Friday, 23 August 2013

Part LIII - Higher Education and the Occult

This is a series about a book, Theory of the Leisure Class, written by American economist Thorstein Veblen and published in 1899.   Chapter Fourteen is titled "The Higher Learning as an Expression of the Pecuniary Culture."

I think this is a weird chapter for Veblen to have end his book; it seems to me that it should have been somewhere in the middle so he could end with the change in modern society as described in his last chapter.  The other thing about this chapter is that it is something of a rant.  Reading even the first paragraph about Veblen’s academic career gives a bit of insight on why these ideas were a bit of a sore point with him.  He may have wanted this chapter to be the last in hopes that it would stick in the minds of his readers.  Never mind, here we are.

As an academic economist, of course Veblen appreciates education.  He sees it as having economic value because it enhances the serviceability of an individual.  In this chapter he looks at this institution from the view of the leisure class, which he believes has influenced the development and conduct of higher education.

He says that in its early development, higher education was closely related to the devotional function of the community and we already know that religious leadership was the purview of the leisure class.  As usual, Veblen begins his discussion with much earlier times and in a broad manner encompassing universal ideas of worship, referring to shamanistic practices.
“In great part, the early learning consisted in an acquisition of knowledge and facility in the service of a supernatural agent. It was therefore closely analogous in character to the training required for the domestic service of a temporal master. To a great extent, the knowledge acquired under the priestly teachers of the primitive community was knowledge of ritual and ceremonial; that is to say, a knowledge of the most proper, most effective, or most acceptable manner of approaching and of serving the preternatural agents.”

Medicine men, shamans, wizards, whatever, had ‘knowledge of the unknowable', and this characteristic depth and secrecy of knowledge, he says, is barely differentiated from the attitudes to be found in higher education of his time.  
“The recondite element in learning is still, as it has been in all ages, a very attractive and effective element for the purpose of impressing, or even imposing upon, the unlearned; and the standing of the savant in the mind of the altogether unlettered is in great measure rated in terms of intimacy with the occult forces.”

He claims that even within that century (the 19th) peasants associated higher learning with the black arts.  I wonder if this is why the long black gowns are still worn?  Actually, he comes to this later.

According to Veblen, a disproportionate number of the leisure classes believe in ‘occult sciences of all kinds and shades’ and in the barbaric mind not shaped by modern thought, ‘knowledge of the unknowable is still felt to the ultimate if not the only true knowledge.’

As the body of systematized knowledge increased there arose a distinction between esoteric and exoteric information.  The former, defined as 'intended for or likely to be understood by only a small number of people with a specialised knoweldge or interest', Veblen says was primarily of no economic or industrial effect.  The latter, defined as 'intended for or likely to be understood by the general public, relating to the outside world; external', he said comprised 'chiefly knowledge of industrial processes and of natural phenomena which were habitually turned to account for the material purposes of life.’  This line of demarcation has developed the reputation of being the normal line between the higher learning and the lower.  

I can’t claim a very great understanding of the development of universities but I have noticed that there is possibly less prestige in a degree from a former agricultural or polytechnic college / university than from other universities where one finds the schools of medicine and law.  I would certainly agree that those latter topics are closer to the occult than most other subjects, wouldn’t you?


Terri said...

Yes, medicine and the law do seem closer to the occultish. I know I always struggled with my sense of power relationships in my classrooms. Never felt that what I knew was at all exclusive to me...though it seemed unattainable to so many of my students.

Shelley said...

Terri, I've often found that the more I know about certain things, the more I'm aware of how little I know. It's worrying what students don't seem to grasp these days, then again I rarely grasp those ideas which don't interest me particularly. Bill would say it is unrealistic to expect every one to go to university.