Tuesday, November 04, 2008

A Harvard Education In A Book

We still have a 20-y/o copy of the Harvard Lampoon’s A Harvard Education In A Book that I stumbled across. It fits very well into our discussion of intelligence, and especially the idea of imitating a society’s cultural markers for intelligence. In many subjects, with a few good generalizations you can erect an entire edifice. As the comedian Robert Klein noted about essay questions “Agriculture was very important to the ancient Sumerians…hey this is looking like a C+ already!” It’s that pattern-recognition thing again – you find two examples that really fit your theory, then three more than can be crammed to look like it if you squint, and voila! (A French word meant to be equivalent to Eureka, first used in the “behold” sense by Rabelais. I just made that up.)

The $7.95 paperback exaggerates for effect, of course, but the point is solid. The appearance of intellect can be imitated in America, more than in other societies. It does take some intelligence to even fake it, in the same way that it takes some money to look rich if you’re a con artist, but it can be done. Most college intro courses are about vocabulary, learning the jargon of the field and using it with facility. But it is not enough to simply learn what a hominid is, or tectonic plates, or pronounce Max Weber. Not for long, anyway. You need a cluster of terms from the same subject that you can use with facility, plus a vague familiarity with the big stuff from a few others. Then, you can flesh that out with drinking stories and dormitory names.

I’m making it sound silly, because I am talking about imitating a credential. The conventional wisdom is that if you actually have that credential, you don’t have to advertise it, and only the imposters, the parvenues, do so. Au contraire. (I never took French, but see how I just dropped education markers into the script?) Listen to how quickly people will work those little cultural signifiers into conversations with new people. Not only subject knowledge, but even more importantly, cultural attitudes are displayed, demonstrating that you not only learned the words but the music of your desired social class.

No really, it’s kind of fun. When you encounter a new person in a social situation, listen for how quickly they tell you that they are one of the ones in the know by the attitudes they hold, or the inside jokes (usually cynical or disparaging about the outsiders) you are supposed to share.

In societies highly stratified by class, it is harder to pull off that trick. There are “tells” of accent and behavior that are not always visible to other classes. The European stories we hear about imposters often involve those who were born into down-on-its-luck nobility or its servants, not figures who acquired social knowledge from scratch as adults.

It is not accidental that The Prince and the Pauper, though set in Europe, was written by an American. We tend to believe that such imitations are a good thing on a smaller scale, and part of what keeps social mobility happening. Making great “Beverly Hillbillies” leaps is humorous, but we expect anyone might – and perhaps should – try to appear slightly above their station in wealth or intellect. (Even with the Clampetts, for all Jethro’s antics and Granny’s refusal to adapt, it was pretty clear that Jed was wiser than his new neighbors as well as his old ones. Very American story.) My great aunt, daughter of Swedish immigrants, was told to speak English as much as possible. Which version of English? she wondered, as she heard so many in Manchester. Her mother advised, One of the Straw girls is in your class, – referring to the daughter of a mill owner – talk like she does.

Those who imitate intellect, breeding, wealth, or education live in constant fear of exposure, of course. It is these who have the deepest resentments against those who succeed without imitating their betters. Their own imitation is their main claim on social status, so they don’t want the brand cheapened. Regular readers will sense that I am talking about the social cues of the Arts & Humanities Hive.


Dubbahdee said...

I do this all the time. I am very much a generalist, and I am fairly good at using a smattering of knowledge to bridge a gap with someone with whom I am speaking. Just today, a client commented about how much I knew about his business. I don't really know that much -- for instance I couldn't start immediately doing his business -- but I do know enough to TALK about it intelligently. As a salesperson, I find this very useful.
It helps that I am sincerely interested in people and their stories. I truly enjoy learning about the people I meet, and hearing about what interests and moves them. So I look for ways to build bridges with them, to connect over common experiences, common viewpoints and even common vocabulary -- or as you would say, common markers. This may be a kind of emotional intelligence as well. It's not so much about masquerading to impress as attempting to relate or connect with someone.

David Foster said...

In his excellent autobiography, Tom Watson Jr, the longtime head of IBM, wrote about his friend Al Williams, who came from a very hardscrabble background (from a mining region, no college) to become a senior financial executive. Watson, whose position at the time could best be defined by the phrase "boss's son," was impressed with the man's savoir-faire, and asked him how he, with his background, had become so smooth. The answer: "I found out people I admired bought their clothes at Brooks Brothers, so that's where I started buying mine. I noticed I couldn't talk easily at dinner parties, so I began to read the classics." Williams also made a practice of listening to classical music every evening.

It's interesting, and perhaps depressing, to speculate what a similar "self-improvement" program might look like today.