U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Cultural Capital in the Twenty-First Century

siegel-revolt-against-the-massesI recently read Fred Siegel’s The Revolt against the Masses: How Liberalism Has Undermined the Middle Class (2015), a self-inflicted fate which should excuse anyone else of ever having to read it. Its many mendacities are both so petty and so bold that it’s not worth taking the time to critique, but the book’s constant paranoia about cultural elitism (or just plain snobbery) as the glue uniting a ruling class of intellectual mavens is illustrative of a broader tendency of thought that does deserve attention.[1] This is the “new class” line of thought which I wrote about a little in my last post: the idea that “knowledge workers” or a cultural/technical/professional/creative elite have, over the course of the twentieth century, used their privileged positions in political, economic, academic, and cultural institutions to insulate themselves from both pressure from below and control from above, leaving them free to influence society according to their internal values and mores without being accountable either to their audiences or their economic superiors.

I am interested in this idea for some reasons related to my scholarship, but lately I have been thinking about it in connection with my teaching. Because I think that the larger conversation of which the “new class” critique was a part has embedded certain norms in academia and especially in the humanities that could use some contemplation, given the very different world (culturally and economically different) which most of our students enter after college. I will put my point simply for now, and then take the rest of the post to try to back it up.

The point in miniature is: Humanists often focus on imparting cultural capital to students because of assumptions dating back many decades that, in a post-industrial future, cultural capital both would be necessary for advancement and would appreciate in value. I don’t think that future ever arrived for most students, and the forecast doesn’t look good.

Making the point a bit more elaborately, I would say that humanists continue to imagine their role as teachers to be—importantly but not exclusively—the imparter of a certain core of cultural capital to their students such that they can operate in the world beyond college without embarrassment. We assume that they will need this cultural capital to climb the ranks of the white-collar world successfully, and we feel that not to impart this core of cultural capital would be anti-democratic, a judgment that our students ought to be locked out of a professional-managerial world where cultural capital is highly valued and even necessary.

Some of this outlook may be primarily defensive in nature—a way to address those critiques about the erosion of “cultural literacy” that were such staples of the culture wars and have never really gone away. But Kurt’s wonderful post from last week about Theory made me think about the way that the teaching of Theory has also been quite often an instruction in cultural capital. And I wonder how much of that isn’t the result of an internalization of the “new class” paranoia, a kind of suspicion—backed up by perhaps some experience—that part of career advancement (and that broader penumbra of socialization which surrounds one’s career) is really about being able to “get” the joke of, for instance, this video:

For some of those careers which Siegel or other critics would identify as the “new class”—certainly in some kinds of media and in much of the academy—that kind of cultural capital is, well, useful. And a genuinely democratic part of us, I think, feels very uncomfortable about not providing the “subtexts” of jokes like those in the sketch above to our students. While we may not consciously think of our pedagogy as attempting to clear the path for our students to do what we do, the idea that we might be teaching them in a way that does not clear that path toward the careers we have chosen sits awkwardly alongside our egalitarian commitments. Who am I to decide that you shouldn’t become a professor, or an intern at the New York Review of Books?

Partly, this awkwardness may derive from our firm belief in the importance and desirability of cultural or knowledge work—we have a sort of guild mentality, and it is difficult to see around the edges of that perspective to those who do not share it. Why would anyone not want to do the kind of work we do? But partly we find the “new class” critique concerning—would we not be confirming all those charges of snobbery and elitism, would we not be hewing to all the Limbaughian sneers about latte-sipping, Volvo-driving professors if we do not take the steps necessary to closing the cultural gap between our students—our regular students, not our graduate students or our most eager undergrads—and ourselves? If we withhold our enjoyment of the more arcane parts of our jobs—the interest derived from the heap of cultural capital we have stored with every monograph read—are we not giving in to the critique that we do wish to be a sort of “clerisy?”

These are awkward questions, and to be frank, I have few answers. In my classes this semester—I’m teaching an economic history course—I am focusing on explaining how things work: how institutions were designed, why they were designed that way, what values they were supposed to uphold or inculcate, and what unintended or unforeseen consequences they produced. (In essence, I do the same thing with texts in class—how does this text work?) This is, on my part, a deliberate return to some of the principles of the “New History” of James Harvey Robinson and the adult education programs in which he played a part. Perhaps in a later post I can speak a little to that.

But for the present I wanted to put forward this hypothesis, this connection between the shadow of the “new class” critique and the way we continue to think about teaching the humanities as, in part, a gift of cultural capital to our students. Perhaps I have spoken more from my own experience, though, than from a genuinely widely-held experience, and I’m very interested to know how your own education and your pedagogy compares.

