What does the term “educated class” actually mean?

In an exchange on Facebook yesterday where I outed myself as a godless commie pinko (I think that noise was Owen White blowing beer through his nose onto the library computer screen) because I think FOX is ridiculous in claiming that the Muppets are radical leftist propaganda, I mused that being part of the “educated class” (which, so we’re clear, I put in scare quotes and qualified by saying, “whatever that actually means”) seems to automatically place one to the left of most who publicly identify as “conservative”.

So what does the term “educated class” actually mean? About a year ago I was having a conversation with a friend about NPR as a source for news. I expressed appreciation for what seemed to be, on the whole, a lack of FOX News-style hyperbole; my friend said, “Well, it’s certainly the news outlet of choice for the educated class.” I’m sure that I had encountered the term “educated class” before, but not in a way struck me as being a discrete, identifiable category, and I’ve been chewing on it every so often over the past year.

Of course, in the past year, I’ve finished a Masters degree and completed doctoral coursework, so that makes me part of the so-called “educated class,” whatever that actually means, right…? I don’t know. Some initial poking into how the term actually gets used in public discourse turned up some not terribly conclusive references — it seems to be a term that neo-cons and moderates and “RINOs” use to pick cultural fights with each other more than anything. I’m half-tempted to see it as one of those terms like “moderate” where really it’s a label that allows for self-identification apart from distasteful extremes and is another way of saying “people like me”. It still seems, to me at least, that members of the “educated class” follow gut instinct as much as anybody else does, it’s just that we can back up our gut instinct with books you can’t find at Wal-Mart. Is that actually any better? I don’t know.

Since I’m not really sure whether or not to take it seriously, here is a half-serious/half-not look at what I think makes me part of the “educated class” (whatever that actually means):

  • I have multiple degrees and am still trying to get more.
  • I mostly hang out with people who have multiple degrees and/or are still working on more of them.
  • I am married to somebody with multiple degrees who is still working on more.
  • When I move (and remember I’m married to another academic), the single most expensive part of the move will be figuring out what to do with all of the books.
  • I belong to more academic societies than I will have degrees.
  • I assume that the people who write the books I read don’t make any money off of them.
  • I travel for conferences.
  • I actually attend conferences.
  • There are conferences for people in my field.
  • I have a “field”.
  • When I think of “conservatives” I think of people like David Gergen, Russell Kirk, and Rod Dreher. Names like Sarah Palin and Dick Cheney come to mind when I think of “angry and/or creepy white people”.
  • I get frustrated that what is presented as conservatism today seems to ignore its own intellectual history.
  • I think conservatism has an “intellectual history”.
  • I think there’s such a thing as “intellectual history”.
  • I think it’s weird that it’s spelled “conservatism” rather than “conservativism”.
  • I’d like to think that public discourse doesn’t have to be lowest common denominator in order to be effective.
  • I’ve read all of Ayn Rand’s major works (including some of her “non-fiction”) and I still think it’s not only intellectual garbage but bad literature.
  • I have to concede, with regret, that conservatives, at least in the last few decades, tend to produce lousy art.
  • I tend to agree with Paul Krugman that Newt Gingrich is a stupid person’s idea of what a smart person sounds like. I also think that tends to apply to Ayn Rand.
  • I think that “What do you read?” is a friendly, getting-to-know-you question. I’d love it if Katie Couric asked me that.
  • I’m weary of Republicans claiming that their willingness to eat their own is what separates them from the Democrats, when it is obvious to me that it isn’t true.
  • I’m aware that NPR isn’t free of bias but it’s nice to hear rational adults talking like rational adults, rather than watching either plastic people trying to buddy up to me over the anchor desk or angry white people yelling at me or each other about how a president who is to the right of Nixon on some points is a radical socialist.
  • I can tell you that Theodosius, not Constantine, made Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire.
  • Even as an Orthodox Christian, I don’t think that science is a secular conspiracy theory, and as such I think science has implications and consequences for my behavior and choices — much as Christianity does.
  • I actually want my hypothetical future kids to learn languages other than English.
  • I actually believe there’s a connection between what academics do and what happens in the real world.
  • I don’t see being articulate (read: “being able to string a coherent sentence together”) and being authentic as diametrically opposed qualities. I’m a both/and kind of guy.
  • When I’m given the opportunity to donate a book to a children’s group, I instinctively grab a single-volume copy of The Lord of the Rings and hope that it inspires some kid somewhere to think, to believe, to wonder, and maybe to be interested in the stuff that made Tolkien want to write the story in the first place.
  • To think, to believe, and to wonder are the things I learned to do best as a little kid and they’re what I’ve tried to figure out how to make a living at doing ever since.

