The Coarsening

Peter Wood

This article was originally published on the Chronicle of Higher Education's Innovations blog.

On Tuesday I posted a short article here titled “Lily Bart vs. Lady Gaga.” It wasn’t offered as a rigorous argument for any particular point, but was more in the vein of wondering aloud. I had recently read Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, and had jotted a few notes. Then I heard Lady Gaga’s newest song on the radio and there stirred the recognition of an odd connection: two versions of the sybarite as a New York woman in love with show and self-display—but separated by a century of taste and an even greater gulf of moral reckoning.  

I had no immediate way to connect this frisson to higher education—just a low key intuition that a connection might be lurking. But now it seems pretty clear what that connection is. The quick reflexes of some readers who posted comments and others who wrote to me directly suggest I touched a nerve or perhaps a whole ganglion. There is clearly a sizable number of people in the academy who not only take Lady Gaga seriously as an artist but who also see her as a kind of exemplary figure. De gustibus non est disputandum.

As it happened, the day the article posted, my colleague Steve Balch returned from a trip to Texas and mentioned that on his travel he had met a 98-year-old woman who, though a bit arthritic, was still sharp as a cactus. He asked her, of all the changes she had seen in America over such a long life, what single change struck her the most? She replied without hesitation, “It’s all just so terribly coarse now.”

One of my critics, Barbara Piper, imagines that Lady Gaga gives me “vapors” and supposes that I have a kind of “nostalgia” for the era of Lily Bart. You have your PC corset on too tight, Professor Piper. I can admire Homer without longing to mix it up with Priam’s soldiers outside the gates of Troy. I can enter imaginatively in the lives of Melanesian headhunters without longing to decapitate anyone. And I can read about fin de siècle New York without pining for the days of carriages on Fifth Avenue. “Nostalgia” of course is used these days mainly as a term of abuse, implying that one cannot deal with the world as it is, which not-so-subtly elevates the person handing out the epithet to the status of smart, adaptable realist. But that’s an unearned form of self-approbation. Nostalgia has given us some powerful art. Think of James Agee’s A Death in the Family. I can summon some nostalgia too, but it is mostly for Pittsburgh in the 1960s when the steel mills were still running and red-hot ingots hoisted up the conveyer belts lit up the darkness of the J & L works beside the Monongahela River on winter nights. But fancy dress weekends on Long Island estates—no.

If Professor Piper’s criticism is that I expressed a certain admiration for Wharton’s depiction of good manners, cultivated taste, and civilized self-control, then I plead guilty. A certain admiration, however is not uncritical enthusiasm. Wharton’s own ironic distance from a system that awarded privilege to vain and selfish people at the expense and suffering of others is one check on valorizing the world of Lily Bart. At the same time, a posture of contempt towards “refinement” simply because it was based on inequalities is itself pretty shallow.

It is not as if those who indulge in such contempt have somehow foregone their own unearned privileges, escaped the existence of social hierarchies, or are innocent of glib rationalizations for inequalities they help to perpetuate. Examples? One near at hand is the AAUP, which recently issued a report asserting that to preserve the sacred privileges of “academic freedom,” it is meet, right, and proper for colleges and universities, as a matter of principles, to deny a hearing to any complaint about faculty conduct arising from a source outside campus or indeed outside a professor’s own enrolled class. As the AAUP neatly put it:

Complaints regarding alleged classroom statements forwarded by outside agencies or individuals should generally be ruled out of consideration in initiating or conducting personnel reviews. (p. 52) 

The sole source of actionable complaints should be “students actually enrolled in the course or courses in which the alleged inappropriate conduct occurred,” i.e. the students most vulnerable to intimidation and reprisal. I wrote about the AAUP’s breathtaking rationalization for faculty immunity from criticism here last week in “Politicizing the Classroom,“ parts one and two,  and don’t recall many expressions of “I don’t want to enjoy these unearned, un-democratic privileges” coming from readers secure in their privileges.

Higher education is rife with hierarchy and with hierarchy’s inveterate companion, complacent justification. The whole “diversity” doctrine operates as a means of distributing privileges based on identity group affiliation. It is as pure a rationalization for privilege as one can find in the Rig Veda warranting the Hindu caste system. And yet we continue not even to notice that the “diversity” system in which most of us in higher education spend our days embedded is simply another means of establishing hierarchy with the usual presumption that those at the top—the decision-makers—will selflessly govern in the best interests of all.

When today’s academics erupt in derision towards bygone aristocratic pretenses, I have to smile. The ardor of these denunciations comes in almost exact proportion to the willful blindness to our own collective pretenses, which are not a whit less substantial and not a whit more fair. Both pretenses—old and new—involve awarding social goods on the basis of birth and group identity, not on any meaningful sifting of merit. As Lady Gaga is currently reminding us, “Baby, I was born this way.”

Cultural systems of course differ in lots of important ways. I commented on one and only one of the differences between the time of the fictional Lily Bart (roughly the late 1890s) and the present, and I nominated Lady Gaga as representative of that difference. I said she embodies our descent into cruder, more vulgar, more openly sexualized commercial culture. Or, to borrow that Texas nonagenarian’s phrase, our “coarseness.”

Those who want to defend Lady Gaga from this charge are free to do so and I don’t mind in the least being called an elitist for my framing the problem in this way. I do indeed think that some kinds of knowledge are higher or better that other kinds; that popular culture is worth studying in its own right but that we should take care not to conflate it with art that strives to address us on a more profound level. (And yes, we have to be attentive to the relatively small number of artists who, like Shakespeare, manage to synthesize popular entertainment and high art.) I hold that vulgarity too is worth comprehending, provided that we don’t get so fascinated by the spectacle that we fall into it ourselves. And, sorry to say, that is just what happens to a good many academics who, in their enthusiasm for meretricious performers or sexualized political propaganda, lose any capacity they once may have had to draw the necessary distinctions. For those who still have doubts about this, consider the story reported in the Chicago Sun-Times, “Northwestern University Defends After-Class Live Sex Demonstration.”

Snobbery? I don’t profess to have especially high brow tastes. But if I have to choose between the difficult path of aesthetic ascent and the joyless bacchanal of our mass entertainments, I’ll side with Matthew Arnold.

How much are academics responsible for authorizing, legitimizing, and perpetuating today’s trash culture? I don’t know how to quantify that, but several of the comments on “Lily Bart vs. Lady Gaga” stand as evidence of academic defensiveness on the subject. Several writers want to be clear that they cannot merely foist their tastes on students. It is a straw man argument. We teachers shape and inform sensibilities. Sometimes we inspire in a few students a particular enthusiasm, but we surely open eyes to some possibilities and effectively foreclose others. And these days we play a big part in persuading students that there is little or no difference in kind between the frivolous excitements of mass-produced spectacles and the more lapidary and more morally demanding arts.

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