There’s something about “the classics” that seems to appeal to working class aspirations. When lending libraries were established, records tend to show that working class people mainly checked out the classics. In the Soviet Union, the Russian classics were prioritized even though they were obviously aristocratic and bourgeois in character, and classical music and ballet training was extremely robust. That effort found its echo in America in the Penguin Classics and the postwar efforts to popularize classical music, both of which were important in establishing the new “middle class” largely made up of workers.
My own life shows a similar trajectory. I was classically trained on piano, at the prompting of parents who — as I have slowly figured out as an adult — aren’t personally very interested in classical music, and I always seized upon any list of “classics” that I could find. During my naive and ineffectual college search, where I wound up defaulting to Olivet Nazarene University because (a) I knew about it and (b) I knew I could get a scholarship, the only college brochures that actually jumped out at me were from St. John’s. Reading a list of big books — that’s how you do it. I joke that teaching at Shimer College, a Great Books school, is my chance to finally get educated.
To be “educated” — as though it can be attained, as though there’s a list you can check off. It’s a seductive idea, at least to me, and I still catch myself thinking in those terms. For instance, I mostly don’t find opera intuitively appealling — it’s too long and the plots are often ridiculous — and yet I have this sense that I “should” go, simply for the sake of familiarizing myself with opera and filling out that part of my “education.”
This drive to be “educated” in some objectively verifiable way is of course naive. It’s as though your hard work of making your way through a set list of books and classical music will entitle you to respect, to a place in the conversation. It’s a democratizing impulse — everyone can have access to it, just take the list to the library — but an attempt at democratizing elitism.
We all know in our hearts, though, that that’s not how elites actually work, and I think all of us working class autodidacts have discovered, with some horror, that the real elites probably have not read Shakespeare or listened to Brahms. Now the way to signal cultural prestige is to frown upon the traditional “classics” in favor of some vague gesture toward non-Western cultures, or (better) to invest deeply in an analysis of the ephemera of capitalist culture itself — comic books, genre films, etc.
In terms of creative generativity, this trend is a mixed bag, with positives and negatives. But in terms of class aspiration, it shows the arbitarity of cultural “prestige” — and demonstrates that the elites are more nimble than the earnest, overliteral working class autodidact. By the time you’ve become “educated,” they’ve moved on to the next thing, and all your hard work will earn you nothing but condescension.