That’s all I can think of for now. Yeah, it’s kinda SWPL-ish, isn’t it? Maybe that’s inescapable. I’d be curious for anybody to come up with their own list.

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7 Responses to “What does the term “educated class” actually mean?”


  1. 1 Daniel Storrs (@danielinbtown) 7 December 2011 at 5:29 pm

    I really enjoyed this blog post! thanks for sharing it. (The snow falling is pretty cool, too.)

  2. 2 Owen White 7 December 2011 at 7:41 pm

    That Fox-Muppets bit got a lot of traction in commie circles.

    On NPR – it drives me crazy half the time. When I lived in Minnesota there were two different public radio outfits in the state. One was colossal in size compared to what we have here in TN, the other about the size of the public radio machine here in TN. The larger was pretty consistently center-left in political posture, and the smaller what one might call the softer edge of progressive. What I heard on national NPR programming in the 90s was consistent with the larger of the two – I think Ray Suarez when he hosted Talk of the Nation embodied all that was good with NPR in the 90s – fair, relatively balanced, and left but not so far left that it ceased to appeal to a broad public.

    Since then NPR has veered decidedly to become what in a European context would be center-right. It’s difficult calling these things in an American context because the Republican Party and the right in general in this country has shifted so quickly and so dramatically toward positions and postures that most self proclaimed conservatives not too long ago would have considered extreme, and that rightward shift doesn’t appear to be over.

    TANGENT: When I first moved to MN at the age of 19, I got involved in politics pretty quickly and “the great evil” at the time was the Republican Governor Arnie Carlson. He was a “moderate Republican” meaning pro-business as well as being pro-choice. At that time in my life that represented the worst possible set of positions. But after seeing what Tim Pawlenty and Michele Bachmann and gang did to MN in the years they ran the state (Bachmann was in the state legislature before going to DC), I now have something of an admiration for Carlson. No governor in MN history did more to expand funding for higher education than Carlson did. Carlson was pro-business but not anti all taxes. He attempted moderate reforms of the (by comparison to other states) generous entitlement programs in the state, but he never tried to dismantle them. He was committed to good, competent governance. And on abortion he made everybody mad – he “supported Roe Vs. Wade” as they say, but he also supported parental consent laws, 24 hour waiting periods, sonograms, etc. All in all, when I think back over the politicians who have been in power during my life, Carlson was probably one of the best statesmen and administrators I ever lived under. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe that capitalism can be tamed or anything like that, but on a certain level if I did believe that, I would look to Eisenhower style Republicans like Carlson to run things. And I think it speaks to the impoverishment of our cultural life today that the Republican Party no longer produces men like Carlson. Whatever one thinks about the merits of their economic and political views, Republican politicians like Carlson were serious, sober, and fair minded. END TANGENT.

    I also fault NPR for what it doesn’t present to the public. In the various presentations of the economic crisis one usually hears on NPR, it is rare to get an opinion that offers a clear Krugmanesque position. For crying out loud, he’s a Keynesian and not even a socialist! I think the documentary Inside Job showed that you can present the facts of the crisis in a manner that is not partisan and forthright in a manner that most educated people can understand. I note that on both the economy and issues concerning foreign policy (Obama’s wars, etc.) NPR is now usually decidedly to the right – it rarely gives acknowledgement to left critiques on these things, and I’ve noted in interviews with Hillary Clinton over the last year or so how often the material being presented uses rhetoric that perfectly fits Clinton’s propagandic agenda. It occurs to me, right or wrong, there is the assumption that nearly all centrists now, on both right and left, essentially support the war machine, and that it is kooks on both the right and the left that don’t. Such a situation is very unfortunate and dangerous, and I fault NPR for being a part of such nonsense.

