Jeremy Brunger thought that university would be an equalizer. Instead, he found a mirror of greater society.
My alma mater tended to attract the best minds of the lower class and the mediocre minds of the middle class, to say nothing of the minds from wealth who flaunted what their parents had accomplished in the realm of secular affairs. It was a regular occurence to find students on campus discoursing on where they were from, which political party they supported, whether they received financial aid, and who they planned to marry. Depending on one’s major, you might have received a nod of admiration or a sneer of pity—even the wide-eyed and unemployable English majors, like myself, had people to look down on. The social hierarchy of civil society found a home, despite itself, even in the confines of the academic grove. Of course, anyone living in a dormitory is basically one bad habit away from homelessness, the vast majority of students received financial aid even if they pretended otherwise, and the real bourgeoisie of Tennessee didn’t send their children to the state flagship in the first place. But the pep and step of pride was there nevertheless.
I remember one particular instance of the uppity which still, as I recall it, bothers me to this day. It happened about two years ago when I was a pesky undergraduate who thought quoting Karl Marx in class and hanging out with the professoriat were the best things ever. I was loitering outside of the university’s English studies building, probably reading a communist tract from 100 years ago, when I ventured upon two of my fellow students discussing the city of Nashville. As it happens, Nashville is my hometown, and I politely entered into their conversation. Within moments I was being interrogated: which part was I from, which high school did I attend, what was my major? Upon my answering of all three queries I was met with looks of vile distaste. The drawling student with the grizzly beard (useful for concealing his cigarette butts, no doubt) was the worst: as soon as I mentioned I had attended a high school which many of the world’s immigrant war-refugees attended, he had thought me trash. “You’re from South Nashville?” The other student was a Californian whose chief interests were music and marijuana. That a Californian aesthete would attend a public university in Dixie is, perhaps, a sign in itself of self-hatred and desperate projection.
I was puzzled by this disdain, since I had thought of my 200 year old university as a plane of leveling—”education is the great equalizer”—and that most of the students attending my alma mater were about as good as myself in the grand scheme of things. Most of us, I thought, originated in what the writer HL Mencken had called the “routine hatching in low life” and sought in education the veritable bootstraps by which to pull ourselves up, or at least some formal gratification before our inevitable plunge into wage-slavery. If we were really from the upper echelons, we would have skipped college altogether and worked for our millionaire parents, surely? Social mobility was one of the reasons why American colleges existed in the first place—there was I, the son of a hard-working waitress and a German immigrant addicted to vice, admittedly for that reason—yet my psychonautical peers, who were doing no better to loiter outside that decaying little building, thought me fit for the asylum. Who were they and by what right? They were my peers, like it or not, doing the same thing I was doing and for the same essential reason: to escape the dull repetition of home-life and embark on a future with a little less poverty than was the family custom.
This anecdote has a point, and at that, a barb. The appearance of class does not equal the attainment of class. Only aristocrats are worthy to behave as my interlocutors did, and they have all by now rotted in their graves for centuries, most of them having died from veneral disease, gunshot wounds, and alcoholism. What provoked their distaste was not my routine hatching in low life, but their own. In talking to me they were reminded of their own dime-a-dozen origins: one provincial, the other precarious. They had thought Nashville was some cultural high-mark, and in talking to me, they were injured by the disillusioning revelation that most of metropolitan Nashville is a rank cesspool, its music scene an insult to the musical ear, its downtown a gray sprawl and intolerable tourist-trap, its culture imitative and pared down, and its people everyday—that is, struggling. What goeth before the fall?
And that is the character flaw which will ensure that duo will never successfully climb the social ladder. For the movers and shakers of society, The Establishment, can smell a clown a mile away: they can detect intruders and pretenders, to be Tennessean for a moment, as deftly as a red hound can fetch a squirrel. The structure of class society is so designed as to recognize who is and who is not “a man apart;” whatever helps the social climber sleep better at night, after his day of magnificent posturing, is probably a scam. Eunuchs and court jesters need not apply, though they may dream. Conspicuous hubris is not even as respectable as pride, for the salt of the earth tends to be the proudest, and rightly so; grovelers and pretenders possess the one trait because they can’t possess the other. Incidentally, the best, most honorable people I ever knew in Nashville were the war-refugees whom the Man of Grizzly Beard thought so tainted, and the single best, most honorable person I knew was a native of Louisiana who graced Appalachia only because Hurricane Katrina had brought his family to the Southeast.
In short, the world does not need more posers. It needs people who understand their situation in the world, and who by so doing, reform the world. We Americans are so obsessed with “being somebody” that we are willing to sacrifice “being ourselves” toward that instrumental end. But donning a character that is not authentically your own is the sign and symptom of adolescence, that insecure phase of human life which its victims find universally miserable. Down that path lies not fulfillment but despair. (That I try to write, presently, with a formal and highfalutin tone, is only a sign that someone spent $80,000 on my higher education. I am, let’s say, willing to wield it for the greater good).
We have a national narrative of rags-to-riches because so many of us start out in rags and, more perversely, respect overmuch the opinions of those who wind up in riches. We still believe in the 19th century theory of heroes, not the 20th century theory of citizens. But it ill behooves a man not to know himself, or to pretend in his narcissism that he is better than his peers when he isn’t and knows he isn’t. My disdainful interlocutors had not yet learned that lesson, which meant they were not men, but boys. The world has long had its surplus of lies and poses; it has positively swarmed with liars and posers. What it needs is the realism of the noble poor, not the laughable oneupsmanship of the social climber whose artless strutting would not and could not fool even a township politician.
Photo: Keith Gallagher/Flickr
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