Les Érudits Maudits: Education and Class
Part One: Humanities Education Today
For liberals, one of the goals of education is to make upward mobility possible, and upward mobility is usually though of as somehow egalitarian. There are two problems with this way of thinking. First, while all egalitarians and populists initially agree that the lower classes (however they might be named) should have the same opportunities as the upper classes, every individual wants their own children to have only the best. Neither the old middle class nor the newly-arrived upward-mobile middle class is willing to take the chance that their children might end up spending their lives as truck drivers or as fast food workers.
Second, all schemes for upward mobility through education implicitly recognize that some will be left behind. Some of the children of truck drivers will drive trucks too. If the whole working class at any given time were raised up into the middle class, someone else would have to do the working-class work that still needed to be done. (The academic grading function exists for the primary purpose of separating the sheep and the goats, sending some students into the upper class while other fall into the working class).
Liberal egalitarianism is thus pretty fragile. It’s less coherent than either socialist egalitarianism or free-market social Darwinism. The former holds that all work is of value, and that all workers deserve good lives. The latter believes that mobility rewards the talented and hard-working, and punishes the others. (Both of these, however, also conflict with the aforementioned natural tendency of all parents to favor their children, which almost always overrides formal principles and ideology. Just like anyone else, socialists and free-marketers want to catch their children when they fall, pulling whatever strings are necessary — egalitarianism be damned, and the free market too.)
Academics in the liberal arts, and especially the humanities, often have a very strong commitment to upward mobility through education, but the realities of education today put several obstacles in the way of effectively fulfilling this commitment. In the first place, higher education has become increasingly expensive over the last several decades, thus effectively pricing out many talented students. Second, higher degrees in the humanities are not necessarily a good way to raise one’s class status: many PhD’s end up as poorly-paid adjuncts, or leave the profession entirely to retrain in something else or to become heavily-indebted taxi drivers. (You can’t declare bankruptcy on student loans, and when you retire, money will be deducted from your social security check.) And third, many academics (including some of the upward-mobile ones) are a little too comfortable with the elite status that they have attained, and thus can hardly claim to be egalitarian.
Part Two: I Begin to Grind my Axe
A lot has been written about the poor career prospects for new PhD’s, especially in English and history, and what I’ve written above provides some context for this. My own angle is different, however. I believe that when writing in the humanities came to be defined as productive work, or as the scientific production of truth, its nature became falsified. Philosophy, history, and literature are not specialized sciences with specific objects, but three different ways of dealing with reality at its highest level of inclusiveness and generality. And because of this inclusiveness and ambitious scope, they cannot have the rigor and exactness that science do, and should not try to do so. The institutionalization of the humanities in the university as a form of work has led to a strangling methodologism (mimicking science) which spoils all the fun. And since humanities education is to some degree in crisis today, for reasons largely unrelated to my main point, I now am opportunistically presenting my alternative model.
Historically culture-producers were monks, gentlemen of leisure, military aristocrats, lackeys and retainers of the aristocracy and the church, and déclassé riffraff. Only in the nineteenth century did scholarship come to be defined as a job at a university, and even during that century most professors were ill-paid and dependent on family money. During the twentieth century professors gradually came to earn a middle-class income for the work they did and to take their place in the middle class.
What goes on a university? Professors publish research and teach — but many professors don’t teach much at the undergrad level, though they usually do supervise grad students (the scholars and professors of the future), and after tenure has been attained, many don’t publish much either. As for the grad students, they study, help with the professors’ research, do their own research, and teach undergrads. And the undergrads party a lot and sometimes study.
What are the purposes of the university? It’s a hodgepodge: the production of scholarship, science, and technical innovation; the production of ideological justifications for various public and private corporate groups; general cultural education; education in citizenship; job training; entertainment; and the ratification of class status. Tenured professors are the meritocratic elite, and theoretically the undergraduates are trying to move themselves up the ladder. (Just by graduating at all, they will attain middle class status, as can be seen in Appendix One).