    But all that said, yeah, I agree with your thoughts on NPR here – in terms of general news sources where else is a person who is even slightly educated/mature/serious/undecided going to go? I may know that both EJ Dionne and David Brooks are flakey with regard to their analysis, but at least I don’t have to listen to the two of them yelling nonsense at each other or posturing in a manner that befits a 5th grade playground. I think the maturity level of NPR has gone down a bit, and the attempts in the last 5-10 years to appeal to hipsters with all the trendy music references and so forth are sometimes too much, but then again, there is a genuine attempt to be creative and interesting and appeal to broad human interests across the NPR programming, and this will always result in aesthetic tendencies in given directions that people like me will complain about. What I wish is that there were funding for more NPRs, competing NPRs which represented different postures towards policies, art, types of reporting, etc.

    On the question of the educated class – I have known more than a few academics who, unlike yourself, have very intense views on economic and political matters even though it becomes quite clear that they get all of their information from mainstream media sources. They have the ability to pursue investigation further, and maybe they do read the occasional Financial Times article or some other slightly-more-serious source, but you can tell when speaking to them about economic or political matters that they don’t mosey on out beyond popular information sources very often. I’ve noticed among some academic friends and acquaintances a confidence in their own intellectual abilities that is overreaching in this respect – I think it usually goes like this: I have mastered this difficult material. It takes some serious intellectual ability in order to do this. Because my intellect works so well within my field of study, I intuit that my intellect has above par levels of discernment and analytic skill when applied to any area which is of interest to me. So far we have the arrogance that anyone with an IQ over 120 is going to have. But then add to this equation the fact that academics my age (late 30s -meaning only recently PhDs generally) have often not been able to read with the breadth and depth required to be serious generalists – my academic friends in grad school all complained about how they wished they could read more outside of their field, and with many of them I notice this tendency to not realize how parochial their education has been. There is also the lack of “life experience” that sometimes comes into play when talking about politics and economics. The guy who has spent his entire life in school often can’t speak to the issues facing your average 35 year old guy with three kids, mortgage, boss riding his arse at work, etc. and thus can be a bit out of touch when considering things like the real estate crash. And grad school is perhaps the most acute instance of navel-gazing in the typical academic life – once you go get a job you have more “normal” human interactions with non-academics – you have PTA meetings and buy a house and do other things which form communities with non academic persons. At the same time, most generalists today are either academics or people who spent some serious time in academia, and all generalists today have to have a serious familiarity with academia. So I don’t mean to suggest a contradiction between academia and being a generalist, which I suppose I think of as my default category of educated persons. I guess I’m just suggesting that there are times when talking about being educated on general matters that academia incites (in some) a belief in one’s own competence which is not realistic. Obviously I’m not talking about you here as you have always been rather circumspect with regard to political and economic issues. My old boss at the bookstore, who was the first layperson to get a doctorate from the Catholic faculty at Tübingen and was tutored for some years by the great intellectual of the old European style, Alexander Dru, once told me that I could consider myself an intellectual when I could read a Times Literary Supplement through, cover to cover, and understand two thirds of what was written. There is some truth to that, I think. Perhaps though that is much less broad a thing than “the educated classes.”

    • 3 Richard Barrett 7 December 2011 at 11:26 pm

      On my circumspect tendencies when it comes to politics and economic issues…

      My maternal grandfather was a truck driver, a blue collar union guy through and through from what I’m told. I never met him (he died the year before I was born), but my grandmother was definitely an old school labor wife. The union always took care of us, she told me while I was growing up, and that’s why you’re supposed to vote Democrat.

      My paternal grandfather was merchant class, 100% new money. He owned the first grocery store chain in Anchorage, a group of Piggly-Wigglies. My maternal grandfather used to deliver to his stores, apparently. Again, I never met him (he died something like 12 years before I was born), but my dad and all of his siblings grew up with money. My grandfather was, I’m told, very publicly generous with what he had, and had a reputation for buying people houses and so on. There was, at the very least, some sense of noblesse oblige. I’ve always been curious exactly how he got along with the union people in Anchorage, but I grew up hearing my dad describe unions as being essentially legalized organized crime, given a free pass only because they’re “labor”, so I have to think he learned that somewhere. Were I to have a conversation with my dad right now, this would not, alas, be the top item on the agenda, so it’s hard to say.