[1] Siegel, from what I can piece together, is an interesting figure, and if you know more about him, please tell me in the comments. His name appears as one of the blurbs on Alan Brinkley’s End of Reform (the paperback version, which I was also re-reading), and Wilfred McClay actually provides one of the blurbs for Revolt Against the Masses, so Siegel does appear to have some connections to the history profession.

15 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for this great post Andy.

    As I keep circling around my own research topic, it seems to me that what really requires some attention / sussing out is the relationship between cultural capital and social capital — not simply theoretically, of course, but historically. Before the “democratization” of higher education with the rise of the modern research university, I would say there was a fair amount of overlap between the two. But the more (and more kinds of) people have access to cultural capital, the more it is devalued as a “currency” in relation to social capital. (And I’d say that, as a general rule, social capital is the currency to which the value of cultural capital is pegged).

    Anyway, thanks for this great post on a Monday morning!

  2. I have to echo L.D.’s sentiments–I found this post enlightening and fascinating. To say the least you have me thinking pretty hard this Monday afternoon (not that I already wasn’t)!

  3. Thanks to both of you!

    I completely agree that cultural and social capital need disentangling, both theoretically and historically. My hypothesis, though, would not be to pose them in terms of interconvertibility (such that we could establish an exchange rate between them) but that they frequently operate in tandem, more like a set of keys. Some doors require both, some doors require one, some the other. But again–in part because it is so difficult to discuss these matters in historical terms rather than anecdotal ones–I may be drawing more on my own experiences than anything else here.

    • Fair enough. Currently I am envisioning them as a Venn diagram — there are times (or maybe just situations) when both circles have overlapped almost completely, and times when they have not. But a set of keys works too, with the proviso, I guess, that social capital “works” in some locks — or can force some locks — where cultural capital would be required, but the reverse is perhaps not as often true true. But there are a few doors that do indeed require a healthy supply of both.

  4. Andy: what a lovely piece of writing.

    I am always fascinated by the mutations of “New Class” thought, and its persistence (recently caught up with some of Daniel Bell’s lucid criticisms of the notion collected in The Winding Passage).

    Your central point–“Humanists often focus on imparting cultural capital to students because of assumptions dating back many decades that, in a post-industrial future, cultural capital both would be necessary for advancement and would appreciate in value. I don’t think that future ever arrived for most students, and the forecast doesn’t look good”––is really provocative and useful. Knowing that Georges Eliot and Sand were women––and that George Herbert was a man––is the kind of thing that seems to have intangible value in the world of elites, even if one works as an investment banker or corporate lawyer. (Much more difficult, for first-generation academics not from the Northeast is figuring out which of the thousands of small colleges are serious, and which are not–a very important thing to know for job searches!). But few of us have really though through whether and how such transmissions of cultural capital factor into our pedagogies or critical projects.

    And that sort of knowledge is different, I think, from the mastery of this or that strain of Theory, isn’t it? What I have been trying to turn over in my mind is the question of what it means to teach Theory as a sort of mental calisthenics–which would impart a different kind of cultural capital–a spryness or agility of mind.

    I am interested in this question because it seems to me that humanists will continue to be forced to defend their work in the face of austerity outside of History, which has a strong enough connection to the project of state formation to likely survive cuts, although the recent right wing proposal that we be replaced with VCRs playing Ken Burns docs on a loop troubles). Since we may have to concede that the “what” of our teaching is not self-justifying, we might want to highlight the “how”?

    (I am dwelling on this, I think, because I realize that there is are potential political costs associated with my own quixotic quest to affirm, from the Left, the David Horowitz interpretation of the postmodern academy as a hive of radicalism).

    Anyways–thanks so much for this wonderful post.

    • Thanks, Kurt! I am totally on board with the value of Theory as mental calisthenics, and I certainly don’t want to give cover here to Theory-bashers who assume that it is nothing more than a bunch of name-dropping and jargon-izing. The perspective that I’m trying to inhabit, though, is that of someone who is trying to teach an intro to methods course, and hopes to expose their students to Theory: what do we consider a good benchmark for what the students should take away from that lesson? Part of me feels that “familiarity” is often the answer–and perhaps it’s not that bad of an answer! But if it is, I think it is because we agree, somehow, that transmitting cultural capital–familiarity–is a part of our job. And that agreement, I think, is partly a result of internalizing some new class thinking. (Maybe?)

