Monday, October 05, 2015

The Modern World: More or Less Book Learnin'?

I've recently finished reading Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class and I'm nearly finished with Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt. Although separated by nearly a quarter century, they are describing the same social behaviors. What Veblen saw in 1899 as an emerging trend, Lewis saw in 1922 as established orthodoxy.

What is that trend? It's the establishment of the leisure class, the socially dominant heirs of the priests and gentry of the past. George Babbitt lives in a world of amoral opportunism as the lower class tries to become middle class and the middle class tries to become leisure class.

What struck me as interesting was the disagreement between Veblen and Lewis on the change to education. Veblen writes that modern education emphasizes esoteric pedantry as a way of valuing the conspicuous consumption of useless information that only the upper class can afford. (I find it most interesting that he concludes a book of stilted, non-conversational vocabulary with a criticism of the leisure class's emphasis of stilted, non-conversational vocabulary.) To hear Veblen tell it, education will become more and more focused on items more and more trivial. As Dale G. Renlund said this past weekend in his introduction to the press, "A specialist learns more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing at all."

In Babbitt's world, though, everything old is suspect and everything new is praiseworthy. Mozart, Shakespeare, and Dante are all deplorable unless they can be used to establish one's refined status for social climbing. Babbitt's son wants nothing to do with school. Eunice Littlefield is the daughter of a professor but she dedicates herself to learning facts about movie stars. In Zenith, and hence in Lewis's picture of America, no one who wants to move up in the world will be in danger of learning something unnecessary, but according to Veblen, the upwardly mobile will show their advanced status through acquiring Latin (or Klingon) language skills.

So what do we have, more pedantry or less? Is it possible we have both? While there's a group of people who attempt to show their advanced status through meticulous familiarity with useless knowledge (think hipster pontificating on artisanal microbrews or on 1960s Indian cinema), they are equally likely to show their advanced status through loudly-declared ignorance of anything old or traditional (think hipster use of text-speak, or refusal to acknowledge that anything older than Sonic Youth could be categorized as "music"). How do they know whether an old thing should be embraced or ridiculed? It depends on you. Whatever you're already doing, the hipster will do the opposite. They're cool because they're not you. This only works if everyone is secretly inwardly convinced of his own un-coolness.

In this sense, Lewis's description is closer to the world we now inhabit. Babbitt's world is filled with discontent, with a maddening assurance that, whatever is good about the world, it doesn't include you. Not yet, anyway. But it could, if only you could sell that next house/get that new car/get invited to that desirable dinner party.

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