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This blog is primarily for me to blog my responses to books that I'm reading. Sometimes I blog about other stuff too, though.

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Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Age of Reform, Chapter 4: Making connections

I'm party way through chapter 4.  The argument of Chapter 4 thus far is that the Progressives of the late 19th/early 20th centuries were mostly small-town or urban upper-middle class people who picked up the causes of the rural/agrarian Populists and put them in more genteel form.  The upper-middle class was enjoying comfort in this time, but they knew that they were being eclipsed by the growing industrial interests, and that while they were comfortable they were suddenly less important than they had been.  They felt this keenly.  This dovetails to some extent with a point that Hofstadter made in Anti-Intellectualism in American Life:  That in the late 19th century giant new commercial interests emerged and had little use for the formally educated.  In that book Hofstadter focused mostly on the self-made industrialists who had little education.  Here he gives a more nuanced take, noting that plenty of the men who made money in that era were from comfortable classes, but they took positions in massive commercial interests of national prominence when the country was becoming more integrated, and these national interests eclipsed the upper-middle class professionals who had formed a sort of social glue.  While he doesn't specifically address education here, certainly the traditional elites are going to be more traditionally educated and have more traditional sympathies than the titans of new industries.

We see some of this today, in an era of increasing economic inequality. We see the rise of tech companies founded by college dropouts, so people start talking about how nobody needs college, they just need MOOCs. And even the upper-middle class now feels precarious, as evidenced by the profile of the support for Bernie Sanders or the number of private college grads in Occupy Wall Street.  Whatever you think of the merits of their proposals (I will not claim to be a big fan of all of Sanders' policy proposals) the precariousness felt by certain classes is reminiscent of the forces that Hofstadter identified as giving rise to the Progressive Era.  It might also explain why a physics professor has felt the need to spend more than a year blogging about the curiously low respect for expert voices in our current culture...

(Incidentally, many of my economic sympathies are somewhat conservative/free market.  One might wonder why I care about economic inequality.  My answer is that in competitive markets competition tends to reduce the returns to all sellers, to the benefit of buyers.  It is therefore strange that the sellers of certain categories of labor are making more and more money in an allegedly competitive era.  There is something amiss in our society and economy, but it is not something that higher education can fix. This is outside our bailiwick, not the least because we are in the business of naming things after the fantastically wealthy. Also, parents are better predictors of academic success than anything that professors might do.)

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