition sending their son to college in Halifax and later on to medical school in New York. Their daughter also went to college, but dropped out of school and works in Sydney for a training company.

Millie was active in community outreach, sometimes working with extension workers from “Little X” the extension campus of St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish. The cooperative movement in Cape Breton was called the Antigonish movement a people’s school that taught grass-roots development and self-help programs, especially literacy, home economics, and the benefits of cooperatives. “The principles of self dignity are still important,” Millie sighed, “ just harder to place in today’s world.” I asked Millie the same questions about the future that I asked of Frank. She responded that she had recently had the same conversation with her sisters in Boston:

When my sisters ask me “Mil, what are they doing in Glace Bay?” I say, “It’s a welfare state.” They can’t believe it.

Frank and Millie lived through the period of the town’s history when immigrants struggled with the company and children were sent to school with the hopes of getting them out of the mines and into something better. They both remembered those hard days fondly, with more than a little nostalgia. This is typical of Glace Bay where any introduction to the town is a history lesson. Frank and Millie’s stories also reinforce the notion that for this generation, post-secondary education was an opportunity rather than a necessity. While the costs of attending college were significant, they were not insurmountable. One of Frank and Millie’s peers explained how booster clubs, local community organizations, and the Catholic church would often provide the scholarships young people needed to continue their education.4 A case example of the educational expansion described by Randall Collins, early opportunities for post-secondary education in Glace Bay was made possible by the desire of different social, ethnic, and religious groups to increase opportunities for their young people. The clannishness that Millie spoke of worked to help find the resources needed for the college success of a wide variety of individuals.

Teachers, Nurses, Miners, and the Pogie

Frank and Millie’s children faced a very different set of educational choices when they came of age. Graduating from high school in the 1950s and 1960s, they had new schools, a new extension campus of St. Francis Xavier University nearby in Sydney, opportunities for technical education at a government technical college, and the choice of a variety of proprietary training institutions. Government funding for post-secondary education was increasing and with institutions located nearby costs were less. Credentialing requirements, however, had increased, especially for professional careers. Teaching, nursing, and mining—the primary occupations in Glace Bay—now required post-compulsory training (see Table One). Yes, you could still go into the mines without further education, but the changes to long-wall mining in the early 1960s meant that the company encouraged apprenticeship programs that provided post-secondary vocational training and had highly competitive admissions.

Table One

Career Aspirations of Glace Bay High School Seniors

Morrison High School Year Book 1957
social work





RCMP (police)/law



While the traditional occupations in Glace Bay required more education than in Frank and Millie’s day, there were also fewer jobs to be had. Frank and Millie’s children’s classmates left Glace Bay in droves—often before finishing high school. There were jobs in the factories in central Canada and in the fledgling oil industry of western Canada. Opportunities were also available in the Northwest Territories.

Frank’s son Dave describes his high school years as full of excitement. They were the first class at the new St. Michael’s High School and there were new institutions and programs opening in the area. Economic times were touch, however, and he credits the threat of mine closures as part of the excitement for his peer group:

We were on a wave. Our parents were afraid for us because everything was changing, but to us it seemed like there was so much possibility. We didn’t have the choice of the mines or else that our fathers had. Maybe because there was nothing here we felt like anything could happen!

Dave went on to talk about how his younger siblings, the four youngest who didn’t go to high school until a decade after he had graduated, did not have the same excitement. “They were passive about everything,” he said. In fact, his younger siblings were less successful in the traditional sense; only one finished college and two of the others barely finished high school.

Dave went away to college and later finished a Masters in Public Administration in Toronto. He returned to work in Cape Breton when his mother died to be closer to his father, taking a cut in pay to do so. Visiting with him five years after our first interview, I asked if he still felt that his generation had been on a wave and if he saw any similarities with the current situation of the mines closing. He nodded, “Despite the fact that some of my friends are back here living at home without jobs, I’d still say we were a successful group. We didn’t all make it, but we all gave it a hell of a try.”

Dave’s sister Karen went to teacher’s college a few years after Dave left home. She also talked about the excitement she felt has a high school senior. “There was doom and gloom every day in the papers,” she explained, “but we were as good as anyone!” She talked about the number of teachers across Canada from Cape Breton. “We went to get out, but we also wanted to come home again someday. Teaching made leaving possible, but some of us never came home.”

Karen gave me the name of her friend, Trudy, who still lives in Toronto after going with Karen to teacher’s college. Trudy talked about living away from the island:

It was pretty lonesome at first. Most of our friends are Maritimers or from Out West. We talk about moving back, but if we hadn’t left when we did our children would have left us. We go home every two or three years, usually during lobster fishing.

Trudy believes that she and her husband, who works for the RCMP, will eventually retire to Cape Breton, but not to Glace Bay. “We’ll get a nice country house on the lake,” she mused.

