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….

8 comments on “Anti-elitism and academic libraries

  1. As someone who has questioned the wisdom of moving in those directions, only to find myself labeled as “not a team player,” “someone who does not get it,” and a few other select terms, I thank you for saying this. It needs to be said and pondered in our profession which is often more worried about a certain image or looking “cool” while dumbing down.

    Best, and keep on blogging.

  2. I could not agree more with your points about the pervasive rhetoric of technological determinism and “change” that pervades librarianship (and higher education in general).

    However, when these points get made in library publications and at conferences only those inclined to agree with them seem to read the articles or attend the talks. I can’t escape the feeling that people continually talk past one another instead of engaging in substantive debate.

    I’ve found that most major library conferences and publications continually avoid addressing the issues that you raise.

    Are we condemned to forever remain on the margins of the profession?

  3. Just wanted to interject, see also Susan Jacoby’s _The Age of American Unreason_; there are several passages in that book that should pique the interest of librarians concerned about the ongoing culture of anti-intellectualism, etc.

    Keep up the good work, Rory.

  4. “today‚Äôs 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”

    “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)”

    But can you substantiate these claims? And are people truly less interested? Is reading really in decline? Is Google really making us dumber? And are public libraries really less effective vehicles for empowerment and enlightenment today than, say, 50 years ago? My gut feeling is “yes to all of the above”, yet I have a nagging feeling that I’m just succumbing to the good old days nostalgia that often begins “young people today” etc.” And when I encounter this kind of criticism in its most pompous, reactionary, and self-satisfied form, e.g. from Mark Helprin in “Digital Barbarians” I pull back; while I have myself reflected on the prevalence of “the mouthbreathing morons in backwards baseball caps” and many other forms of idiocy that Helprin identifies, I’d much rather write it off to my own intolerance and resistance to change than ally myself with Helprin. Of course, the same kind of criticism comes from more sensible quarters on the left – e.g. Susan Jacoby – but I think there is some truth to the “resistance to change” charge. For example, I have a hard time defending my instinctive resistance to introducing games (in a big way), into libraries. For one thing, I’ve never played a video game and never will, so I really don’t know what I’m talking about. My argument usually goes in the direction of games being primarily a diversion, rather than a source of enlightenment and an agent for advancing the public good, which is what libraries are all about; but novels too were once criticized as mere diversion – Coleridge likened reading a novel to spitting from a bridge. And what about music and film at the library? And surely one cannot criticize public librarians for being concerned about circulation, heeding the market and bringing people in the doors; keeping the library “pure” would undoubtedly marginalize it as a public institution.

    Here in Norway, the government recently submitted to Stortinget (parliament) a White Paper on the future of libraries. One of its most applauded (by librarians) recommendations concerned the inclusion in all libraries of video games. A parliamentarian commented that video games in libraries will help offset social class divisions, and prevent certain kids from being excluded from peer groups: – There are children in Norway who cannot afford videogames, and who have parents who can’t buy consoles. Both having access to games at the library and being able to borrow them for home loan is important…” Offsetting class divisions is an essential role for public libraries, as it was in Andrew Carnegie’s day, but shouldn’t libraries observe a distinction between knowledge and other symbols of social status (e.g. videogames, expensive holidays, designer clothes, etc. etc.) My old geezer reaction is that one is diluting one’s mission out of existence by turning the library into an instrument of social levelling, rather than enlightenment….but I’m very happy to be proven wrong. Just some thoughts. Very grateful for references to pithy articles/books that address these issues (I have D’Angelo’s book)

  5. Many thanks…both Declining by Degree and Berman are new to me, will check them out.
    Interesting that the anti-elitism debate seems to resonate equally with the left and right (e.g. Postman/Hofstadter/Postman and Bloom/Helprin/Annoyed Librarian) but while the right attributes decline to pc thinking and soft-headed accommodation, the left assigns blame to the market. (unfortunately, after the discreditation of Marxism, just about any criticism/wariness of “the things that shape us” – e.g. the market – is dismissed as dubious, or at best irrelevant). I also find it curious- Walt Crawford’s comment (http://knowbodies.blogspot.com/2009/04/writing-about-reading-and-annoyed.html )notwithstanding – -that the library community gets so exercised by some of these web2.0 skeptics who are nothing if not champions of public library ideals. Thanks for the great link to “aristocracy of the sensitive”. Forster also urged “Only connect” – which I think he would say applies more to public libraries than web2.0

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