Friday, 6 September 2013

Part LV - Classicism and Conservatism in Higher Education

This is the last of a series about the 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’s Wikipedia entry says that after studying philosophy and obtaining a PhD from Yale, he was unable to find a university post.  Most academics at that time held divinity degrees and Veblen was held to be ‘insufficiently educated in Christianity’.  I’m inclined to believe he vented some frustration in this last chapter of his book.
“…it has generally held true that the accredited learned class and the seminaries of the higher learning have looked askance at all innovation. New views, new departures in scientific theory, especially in new departures which touch the theory of human relations at any point, have found a place in…the university tardily and by a reluctant tolerance, rather than by a cordial welcome…the men who have occupied themselves with such efforts to widen the scope of human knowledge have not commonly been well received by their learned contemporaries.”

Veblen refers to the ‘Maecenas function’, which apparently has to do with wealthy patrons of the arts, though I gather in this particular instance it refers to patronage of a student.  He says this leisure class function has an important bearing on the spread of knowledge and culture.  Looking at this function from an economist’s view point, and of course in keeping with his overall theme, Veblen points out that this patronage is a ‘relation of status’.  ‘The scholar under the patronage performs the duties of a learned life vicariously for his patron, to whom a certain repute inures after the manner of the good repute imputed to a master for whom any form of vicarious leisure is performed.’  Veblen also notes that, historically, this maintenance has not been in support of the sciences but rather of ‘classical lore or the humanities’, the study of which he says lowers the industrial efficiency of the community.

Outside of the classical fields, the leisure classes interest themselves in the knowledge of law and politics, expedient in the guidance of the leisure-class office of government, which he sees as a predatory function, being ‘an exercise of control and coercion over the population from which the class draws its sustenance.’

Veblen is not a fan of the classical education, which he says holds up ‘an archaic ideal of manhood’ but also teaches learners to discriminated between ‘reputable’ and ‘disreputable’ knowledge, the latter being associated with industry or social utility.  Of course, Veblen has his own form of discrimination in what he views as useful vs useless knowledge, for example, knowledge of the ancient language would not be useful to a scientist or anyone not working in languages.  Veblen says he doesn’t disparage the cultural value of the classics but he does doubt their economic value, seeing that ‘classical learning acts to derange the learner’s workmanlike attitudes…’.

Veblen quotes Horace and Cicero in this chapter but also says that knowledge of the dead languages is ‘gratifying to the person who finds occasion to parade his accomplishments in this respect’.   He reiterates a position stated in an earlier chapter that
“The presumption that there can ordinarily be no sound scholarship where a knowledge of the classics and humanities is wanting leads to a conspicuous waste of time and labor on the part of the general body of students in acquiring such knowledge. The conventional insistence on a modicum of conspicuous waste as an incident of all reputable scholarship has affected our canons of taste and of serviceability in matters of scholarship in much the same way as the same principle has influenced our judgment of the serviceability of manufactured goods.”

Although conspicuous consumption has overtaken conspicuous leisure as a means of asserting one’s position in the world, displaying knowledge of the classics has ‘until lately had scarcely a rival’   Veblen thinks that college athletics may have overtaken a classical education.
“…but lately, since college athletics have won their way into a recognized standing as an accredited field of scholarly accomplishment, this latter branch of learning — if athletics may be freely classed as learning — has become a rival of the classics for the primacy in leisure-class education in American and English schools."

Athletics have an obvious advantage over the classics for the purpose of leisure-class learning, since success as an athlete presumes, not only waste of time, but also waste of money, as well as the possession of certain highly unindustrial archaic traits of character and temperament.”

He also lists Greek-letter fraternities, perfunctory duelling, ‘a skilled and graded inebriety’ as leisure-class scholarly occupations which live up to the ‘virtues’ of archaism and waste. 

The use of “classic” English is required in ‘all speaking and writing upon serious topics’ and ‘a facile use of it lends dignity to even the most commonplace and trivial string of talk’;…elegant diction, whether in writing or speaking, is an effective means of reputability’.   ‘The obsolescent habit of speech’ which avoids the use of new words shows that the speaker’s ‘leisure class antecedents’ and demonstrates that he has avoided ‘vulgarly useful occupations’.  Correct spelling is also important, as ‘English orthography satisfies all the requirements of the canons of reputability under the law of conspicuous waste. It is archaic, cumbrous, and ineffective; its acquisition consumes much time and effort; failure to acquire it is easy of detection. Therefore it is the first and readiest test of reputability in learning, and conformity to its ritual is indispensable to a blameless scholastic life.’
“Classic speech has the honorific virtue of dignity; it commands attention and respect as being the accredited method of communication under the leisure-class scheme of life, because it carries a pointed suggestion of the industrial exemption of the speaker. The advantage of the accredited locutions lies in their reputability; they are reputable because they are cumbrous and out of date, and therefore argue waste of time and exemption from the use and the need of direct and forcible speech.”

I hope you have enjoyed this series.  I know some folks found it hard work; it was hard work to write as well but I'm glad I tackled the challenge and finished what I started.


sanda said...

Shelley, you are to be commended for tackling a review of this scholarly book. I enjoyed reading it but feel ill-equipped to make relevant comments on the topic covered. It's always great to see what others are reading. A good weekend to you!

Shelley said...

Thanks, Sanda. I can appreciate that it would sometimes be hard to comment on this series. I'm just glad you enjoyed reading it.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad that you stuck with it, though now I will likely never read Veblen's book myself even though I had been curious about it for a long time. I found myself musing what Veblen might think about college athletics today!

Shelley said...

Terri - I know what you mean! I read Veblen initially last year when we were in France. It was tough going but there were so many amazing ideas in it that I started again and highlighted all the bits that grabbed me. There is probably a lot that I over looked. It was from those highlighted bits that I wrote these posts. Not sure I will read him yet again, though!

Carolyn said...

Congratulations on completing the task you have set yourself, and I can imagine it must at times have been very challenging to persevere with the dry tone of his text. I appreciate your review, as like Terri, I doubt I will ever read this work myself.
Thank you so much for the kind comment on my blog, and you are to be commended for wading through my blog too! A lot of silliness in there :) but I am so very glad you are looking forward to doing some sewing for yourself!

Gam Kau said...

"The use of “classic” English is required in ‘all speaking and writing upon serious topics’ and ‘a facile use of it lends dignity to even the most commonplace and trivial string of talk’;…elegant diction, whether in writing or speaking, is an effective means of reputability’."
Hence the continued emphasis on elocution and accent.
This was a large task you set out for yourself and it was truly well done. I enjoyed it immensely!
How did you come across Veblen and what inspired you to tackle his book? I stumbled upon him in reading about consumption and status.

Shelley said...

I can't remember how I happened upon Veblen. I'm thinking it was through a person names Susan Tiner (now Partlan). She wrote a blog for a while (two that I know of). She has a mix of interests, financial organising, writing apps, the class system in the US, sewing and designing clothes. She wrote a number of posts about the class system and linked to several newspaper articles that I found fascinating, though I barely understood them. I think she talked about Veblen. Or it may have been something I read here in Britain about 'conspicuous consumption'. Anyhow, his book is on Project Gutenberg should you ever want to peruse it yourself! I think my brain was hungry for a bit of a challenge after being retired a few years. Thanks so much for all your comments, they mean a lot to me!