Thirty or so years ago historian/curmudgeon Paul Fussell wrote the amusing and enduring little book Class. In it he both describes and skewers the residents of the various strata of American society, from its “proles,” whose lawns feature comfy sofas to its aspiring class, with its New Yorkers artlessly positioned on the coffee table right next to the small marble obelisk. Since Fussell was a tenured academic, he needed to invent a class that includes himself and others like him, not wealth-makers necessarily but opinion-makers, at least in their own minds, and so he conceived of “Category X,” the same group, essentially, that Richard Florida and others today have taken to calling the “creative class.” Members of the creative class are well-educated, arty, intellectual, often (according to Florida) gay folks who like to cluster in urban centers where they can commune with each other, nibbling on biscotti and chewing on the big ideas of the day.
Now comes David Brooks, who has also written, not as well, on Fussell’s topic in Bobos in Paradise and its sequel On Paradise Drive. Brooks’s books contain little of Fussell’s insight and none of his memorable, dead-on descriptions, but they do paint a portrait of “smart, ambitious, educated, and antiestablishment people with scuffed shoes.” It’s unclear whether Brooks is rechristening his bobos the “educated class” in his column in today’s New York Times, but he might be. Brooks distinguishes members of the “educated class” from the foot soldiers in the “tea party brigades” by contrasting their views:
“The educated class believes in global warming, so public skepticism about global warming is on the rise. The educated class supports abortion rights, so public opinion is shifting against them. The educated class supports gun control, so opposition to gun control is mounting.
“The story is the same in foreign affairs. The educated class is internationalist, so isolationist sentiment is now at an all-time high, according to a Pew Research Center survey. The educated class believes in multilateral action, so the number of Americans who believe we should ‘go our own way’ has risen sharply.”
He continues: “The tea party movement is a large, fractious confederation of Americans who are defined by what they are against. They are against the concentrated power of the educated class.” In other words, if I am reading Brooks correctly, in America today there is the “educated class” and everybody else, the great mob that constitutes public opinion.
Here we go again. Just a quick glance at the bales of comments shows in one respect Brooks is quite right: many of the writers are racing to establish their bona fides as members of the educated class. Sample, from douglassforgan of boulder, co: “Oh, just say it like it is—it’s the educated class versus the morons, and the morons are winning.” While others—that would be the “morons” themselves—are weighing in with statements such as Amber’s of London: “’The educated class’, Mr. Brooks? Since when did education take on such an ugly elitism? I refuse to believe that the American people, with some of the best higher education institutions and initiatives in the world, will turn en masse against a culture and tradition of educational aspiration and self-advancement.”
Thank you, thank you Amber in London for finding the words to express what I have been struggling to articulate. You have put your finger exactly on the insidious argument Brooks makes, a rhetorical weapon that conflates education and leftist politics and willful even prideful ignorance and anti-intellectualism and conservatism. To my everlasting dismay, the right has totally conceded this contention to the left. (Please don’t tell me David Brooks is a “conservative.” David Brooks is an opportunist. And more power to him.)
From 1958 through 2009 I went to school, first as a student, then as a teacher, last as an administrator. That’s fifty-one years of feeling myself a stranger in a strange land. I should thank my lucky stars I suppose that as a major in English I took my courses in pre-post-modern classes, and read literature for all the meaning, beauty, and historical, spiritual and artistic insight I could wring from it. The schools I attended were “good” public schools, a university blessed with an incredible faculty but cursed with the indelible stain of being a public institution, and a precious, elite graduate school. The schools where I taught were all public: a community college, a state college, and the same university from which I graduated. There I was also an administrator, but the last two decades of my career were spent in an independent liberal arts college, small and expensive it qualifies as elite if not for the quality of its students and faculty but for its pedigree and its promise to someday fulfill its potential. Along the way I published a couple of handfuls of academic articles. I indulge in this trip down memory lane so that you can be assured of my bona fides when I tell you that I have lived my life within the “educated class.”
For this I harbor a lifetime of resentment and despair. Resentment because my conservative leanings have been stifled by the oppressive group-think of the academy. Resentment that my opinions discredited before I could even make them known. Resentment that time and again I bore witness to accepted members of the “educated class” indulging—in a consequence-free environment—in the kind of shoddy argumentation I would find unacceptable from first-year composition students. Resentment that bleeds into despair that students preparing to become members of the “educated class” either must adopt its ways or find themselves with a ticket to collegiate oblivion.
The despair is worse than the resentment, which will fade because I can at last say aloud what I think and no longer taste the bile of swallowed rejoinders. That this should happen only after I have been freed from the surly bonds of the academy is itself cause for despair. But what plunges me deepest into the slough of despond is the painful truth that the “educated class” of which David Brooks and others write and belong has no room for me and others like me. We have been exiled to the land of the proles, our ideas no more worthy of consideration than that lawn couch is likely to make the cover of Better Homes and Gardens. In a time of such national and international peril, marginalizing the brain power of those who have dared to cross class lines as a matter of conscience seems to me, well, to paraphrase doug from boulder, moronic.
NOTE to readers: All quotations from David Brooks are from his January 5, 2010 column “The Tea Party Teens,” except the definition of “bobos,” which is from his Bobos in Paradise.