I recently read Fred Siegel’s The Revolt against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class (2015), a self-inflicted fate which should excuse anyone else of ever having to read it. Its many mendacities are both so petty and so bold that it’s not worth taking the time to critique, but the book’s constant paranoia about cultural elitism (or just plain snobbery) as the glue uniting a ruling class of intellectual mavens is illustrative of a broader tendency of thought that does deserve attention. This is the “new class” line of thought which I wrote about a little in my last post: the idea that “knowledge workers” or a cultural/technical/professional/creative elite have, over the course of the twentieth century, used their privileged positions in political, economic, academic, and cultural institutions to insulate themselves from both pressure from below and control from above, leaving them free to influence society according to their internal values and mores without being accountable either to their audiences or their economic superiors.
I am interested in this idea for some reasons related to my scholarship, but lately I have been thinking about it in connection with my teaching. Because I think that the larger conversation of which the “new class” critique was a part has embedded certain norms in academia and especially in the humanities that could use some contemplation, given the very different world (culturally and economically different) which most of our students enter after college. I will put my point simply for now, and then take the rest of the post to try to back it up.
The point in miniature is: Humanists often focus on imparting cultural capital to students because of assumptions dating back many decades that, in a post-industrial future, cultural capital both would be necessary for advancement and would appreciate in value. I don’t think that future ever arrived for most students, and the forecast doesn’t look good.
Making the point a bit more elaborately, I would say that humanists continue to imagine their role as teachers to be—importantly but not exclusively—the imparter of a certain core of cultural capital to their students such that they can operate in the world beyond college without embarrassment. We assume that they will need this cultural capital to climb the ranks of the white-collar world successfully, and we feel that not to impart this core of cultural capital would be anti-democratic, a judgment that our students ought to be locked out of a professional-managerial world where cultural capital is highly valued and even necessary.
Some of this outlook may be primarily defensive in nature—a way to address those critiques about the erosion of “cultural literacy” that were such staples of the culture wars and have never really gone away. But Kurt’s wonderful post from last week about Theory made me think about the way that the teaching of Theory has also been quite often an instruction in cultural capital. And I wonder how much of that isn’t the result of an internalization of the “new class” paranoia, a kind of suspicion—backed up by perhaps some experience—that part of career advancement (and that broader penumbra of socialization which surrounds one’s career) is really about being able to “get” the joke of, for instance, this video:
For some of those careers which Siegel or other critics would identify as the “new class”—certainly in some kinds of media and in much of the academy—that kind of cultural capital is, well, useful. And a genuinely democratic part of us, I think, feels very uncomfortable about not providing the “subtexts” of jokes like those in the sketch above to our students. While we may not consciously think of our pedagogy as attempting to clear the path for our students to do what we do, the idea that we might be teaching them in a way that does not clear that path toward the careers we have chosen sits awkwardly alongside our egalitarian commitments. Who am I to decide that you shouldn’t become a professor, or an intern at the New York Review of Books?
Partly, this awkwardness may derive from our firm belief in the importance and desirability of cultural or knowledge work—we have a sort of guild mentality, and it is difficult to see around the edges of that perspective to those who do not share it. Why would anyone not want to do the kind of work we do? But partly we find the “new class” critique concerning—would we not be confirming all those charges of snobbery and elitism, would we not be hewing to all the Limbaughian sneers about latte-sipping, Volvo-driving professors if we do not take the steps necessary to closing the cultural gap between our students—our regular students, not our graduate students or our most eager undergrads—and ourselves? If we withhold our enjoyment of the more arcane parts of our jobs—the interest derived from the heap of cultural capital we have stored with every monograph read—are we not giving in to the critique that we do wish to be a sort of “clerisy?”
These are awkward questions, and to be frank, I have few answers. In my classes this semester—I’m teaching an economic history course—I am focusing on explaining how things work: how institutions were designed, why they were designed that way, what values they were supposed to uphold or inculcate, and what unintended or unforeseen consequences they produced. (In essence, I do the same thing with texts in class—how does this text work?) This is, on my part, a deliberate return to some of the principles of the “New History” of James Harvey Robinson and the adult education programs in which he played a part. Perhaps in a later post I can speak a little to that.
But for the present I wanted to put forward this hypothesis, this connection between the shadow of the “new class” critique and the way we continue to think about teaching the humanities as, in part, a gift of cultural capital to our students. Perhaps I have spoken more from my own experience, though, than from a genuinely widely-held experience, and I’m very interested to know how your own education and your pedagogy compares.
 Siegel, from what I can piece together, is an interesting figure, and if you know more about him, please tell me in the comments. His name appears as one of the blurbs on Alan Brinkley’s End of Reform (the paperback version, which I was also re-reading), and Wilfred McClay actually provides one of the blurbs for Revolt Against the Masses, so Siegel does appear to have some connections to the history profession.