Christopher Hayes probably finished writing most of Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy (Crown) before assuming his current duties as talk show host on MSNBC. Television is not a medium that fosters the kind of argument that requires parentheses -- much less the application to American social and political problems of ideas originally developed by any dead European thinker not named Alexis de Tocqueville. (Even then, you shouldn’t overdo it.)
Hayes uses the term “elite” as a social scientist might -- as a label for the leading stratum of an organized group -- rather than in its usual capacity, as a snarl word. His criticisms of the American status quo are clear enough, and harsh enough. Given that status quo, however, the book’s measured, non-hyperventilating approach may be a problem. There’s big money in professional ranting, and the audience for cable TV punditry usually wants catharsis, not concepts.
Twilight takes as its starting point the unmistakable collapse of public confidence in most American institutions, political and otherwise, that has been going on for decades now. Even before the financial heart attack of 2008, a Gallup poll showed that trust in 12 out of 16 institutions had reached an all-time low – with the ones that lost the most being “also the most central to the nation’s functioning: banks, major companies, the press, and, perhaps most troublingly, Congress.” Hayes points out that the approval ratings for Congress were lower than those for either Paris Hilton or the prospect of the country going communist.
Other studies show that trust in the presidency surged for a year with Obama’s election, but by 2010 “had plummeted back down toward Bush levels in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.”
The least trusting cohort, the author notes, “are those who came of age in the aughts.” In 2010, the Harvard Institute of Politics surveyed 3000 people between the ages of 18 and 29 “about whether they thought various institutions did the right thing all of the time, most of the time, some of the time, or never. Of the military, the Supreme Court, the President, the United Nations, the federal government, Congress, traditional media, cable news, and Wall Street executives, only one – the U.S. military – was believed to do the right thing all or most of the time by a majority of respondents.”
As striking as the decline of public confidence in major institutions is the collapse (or at least severe dysfunction) of institutions themselves. We have the examples of Enron, Lehmann Brothers, public schools, and the athletics program at Penn State, as well as… actually, that’s enough for now. To extend the list just seems morbid.
So a lack of confidence in authority figures and leading institutions is not groundless. But it can be generalized (and pandered to) in irrational ways. “From 1970 to 2000” notes Hayes, “the number of annual reported whooping cough cases in the United States hovered at around 5,000 a year. In 2010, it spiked to 27,500 cases.” The change reflected the rise of a movement premised on the idea that vaccinations cause autism, even if those know-it-all scientists say otherwise.
Here, again, examples could be multiplied. Every time it snows, for example, the same old sarcastic remarks about global warming get jotted out. Whether or not ignorance is bliss, it sure does know self-defense.
“When our most central institutions are no longer trusted,” Hayes writes, “we each take refuge in smaller, balkanized epistemic encampments, aided by the unprecedented information technology at our disposal…. And this is happening at just the moment when we face the threat of catastrophic climate change, what is likely to be the largest governing challenge that human beings have ever faced in the history of life on this planet.”
So, it’s bad. The word “twilight” in Hayes’s title is Götterdämmerung-y for good reason, although the book itself is much less gloomy than it certainly could be. From time to time, many of us, I assume, try to extrapolate from current trends to how things might develop over the next 10 or 20 years -- only to have our brains freeze up and shut down, probably to avoid picturing it too vividly.
Instead of futurology, Hayes digs into what he calls “the crisis of authority” with ideas borrowed from Robert Michels and Vilfredo Pareto – two of the three classic sociological theorists of elitism (the third being Gaetano Mosca). In this context, “elitism” refers, not to a set of attitudes or behaviors usually judged as more or less obnoxious, but to the general principle that any given society has a layer of people with disproportionate power over others. The thought that there will always be such a layer may be exceptionally disagreeable, although Pareto took it as more or less given.
For Michels, it came as an unwelcome realization that “a gulf which divides the leaders from the masses” emerges in even the most democratic of organizations, because they end up with knowledge and the tools giving them advantages over the rank-and-file. He called it “the Iron Law of Oligarchy.” The best-case scenario involves keeping that governing layer as accountable as possible.
