Saturday, November 22, 2008

I was a teenage trend-hater and now I'm an unapologetic publicly educated intellectual

(Warning: this post will contain many links to very long posts by other people, so I'll try to excerpt/paraphrase best I can, which will make it an even longer post than usual)


Ah, to be contrarian. The impulse can start very young. But disagreeing for being disagreeable's sake is the province of annoying teenagers, and I am too old for that and perhaps more mature by now. Maybe. There was a time when I eschewed all guilty pop pleasures, whereas now I embrace them with gusto. I still hate Titanic as much as I did when I was 15, though. But back then I was trying, as I've mentioned here and elsewhere, to cultivate culture of the high brow, intellectual type and lift myself out of poverty and ignorance. It can be done, supposedly. Bourdieu's prognosis that cultural capital is too deeply ingrained to be altered is fundamentally his French view, whereas we boot-strapping, scrappy, meritocratic Americans believe that you can learn culture as much as you can learn a foreign language, how to appreciate classical music, table manners, etc. And goodness knows I've tried, and have moderately succeeded, at all of that, despite my lingering class anxiety over being labeled a social climbing Talented Mr. Ripley.

But this is not to say that all of high culture education is for the mercenary purposes of entering the rarified stratosphere of the elite. If I didn't genuinely love literature, art and music and that type of movie that is referred to as "cinema," I probably wouldn't spend so much time and resources cultivating and refining those tastse. But it helps, of course, to be conversant in these topics, and there's nothing wrong with wanting the social capital that is hard to decouple from economic capital, which comes with the attainment of human capital--education. Isn't America built on the idea of mobility in all those respects? The nouveau riche in our country are not so disdained, I think, as they are in countries with a more aristocratic tradition. For all of my grousing, I am incredibly grateful, as the daughter of very poor war refugee immigrants can be, for living in America and having so many opportunities to improve my mind and my lot in life.

It seems to me that those who deride the aspirational aspects of human and cultural capital for being too enmeshed with the mercenary qualities of economic and social capital do so from a position of privilege--it is easy to dismiss intellectuals for "putting on airs", or to ghettoize the efforts of those who view education instrumentally as a way to improve their socioeconomic status. It is easy because both appear to the "true intellectual," or the one who loves learning for its own sake, to appear disingenuous, full of ulterior motive, and worst, lacking sincerity. Seriously, to cast such aspersions on perfectly valid purposes of education is to do so from a place of privilege, because only those who are already endowed with the Bourdieuan embodied cultural capital can claim to make distinct other attempts to attain and display such capital. I find it highly annoying.

I bring this all up, because this has been a topic of blog controversy for quite some time.

The link is now dead, but AWB put the first defense of teaching literature as:

To teach students to approach literature (and language and culture in general) as analysts, with a sense of history, and tools, and expertise, is to give them the power to think as individuals in the face of a large and difficult set of problems. It offers them a way out of obsessing about consensus and marketability. It leads them past the narcissism of personal taste. It makes them ask why things are the way they are and how they got that way. Who benefits? Who suffers? To read and think clearly is to see authors, characters, and even other possible readers not as an undifferentiated mass with spending power or cultural capital, but as individuals, with specific, often conflicting, desires and needs. Reading literature analytically is about making necessary distinctions and prudent, fruitful comparisons, maintaining difference where there is difference, and spotting a false note or an obfuscation for what it fails to represent.

To which Dr. Crazy replied:

To give students a vocabulary for discussing things that are complex, which is ultimately about socializing them to talk, think, and feel in ways that allow them to be upwardly mobile. Most of my students do not come from families that discuss books over dinner - or art, or advances in science, etc. If they don't learn how to have conversations about these things, they face a disadvantage when they leave college and enter the broader world. (I should say, I think this may be one of the most compelling arguments for the humanities in the context of higher education at my kind of institution, as it doesn't matter what degree one has if one can't hobnob with people from higher class backgrounds when one is done.)

Which was then replied to by Joe Kugelmass of The Valve:

Working-class people watch television, go to the movies, listen to music, and read. You are not doing anyone a service by implying that culture is the exclusive province of the leisured class. To state the obvious, American street culture was not an invention of the middle-class.

