Kevin Carey has written a book called The End of College -- by which he means the end of college as we know it… and he feels fine. At least we assume he does, because The End of College is a celebration, not a lament. The traditional college education is dying, he says. As it should, he adds. No more buildings, no more exclusively face-to-face classes, no more libraries, no more graduation ceremonies. Everything will fall by the wayside, Carey predicts. The good news, he posits, is that it will all be replaced by what he calls the University of Everywhere.
Carey's book comes at a time of rising college costs, swelling student debt and cuts to university courses, faculty and majors. From students to parents to taxpayers, everyone is alarmed about higher education’s most pressing challenges. As an education technology writer and scholar of higher education policy, we are, too. Unfortunately, many people will find false hope in TheEnd of College and its fantastical promises of the University of Everywhere.
“The University of Everywhere is where students of the future will go to college,” Carey writes. “The University of Everywhere will span the earth. The students will come from towns, cities and countries in all cultures and societies, members of a growing global middle class who will transform the experience of higher education.”
How will such a thing be possible? The Internet, of course: the University of Everywhere, says Carey, will be digital, personalized, networked, virtual, intellectually rigorous, hybrid, cheap if not free and lifelong.
Parents of future undergraduates will be understandably relieved to know that someone finally has figured it out. To know they will not need to mortgage their home or take that second job. To know that technology is coming to save them. Like Netflix or Amazon, like Uber or Fitbit, the University of Everywhere will soon emerge from the cloud, ready to disrupt the status quo with its flexible, accessible tools. Or so we're told.
The University of Everywhere is the response, led by venture capitalists and ed-tech entrepreneurs, to “ancient institutions in their last days of decadence,” Carey writes. And we are to believe that an end will come soon for the oppressive regime created by colleges and universities, as he personally has numbered the days until they either “adapt” or become extinct.
In the book and with his platform with the New York Times's Upshot blog and in various essays on the subject written from a perch at New America, Carey professes to possess a deep understanding of higher education. He genuinely believes his plan for online degrees will disrupt recalcitrant institutions, unleash individual ingenuity and power the jobs of the 21st century. He is “angry” about the “chronic neglect of undergraduate education” that he assures us he has witnessed in personal meetings and read about in a single volume with hotlycontested findings, and he isn’t going to take it anymore. This book is his response.
One of Carey’s strongest objections is to the way in which higher education confers enormous benefits on the privileged and powerful (an issue that we agree is a major problem and have each written abouttime and again). And so, in this age of extreme inequality, Carey declares that the University of Everywhere will serve to flatten and erase hierarchies of social status and socioeconomic privilege. The future of education in his vision will be, as edX C.E.O. Anant Agarwal has also pronounced, “borderless, gender-blind, race-blind, class-blind and bank account-blind.” It will be, in other words, the ultimate meritocracy.
This vision of the University of Everywhere is endowed with such grandeur that it can leave one breathless; it is so hopeful about the future that any doubt or critique may seem unkind, even inappropriate. Why ask questions about how or why or who or what? Carey and his University of Everywhere want you simply to believe. And if you do have questions, you must be a defender of the status quo, an insufficiently “careful reader,” or, worse yet, a professor in a traditional institution.
Indeed objections seem to offend Carey, as they would any true believer. He promotes the online and hybrid future of higher education and extols the innovations that have spun out of Stanford’s artificial intelligence lab -- startups like Coursera and Udacity -- with a fanatical sustained passion that sets aside the far more conflicted reality of these initiatives. While the University of Everywhere purports to be a meritocracy that will save us all from social inequities, it's worth noting that it is being built and promoted by three of the most elite of America’s universities: Harvard, Stanford and M.I.T.
These universities are at the center of the recent push for massive open online courses (better known as MOOCs), which are the cornerstone of Carey’s University of Everywhere. In his telling of their history, the Golden Three and their new MOOC initiatives can do no wrong.
Except they have already done much wrong. Take the experience of San Jose State University with MOOC-like instruction provided by Udacity. Beginning in early 2013, this experimental effort at one of the most racially diverse universities in the country was promised to “end college as we know it.” Yet the data show that the pilot was an unmitigated disaster. The students in the Udacity-run classes -- remedial algebra, college algebra and statistics -- did far worse than students in traditional, face-to-face classes. Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun blamed the students, whom he said “were students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives… [For them] this medium is not a good fit."