The distinguishing feature of the contemporary American social pyramid, in Hayes’s account, is that efforts to check the power of earlier elites (insert cartoon of Ivy League WASPs making deals at the country club here) have boomeranged. The meritocratic principle is that knowledge and skill, rather than inherited advantage, should determine which personnel should be in positions of authority.
It sounds like a reasonable accommodation with the Iron Law of Oligarchy -- as anti-elitist an arrangement as possible, given the complexity of 21st-century problems. But what it’s actually created is a set of “interlocking institutions that purport to select the brightest, most industrious, and most ambitious members of the society and cultivate them into leaders” who have “a disposition to trust [their] fellow meritocrats and to listen to those who occupy the inner circle of winners.”
Since career mobility is one of the perks of meritocratic life, the camaraderie has a dark side, exemplified by a bit of in-house lingo from the hedge-fund world: IBGYBG, which stands for “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.” And we’ve seen how that works out. It is the nature of this elite, Hayes writes, "that it can't help but produce failure" because "it is too socially distant to properly manage the institutions with which it has been entrusted."
There's much else in Twilight of the Elites that I've scanted here in the interest of finishing this column, but one final point seems important to make: The book's title is a nod to Christopher Lasch's posthumous collection of essays The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1994), while Lasch's title in turn alluded to that of Jos Oretega y Gassett's classic The Revolt of the Masses (1930). One way to look at it is that all three reflect a set of ongoing, unsolved problems about authority and legitimacy -- always crisis, never a resolution. And here a cynical voice chimes in to say, "So why even bother thinking about it? Even if things do get worse, IBGYBG. Lol." I don't know whether the Devil exists or not, but if he did, that's what he'd sound like.
I owe a huge debt to university presses. They published my books -- knowing they would make no money on them. That selfless act won me tenure at an excellent university.
My debt does not end there. I run a high-minded enterprise that broadcasts interviews with academic authors of new academic titles. The university presses send my little shop scads of free books. That selfless act wins us thousands of listeners. Nor does my debt end there. Being the overeducated type, I really like the books they publish. But I don’t buy them because I don’t need to: the university presses sell them to libraries that then make them available for free to me and everyone like me. That (admittedly only partially) selfless act wins me hours of intellectual enjoyment.
There is one final debt I owe university presses, and it is the most important. I think that the citizens of a liberal democracy should be informed, and that the people doing the informing should themselves be informed. With a very few exceptions, the bottom-line-obsessed executives who run big media companies don’t believe either of these things. There is no other way to explain what passes for "analysis" on major network and cable TV channels. The equally profit-driven executives at big trade publishers may believe the former, but they have little interest in the latter — again, with a very few exceptions. Why else would they publish bad book after bad book with the ridiculous title formula "The Next Big Thing: How [Insert Simplistic Idea Here] Changes Everything”?
The apparently altruistic editors of university presses, however, care both about educating the public and about the expertise of the people doing the educating. They take the ideas of really smart, incredibly knowledgeable researchers and, via books, make those ideas available to everyone. They have the audacity to believe that the public not only deserves the best ideas available, but that the public can understand the best ideas available. As far as I can tell, they are the only folks in the media industry who share that belief — and I love them for it.
That's why I want to help them and, if you believe as I do, you should too. For, though you may not know it, they are in some trouble. For example, the University of Missouri Press just announced that it will be closing its doors. Let me count the problems they face, or at least three of them.
First, most university presses are not economically sustainable. It may look as if university presses publish books like any other commercial press. Just like Random House and the rest, they produce attractive, interesting books and offer them for sale on Amazon.com where you and I can buy them. The difference is that you and I don’t buy them, at least in large numbers: Only university libraries do because they are mandated to buy them as part of "collections development." The university libraries in essence subsidize the university presses. And that would be fine if — and it’s a big "if" — the university libraries had the resources to continue to buy all the $60 books the university presses can print. They don’t.