Millie’s daughter Rachel graduated from Morrison High School in the early 1960’s and went away to an American college. She dropped out when she couldn’t “find herself”. “I went because I was expected to, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” she explained, “and I missed being home.” Returning to Nova Scotia Rachel went to work for a proprietary school first in Halifax and later in Cape Breton conducting life skills training courses. She never married. She was happy with her position and claimed that the company she worked for was making a difference. “The universities don’t prepare students for the real world,” she said. Her company provides upgrading and skills classes for government clients and is known for being “on the inside” of economic development initiatives.

Rachel talked about her mother’s interest in the cooperative movement and how it affected her desire to pursue a career that included “helping people”. I asked if she had ever wanted to go back to school and become an educator and she shook her head and said she that she had attended workshops on entrepreneurship and marketing. “Training people without teaching them how to think like business people doesn’t change things,” she said. “As an educator I can do more to help my students if I have the business know-how than I would if I just taught them subjects.” Rachel’s job required her to develop partnerships with businesses and she stated she was interested in building entrepreneurship programs in schools. “They [the children] need to learn independence. Their parents are too far gone in the dependency mind frame.”

Rachel’s older brother Josh also talked about wanting to work in a field where he could “help people”. He finished medical school in the United States and then returned to Nova Scotia after working in central Canada for ten years. We talked about his decision to go to college and his decision to go on to medical school. “I always knew I’d go on,” he said. He did not think of himself as an overly academic student or particularly successful, but he reflected on the differences between his family and those of his classmates:

In the old days, the people were self-educated. They would discuss politics, listen to the radio, and follow the union debates. It didn’t matter whether my mother went to college or not…her friends were just as educated from books and conversation as she was. But they [his parents] pushed at us, and some of the people I went to school with didn’t get pushed. That made a difference.

Alistair, a friend of Josh’s, gave another perspective on the influence of family. His father objected to his academic interests. “University is for doctor and lawyer’s sons,” Alistair’s father said. “My dad didn’t come to graduation,” Alistair said quietly, “he said that reading and studying would just make it harder to go enter the mines when the time came.” His mother, however, would have “done anything” to help him achieve his dreams and she supported his efforts to go to college and later graduate school. Josh and Alistair were both lucky to have mothers who pushed them to go on, but they made these choices in a climate that often did not encourage formal post-secondary educational ambitions.

Josh answered with regret when I asked him if he planned on staying in Cape Breton. “The Jewish community here is dying,” he said. “Without my mother here, I doubt we’ll stay.” Josh’s children are about to start college and do not plan on making their lives in Glace Bay or the surrounding area. “What is there here for them?” Josh asked.

Unlike Alistair, Josh, Dave and Karen, Frank’s nephew John did not go on to college. He dropped out of high school and went to Ontario to work for Briggs and Stratton with a group of his classmates. Later, a friend from home encouraged him to come back and he went to work for the coal company in 1972. The mine he was working closed, and John went to work for the steel mill with Frank’s youngest son until they were both laid off in 1989. Unemployed since that time, he works a variety of odd jobs and occasionally crews on a lobster boat. Trained on-the-job and through upgrading classes at the Adult Vocational Training Center (AVTC), John is a licensed diesel mechanic and can run a variety of heavy equipment. Divorced, he lives with his aging father and mother and helps supplement their pension income. John laughed when I asked him about leaving to find work. “I guess you could say I’m one of them Cape Bretoners who just likes living on the pogie,” he joked. In all seriousness, he talked about wanting to stay close to his children and parents and how he did not think that he could do any better living away. “I’m from the Bay, you see and here that means something. There, I’d just be another John.” I asked about whether he thought he might return to school. “For what?” he answered, “I’d only get a degree that I’d have to use away and I’m too old to become something I’m not.”

High School on the Highway

Millie and Frank’s grandchildren and their friends have grown up in an industrial Cape Breton with little to no industry. While a certain percentage of every generation have always left the island to find work and seek broader opportunities, the continuing severity of the economic conditions in Cape Breton mean that a larger and larger portion of young people have been forced to leave or face unemployment. As the perceived efficacy of post-secondary credentials for local work declined, cynicism about and, in some cases, resistance to external requirements for education increased. When referring to the University College of Cape Breton, Millie’s granddaughter talked unenthusiastically about going to the “high-school on the highway” and then away to find work. For her, post-secondary education became a necessary next step after high school rather than the opportunity it was for her grandmother and father. Frank’s youngest son told of attending mandatory “life-skills development” sessions after being laid off from the steel mill. For him, further education became a prescription rather than the personal pursuit of knowledge his father enjoyed.

In many ways, the career aspirations of young people in industrial Cape Breton have not changed since their parents graduated from high school. Table Two shows the similarities in aspirations from one generation to the next.

Table Two

Student Career Aspirations
Glace Bay H.S. Morrison H.S.