Here is Thrun in a Silicon Valley tech blog: “If you’re a student who can’t afford the service layer, you can take the MOOC on demand at your own pace. If you’re affluent, we can do a much better job with you, we can make magic happen.” Incredibly, as Tressie McMillan Cottom has noted, the University of Everywhere is also magically postracial. No wonder, since, as the data from MOOCs around the country clearly show, this university is for the highly educated, not the underserved.
Given the sheer vehemence of his argument and a professed lack of responsibility to warn off “careless misinterpretation,” perhaps it is unsurprising that Carey omits the evidence about the real and disturbing flaws of online and even hybrid education. To support his contentions that information technology can lift all boats, he turns to William Bowen, author of a study using a randomized experiment to assess the effects of online versus face-to-face instruction. He reports that Bowen found no differences when it came to the outcomes he measured: course completion rates, scores on final exam questions and a standardized test.
“Bowen had previously been skeptical of the idea that technology could fundamentally change higher learning. Based on his new research, he wrote, 'I am today a convert. I have come to believe that now is the time.'” Rather than question the wisdom of sudden conversions based on single studies, Carey wonders, why didn’t colleges immediately hop on board and begin embracing what he calls “a golden opportunity to charge students less money without sacrificing the quality of instruction”?
The answer, of course, lies in empirical research and respect for the scientific process, both of which Carey has little time for. Bowen’s 2012 study was then and remains today one of only a tiny number of such studies producing these sorts of results. Despite efforts, including those of Ithaka S&R, where Bowen works, to suggest that instructional format does not affect outcomes, there are just four rigorous yet also stylized and idiosyncratic studies that even somewhat support the conclusions that Carey promotes. And the most robust of them, a study of 700 students at the City University of New York, identifies negative impacts for lower-achieving students placed into online-only courses.
Moreover, none of the studies examine the outcomes commonly used to assess the utility of educational interventions -- for example, year-to-year retention and graduation rates. A thoughtful reader of the research might ask: What responsible educator, and indeed, what responsible educational policy expert, would recommend wholesale changes in higher education based on such a paltry body of knowledge? When a long and detailed body of scientific evidence (the most recent example is the evaluation of ASAP at CUNY) details the intensive attention required to bring first-generation and low-income students from college entry to graduation, why run in the opposite direction, offering less personal contact and coaching?
Carey's book invokes education research only when it serves his narrative. Otherwise, education research -- indeed all manner of research -- is framed as one of the many flaws that weigh down certain elements of our current higher education system.
Carey does not ask questions of experts who are unlikely to agree with what he is arguing, including noted economist David Figlio. “When I look at the weight of the evidence, it looks like online education might come at some sacrifice to student learning,” said Figlio in a recent article. “Thoughtful administrators will need to weigh those sacrifices against the cost savings. You can see a situation where schools for the haves will continue with face-to-face instruction, perhaps enhancing it with technology. And the have-nots will get this mass online instruction. That can be potentially problematic from an equity perspective.” Of course, Figlio works at one of those “traditional” institutions that Carey abhors and thus he can be ignored.
Of course, credentials like those held by Figlio will not matter in the future, thanks to the University of Everywhere. The prestige associated with certain institutions will be flattened. Opportunity, access, biases -- all swept away by the Internet.
The University of Everywhere, in Carey’s telling of it, will be free of racists, trolls, harassers or stalkers. Despite all empirical evidence that the single greatest change in higher education over the last 50 years is a remarkably diverse and diversifying student population, Carey’s vision for U.S. higher education also has no race, class or gender. These are unexplored and unmentioned in his book. In his version of the future, the Internet, site of the University of Everywhere, is open equally and safely to everyone. Who cares that M.I.T. emeritus professor Walter Lewin, once the star of YouTube for his videos demonstrating various physics experiments and featured by Carey in The End of College,has been accused of sexually harassing female students in his MOOC? M.I.T. has scrubbed much of Lewin's course materials from the Web. But the University of Everywhere remains unscathed.
The University of Everywhere that Carey promotes cares not for intellectual property, neither the professors’ nor the students’. He writes, “We can already, today, replicate much of what colleges are charging a great deal of money for and distribute that information electronically at almost no marginal cost.” Students can hand over their content and data to technology companies to mine, with the promise of more efficient personalized learning. By transferring their data to technology companies and not to universities, “people will control their personal educational identities instead of leaving that crucial information in the hands of organizations acting from selfish interests,” he writes. Universities, not the tech sector, are the ones with selfish interests here, according to Carey. Similarly, faculty will manage their classrooms, including their syllabuses, lectures, lessons and course design via those same companies.