      Both parents are pretty far to the right. Economically, I grew up initially with us still being well-off merchant class, and then things took a wrong turn and by the time I was 10 we were struggling to be middle class. Both of my parents — who have long since divorced — are doing reasonably well at this stage of the game, and both have entrenched themselves into the cultural right as much as they possibly can. It’s funny — for two people hate each other as much they apparently do, they’re an awful lot alike. They both bought guns and as much ammo as they legally could when Obama got elected, and both gave as the reason, “Who knows how much longer we’ll be able to have them, and it looks like we’re going to need them.” My mom is deep into Sarah Palin (she’s sending out copies of “The Undefeated” as Christmas presents; I agreed to watch it as long as she listened to exactly what I had to say about it, and I also sent her a copy of “Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer” in return), was a big Herman Cain supporter up to the end, and thinks that Glenn Beck is an intellectual, teacher, and scholar (her words). In 2008 my dad talked of “holding his nose and voting for Romney” initially, then used the same phrase for McCain.

      With that as a brief sketch of my political incubation — I’ve voted in two presidential elections, 1996 and 2000. The outcomes of both elections really messed with me in very different ways; the long-term outcome of the ’96 election convinced me that character really did matter, and both the short-term and long-term outcomes of the 2000 election convinced me that while that may be true, the name of the game is being as underhanded of a creep as you can possibly manage while still making yourself look good to your constituents, and that making yourself look good while leading the country down the garden path to ruin with a smirk on your face is not the same thing as character. I heard an interview with David Gergen in 2000 that really had an impact on me; he said in very careful way that in Bush and Gore, the two parties had manifestly failed to actually give us the best candidates either party had to offer, and he implied that this was intentional — on whose part, I was never quite sure, but he made a big point of saying that the presidents he had worked for — Nixon, Reagan, even Clinton — had all been knocked down a good number of times by the time they got to office, and neither Bush nor Gore really had. In any event, it seems to me that our system broke down on all levels in the 2000 election, from the start of campaign season to the swearing in of George W. Bush.

      Since then, I have felt — if I may invoke Tolkien again — like it’s difficult to be on anybody’s side politically when I’m pretty sure nobody’s on my side. Neil Gaiman once said something about how he’d have no hesitation endorsing a political party that ran on a platform of being nice to people and supporting libraries, and I guess, unsophisticated as that may be, that broadly describes me as well. The trouble is that I hold irreconcilable views in our current political landscape; fine, big government may be seen as one kind of problem, but I fail to see why big business isn’t ultimately the same problem under a different guise. I am on the whole pro-life, but that’s just it — I am on the whole pro-life. Years ago I decided that I couldn’t honestly be anti-abortion and pro-death penalty or pro-war. Pro-life means pro-life, all life. Since that’s not a position that’s anything other than a recipe for either suicide, or at the very least being ignored, in either political camp, I usually find it’s just better for me to keep my mouth shut and keep my own counsel. I cannot comfortably abide amongst the right — if for no other reason than my profession makes me automatically an object of suspicion in an incomprehensibly anti-intellectual “conservative” political culture — but I guarantee you, the left doesn’t want me. The further the right moves to the right — and I have to say, it is really befuddling to me where this hard turn came from — the closer I am to the left simply by default, but I hold too many positions that would be seen as unforgivable sins.

      There’s another thing, too, and you get at it rather well. I don’t assume that because I can read Greek or tell you which emperor is said to have mandated the insertion of the Cherubikon into the Divine Liturgy that I’m going to be able to competently evaluate matters of state and the details of economic policy. I can tell you why somebody like Sarah Palin disturbs the hell out of me, and I can tell you why her positions strike me as wrong on an instinctive level, but I just don’t have the the political or economic theory to back any of it up (and even if I did, I would be told by her supporters why none of that matters).

      To be really practical about it — I’ve no particular desire to alienate friends and colleagues on either side of the aisle by opening my mouth about things where I know that I haven’t done a sufficient amount of homework to overcome positions that are probably based on emotional gut reactions. All I’ve really got in such a case is my own gut reaction, which means it’s just going to be pointless sparring. I know what sounds reasonable to me when I hear it explained by a rational person, but that’s not really the same thing. I’ve got no problem arguing with somebody about whether or not liturgy is principally a textual experience, because I actually know something about that, and, well, in the grand scheme of things issues impacting the fate of the world right now, it doesn’t matter all that much. Yay nice people and yay libraries.

  3. 6 Ole Kern 9 December 2011 at 3:21 pm

    Owen, excellent comment about Inside Job. I completely agree. It was such a well done movie. Richard, rent it if you haven’t already seen it.


  1. 1 An itinerary and a couple of labors of love « Leitourgeia kai Qurbana: Contra den Zeitgeist Trackback on 21 January 2012 at 8:16 pm

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