Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Meditation on the Middle Class

In his writings on society and education in first decades of the 20th century, Hans Reichenbach argued that structural change would most likely have to be led by the emerging German middle class. The upper class had too much invested in the status quo and the lower class was too much under its thumb in terms of a lack of education and social capital and mobility. Only the middle class youth would have the incentive and freedom to reweave sections of the social fabric.

But this requires an activist middle class. Reichenbach was writing at a curious period. A baby boom combined with rapid industrialization had given rise to a significantly enlarged middle class in the first decade of the century and the First World War then undermined the old social order and all confidence in the formerly powerful to govern wisely, and this gave them a fairly blank social canvas to contemplate.

Of course, it did not turn out well in that case; but the central insight to be gleaned is that Reichenbach's axiom here is right and that the zeitgeist of the middle class is an important barometer.

My reading of that zeitgeist may be skewed by the fact that I teach at an institution where most of my contact is with a very thin slice from the upper reaches of the middle class, students with a very particular profile. But before landing where I am, I adjuncted ( a sad, sad verb that I am glad is in the past tense) at nine different institutions and saw roughly the same thing at those places.

Our institution paid advertising consultants a large amount of money to come up with the lame, branding slogan, "Do great work." The middle class mantra that is tattooed on the brains of today's young seems similar in form, but opposite in content: "Don't fuck up." The perception of the social reward structure seems to be that as long as you follow the path into and through a decent college and don't get busted (or if you do make it a small quantity so that we can get you the treatment option), you'll be set. It is not an urging to challenge themselves, but quite the opposite, the imperative is to not rock the boat. Risk-aversion is the default position. And it isn't "make sure there's a safety net beneath you before you try aerial tricks" -- it's "cling on tightly to the rope for dear life." There seems to be both a sense that a comfortable life is available without overcoming great obstacles, combined with an underlying sense that this comfort is not an entitlement -- you can still fall if you screw up or overplay your hand. Don't shoot too high or too low.

This is not to generalize and say there aren't fantastic young folks in the middle class who are doing great things, who are working their butts off, who have dreams and hopes and are overcoming hurdles to actualize their potentiality. Of course, there are. But the question is about the general sense of the time. Would things be different with this generation if they weren't staring down the barrel of huge student loan debts to just get to square one? Would it be different if their parents weren't petrified of the thought that these kids need to be not only employable, but employed from day one after college because they can't put them back on their health insurance policy? Or is it from the other side, a sense that there is nothing there to be reached for? A feeling that one is doomed to a life of middle management no matter how much sweat one exerts, so why bother? Or perhaps is it a result of the entertainment culture where one can be passively amused at all times, so development of creativity and personal skills (beyond those required to work a joystick) has simply become obsolete?

I think back to an old Chomsky quotation where he argues that as long as you meet the basic convenience needs of the middle class, they will not question the structure or the actions of the powerful because having had one's needs met gives the illusion of having power. Has the power that Reichenbach attributed to the middle class become the mere illusion of Chomsky -- an illusion that the contemporary middle class only half buys?