As for research, it will happen elsewhere, beyond the University of Everywhere, as Carey argues that existing universities have erred by trying to fulfill a mission of both research and teaching. The University of Everywhere is “unbundled.” That is because the "roaming autodidacts" of the University of Everywhere do not need these services. The learners of the University of Everywhere need their MacBooks and Wi-Fi, and the world is theirs. As such, they don't look much like today's students in community colleges. Nor will their experiences look like the experiences of undergraduates working with faculty in university laboratories today -- experiences that studies show are demonstrably effective at creating cadres of scientists from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. Without an explicit attention to diversity, the University of Everywhere will ignore it -- much like Silicon Valley has already proven to do with the demographics of its employees and investment portfolio and much like Carey's history of the development of higher education does as well.
Echoing Silicon Valley, the University of Everywhere envisions a meritocratic labor market, just waiting to be filled by those with badges and certificates, though not necessarily by those with bachelor’s degrees. The person with the right badges and MOOC certificates will get the job and the promotions, and there will be no discrimination based on prestigious universities; indeed there will also be no discrimination based on race or gender or sexual identity. These are the proclamations and promises made over and over in the book despite their direct contradiction to rigorous studies of how employers treat job candidates with nontraditional credentials from new or no-name institutions.
Such facts matter little as Carey sweeps his readers through the book into this magical world and takes them into a new age of higher education in a text that makes no mention, offers no analysis of race or gender or sexual identity. These facets of today’s life simply do not exist in his dream. This is a story told by a white man about other white men -- indeed, all other voices, with the exception of Daphne Koller's, are mute. [Editor's Note: Subsequent to publication of this essay, commenters have noted other voices quoted in Carey's book from people who are not white men.] The story is set entirely in an America that isn’t part of global communities. Despite the nod to "Everywhere," there are apparently no universities in the rest of the world that might respond to the technological imperialism of MOOCs or to the cultural imperialism of standardized general education classes.
As should be clear by now, this entertaining narrative about higher education is an inch deep in shallow waters. It zooms past debates of history with barely a note of documentation for its claims (indeed a total of 21 endnotes are provided for 5 entire chapters of text, with some supporting statistics about "achievements," such as those about the new "elite" online college Minerva, provided by unverifiable sources including the founder of the school himself). Research findings that fit the storyline are termed “shocking” and “mind-boggling,” while those that contradict the tale are simply left out.
Certainly, Carey is not alone in constructing such accounts. There is a plethora of higher education prescriptions funded by respectable think tanks and nonprofit organizations. They are issued nearly weekly, many hopping onto the excitement and hype (and hefty venture capital funding) for MOOCs and other education technology efforts. Carey references very few of these even when his arguments are clearly influenced by them (think of the formative DIY U by Anya Kamenetz and the forward-thinking prescriptions offered by Andrew Kelly and Rick Hess). Many in this space value “outsider” takes on higher education for their supposed unbiased clarity. They also seem to value the gravitas of wealthy technologists and data scientists who pose as being too serious for identity politics or culture wars.
In this political economy, the experts on education are rarely experts in education, and that is just the way an increasing number of powerful people seem to like it. Books like these and the speeches and essays accompanying them eat up the landscape of popular discourse. With the microphone, these voices have the gravitas of maleness and whiteness and wealth. They are so loud they must be expert. They look like, walk like and talk like leaders.
And the story that they tell is quite comforting for many who look at the rising cost of college and the fragile economy and hope that their children will be able to follow the right path toward a more secure future. As such the University of Everywhere is a consumer fantasy of the future of higher education, a fantasy that purports to be about freedom for learners, about more personalized learning, but that is traced through the history, at least in Carey’s book, of programmed instruction. Machines will teach. Artificial intelligence will replace teachers and tutors.
Swept away by the mystical magic of technology, Carey sees a world of possibility. That is the moral and the lesson of The End of College, his prescription far more than his analysis. Carey promises, as the title of the opening chapter suggests, a new "secret of life." It's a secret that, once unleashed and fulfilled, will disrupt institutions -- much like Uber, which Carey describes with fascination and glee when he visits Silicon Valley. Designed to replace the taxi service -- like higher education, a service that's deemed outmoded -- all you need to summon an Uber is a mobile app. Like the future of higher education that Carey predicts, Uber is always on, always on demand. It is also unregulated, well funded by venture capitalists, collecting personal data not simply for efficiency and algorithms but for dubious purposes, and based on a precarious labor force. But we're not supposed to ask questions. No one should ask questions when the end is nigh.
