Education, Markets, Margins

I mentioned yesterday how Curtiss’s post provoked my thinking on class and the “liberal education,” but I didn’t manage to articulate everything that I found engaging. Hence this follow-up.

Curtiss quotes a long passage from Leo Strauss’s Liberalism Ancient and Modern, with which I’m not familiar, so I’m relying on the account Curtiss gives. I should point out, though, that the term “liberalism” indicates to me that we’re in problematic territory even before we start, since the term — like “class” — is a moving target, and I suspect there might be a bit of play in Strauss’ use of the term to refer either to those in Roman times who were not fettered by slaves’ chains, the ideal cultural values ascribed to such people (and this is the sense from which we get the term “liberal education”), the generosity with money (or pure overindulgence, as in Trimalchio’s case) ascribed to such people, or in contemporary culture, the degree of freedom of the market, or — in perhaps its most common use — political opposition to the right wing.

Anyway — now that I’ve spewed my Recommended Daily Allowance of pedantry — maybe I can actually get to what Curtiss was talking about. He quotes Leo Strauss at length: “The education of the potential gentlemen is the playful anticipation of the life of gentlemen. It consists above all in the formation of character and taste. . . [the gentleman] must possess the skill of administering well and nobly the affairs of his household and the affairs of his city by deed and by speech. He acquires that skill by his familiar intercourse with older or more experienced gentlemen, perferably with elder statesmen, by receiving instruction from paid teachers in the art of speaking, by reading histories and books of travel, by meditating on the works of the poets, and, of course, by taking part in political life. All this requires leisure on the part of the youths as well as on the part of their elders; it is the preserve of a certain kind of wealthy people.” While the suggestion that the patriarch should run the polis like he runs his household could be charitably characterized as feudal, the rest of the stuff on education is practically straight Cicero, right out of De Oratore. In terms of class, there are a few things worth observing.

First, I think it’s interesting that Curtiss and others (including myself) have framed the discussion very much within the context of contemporary capitalism, when Strauss’s remarks are clearly grounded in, uh, whatever you called the Roman economy. (Pre-feudal? Hell, I don’t know.) Also, Cicero himself was a nouveau riche social climber who spent a lot of his time sucking up to the aristocracy, and trying to set up alliances between the boni (the “good people,” conservative old money) and the equites (conservative new money) against the plebs (political liberals, new and old money). So there are clearly class distinctions among the wealthy in Roman society. And if you didn’t have money, you didn’t matter. One could argue, in that light, that Cicero’s “liberal education” was as vanguardist (actually, more so) as the attitude Adrian refers to in his follow-up to Curtiss’s subsequent post, or the attitudes W. E. B. Du Bois exhibits in his essay “The Talented Tenth.”

Having not read Strauss, I can’t account for the apparent ease with which we contextualize Roman systems of education in the framework of contemporary capitalism. The only explanation I see is the overly facile and often-used one, namely, The Market Eats Everything. Capitalism is the theoretical equivalent of the industrial-strength garbage disposal — the one in Candidia’s sink, perhaps — into which you can stuff anything and it just keeps right on grinding away. This would seem to line up with Adrian’s suggestion that “promoters of the market. . . assume the market to be somehow ‘natural’, that there could not possibly be any other way of organizing social life,” although I would add that it’s not just ‘promoters’: the market ideology has become so pervasive today that it goes practically unquestioned. Which is partly why I found so valuable Curtiss’s remarks that “Marx’s insight that capitalism _qua_ market is not the real engine of wealth under capitalism can’t be said often enough. . . it is in the realm of production, the shadow world where capitalism and laborer take on their true proportions to one another.” A good reminder; one, for me, that helps me see (duh: I’ve suddenly become Mr. Obvious) that the neoclassical and Marxian views not only have different opinions and methods, but see different realities. Hence the intensity of the rhetoric at campusnonsense and other sites: it’s not a disagreement over economic models, but over epistemologies. And maybe that’s enough from Mr. Obvious for tonight.

At the same time, this makes me wonder about Curtiss’s concerns about how “people whose entire working lives are incontrovertible experiences of exploitation. . . [and] who. . . have an intuitive understanding of surplus-labor and exploitation can somehow forget their lived experience and become mouthpieces for their own exploitation when the conversation turns to the ‘impersonal’ realm of politics and economics.” This, for me, is an interesting link between understandings of class as lived experience and class as economic phenomenon, which I’ve talked about elsewhere, but it also sounds to me like Curtiss could be kinda close to accusing people of false consciousness, which makes me uneasy. Still, it shows a clear disconnect between what might be called theories and practices of class, and makes me ask: what is it, aside from Candidia’s garbage disposal, that makes it so easy for the logic of the market to trump personal experience?

I think I might find the beginnings of a partial answer in my feelings about Curtiss’s subsequent post, which discusses America’s growing wealth gap. At the end of his post, Curtiss says some things that give me pause: “We should not speak of the middle class. For most, it is not given by a definition, but by an image: that of a detached single-family dwelling in a pleasant suburb.” I would argue to the contrary that peoples’ definitions of the “middle class” are all over the place, and I doubt that the 85% of America that identifies as middle class inhabits the image Curtiss describes. Curtiss is talking about the power of an image, which I won’t deny, but to use that power to support his argument that “We should not speak of a middle class” shuts down productive debate on a topic where I, speaking only for myself, would like to see more of peoples’ assumptions brought out into the open and made explicit. But I’ve gotten off on a tangent here: I think I was looking for an answer, somewhere. So Curtiss then shifts into the grand style for a ringing peroration that I can’t help but admire for its force, and that I can’t help but take exception to for its content. Gerald Gleason’s orginal argument, which Curtiss is responding to, is too technologically determinist/optimist by far for my tastes as well, but I think what Curtiss refuses to admit when he says, “If you have to sell your labor power. . . you are a worker, plain and simple” is that he’s not capturing the ways in which digital technologies have blurred some of the boundaries between capital and labor — which was kind of Gerald’s point. The post-Fordist economy requires a critique that moves beyond Marx’s old categories, I think, and worker/capital binaries ignore the gradations of class that take place within the post-Fordist economy. Those gradations are sites of class mobility, and as such they seem to me to be one of the very things that perpetuate the disconnect between lived experience and political economy which Adrian decries. It may be hopelessly conservative of me to cite the neoclassical dictum that people think and make decisions at the margin, and yet I’d wager that it’s precisely that margin — not between worker and not-worker, but between life and slightly better life — which students hope to cross via education, liberal or otherwise.

Education, Markets, Margins

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