Anti-elitism and academic libraries
A cultural theme in America for the past few decades has been a certain conservative populist “anti-elitism.” Barack Obama’s victory despite his vulnerability to the charge of elitism – owing to his statements about small town America “clinging to guns and religion,” his educational background, and his personal choice to assume an intelligent audience when he speaks – may mark the beginning of the end of this trend, for now. But the theme of cultural anti-elitism is still evident in the culture in a wide variety of forms – in popular culture, marketing, religion, and backlash against social ideas that have a strong foothold in the academy.
Oddly, as Thomas Frank has observed, America’s present anti-elitism is not directed at the power elites whose existence is what keeps America from its ideal of democracy but always at cultural elites – you know, people who think they know more than the average Joe or talk in ways that the average Joe doesn’t understand. In Frank’s diagnosis this problem was initially the fault of upper-middle class liberals who, because of their social class, could afford to protest the Vietnam war while the same generation’s working class lacked the leisure of college students and lacked the resources to escape the draft when called up. As a result, over the decades the education/class gap manifests as resentment against a class of liberals who, to “mainstream America” “just don’t get it.”
Thomas Frank’s recommended strategy for the Democrats in his 2005 book, What’s the Matter With Kansas, was to emphasize economic issues that the party’s traditional base cares about and to de-emphasize social issues for which the working class and a growing population of Hispanic voters supposedly have less sympathy – gay rights, abortion rights, funding for the arts, funding for higher education, etc. Frank’s recommendations were heard within Washington’s corridors (he moved there from Chicago after the book was published) and seem to have had some effect on Democratic policy directions.
Cultural anti-elitism is not always tied to anti-liberal backlash, however, at least not directly. I have encountered it in institutions of higher education over the years, coming from administrators who are more in touch with the pulse of funding than they are with the pulse of academic life, or from students who clearly aren’t in college because they are interested in intellectual pursuits but because they want that ticket to a middle class job. Administrators and tuition-payers want the curriculum to be “more relevant” to the needs of today’s college students, who, after all, have a louder voice than in the past because of the increased role of tuition and fees and the declining role of state subsidies in higher education. “Relevant,” unfortunately, means (on balance) less demanding and less theoretical, because today’s students are not inclined to spend much time reading for class, are less intellectually prepared for college-level work, are over-scheduled due to full time jobs and social activities, and relatively uninterested in academic subjects. To administrators, faculty who insist on high intellectual standards 1) have their heads in the sand and 2) don’t know which side their bread is buttered on. Faculty who get this message understand what is going on, but wonder who, if not they, are going to preserve, pass on, and encourage cultural achievements and the life of the mind.
After all, people whose lives are lived in the midst of poetry, science, art, and philosophy seldom choose to refer to themselves as “cultural elitists;” the term implies a populist perspective. From their own perspective, their ability to engage in these cultural pursuits, and the existence of an educational system that opens doors to this world to people of all backgrounds, is a primary measure of a society’s attainment of civilization.
It is one thing to make the populist argument that academics are out of touch with real world problems (sometimes they are, sometimes they’re not) but it’s another thing to devalue their cultural contributions or show hostility toward their values in favor of “real world, practical concerns.” Unfortunately, hostility toward what E. M. Forster called the aristocracy of the sensitive is present in academic institutions, which one would expect to be a refuge.
So there is the story; here is what it means in the context of debates in academic libraries.
A number of related trends that are influencing decisions in academic libraries are supported by cultural anti-elitism (though other factors of change may be more fundamental to them). The first is that of “adapting to the Millenials.” Among other things, this means retooling our services to suit students who we take it as a given will study by spending 20 minutes watching YouTube videos rather than six hours reading (selling them short in the process). The second trend is that of “making the collection more relevant.” Among other things, this means catering to popular tastes and duplicating the offerings of local public libraries, with circulation statistics to back up the shift of resources. The third trend that finds anti-elitist support is the continuing rationalization of work processes in libraries through automation, outsourcing, and bureaucratic efficiency measures, and the deprofessionalization into which it factors.
There is an enforcement dynamic that accompanies these trends. If you question the wisdom of moving in these directions, you are “against change.” The expectation is to demonstrate that you are a forward thinking librarian (countering the stereotypes) by de-prioritizing precisely what is offered by academic libraries alone in society – a rich collection of scholarly and literary texts and a high level of knowledge of what they contain in order to provide meaningful access to them. Instead, there is pressure to put emphasis on what people in other enterprises are already doing better and for which they are looked to first – social media, new media, and web technology. In jumping on the bandwagon we are jumping out of the boat. Anti-elitist pressure pushes in this direction because of what it values and de-values.
I think it is worth shifting the discussion away from the meaningless frame of “change, for it or against it” (as though “change” can only mean one thing) and toward the more relevant, underlying issue of anti-elitism versus the cultural pursuits that the academy is here to protect and cultivate. There is a thread of anti-intellectualism running through much of the talk about relevance and change that must be pointed out and identified on the spot – on blogs, at meetings, at conference presentations – so that it can be tied to its specific roots and manifestations, and separated out from a rational discussion of where to go from here. We should ask, who is being served and what is being undercut by specific changes? What is behind them? And, we should reject references to “change” in general as though its specifics are a given and not subject to intelligent planning, with consideration of the ends we want to achieve.
It’s funny how a lack of perspective can make cultural decay look like progress….