Audrey Watters is a journalist specializing in education technology news and analysis. Sara Goldrick-Rab is a professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
In the early 1980s, Umberto Eco enjoyed a remarkable streak of beginner’s luck with his first novel, The Name of the Rose. An improbable international best seller, it was a pastiche of detective fiction filled with nods and winks at Eco’s own field of semiotics as well as his longstanding interest in medieval theology. Most of the intertextuality was removed when the novel was adapted for the screen in 1986, presumably to make room for Sean Connery.
But at the peak of Rose mania, many a paper was written trying to sound out Eco’s historical and theoretical echoes. (The pun was inevitable, even providential.) An essay appearing in Diacritics, the preeminent journal of literary theory at the time, even made a connection between the novel and one of Eco’s lesser-known efforts: “a handbook on dissertation-writing for the vast despised vulgus of Italian students,” namely Come si fa una tesi di laurea (1977). It was one of the very rare mentions in an English-language journal of another international best seller by Eco: the work now available as How to Write a Thesis, published by M.I.T. Press.
Roger Conover, the press’s executive editor, tells me that the handbook has been staple reading for a couple of generations of students in Europe and beyond. It was translated into 17 languages, including Russian and Chinese, before reaching English. Its closest Anglophone equivalent is probably Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff’s The Modern Researcher, originally published in 1957. But while Barzun and Graff made substantial revisions to their book across its six editions, Eco’s has remained in print essentially unchanged for almost four decades, apart from the introduction he added to the 1985 edition.
By then, Eco’s manual was being used in several countries and, he noted, by middle-school students as well as doctoral candidates. These developments did not surprise the author: “The methods necessary to conduct high-quality research, at any level of complexity, are the same all over the world.”
So why didn’t How to Write a Thesis come out in English in the aftermath of The Name of the Rose, when everything from Eco’s own thesis to his newspaper columns were being translated? I don’t know for certain, but the arrival (not to say invasion) of the personal computer on college campuses may have been a factor.
“A thesis is a typewritten manuscript,” we read at the opening of chapter one, “usually 100 to 400 pages in length, in which the student addresses a particular problem in his chosen field.” Barzun and Graff expressed skepticism about word processing in the fourth edition (1985) of The Modern Researcher, while Eco’s stubbornly un-updated handbook avoids the matter entirely. He devotes a solid 100 pages to the art and science of preparing index cards in the course of research, which is no longer the selling point it once must have seemed.
Even so, How to Write a Thesis remains valuable after all this time largely thanks to the spirit of Eco’s advice. It is witty but sober, genial but demanding -- and remarkably uncynical about the rewards of the thesis, both for the person writing it and for the enterprise of scholarship itself. Eco’s original target audience consisted of the influx into Italian universities of students “who, for example, work in the city clerk’s office in their hometown of only 10,000 inhabitants, a town where there are perhaps only newsstands that substitute for proper booksellers,” or who never learned “how to sign up for a library card, how to search for a book, or in which libraries to look.”
But remedial instruction in basic skills forms only a small part of the guidance Eco offers. Far more of the book concerns the higher cognitive operations involved in selecting and refining a topic for research -- one suitable given the time and the resources available to a student, but also challenging enough to demand sustained, intensive mental labor -- and then producing a text that is readable, cogent and even a contribution to knowledge.
Eco’s pages on the seemingly obsolete practice of taking notes on index cards prove to have more lasting value than the 21st-century reader might expect. The cards themselves are more than just a storage and retrieval mechanism for citations and quotations; the work of preparing and cross-referencing them is inseparable from that of finding and analyzing sources, primary and secondary. Notebooks are equally suited to such purposes. And I suppose many of the techniques could be adapted to screen-based devices. “At the very least,” Eco writes, “always work on homogeneous material that is easy to move and handle. This way, you will know at a glance what you have read and what remains to be read.”
Some of Eco’s advice is, if anything, even more valuable now, given the ubiquity and seeming omniscience of our digital tools. One paragraph in particular comes to mind:
“You must overcome any shyness and have a conversation with the librarian, because he can offer you reliable advice that will save you much time. You must consider that the librarian (if not overworked or neurotic) is happy when he can demonstrate two things: the quality of his memory and erudition and the richness of his library, especially if it is small. The more isolated and disregarded the library, the more the librarian is consumed with sorrow for its underestimation. A person who asks for help makes the librarian happy.”
