Sunday, August 02, 2015

college degrees as status indicators of a new leisure class? Well, okay, maybe (probably)

Your parents’ income may play a large role in the major you select: in “Rich Kids Study English,” Joe Pinsker considers the elite bias toward studying the arts, history, and other less practical majors:
What Pinsker’s research indicates is that only the rich think they can afford to learn something that isn’t useful to modern life’s larger goal (namely, procuring a secure and profitable career).

The part that the AC article didn't quote from the end is what sums up the Atlantic feature most eloquently:

From this angle, college majors and occupations start to look more and more like easily-interpreted, if slightly crude, badges doled out to people based on the wealth and educational levels of the parents they were born to.

The more useless your degree seems to be to any "real world" productivity the higher status your family probably has in terms of money and education. So it's not entirely without cause that stereotypes about academics as a kind of leisure class erupt in political diatribes, even though that can be wildly inaccurate for a variety of reasons.  What gives the stereotype an emotional appeal is that those who have taken the time to get advanced degrees in things that don't lead quickly to vocational work but to academic credentialing can be seen as part of an elite class of those who can afford to get any college education in the liberal arts.

and since lamenting that the arts may become a luxury activity is something Scott Timberg has been fretting about for years, it might not be a bad idea to say that outside an elite arts culture in which patronage and virtually dynastic skill sets are involved that's what it has always been.  Let's close with a lengthy excerpt or two from a review of Timberg's book.
 Culture Crash points an angry finger at the internet. His prime example is the hollowing out of the music business, especially for indie rock. A lot of thorough analysis has been done in this area, and Timberg has availed himself of The Future of Music Coalition and the work of other concerned journalists. (There’s a good bibliography in his notes.) The music recording business has lost two thirds of its value in just over a decade, from $14.6 billion in revenues in 1999 to $5.35 billion in 2012. He notes that now, musicians earn on average 6 percent of their annual income from recordings.

He does not, however, go back to the devil’s deal that musicians made with recording labels early in the history of the industry, in which the money from record sales went to the studios and they were expected to make their living touring. Indie self-promotion turns out not to be any better.
 But for anyone who still believes in the redeeming monetization of social media contacts Timberg relates the sad anecdote of cellist Zoe Keating, who followed every rule of the new music economy. Keating self-releases her music, has 1.2 million Twitter followers, and in 2013, between two million YouTube views and 400,000 Spotify streams earned a combined total of about $3,000 from both services. That’s before adding in the problems of unpaid or pirated downloads.
"If we’re not careful, culture work will become a luxury, like a vacation home,” Timberg writes. It’s a good line, and one that anyone who values a diverse cultural ecology would want to affirm. What he doesn’t want to admit is that, absent direct patronage, professional culture workers have often depended on outside sources of income. For some it was the second job (in the post-war period, that job was primarily teaching, a job indirectly subsidized by the government in the form of the G.I. Bill fostering a new population of students). For others, it was something unrelated (meet pediatrician William Carlos Williams). For many (more than we have usually acknowledged and certainly more than today’s BFA and MFA students are aware) it was a trust fund, family member, or a spouse of means. That cushion made it possible for a talented person work on a novel or a painting until the work could earn respect, if not a proportionate wage for the work the artist put into it. Maybe the market would respond, and maybe it wouldn’t, but at least the creative person had a chance to find out.

That’s one of the reasons that pop culture exhortations to follow one’s bliss are so maddening. [WtH and for a rather remarkably long rant on that bromide, see the following article at Jacobin.] They imply a kind of privilege at the very heart of the class structures Americans are eager to say don’t exist. The fraying of the middle class is not just something that has happened to creatives. It’s just that Timberg never thought that what had happened to unionized manufacturing workers could happen to the educated type of knowledge workers who worked at the LA Times
We haven't even gotten back to Dwight MacDonald's "Masscult and Midcult" yet.  Seeing how folks on the left/ish have seen fit to gut Timberg's outrage has been an interesting reading project this year. 

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