Being middle class falls between being an aristocrat and being a slave. It’s to be a free being who works. The middle-class American is free, like an aristocrat, to work like a slave. Unlike an aristocrat, he has no one to work for him. He’s very judgmental about work: nobody has a right not to work. What the aristocrat calls leisure, he calls laziness. And, as we see today, he can only pity the poor if they are “working poor.” Ensuring that all have the equal opportunity to better themselves through work is the foundation of the American idea of justice and prosperity. Aristocracies were poor by comparison to us, Americans know, because none of their members worked for themselves.Or, as Richard Mitchell puts it, "What purpose could there be in the study of Hell?" The answer is not as glib as "Hell is other people."
So middle-class education is education for freedom, for being able to work for oneself. Tocqueville found in America universal literacy and lots of techno-vocational education. Education, he observed, was largely achieved through apprenticeships to professions, and even science was studied in the spirit of a trade. Freedom was to be won through the rational and industrious deployment of tools and machines.
But that sort of education for freedom isn’t “higher education,” and it doesn’t bring the kind of intellectual and spiritual self-determination we associate with liberal arts education. So Tocqueville claimed to find almost no higher education in America, and little genuine concern for the leisurely cultivation of the soul. His main criticism of middle-class democracy was that it lacked a leisure class with the time and inclination to be an audience and patron for books, art, and music. The middle class, in this sense, is too busy and in love with money to have much real class.
Tocqueville observes that middle-class education produces middling brains. Democracy can turn even art and literature into industries, and push language in such a technical direction that the words conveying the truth about metaphysics and theology simply disappear. The middle class imposed a techno-orientation of thought that amounted to intellectual tyranny, pushing its pupils toward the “how” at the expense of the “who,” the “why,” and the “what.” It amounted to intellectual tyranny, preventing theoretical innovation and cross-cultural speculation about the merits of various forms of human flourishing.
Go back now and read again the epigraph. Carefully. Notice, for instance, that we are among those who have lost not intellect, which readily lends itself to anything we want to do, but the good of intellect, which must be something else. Wonder what that something else might be. Ask: is there some special Roman Catholic notion hidden here, some at least religious notion, some notion that would be foreign and abhorrent to the Chinese perhaps, or the Martians, or some notion suitable to men only?In Professor Lawler's formulation, the products of that careerist training have lost the good of the intellect: "One downside of living in a country ruled, more than ever, by a meritocracy based on productivity (think Silicon Valley) is that our class of leaders tend to have no class, none of the sense of responsibility for one’s fellow citizens and creatures that should come with great power and influence." Perhaps, though, that's by design. The networking opportunities for the young take place at the great universities, but in the fraternity houses and M.B.A. programs, not in the senior colloquium or the debating society. Ross Douthat offers a cynical explanation for that development.
Ask yourself this: where could you go, today, to find yourself surrounded by strange utterances, horrible pronouncements, and accents of anger, all making an endless, gritty tumult, like whirling sand in the turbid air? If you are at a loss to answer, watch the news tonight.
“Paying for the Party” is also a story about the socioeconomic consequences of cultural permissiveness — about what happens, who wins and who loses, when a youth culture in which the only (official) moral rule is consent meets a corporate-academic university establishment that has deliberately retreated from any moralistic, disciplinary role.Professor Lawler suggests a restoration of "the basics." In his essay, that's a call to remove climbing walls and all the other accoutrements of summer camp. In Mr Douthat's forumlation, the bourgeois virtues are the basics. I'll let Professor Mitchell summarize. "Which is freedom, the power to stand, or the intoxication of flying with the wind?" Particularly with no idea how to properly trim the sails and sail the boat.
The losers are students ill equipped for the experiments in youthful dissipation that are now accepted as every well-educated millennial’s natural birthright. The winners, meanwhile, are living proof of how a certain kind of libertinism can be not only an expression of class privilege, but even a weapon of class warfare.
By this I mean that an upper class that practices and models bourgeois virtues — not only thrift and diligence but chastity and sobriety — will be more permeable, less self-protected and self-perpetuating, than an upper class that tells the aspirational that they can’t climb the ladder unless they join the party first.
Especially if no one mentions, until the tab comes due, that they’ll be the only ones who really pay for it.