Still true! The Association of College and Research Libraries ought to use this quotation in a poster. It also displays the wry tone that frequently makes How to Write a Thesis a lot more entertaining than its title might suggest.
Eco explicitly warns that his book is not meant for people seeking “to write a thesis in a month, in such a way as to receive a passing grade and graduate quickly.” But he does offer them a couple of possibly helpful suggestions: “(a) Invest a reasonable amount of money in having a thesis written by a second party. (b) Copy a thesis that was written a few years prior for another institution.”
He also explains that a successful plagiarist must exercise due diligence:
“It is better not to copy a book currently in print, even if it was written in a foreign language. If the professor is even minimally informed on the topic, he will be aware of the book’s existence.... Consequently, even plagiarizing a thesis requires an intelligent research effort.”
Eco’s humor never detracts from his serious intent. And anyway, even the sardonic pointers on cheating are instructive in their way. As William of Baskerville puts it in The Name of the Rose, “Learning does not consist only of knowing what we must or can do, but also of knowing what we could do and perhaps should not do.” Even when the tools on hand make it awfully easy to try.
When assessing scholarly books, pleasure is not normally a factor, any more than flavor is in judging medicines. Calling a monograph enjoyable is, after all, at best an expression of personal judgment. At worst, it’s a breach of the “professional professorial asceticism” that Pierre Bourdieu identified as definitive for Homo academicus.
But what the hell. A columnist has no other protocol to meet than deadline, so let the enthusiasm roll: Lothar Müller’s White Magic: The Age of Paper (Polity) is the most enjoyable scholarly book I’ve read in a while, despite my initial suspicion that it would be just one more example of the the rather hackneyed genre of middlebrow cultural histories with titles like Salsa: The Condiment That Changed Everything.
White Magic is, just to be clear, a serious work in the field of media studies. Müller, a professor of general and comparative literature at the Free University of Berlin, follows through on the implications of the Canadian historian Harold Innis’s work in a more cogent and coherent way than Innis’s best-known follower, Marshall McLuhan, ever did. The bibliography is broad and dense, and the text moves between economic and technological history and literary works in ways that shed light in all directions.
That said: what a great read! It is a book to warm up the brain on a day of mental fog. It’s possible to open up White Magic at random and find a piece of historical information or analysis that is interesting and suggestive in its own right, elaborated in prose that develops its points clearly, with none of the anxious tics (“unfortunately there is not space here to examine...”) that come from straining to establish authority without having the confidence to exercise it.
First published in Germany three years ago, and now published for the first time in English, White Magic continues the drawn-out effort to understand the changes in publishing, and in society at large, wrought by digital communication. Besides his academic position, Müller is editor of the features section of the Suddeutsche Zeitung, a newspaper. That’s certainly one way to experience the ongoing epochal shift of recent years up close and personally.
But White Magic isn’t a defense of print media, or even a eulogy. It challenges the perspectives embedded in the familiar grand narrative of an age of print, dawning with the invention of movable type, that has entered its twilight with the advent of the digital age. Perhaps the best way to introduce Müller’s point is to consider our presuppositions about Gutenberg’s innovation.
The familiar story is that his press made it possible to produce, at much greater speed and in far larger quantity, texts that in earlier centuries would have been copied by hand onto papyrus, parchment or vellum. From scroll to codex to bound volume, there was a continuity in the history of the book -- changes in format tending to make books more durable, with Gutenberg introducing the catalytic factor of mass production.
And very often the story then continues by recounting the intense, even convulsive impact of all that speedy production of writing in bulk: journalism, pamphleteering, the Protestant reformation, etc.
But imprinting ink on a surface with movable type required that the material it was printed on possess certain qualities (especially standard dimensions and consistent smoothness, but also resilience under pressure from metal type) and that it be available reliably and in great bulk. To put it another way, Gutenberg’s invention depended on a still earlier invention, paper, which was itself a mass-produced commodity, turned out in protofactories that represented sizable investments as well as wide distribution networks.