Who pays for the university? Financially, taxpayers, charitable donors and foundations (often dead people), parents, and the students themselves (mostly through debt). With payments in kind (unpaid or underpaid labor), graduate students (many of whom never benefit materially from their educations) and adjuncts.
What match is there between the universities’ goals and their funding? Very little. Many years ago a friend of mine, after spending some time researching “the purpose of education”, decided that education is an institution, like marriage, and that one way you know that something is an institution is that you don’t have to give reasons for it. Getting a college degree, like getting married (cf. “Repo Man”), is what people do.
Because the academic humanities have become socially authoritative to a degree, and because college teaching has become a desirable middle class job (with the requisite need to supervise workers and justify hiring and promotion), and also because the cultural context of our time is defined by science and engineering, it has become necessary to define history, literary study, and philosophy as responsible sorts of productive work with reliable methodologies of producing truth.
In this context even the dissident and eclectic tendencies have had to methodologize, and paradigms are imposed everywhere. My thesis is that this not only takes all the fun out of the humanities, but also reduces their critical force and closes off their essential openendedness. In fact, we now have a kind of scholasticism, with no necessary connection to any actuality — a scholasticism often produced by technical operatives who neither know nor care what it is that they’re actually doing, and who live their own lives by principles entirely disconnected from the things that they are paid to study.
Part Three: The Axe is Ground
My thesis is that today there is an increasingly bad fit between the scholar’s social role, his job, and his scholarly work, and that what suffers most is the scholarly work. On the one hand, the younger generation of scholars is not being well supported, and the older generation might well not be replaced when they retire. And on the other hand — in my opinion at least — the rigid methodologization, bureaucratization, and paradigm-enforcement in the humanities, which is a function of the job-organization of scholarship on a hierarchical, positivist, production model, reduces the quality of the scholarly output while simultaneously driving people from the field and reducing the satisfaction which those who remain are able to take in their work.
So maybe scholarship and philosophical writing, or some of it, should be done outside the university system, by people who are not professionals or teachers. (As I’ve said, the identification of scholarship and science with the university is only a century or two old.) The options of becoming a monk, a landed gentleman, or an aristocratic military officer are no longer with us – progress and creative destruction have taken care of that. But we still can be déclassé or maudit on the bohemian model, or work as amateurs while making our livings otherwise, like Spinoza grinding lenses or Thoreau grinding graphite. (Both died of lung disease, as it happens). Vestiges of the bohemian tradition still remain among poets and novelists, so that all that is required is the for this model to be extended to nonfiction writing about history, philosophy, and literature.
In practice, what would this class redefinition entail? To begin with, no one would be expected to renounce success right off at the beginning. A research scholar at a major university is like a god in heaven, and everyone who thinks he has a chance at that will still try for it. On the other hand, most humanities PhD’s can’t expect that, and often can’t expect much of anything either, and I would expect to see fewer and fewer people willing to go heavily into debt for the privilege of joining the taxi squad of adjuncts and lecturers.
Especially at the beginning, there will always be resistance to the work of unaccredited scholars without official positions. As time goes on, and as established scholars begin to see their specialties dwindling along with the university itself, I would expect to see more acceptance of the amateurs and érudits maudits. Defenders of their class position will argue that amateurs are always sloppy and inept, but this is not always true, and I think that there’s a strong counter-argument to this one, considering the scholastic strangulation inherent in much heavily-methodologized contemporary work.
At the present time, prospective scholars aim simultaneously for a certain class status and a certain kind of work. In the scheme I’m proposing, some who of those who do not gain the class status will continue to do the work. (I might also say that it’s already true that some who do gain the class status cease to do the work, and just use their positions to finance their other activities more rewarding to them.) Forced to choose, most less-successful humanists will probably decide to attain middle-class status through some other kind of work, and forget about scholarship. In some cases this will be because scholarship has been so ruined for them by the hierarchical form of industrial organization presently in place that they would never think of doing it on their own time In other cases, those who are still in touch with the bohemian-aristocratic joys of study will still be uncertain about the monkish sacrifices involved in doing unfunded work (i.e., working entirely for the intrinsic rewards, with no extrinsic reward). In addition, the audience for scholarly nonfiction is pretty small, since many readers have been turned off by bad experiences at school or by exposure to jargon-laden writing never intended to be read by anyone. And finally, many who are kicked off the gravy train end up believing at some deep level that their work really is not, and never will be, good enough. (And there will be no shortage of tenured apparatchiks to encourage them in this belief).