It is really upsetting to me to read these romantic accounts of America's upper classes. When has that ever been the perspective of literature? Does Fitzgerald romanticize Tom and Daisy Buchanan? Tom is first shown to us expounding on The Rise of the Colored Nations. Do Nabokov or Lewis praise the American middle-class for its cultural depth? What about contemporary novelists like Philip Roth or Toni Morrison? Literature constantly challenges our notions of what conversations are (or ought to be) acceptable; I am thinking at the moment of The Autobiography of Malcolm X, with its indelible accounts of time spent in jail.

"Society," in the banal sense of the word, has always been hostile to the radical elements in literature, and it is also hostile to devotees of literature. Surely there has never been anyone so attuned to social niceties as Marcel Proust, and yet he eventually realized that he had to alienate himself from the cream of Parisian society in order to write devotedly and honestly. Plenty of people will condone and even applaud reading The Life of Pi before bed, but will accuse you of wasting your life if you want to write or teach.

Don't pawn off our disagreements as mere personal differences; while I understand your desire to acknowledge difference, a disagreement about how socialization and literature relate isn't subjective, and neither are characterizations of the American class structure. If I decided that I was teaching literature out of a desire to obey the will of God, you might have different personal reasons for teaching literature, and, as an atheist (hypothetically speaking), you might disagree that a personal relationship with a deity was sufficient justification for anything.

As it happens, I don't think you are teaching breeding by teaching Whitman or whomever, but even if you could do that with a literature class, it wouldn't be desirable. Expanding your world, or changing your view of the world, is not something I associate with becoming more likably bourgeois. One cannot expand into narrowness.

Which got a re-response by Dr. Crazy:

I never said I was "teaching breeding" nor am I glorifying the upper classes. I'm saying that it's crucial to learn to pass in certain ways as one moves into the middle class. ... But so, yes, I believe that one must learn to pass in certain ways in order to get by. The reason that I believe this is because I've had to do so. This is a pretty common thing for people from backgrounds like mine to feel that they must do. Don't believe me? Check out Alfred Lubrano's book *Limbo.* The thing that confirms my belief that passing is a skill worth teaching my students is my interactions with the students that I teach and have taught, students who have appreciated gaining that skill. Further confirmation comes from the conversations that I've had with other academics who teach similar student populations to mine and/or who come from backgrounds similar to mine. I suppose, however, that you're totally right and all of us are just lacking in sense.

I'm not trying to make my students "more likably bourgeois" or, in fact, *more* bourgeois at all, as they are NOT BOURGEOIS. Students who work 60 hours a week plus go to school full time are not bourgeois. College freshmen who work 3rd shift at a factory and then come to class right after are not bourgeois. My students who admit to never having read a *single book* before they come to college are not bourgeois. My student, a returning student, who had dropped out of high school at 14 and who had 8 children, was not bourgeois.

So if I teach them skills that give them a fighting chance when they encounter people who will discount their experience or their perspective, discount it in ways that are patronizing and in ways that don't really engage with what they have to say, no, I don't think that's "expanding narrowness." If I try to give them a fighting chance for when someone responds to their perspective with a bunch of allusions to NPR and radical literature, it's because without that, the only result would be in their silencing.

This blog fight is almost a year old. Reading it gives you a headache, no? Obviously, I agree with AWB and Dr. Crazy, and think that Kugelmass is speaking from a place of privilege and trying to incite a class war, and reframing the debate from one about social mobility to the anti-intellectualism that apparently necessarily attends a more instrumentalist view of education as reflected by the crassness of society in general, even elite society. Huh. It seems that everyone has a dog in this fight, and the disagreements are not over facts, but ideologies of intent. But such a debate about the purposes of education are coming up again in the blogosphere!