  5. Andy,

    I was very surprised by your initial assumption in this piece. Is it really true, as you suggest, that most humanists view their job as the transmission of cultural capital? Maybe there’s a disciplinary difference here, but I’ve honestly never thought of my work in these terms. When I was a graduate student instructor at an Ivy League university, it sometimes angered me to encounter students who would enroll in English courses just to add a little cultural “polish” to their economics or science degree; to finally read the “great” modernists, say. Was my primary obligation to help these privileged students “get” the references to Joyce or Nietzsche that they otherwise would be denied? I didn’t think so then, and still don’t now.

    After moving to a smaller, non-prestigious college, this issue became even more acute. I quickly realized that it didn’t much matter whether my students acquired, as you say, “the cultural capital to climb the ranks of the white-collar world successfully.” These kids don’t need cultural capital in order to get white-collar jobs; they need internships. Some of my best students–some of the best writers I’ve ever taught, anywhere–went on to post-college jobs such as a manager of a Whole Foods, manager of a BBQ restaurant, manager of a Papyrus store, editor at a real estate magazine. Some eventually broke into publishing, web design, film work, etc. But I never have had the impression that their employability rested on being able to parrot references to T.S. Eliot or Ernest Hemingway, or make sly allusions to “hegemony” or “heteronormativity.” Those are not the worlds these kids seem to move in after graduation from what I can tell.

    In short, they imagine their futures very differently than when I was their age. They are less ambitious and also less free to fail than I was; theirs is a precarious, debt-filled world, indeed.
    And this fact of our times has shaped how I understand my role as a teacher now. The “benchmark” for me became not passing on cultural capital, but something more like “intellectual skills.” (I avoid the term “critical thinking,” which I’ve always found redundant: what type of thinking isn’t critical?). So I really don’t care if some of my English students graduate without knowing much Shakespeare or Keats, or on Dickens or Woolf. It really doesn’t matter to me, as a professor of American Literature, if some students finish college knowing Baldwin and Morrison but not Faulkner and Ellison (or vice versa). I guess this simply means that I’m far more interested in _how_ they use texts than in _which_ texts they study. I want them to know how to read a novel (any novel!) closely, how to put a work of fiction into historical context, and know how to apply a theory to a literary object or cultural situation. For me, the pedagogical goal has almost nothing to do with hitting specific cultural “touchstones” that supposedly all “educated” people need to know about. Nothing in my experience suggests that this canonical form of knowledge is really relevant for my students or their future. If anything, such notions of transmitting a ‘canon,’ strike me as elitist and largely out of touch with the fragmented, niche culture that we live in today.

    I hope this doesn’t sound super hostile to your intuitions–I just want to push back against this notion of what *most* humanists think about their work. Perhaps I’m delusional here, or allergic to the ways my pedagogy also reproduces divisions in social class, or am simply out of touch with the larger professoriate than I realize!

    • Patrick,
      Thanks so much for this response.

      One of the things I was concerned about in writing this post was the possibility that I would appear to be reductionistic: that I would sound like I was saying that humanists think of themselves exclusively as imparters of cultural capital. I don’t think that’s ever been true. But I do think that role–and concern about that role–took up more space for humanists pedagogically for a few decades: it was one of many concerns, but it was also a larger concern for those who thought of themselves as training a post-industrial white collar workforce.

      I also don’t think that cultural capital ought to be defined so narrowly as getting the references in Joyce, but I opened myself up to that with the reference to the video, perhaps. But I’d say that, with the video, one has to do a lot more than understand that “Judith Butler” links to “performativity” to appreciate the humor of the sketch. Cultural capital might be more of a way of reading texts, or of troubling binaries, or of pushing back on received narratives than it is decoding an allusion. And one would demonstrate that cultural capital by making the right kind of remark or laughing in the right place or appreciating the right kind of culture. At least that’s what I had in mind, though I didn’t do a very good job expressing that.

      Lastly, I was saying that this cultural capital approach is inconsistent with our students’ needs and desires, and to me, the way you approach your students is very consistent with how they want to be taught and need to be taught. And I think that, increasingly, other humanists may recognize the diminishing value of a cultural capital-heavy approach to pedagogy, and hew more to the kinds of strategies and practices you employ. But I think that most humanists aren’t there, yet.

      • Hey Andy,
        Thanks for that clarification. I think you are right to expand the definition of cultural capital beyond the way I was using it. I was thinking of John Guillory’s book of that title, which is very preoccupied by questions of the canon, rather than his source in Bourdieu, who thinks of cultural capital in the broader terms of “habitus” and cultivating an aesthetic/educated “disposition” that you outline above.

