Saturday, August 16, 2003

Outclassed in Academia

Via the Invisible Adjunct, the tale of Chris Cumo, "Blue Collar Ph.D." The story Chris tells reveals a good deal more than just another additional, often overlooked injustice in the world of academia (that is, an unrealistic and ultimately weak appreciation of how distant elite academic life is from most of the rest of the wage-earning world); it also gives a good glimpse into the emotional boil which lurks so often under the surface whenever topics like "class" or "region" or "race" are either elided or too quickly ideologically categorized. Chris is from a lower-class background, and has worked what are generally considered lower-class jobs (primarily landscaping) most of his life. But he's also managed to earn a Ph.D. in the history of science. Obviously, with the job market the way it is (and probably will remain, until the--I increasingly believe--inevitable complete meltdown of higher education in this country, whether in five or ten or twenty years), his Ph.D. was no guarantee of a job. But could it at least be a ticket to the middle-class, to a job and lifestyle that didn't smell of sweat and grass? Apparently again, the answer is no. And so Chris finds himself socialized into a world that claims to be a meritocracy, a simple contest of knowledge work, but of course it isn't, except within the relatively rarefied, already middle-class world of suburban schools, private tutors, after-school activities, proper social skills, scholarship trips, etc., etc. As Chris writes, echoing the recent article by David Brooks, "academics are like everyone else. They're comfortable among their own kind: people who had the opportunity to attend good schools and elite universities. These are the people hired by search committees. How can someone from the lower class, the place no American wants to inhabit, compete? Someone who attended a series of urban public schools? When does someone who toils away his existence cutting grass have the time, energy, or opportunity to network with the scions of the middle class?"

Chris might object to my aligning his argument with Brooks's (which is, as Yedidiah put it over at IvyJews, "a political essay dressed in sociological garb"), but I can't help but see the larger context of his piece as overlapping the exact same vague elite worry over socio-economic and/or lifestyle "diversity" which Brooks has spent so much of his career describing. It's not really that dissimilar to the rant I posted last May about living in the "provinces." Yes, Kant is the same everywhere (or, at least, in the majority of Ph.D.-granting institutions everywhere), and so is literary criticism, and the history of science, and all the rest of elite liberal arts knowledge. But what can the lower-class person who obtains that knowledge do with it? Or the person from Arkansas? There is, of course, the liberal assumption that such knowledge can and should be planted and be made useful anywhere--but practically, in terms how life is lived and money is spent, isn't it an unspoken assumption that the lower-class person who obtains such knowledge ought to somehow not be lower class anymore? That such knowledge ought to somehow take you out of the provincial, non-metropolitan environments where it is, well, shall we say, out of place? I doubt anyone would actually say that, in so many words. But witness Chris trying to convince hiring committees that he's one of them, when outside his knowledge base his very looks betray him. (Priceless bit from Chris's essay: "My first day in graduate school I met another new grad student. 'Man you're dark,' he said as though he had never seen a white guy with brown skin." Maybe he hadn't, Chris.) I've seen the same thing happen with Southern accents--or simply a look at my tag. ("Arkansas State Universiy?") What's most frustrating about all this is that Brooks's essay exposes Chris and I just as much as anyone else. After all, if we were truly, authentically, a part of what we've become, we wouldn't be bothered by the dividedness between our aspirations and our environments; indeed, we'd probably hardly notice it at all. But academia makes elites of us all. When I'm sensible, and thinking about what really matters in my life, I recognize that I'm lucky; between hard work and pure luck, I've been blessed enough to have a, perhaps, fairly reasonable opportunity to work out (like so many others have to work out) some sort of connection between my (in this case elite) aspirations and my (quite definitely) less-than elite environment. But Chris, unfortunately, and unjustly, is confronted with the task of making a connection that will probably always be far more tenuous, and difficult, than my own.