So only the few and the proud will be interested in my érudit maudit concept. In fact, however, our society is opulent enough that it is possible to live decently at quite a low relative economic level. And while certain pleasures and comforts will need to be sacrificed, the most painful sacrifice will be success itself. People often talk about “true success”, but nobody really believes that success is anything but money. Those making the bohemian sacrifice will have to choose between taking a lot of ribbing and nagging about their personal failure, and just cutting unsympathetic people out their lives. Neither option is an appealing one.
My proposal here will probably eventually be described as a nihilistic, know-nothing attack on education. The enemies of the university are of many different kinds, however, and I am the most insignificant of them all. I think that in the present context is the university’s biggest problem is the effect on future scholarship of the move to a two-tier hiring system, within which the bulk of the actual work is done by hapless adjuncts and lecturers while the tenured faculty bask in transient bliss as the great age of the American university draws to a close. What I offer is a partial solution.
Appendix I: Education as class itself
A recent discussion at Crooked Timber cites the following passage: “Bartels’s definition of the white working class–white voters whose incomes put them in the lower-third of the household income distribution–is quite different from the prevailing definition of the white working class. In a broad version of the prevailing definition, the white working class consists of white voters whose education has stopped short of a four-year college degree.” (Link). Here, middle-class status is defined entirely by education: a college-graduate waiter making $25,000 a year is middle class, whereas a two-year degree technical worker earning $60,000 a year is working class. (The working class median income is reported as $44,000 a year, which means that many workers must be earning considerable more than that.)
While I think that this definition of class does point to a reality of American life and gives insight into the its cleavages, there’s something very peculiar about it — we seem to have ended up with a “declining bourgeois” sector comparable to the impoverished aristocrats of the early capitalist age. But the definition fits my argument perfectly.
Appendix II: the freedom of early science
Steve Shapin’s A Social History of Truth, (Chicago, 1994) describes the gentlemanly, aristocratic organization of early modern science. Formally, the science of those days was a personal indulgence like fox-hunting, card-playing, ballroom dancing, and worse – cf. the novels of Jane Austen. (To be fair, the rise of science was part of a reform movement within the oafish, decadent aristocracy: see J.H. Hexter, “The Education of the Aristocracy in the Renaissance” in Reappraisals in History, London, 1961). The early scientists were under no external discipline and were responsive only to the opinions of other scientists whom they personally respected. (I have written about Descartes, who was self-financed and whose career fits this description)
Shapin, p. 52: “[F]ew commentators disagreed that a gentleman was so placed that he might do as he pleased, or denied that freedom of action was a defining circumstance of the gentle condition.” As Shapin tells the story, in order to be accepted as a scientist during the early days, one had to be a free gentleman in this sense. Working scientists who were employees of the gentleman scientist, however talented they might be, did not see their names entered onto the list of heroes of science. Science seems to have been a lot more fun during its pioneer days, at least for the gentleman scientists.
Appendix III: Foundation money
The various foundations could fund bohemian scholars, but they don’t. Foundation money theoretically could be an alternative to university money, but in fact artistic, scholarly, and other foundations have been almost completely colonized by the universities, to the point that there are MA and PhD programs specifically teaching how to write grants or how to run foundations. There’s really quite a story here, though I don’t have any details. According to the analysis whereby college education defines the middle class, the university’s absorption of the foundations would simply be the ratification of the contemporary class structure, and the integration of potentially dangerous free money into the hierarchical system presently in place.
I am emersonj at gmail dot com.