        I don’t know Gouldner’s work well enough to specify, so I guess I’ll turn to speculation! From what I can tell, my pedagogical approach is not all that different from what you and Kurt call training in “mental calisthenics.” And I guess I’m wondering if that isn’t part of what Gouldner calls a training in “the cultural of critical discourse.” In other words, isn’t “spryness or agility of mind” a way of comporting oneself intellectually so as to wield forms of cultural power? In your methods course, aren’t you basically trying to inculcate historiographical habits of mind, what Bourdieu would call the “historical disposition,” in your students? If so, then I guess I’m starting to buy your original argument–that we intellectuals are still caught up in the New Class model, even if we don’t intend to be. I don’t think our students necessarily need a great deal of training in the canon to succeed in the knowledge economy, but I do think the canon can be useful for cultivating intellectual dispositions that are compatible with, but also potentially critical of, the norms of the post-industrial, white collar workplace. That strikes me as still very much in line with what Gouldner argued, even if I don’t evaluate this predicament the same way he did.

  6. Great post, but I’m curious about your use of the word “mendacities.” It’s a rather extreme charge. How did you determine that Siegel was being deceptive, as opposed to simply having written something you disagree strongly with or consider outrageously mistaken? Or was it poor word choice on your part? It’s unfortunate, but when writing about conservatives and their work many historians tend to lose any sense of rhetorical limits… (Your post is a relatively mild example, I’ve seen worse on the S-USIH blog.)

    Siegel does indeed have a long “connection to the history profession,” which is summarized briefly here: http://www.city-journal.org/contributor/fred-siegel_195. Back in 2014, the Heyman Center at Columbia hosted a fairly raucous panel discussion on The Revolt against the Masses with Siegel, Eric Foner, Ira Katznelson, and others. Here’s the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FAeGbRBQEdI

    • Thanks for the video!

      About “mendacity”–I guess I’ll say that I’m convinced that anyone who knows as much as Siegel displays knowing would also be aware that the story he presents is abysmally one-sided. If he knows enough to write this book, he knows enough to write a better, fairer account of the figures he discusses.

      • I actually share your criticisms about the book, it’s frustrating to read. I’ll just leave things by noting that none of what you, and I, are critical about are mendacities, i.e. lies. As scholars we need to be hard-hitting, but not hit below the belt, even when dealing with conservatives. Enjoy the video, it gets intense.

  7. Hi Nate,
    I understand what you’re saying but feel compelled to justify my word choice. I do think that Siegel’s book frequently crosses a line between being a partisan history and being a skewed history. I feel that quite often, Siegel isn’t trying just to prove a thesis, but to warp the historical record by emphasizing certain facts and making certain innuendoes without providing essential context.

    For example, here’s a few sentences introducing Malcolm X. (Malcolm X’s place in a book–even a revisionist take–on liberalism seems strange to me, but let’s move on.)
    The Wretched of the Earth became required reading for 1960s radicals. It reinforced the views of the preeminent street preacher of the time, Malcolm Little, also known as Malcolm X. A bisexual hustler and small-time hoodlum, Malcolm X found strength in the black nationalism preached by the Nation of Islam, an idiosyncratic American break-off from orthodox Islam.” (page 133 in the 2014 hardcover edition)

    There are many ways to talk about Malcolm X’s life leading up to his conversion to Islam, but surely shorthanding them in this way is serving a purpose other than informing the reader what that life was like. The debate about whether Malcolm X had sex with men, and for money or not, is a very complicated one, for example, but Siegel’s condensation of that debate into “bisexual hustler” seems more like a smear than an attempt to give us some kind of insight into Malcolm X or the history of black nationalism.

    For what it’s worth, it appears that this paragraph has disappeared from the paperback version, which is the one on Google Books. I searched for “bisexual,” “hustler,” and “charismatic,” but can’t find the paragraph. Maybe I’m not hitting below the belt.

  8. Hi Andy,

    Thanks for providing an example of where you differ with Siegel. But the criticisms you make, while powerful, don’t demonstrate that he’s consciously trying to deceive readers. After all, one can have an uncharitable or unsophisticated view of Malcolm X, or be out to score polemical points, without for all that being mendacious. And there’s the rub. You definitely make the case that Siegel’s style is vitriolic and off-putting (and therefore raised questions about the level of scholarship of the book), but not that he’s consciously out to deceive–a charge that would require a whole other level of evidence to demonstrate.

    I guess that for me, the whole notion of whether Siegel is “mendacious” or not could only have arisen because he’s a conservative. And again, I think this reflects an all too common approach of many liberal and progressive historians toward conservatives: that they’re not just “wrong,” but that they’re morally deficient and write with nefarious intent. As I see it, sticking to substance is far more effective than calling into question another scholar’s character and honesty. Even, and perhaps especially, when we disagree with them vehemently. So I do still think the blow landed low.

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