First, there is Sherry's admission that she is anti-intellectual, although her definition of intellectuals seems to be narrowly construed to the condescending, combative assholes of the academy, but their existence means that we are all assholes and are all alike and can be referred to collectively as "they." There are assholes everywhere, and while their particular brand of assholishness is off-putting because we consider education to be the great equalizer, assholes of the academy are not necessarily assholes of a higher order. Is it too pointed to say that not all professors are like this? I'd like to think that I am not like this, but as I am stridently disagreeing with Sherry and writing an entire essay using other people's year-old posts to buttress my point, am I an asshole academic? Well, maybe. Megan responded in sympathy, and then posted reader's emails about the same. Sherry thought that perhaps her real issue was being condescended to on the basis of false identifiers such as pedigree or dress, and Megan said yes, we have to work on getting people to listen to us. So what started out as a polemic against asshole intellectual professors turned into a plea for dialogue, which I can get behind.

I can get behind it because dialogue can be so good! The 5402 Review is on fire! The first posts were about thriftiness (which I am trying to adopt, see here for my tips on cooking on a budget), but I am even more interested in the latest posts on public education and "gaming the system," which the authors discuss in terms of their own personal experiences, what they would tell their kids, and what they've experienced helping out at local DC schools (which you may have heard are under pressure by Superintendent Rhee to abolish tenure). First there's Alex, who wants to teach kids to game the system by viewing it instrumentally--get the best grades possible and get yourself out of there and onto college. Then Julia admits that she sucks at games, because she was one of those types that always worked hard and acutally enjoyed learning. Rita writes an excellent post on how hard it is to convince some kids in the shittiest schools that what they need to do is to game the system, because all you'll do is convince the kids that the system sucks, and that the perfectly common option of not going to college is actually a valid one. Finally, Becky expresses a confusion and ambivalence that I identify with--is one necessarily a gamer or a mere pawn?

This long post must come to an end, and I suppose I may as well offer my two cents before asking you for your own. I'm a total gamer, but a bad one--and I've been at public schools my entire life, where gaming is really important! I recognized pretty early that I needed to get into college and beyond, but I also had that "love of learning" thing and put myself in the hardest classes and into the most inefficient routes for gaming the system. Instead of taking only one year of Spanish, the language I learned in high school, I took two years of Latin. Instead of taking linguistics, which was for some reason satisfied the math requirement in the School of Humanities, I took statistics. Etc., etc., the anecdotes abound of how much I knew I had to do well, and yet trying to learn well and do well at the same time, two not necessarily dovetailing goals. And it's even harder to do at public schools, and I attended some not-great California K-12, and had to scrabble together a good education at the under-funded, constantly in a budget crisis UCs. While I will champion to the death the value and civic virtues of public higher education, the truth is that if things keep going the way they are with budget cuts, tuition raises, and funnelling adjuncts and lecturers into the few classes that are still offered, I might want my own kid to go to a private university.

And regarding the instrumentalist view of education: whether it's to demonstrate one's own expertise and intellect, or to help the social mobility of our own students, I'm all for it. The methods are key of course, and one need not be an asshole or gauche social climber. You can love learning for its own sake, and yet recognize that it must necessarily have a greater purpose than your own exaltation. I want to teach because I don't know how to do anything else, but in all seriously it's because it gives me a great sense of personal and professional fulfillment. Especially because of my chosen subject matter, law and politics, and in particular employment discrimination law and the mobilization of legal rights. I made a conscious decision in 2001 not to pursue a major intellectual passion in favor of one that was not only interesting to me, but "valuable" in the sense of being a collection of tools and methods that could change the way people interact with each other.

Of course, I might be wrong headed and far too instrumentalist in my idea of "valuable." But I think the law matters more to people's lives, particular the communities I care about (women, minorities, low wage workers) than literature, although I will be the first to defend the importance and value of art and literature to society. Personally, I just didn't think I could effect much change, even if I was delusional enough to think that my work could effect much change, through the study of literature. But if I could do an interesting empirical or doctrinal analysis of a certain law's limits and how it could be amended to increase rights and benefits to some underserved community and such an idea could be cited and implemented, well then, that's the goal. Or even if I am never cited by a court, if I could educate fresh batches of lawyers about the limits and reaches of law in the workplace and with respect to gender and race discrimination, I'd be pretty happy. And I don't think I am being too intellectual or too anti-intellectual for arguing this. But I bet you I will be called one or the other.
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