1995 &1996 1957

Student Survey Year Book

social work social work

teaching teaching

nursing/medicine nursing/medicine

secretarial secretarial/accounting


trade (electrician, plumber, etc.) engineer/electrician

law, criminal justice RCMP (police)/law

university university


What has changed, however, are the educational requirements to succeed in these roles and the potential for employment in these fields. In 1997, St. Francis Xavier University graduated 1500 more teachers than there were teaching positions in the province of Nova Scotia. Successful college graduates continue to leave Cape Breton to find work, even those who planned on staying. If post-secondary education no longer provides opportunities to be successful in Cape Breton, what new roles does post-secondary education play today? Is it still "no burden to carry"?


During the first half of the twentieth century education did reproduce social differences in Glace Bay, but because of the similarities in circumstances from one family to the next, the playing field was remarkably level. For Glace Bay residents, the economy and the educational requirements of that economy would play a far greater role than the social capital of families (indigenous capital) in the ways that economic inequality came to be produced. Millie and Frank’s families were more successful than many of their neighbors not because of differences in their positions within the production of capital, but because of their family values for education that were rewarded in later generations as credentials became valued commodities.

The crucial shift, it seems, for this community, came during the 1960s when the economy made a dramatic swing away from coal mining (albeit slowly) and the state began to play a leading role in economic development. It was at this moment that post-secondary education not only became more accessible but also more important to place-holding within the bureaucratic cultures of teaching, nursing, and government agencies—the most stable occupations available in the area. At the time of this shift, however, it was still possible to maintain a sense of value for community knowledge. Frank and Millie’s children, while pursuing the credentials and economic mobility of a de-industrializing economy still defined themselves within the local structures of family, neighborhood, and community—even when living “away”. Frank and Millie’s grandchildren, however, share little of that loyalty to place. Their success is measured more and more by their ability to play the global game rather than the local.

Finally, I end with the story of Frank’s grand-daughter Amelia. Amelia, of all the characters introduced in this story, has reached the most transformational of results from her educational experiences. Amelia’s father did not go to college, but at her uncle’s prodding she finished high school and attended a year of college at the Nova Scotia School of Design. When her Celtic inspired creations started selling in galleries across North America, she dropped out of college and moved back to Cape Breton. It seems that for this young woman, the resurgence of heritage, especially the folk heritage of the Gaelic highlanders of Cape Breton, has produced a market in which creative ability and craftsmanship are once again rewarded over institutional credentials. William Morris would be fascinated to hear such a turn of events as Amelia’s cousins struggle to maintain their position within what Morris (1887) called, “the mass of general education which earns nothing”.


Apple, M.W. Ed. (1982). Cultural and economic reproduction in education: Essays on class, ideology, and the state. Boston: Routledge.

Axelrod, P. (1990). Making a Middle Class: Student life in English Canada during the thirties. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Cultural Reproduction and Social Reproduction. In: Power and Ideology in Education. J. Karabel and A.H. Halsey. Ed. New York: Oxford University Press.

Brown, D.K., (1995). Degrees of Control: A Sociology of Educational Expansion and Occupational Credentialism. New York: Teachers College.

Carnoy, M. (1993). The New global economy in the information age: Reflections on our changing world. University Park, Pa.: Pennsylvania State University Press.

Foley, D. E. (1990). Learning capitalist culture: Deep in the heart of Tejas. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Lipset, S.M. (1990). Continental divide: The values and institutions of the United States and Canada. New York: Routledge.

MacLeod, J. (1995). Ain't No Makin' It: Aspirations and attainment in a low-income neighborhood. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Morris, William (1887) The Commonweal. September 10.

Obermiller, P.J. and Philliber, W. W., 1994. Appalachia in an International Context: Cross-national comparisons of developing regions. Westport, CT: Praeger Publishing.

Raissiguier, C. (1994). Becoming women, becoming workers : Identity formation in a French vocational school. Albany : State University of New York Press.

Watson, L. and Watson-Franke, M.B. (1985). Interpreting life histories : an anthropological inquiry. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, c1985.

Williams, R. (1973). The Country and the City. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Willis, P. (1977). Learning to Labor. Aldershot: Gower.

1 I wish to note the critique of the works cited as being focused almost completely on the resistive practices of boys with little attention paid to issues of gender. In an earlier conference paper, I address this issue (Jensen, 1987). See Goldthorpe, J.H., (1983); Lareau, (1992); Raissiguier, C., (1994); and an edited volume by Mahony, P. and Zmroczek, C., (1997) for a more complete discussion of gender, class, and educational decision-making.

2 See Eyerman, Svensson & Soderquist, Intellectuals, Universities and the State in Western Modern Societies. 1987, University of California Press for a discussion of the public subsidy of private aspirations. See also Carnoy (1993) on the relative autonomy of education relative to the state.

3 See Watson, L. and Watson-Franke, M.B. (1985) for a discussion of the use of life history interviews.

4 The differences between American and Canadian higher education have not been stressed in this essay. There are some similarities, especially with regard to the extent of support by civic organizations for scholarships that offsets the rigidity of class lines more common in the UK and Europe (Axelrod, 1990; Lipset, 1990).



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