Their budgets have been broken by the ever-increasing cost of journals, especially scientific journals. The university presses cannot control this cost: the publishers of must-have scientific journals are too few and therefore too powerful to be brought to heel. They can, effectively, force the libraries to buy their journals at whatever price they deem fair. So the university presses cut costs where they can, namely, in acquisitions of books from university presses. Fewer library purchases mean less revenue, and less revenue means increasing reliance on the subsidies most university presses receive from their host universities. That would be fine if the host universities were all willing to pay the increased cost of having a press. Some doubtless are. But some aren’t; for example, the above-mentioned University of Missouri. If university presses can’t pay for themselves, and if fewer universities are willing to pay for them, then there will be fewer university presses.
Second, most university presses are not fulfilling their mission. That mission is to disseminate the research of scholars for the public good. In fairness, they do achieve this aim by making research available to academics and university students. Efficient "scholarly communication" is essential for research and teaching, and ultimately, though indirectly, it does the public lot of good. But the fact of the matter is that university press books rarely directly reach the public. It’s true that if you have a library card for a big university library you can get a university press book for "free." But the vast majority of the world’s population doesn’t have the right card. Even if you don’t have the right card you are still free to buy the book if you have a spare $60. But the vast majority of the world’s population doesn’t have a spare $60.
Hundreds of millions of average people, of course, do have $60 to spend on books. So let’s say you’re one of them. Are you going to buy a university press book? No. Why not? Many academics will tell you that their work is too complicated for common folk to understand. They don’t buy it because they can’t "get it." In some disciplines — mathematics, the hard sciences, quantitative economics — that may be true. But in most disciplines it’s not true at all. A good history book can be understood by most people. But people don’t even buy those.
Again, why not? The reason is that most people don’t have the time or inclination to read. That may sound outlandish, but it’s true. Given the choice (and they have the choice), most people would much rather listen or watch than read. Americans, for example, listen to and watch "media" of various sorts for many hour everyday. In contrast, they read for pleasure for about 15 minutes a day, and they very rarely read books. In short, the university presses have the wrong tool for the job. They are trying to reach the public through expensive books, but people do not want expensive books.
Finally, the university presses do not "get" the Internet. They have blogs and online stores, and in some cases even distribute electronic material. Some, like the University of Michigan, are a lot further up the learning curve. That’s good. Nonetheless, most presses still treat the Internet as if it were another distribution channel for expensive books, like a brick-and-mortar bookshop but better. But here’s the hard truth: the Internet has destroyed the market for expensive books and, more speculatively, university press books in general.
Let’s say you — Jane or John Q. Public — want to know a little something about Subject X. Are you going to go to the library to get a book? No. Too much hassle. Are you going to order a university press book from Amazon.com? No. Too expensive and, besides, reading books takes too much time. What do you do? You go to Wikipedia, where you’ll find much of the content of university press books digested into short, convenient, and totally free articles.
But let’s say you want to know more about Subject X. Again, you aren’t going to schlep to the library or fork over $60 for a book you don’t have time to read. Not when the Internet gives you other options. And it does. You could listen to a free podcast interview with the author of a book about Subject X, or you could watch a free video of a course about Subject X taught at a big university. Let’s say, however, that you want to read a book about Subject X. The library and the university press are still both options, but even now you aren’t ready to get out of your chair or plunk down $60.
Not when you can go to any number of sites (Google Books being the biggest) that offer free access to books in multiple electronic formats. Let’s say, finally, that you want a particular university press book about Subject X. Now the library and Amazon.com become more attractive options. They are not, however, the only ports of call. A quick search uncovers an electronic version of the book on file-sharing site. It’s pirated, but it’s also convenient and free. You download it. Again, the university presses have the wrong tool for the job. People have never wanted university press books; now, with the Internet, they don’t need them and, if they do, they don’t always have to buy them.
So what should university presses do to get out of this mess? The obvious answer is to stop printing books, start distributing them electronically, and pass the savings on to both libraries and consumers. This would help a lot, particularly if the university presses could find away to give their books away on the Internet. This may sound ridiculous, but it’s not.
