Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Ivory Towers, etc.

Something I've never really understood is the relationship between college and socioeconomic status, particularly in the changing rates of college attendance over the past 50 years.

Today, college attendance - not withstanding the general drumbeat equating it with economic success - has come to signify upper socioeconomic status.  While it certainly has currency in the marketplace, I wonder whether much of the actual association with it has more to do with its socioeconomic correlates: family income & education, and individual motivation.  I'm not sure where, but recently I heard/read that the vast majority of Ivy League students come form families making over $200k a year.

College obviously signifies more than mere status.  You can reasonably trust a college graduate to have good reasoning skills, exposure to a modicum of historical thought, as well as some degree of intellectual desire.  However, much of this can have more to do with the family and peer groups within which one has traveled. 

If you go back 50 years, far fewer people attended college.  Yet there still would have been family and peer groups that produced individuals with what we now associate with college education.  Sure, they didn't take college-level courses - yet they no doubt were still voracious readers and possessed the critical-thinking skills that allowed them to make daily social interaction and personal reflection a higher-order experience.

An interesting question might be what effect has this increased college attendance has had on social segregation, in that individuals with proclivities towards higher-order thinking and intellectual curiosity could now self-select into more rarefied social groupings, organized at least by economic affiliation, if not by shared cultural interests formed in no small part by college-going cultural communities.  This would be seen in the "college-town" phenomena, where veritable islands of higher-order* cultural progressivism and experimentation existed within a larger geographic sea of traditional and conservative norms.

*My use of "higher-order" here is damning (as much to myself as anyone).  I accept the conceit that higher equals better, or at least more important - to a degree.  Because what I mean by "higher" is a meta-analysis that can only come from increased consciousness both of past and present.  A sort of cultural geometry exists that literally requires amassing perspective and increasing "viewing angle".  I tend to be what you might call conscious-ist: I generally feel that increased knowledge and awareness is a good thing.  I suppose there is a good deal of the Platonic ideal in this judgement.

Interestingly, this may really now be getting at the root of class and cultural resentment.  Because the idea that "higher is usually better" implies the reverse, that lower is usually worse.  So what then to make of that which is derived from lower-order knowledge or thought?

Well, maybe I ought to back up a moment.  To be clear, I am only talking about knowledge/consciousness/awareness, not action.  It can certainly be the case that pure reliance on knowledge itself can limit one's expression, and even one's acquisition of more knowledge; "just because you can play all those notes, it doesn't mean you should".  I think one of the great things to come out of cultural postmodernism has been the embrace of the "low" as a legitimate form of expression.  Yet the crucial difference is the meta - the knowledge that the "low" is merely one form, relative to its position, and that other forms exist.  It is the knowledge that is important, not the action.

One of the lessons post-modernism has taught us is that the high is also relative.  It is here that power-dynamics come in to play.  The platonic ideal of those in possession of the light of truth must question how they came to possess it, and instead of self-congratulation, holding themselves in high regard, be humbled by the task of uncovering how it came to be that they came to find the light while others did not.

There is a great deal of bitterness on the right and a sense that the left - the "liberal elite" - looks down on them.  It is an interesting notion because it is partially true, but works both ways - do not these aggrieved people look down on the left?  I think there there are a couple of things going on here.  First, there is a definite positional, hierarchical relationship between the cultural values being debated.  (As I stated before, if we're talking about degree of knowledge/consciousness of the relative nature of truth, the left's position can literally be said to be geometrically "higher".)

Second, there is an economic implication for power dynamics - "learnin'" - that goes back to the dawn of civilization.  There are the haves and the have-nots of knowledge/consciousness.  Furthermore, the "knowledge haves", to the degree that they have insinuated themselves into any system of elite intellectualism (whether through schooling or social organization), have traditionally been white collar, or at least not involved in industry of brute strength.  Their contemplative natures represent - so goes the perception, with a good deal of truth - a sort of social luxury, or frivolity.  To the have-nots, they seem little more than peacocks, parasitically lolling about in a land of abstract ideals, while "real" people do all the heavy lifting.

This is no doubt true.  Yet it is also false, and suffers a revanchist motivation that obscures proper cognitive analysis.  Because first of all, there have always been individuals that are more interested in intellectual pursuits, while others more interested in that of the physical, or socially important.  It is literally true that these folks will not possess the same consciousness of a particular subject, and thus have less "expertise".  But we all can't be surgeons, or auto mechanics.  Civilization is built on a division of labor.  Second, intellectual pursuit is also the backbone of civilization.  And while Plato argued that an intelligentsia run affairs of state and culture, democracy has completely rejected that notion.  Certainly our founders were incredibly learned men, and spent most of their time in intellectual pursuits.  It is virtually agreed upon by all that true democracy requires an educated public.  Can there ever be too much education?

And so today we have a situation where higher education has never been more democratic.  Interestingly, most of the voices you hear decrying this actually come from the right, ironically seeking to make education more exclusive.  And yet higher education is overwhelmingly liberal - at least its professors are.  And so to is its export of ideas - filtered out not only through graduates, but through papers and policy groups, as well as through journalism, which relies on its massive bank of credentialed "authorities" for expert commentary, not to mention the college-educated journalists themselves.

This dynamic - academia and journalism - works as one of the great engines of social reflection and progress.  The mission of both entities is explicitly one that is progressive in nature, in that it seeks to critically analyze and reflect on knowledge, seeking to create more in the process.  There is a reason it is called "higher", not "lower" education. 

Is it no wonder then, that its resulting formulations and conceptions of our world would be innately progressive?  William F. Buckley once wrote both in defense and statement of conservative principle (and I'm paraphrasing), that we have solved most of the major social problems.  A better argument for intellectual complacency would be difficult to make.  He said this also, I believe, around forty years ago - a time I would hope most people would not really want to return to.  Certainly we have in many ways become worse-off, but there is no clear way of saying that this was the result of progressive social inquiry.  To be sure, we certainly wouldn't want to be better of [I]not knowing[/I] certain things about ourselves.  Yet I wonder if that statement may not be more controversial than I give conservatives credit for.

It is a general given nowadays that there exists a large split between the right and left on intellectual vs. anti-intellectual lines.  There is certainly much evidence of this in the rhetoric of politicians, as well as pundits.  I imagine that the right isn't opposed to what it feels is genuine intellectual pursuit, but merely opposes what it feels is a take-over of intellectual institutions such as the press and academia by liberals, hence a "liberal elite".  Yet this opens them up to criticism that their critique is less substantive, and more an irrational rejection of real truths that these institutions have uncovered, which align with left-wing values.  Because of course, as with the tendency for conspiracy theories to thrive in cognitive blind-spots, if established authorities are existentially suspect, and claims they make that might give dissonance to one's prior belief, it is perfectly logical to dismiss them as "biased". 

Ironically, this opens the door to a form of relativism, albeit a factual relativism - not the moral relativism that the cultural right has always criticized the left for.  Interestingly, factual relativism requires the denial of facts, while moral relativism denies absolute, metaphysical authority.  (Moral relativism in practice is actually incredibly rare: most simply argue that morals are relative to human culture, and not that no morals can ever exist.  I've actually never encountered anyone who believes the latter).

In the end, the right-left, socio-economic, cultural split may have more to do with cognition than anything.  Rates of college attendance aren't much different on the right and left.  Given the degree to which college professors, as well as journalists tend to be liberal, one might assume that the conservative response is simply to discount these authorities - relying on a cognitive model that reduces their authority.

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