Friday, 30 August 2013

Part LIV – Rituals, War and Women

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".





Veblen says that much of higher education falls under the category of ‘conspicuous leisure known as manners and breeding’ because ‘the learned class in all primitive communities are great sticklers for form, precedent, gradations of rank, ritual, ceremonial vestments, and learned paraphernalia generally.’  Such things as ‘the cap and gown, matriculation, initiation, and graduation ceremonies, and the conferring of scholastic degrees, dignities, and prerogatives in a way which suggests some sort of a scholarly apostolic succession.’  ‘Matriculation’ is a term I never encountered until I came to Britain.  Obviously I didn’t attend a posh university back in the States.

Veblen notes that when schools are founded for teaching useful knowledge to the lower classes, the growth of ‘ritualistic ceremonial and paraphernalia and of elaborate scholastic “functions”’ goes along side of the transition from practical studies into the higher, classical sphere of ‘the humanities’.   The initial aim of fitting the young of the industrial classes for work is changed to preparing them for the priestly and leisure classes or of an incipient leisure class, ‘for the consumption of goods, material and immaterial, according to a conventionally accepted, reputable scope and method.’  

He sees this pattern particularly in the newer communities formed in the 19th century, where the pupils tend to have been raised with the habits of industry and thrift and the ‘reminiscences of the medicine-man have found but a scant and precarious acceptance in the scheme of college life.’  However, with the accumulation of wealth in the community, the college is influenced towards more ritual and conformity to ancient, barbaric standards.  Apparently the adoption of the cap and gown ‘as learned insignia’ was a recent change in his day, one that previously would not have been accepted without the changed attitudes towards the leisure class scheme of life.  

He attributes this change to the ‘psychologically disintegrating effects of the Civil War’ and of course war and predatory habits of thought are characteristic of the leisure class.
“…the generation which follows a season of war is apt to witness a rehabilitation of the element of status, both in its social life and in its scheme of devout observances and other symbolic or ceremonial forms. Throughout the eighties, and less plainly traceable through the seventies also, there was perceptible a gradually advancing wave of sentiment favoring quasi-predatory business habits, insistence on status, anthropomorphism, and conservatism generally. The more direct and unmediated of these expressions of the barbarian temperament, such as the recrudescence of outlawry and the spectacular quasi-predatory careers of fraud run by certain “captains of industry”, came to a head earlier…”
“The adoption of the cap and gown is one of the striking atavistic features of modern college life, and at the same time it marks the fact that these colleges have definitely become leisure-class establishments, either in actual achievement or in aspiration.”

It is understood that women did not ordinarily attend higher education.  These establishments were devoted to the education of the priestly and the leisure classes whereas women were the original subservient class and have remained so to the present.  In Veblen’s day only a small percentage of colleges accepted women, and then grudgingly.  The pursuit of knowledge was considered unfeminine. 
“It is felt that the woman should, in all propriety, acquire only such knowledge as may be classed under one or the other of two heads: (1) such knowledge as conduces immediately to a better performance of domestic service; (2) such accomplishments and dexterity, quasi-scholarly and quasi-artistic, as plainly come in under the head of a performance of vicarious leisure.”
“There has prevailed a strong sense that the admission of women to the privileges of the higher learning…would be derogatory to the dignity of the learned craft.”


I can recall in just the past few years reading the observation that as more and more General Practitioners / Vicars are women, the status of those positions is dropping.  So perhaps some things still haven’t changed that much...

3 comments:

Beryl said...

I am old enough to have experienced institutional lower pay for women with equal job responsibility and education and experience. Luckily my daughter hasn't.

Terri said...

I have often thought something similar to what Veblen has said--be it in education, industry, or politics. Once white males have screwed it up, then they will step aside and allow others to clean up the mess.

Shelley said...

Beryl- Your daughter is very fortunate as I still have the impression the pay discrepancy remains. I can remember as a teenager working for the State of Oklahoma as a file clerk just out of high school. One of my 'bosses' was a boy just out of school who was supposed to 'supervise' the team of 40 some women, some old enough to be his grandmother and with decades of experience and demonstrable work ethic. His form of 'supervision' was to get one of the other young girls pregnant... I remember his Mormon family disapproved and she had an abortion; she wasn't very emotionally equipped for any of it. It was like working in a soap opera there...


Terri - Given the blessing that is my husband, Bill, it would be unfair to say that men aren't accustomed to cleaning up after themselves. But yes, I agree with the jist of your statement.