What would it cost an open-access university press to produce an academic book? It could get the “content” for free: academics are quite happy to give their manuscripts to university presses because publication wins them tenure, promotion, and esteem. It could have manuscripts vetted for free: academics are willing to evaluate manuscripts because they consider it a part of professional service. It could have manuscripts edited and formatted for very little: increasingly, university presses outsource these technical tasks resulting in significant savings. It could distribute books at very low cost: since there is no printing (though print-on-demand could be offered), all the open-access university press needs to do is mount the books on a server. Since the books are not sold, there are no marketing costs.
What’s left? The big expense is editors. Even an open-access university press would need skilled people to find good manuscripts, work with their authors, and shepherd their books through publication. In terms of salary, benefits, and overhead, editors cost roughly the same amount as faculty members, say $100,000 annually on average. A press with five editors, therefore, would cost something in the range of $500,000 each year.
That’s a fraction of the annual budget of an existing five-editor university press. Still, half a million dollars is a lot of money. Since the books would produce no revenue (remember, the open-access university press gives them away), this expense would have to be absorbed by the sponsoring university. Where would it get the money? Hypothetically, out of the library budget. If university presses give away their books, university libraries won’t have to buy them; if the university libraries don’t have to buy them, then they can shunt the money saved to the university presses.
The real challenge facing the open-access model of the university press is getting the ball rolling. If every university press gave away its books, then every university — not to mention the public — would benefit. But someone has to go first, and that someone is going to incur considerable costs not borne by later participants and free riders. After all, the first university press to give away its books will receive nothing in return until the second university press begins to give away its books.
This is a knotty problem, though a number of possible solutions present themselves. The first option is for an altruistic university to begin the process by launching an open access press and absorbing the costs thereof. Such a move might attract similarly altruistic participants. Then again, it might not. A second option is for a consortium of university presses to band together and agree to give their books to one another for free. If this arrangement resulted in considerable savings, it would likely attract other participants.
Finally, a third option is for a foundation to subsidize the transition from closed to open access. The foundation could make grants available to “first mover” universities to offset their expenses until enough institutions have signed on to make the open-access system cost effective for everyone. These options are not mutually exclusive. Some universities have the resources to act as altruists. Others are already in formal groups that might serve as a basis for an open-access consortium. And still others have longstanding relationships with foundations that might support a move to open-access.
As promising as the open-access model appears, it does not go far enough in fixing the broken university press. The reason is simple: even under the open-access model, the university presses are still envisioned primarily as producers of books. This would be fine if everyone loved long, serious books. But almost no one does, the principle exception being academics. Therefore, if university presses want to reach the public, they must begin to think of themselves as the purveyors of ideas rather than the publishers of books. Of course the university presses should still produce books, for there may be no better way for scholars to communicate with one another over vast stretches of space and time. They must, however, also use nontraditional means to "get the word out" about authors and their work, means that appeal to the public.
Some of these new forms will be textual. For example, university presses could post short summaries of their books, aggregate reviews of them, invite experts to begin online discussions of them, cite them on appropriate Wikipedia pages, and so on. Most of the new means of dissemination will, however, inevitably be audiovisual. We know that people would rather listen and watch than read. Heretofore, university presses have had no economical way to take advantage of this predilection. A/V production and distribution were prohibitively expensive. No more. Today good audio and video can be produced and distributed at incredibly low cost and with very little training. Thanks to new media, university presses now have a host of novel ways to "get the word out" about authors and their research. These include podcast interviews with authors, videos based on books or parts of books, and online chats in which authors speak to audiences about their work (a sort of Internet version of the "reading").
What I’m suggesting is that university presses need to do more than publish titles — they also need to help make their authors public intellectuals. Traditionally, public intellectuals have been few and they have enjoyed very large — often national — audiences. The reason for this had little to do with people’s interests and everything to do with the practicalities of the broadcast media. Every "channel" in the broadcast media was (and remains) very expensive.
It costs a fortune to run The New York Times, National Public Radio, and CNN. By necessity, the high costs of broadcast media limited the number of "channels" available and, therefore, the number of public intellectuals who could be featured on them. Broadcast media could only connect huge public intellectuals to huge publics. They could not connect interest-specific public intellectuals to their interest-specific publics.
The Internet, however, can make these connections because it permits economical, finely calibrated "narrowcasting," that is, the transmission of specific information to specific interest groups. Of course print and -- to a much lesser extent -- radio and television also allowed some narrowcasting. Academic journals and industry newsletters are perhaps the best examples. But the scale of narrowcasting on the Internet is orders of magnitude greater than anything known before. Take the blogosphere for example. Here tens of thousands of interest-specific public intellectuals talk to tens of thousands of interest-specific publics concerning every imaginable interest. If you want to know about it — beer brewing, Italian shoes, organic chemistry — you can probably find someone with considerable expertise blogging about it. That’s truly remarkable.
The university presses are well-positioned to take advantage of Internet narrowcasting precisely because they essentially manage a group of experts — authors with books — who are very motivated to reach their publics. Every author wants an audience, even academic authors. The university presses have traditionally helped their authors find their audiences by publishing and promoting books. It’s time to admit that they largely failed, not for any lack of trying, but because the book was the wrong tool. Blogs, podcasts, videos, and types of “programming” not yet conceived or invented offer a much better method of reaching the myriad of communities of interest. If university presses use these methods, everyone wins: the author gets an audience, the audience gets a public intellectual, and the university press fulfills its public-spirited mission.
So, to return to our initial question -- “What should university presses do?” -- my answer is this: spread good ideas by any means available.
Marshall Poe is an associate professor of history at the University of Iowa and editor-in-chief of the New Books Network.
Some of the material on university press budgets was inspired by Bryn Geffert’s lecture "Open Access and the Future of Scholarly Publishing,” at Smith College on April 9, 2012.
The World Bank has barred business transactions with two African subsidiaries of Oxford University Press, saying that these units engaged in corruption by providing inappropriate payments to government officials in Kenya and Tanzania, the BBC reported. Oxford University Press said that it is disciplining the employees involved.
Meetings of the University of Missouri Board of Curators -- though in part open to the public -- typically have no members of the public in the audience. At this week's meeting, however, about 30 backers of the University of Missouri Press, which the university is eliminating, attended, hoping for a chance to speak. The Columbia Daily Tribune reported that the board gave them no chance to do so. At the end of the public agenda of the meeting, a time other boards take public comment, some board members went into a closed-door meetings while others went to a press conference on athletics, the newspaper reported.
Zygmunt Bauman makes a passing reference to his “uncannily long life” in On Education: Conversations with Riccardo Mazzeo (Polity). I found it surprising to determine that he is, in fact, not quite five months shy of his 87th birthday. With all due respect to someone old enough to have experienced the Hitler-Stalin pact as a personal problem (his Polish-Jewish family had to emigrate to the Soviet Union), current demographic trends are making longevity seem astounding only when your age runs to three digits.
Such judgments are always relative, of course. What the man is, without a doubt, is freakishly prolific. By the time the University of Leeds made him professor emeritus of sociology in 1990, Bauman had published some 25 books. At least two of them, Legislators and Interpreters: On Modernity, Post-Modernity, Intellectuals (1987) and Modernity and the Holocaust (1989), qualify as masterpieces. (Both were published by Cornell University Press.) Since retiring Bauman has published another 40 books, more or less. At this point, the author himself has probably lost count.
Bauman’s last few books have been assemblages of commentary on a variety of topics. On Education certainly belongs to that cycle. It consists of 20 exchanges with Riccardo Mazzeo, an editor at the Italian publishing house Edizioni Erickson, conducted by e-mail from June to September 2011. Mazzeo poses a question or makes an observation, sometimes on education and sometimes not. Bauman replies at length, and usually at a tangent. Its title notwithstanding, the book is neither focused on education nor, really, all that conversational. What it resembles more than anything else is the set of essays and notes gathered last year under the Magritte-ish title This is Not a Diary (Polity, 2011).
For the past dozen years, Bauman has been writing about what he calls the “liquid modernity” of contemporary industrialized and digitalized societies: the structure-in-flux emerging from a confluence of technological innovation, consumerism, and constantly changing demands on the adaptability of the labor force. His thinking about the unstoppable cultural torrent of liquid modernity resembles a combination of Daniel Bell’s sociological work on The Coming Post-Industrial Society (1973) and The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976) with Jean-Francois Lyotard’s reflections on The Postmodern Condition (1979), as updated via Thomas Friedman’s globalization punditry in The Lexus and the Olive Tree (1999).
Not that Bauman is a mash-up theorist. I cite these authors only by way of triangulation, rather than as influences. His work is grounded, rather, in the founding concern of sociology in the 19th century: the effort to understand the world taking shape under the impact of industrialization. The pace of change was much quicker than was imaginable in pre-industrial times, and the span of transformations was much wider. The classic period of sociology (the days of Marx, Durkheim, and Weber) analyzed how modernity differed from and disrupted -- but sometimes also absorbed and refashioned -- the institutions and traditions established by earlier ways of life.
Along the way, it came to seem as if the shifts and upheavals of industrial society could be understood and even (this was the imagination of the technocrat and the ideologue kicking in) brought under control. And if you couldn’t engineer change, at least it was reasonable to assume you could plan for it. If the population of a city is likely to grow at a certain rate, for example, it would be feasible to project whether more schools need to be built over the next decade -- and if so, where. The area’s chief industry might boom or bust, in which case your population projections would have led you astray. Even so, the ethos of “solid modernity” was confident enough to regard contingency as a risk, but one with a margin of error you could try to anticipate.
Liquid modernity is more volatile than its predecessor, characterized by changes that don’t so much interact as cascade. Planning for the city’s educational needs would be less confident, the risks more complex and cumulative. Suppose, in the best of all worlds, economic good times come to the city, bringing an influx of population with it. But the very currents that brought them in might well send them back out again, and so the new residents may not feel enough connection to the place to regard property taxes as anything but an infringement of their human rights. Projecting public expenditures, if not impossible, then becomes something of a shot in the dark.
The curriculum was once stable enough for school systems to use the same textbooks for years on end. But no longer. Now it’s necessary to invest in educational hardware and software, in full knowledge of obsolescence as a problem. That could prove a more contentious issue than overcrowding. And so on.
Bauman doesn't use the school-board analogy I've made here, but it seems as good a way as any to show the implications of his thinking about education. The lesson of “the liquid modern world,” he writes, “is that nothing in that world is bound to last, let alone forever. Objects recommended today as useful and indispensable tend to ‘become history’ well before they have had time to settle down and turn into a need or habit…. Everything is born with the brand of imminent death and emerges from the production line with a ‘use-by date’ printed or presumed. The construction of new buildings does not start unless their duration is fixed or it is made easy to terminate them on demand…. A spectre hovers over the denizens of the liquid modern world and all their labours and creations: the spectre of superfluity.”
The liquification, if that’s how to put it, affects not just infrastructure but the very goals of education. Bauman writes that “the unbounded expansion of every and any form of higher education” in recent decades was driven by the value of certification in pursuing “plum jobs, prosperity, and glory,” with the “volume of rewards steadily arising to match the steadily expanding ranks of degree holders.”
A chance at upward mobility will not be a motivation again anytime soon. Mazzeo refers to the growing rank of what are called, in Britain, neets: young people “not in education, employment, or training.” At the same time, liquid modernity eats away at the long-established precondition of education itself: the expectation that, by acquiring certain fixed skills and established forms of knowledge, the student is receiving something of durable value. But durability is not a value in liquid modernity.
Almost everything Bauman says about education will be only too familiar to the sort of reader likely to pick it up in the first place. But his knack for placing things in context and accounting for that uneasy feeling you get from this or that current development makes it stimulating.
Bauman is prone to leaping from trend to totality in a single bound, and he doesn’t always quite make it. “Few if any commitments last long enough to reach the point of no return,” he writes, “and it is only by accident that decisions, all deemed to be binding only ‘for the time being,’ stay in force.” This is an example of Bauman the sage turning into Bauman the scold, of overgeneralization raised to the power of crankiness.
True, the fluids of digital hyper-ephemerality were saturating human relationships even before Mark Zuckerberg came on the scene. But the word “friend” does still have meaning, in some offline contexts anyway. To read that you are able to keep commitments or to follow through on decisions “only by accident” is considerably more insulting than there is any reason to suppose Bauman intends.