How paper manufacture was invented in China, perfected by the Arabs and eventually adopted throughout Europe is an exemplary piece of transnational history -- and given Inside Higher Ed’s audience, it’s worth noting the huge impact on university budgets, almost from the moment there was such a thing. “To free itself from dependence on paper dealers from Lombardy,” Müller writes, the University of Paris “successfully petitioned the king in 1354 for the right to run paper mills” of its own, operated by craftsmen “who had the status of university employees.”
That was well after Italian universities found a way around the costly reproduction of textbooks, circa 1200, by authorizing the transcription of costly parchment books as paper editions that “would be split into smaller pieces by book dealers or stationers, who would rent out the pieces to students.” Then the students would make their own copies or hire a scribe to do it for them.
Paper was a dynamic commodity. The supply created its own demands, accelerating if not creating bureaucracy and postal networks even before the printing press came on the scene. Müller’s chronicle of these developments and their cumulative impact is rich in detail but surprisingly brisk in the telling.
The significance of this history, the author explains, comes from the fact that “paper was never on its own; it always sought a symbiosis with other media.” We often talk about communication technologies in ways that stress conflict, forced obsolescence, the replacement of one medium by another.
“But media history also encompasses effects of resonance amplification and the symbiosis and feedback between media which have not become technologically integrated but instead react to and cooperate with one another as distinct, separate spheres.”
In Müller’s interpretation, paper stands as “a virtuoso of substitution... insinuating itself into existing patterns and routines” -- very much like digital communication itself, so often taken to be paper’s antithesis.
The translator, Jessica Spengler, has made the unusual choice to leave the Teutonic sprawl of Müller’s paragraphs intact, rather than breaking them up into pieces of less formidable size. A few run for three pages or more, and even the shorter ones sometimes read like miniature essays. While expansive, though, the paragraphs are lean. (Müller seems to have ignored Walter Benjamin’s tongue-in-cheek advice to academic authors: “Everything that is known a priori about an object is to be consolidated by an abundance of examples.... A number of opponents all sharing the same argument should each be refuted individually.”) White Magic is a remarkably concentrated book; that, I think, is why it will likely prove a re-readable one.
When George Orwell identified his family background as “lower-upper-middle class,” he wasn’t being facetious. It was a comment not just on British social hierarchy but on how that structure perpetuated itself -- through an anxious process of monitoring and policing the nuances of distinction, the markers of inclusion and exclusion at each level.
It’s a cliché that Americans tend to be clueless about such things, or at least as pointedly indifferent to them as circumstances permit. No other society has ever managed to convince itself so thoroughly, for so long, that social mobility is normative -- tending, as if by nature, mostly upward. Some of the people Jessi Streib interviewed for The Power of the Past: Understanding Cross-Class Marriages (Oxford University Press) were “visibly angry or tearful” when asked about class, “as they thought that the question implied not only differences but also statements about who was morally superior.”
What a contrast to the rather morbid preoccupation with calibrating status that Orwell describes! But the difference is not so complete as it first appears. Intense indignation and distress at being asked to think about one’s class background suggest it is a topic charged with feelings of embarrassment, frustration, anger, disgust and fear, to keep the list as short as possible. Orwell’s reflections on class find the same emotional elements, albeit combined in a different formula.
What happens to class differences within the crucible of romantic love is an old question for novelists, but Streib, an assistant professor of sociology at Duke University, takes a more analytical approach. She interviewed 32 married heterosexual couples in the United States in which one spouse came from a blue-collar family and the other from a white-collar family, plus another 10 couples for whom all the in-laws were from a white-collar background. Everyone interviewed was white and most were college graduates.
The homogeneity on these points was in part a function of who answered the initial call for interviews, but it had the advantage of limiting the number of variables in a relatively small pool of subjects.
The precise definition of class is a matter for dispute even among social theorists sharing the same general framework of analysis (the Marxist debates alone are voluminous), but Streib’s categories are pretty much vernacular. “White-collar-origin respondents are those that had fathers with bachelor’s or advanced degrees and who worked in professional or managerial jobs.” The blue-collar-origin participants “had fathers with at most a high-school diploma and who tended to work with their hands (though, of course, their jobs also often required mental work).” The mothers’ educational levels were almost always identical to those of their husbands.
The interview subjects themselves, whatever their parents’ educational and occupation level, fell into the white-collar category. Streib questioned each member of the couple separately and then together, covering not just their family backgrounds and biography but their attitudes and practices concerning money, career, child raising, housework and use of free time. The mixed-background couples tended to have met in college or at their workplaces -- in other words, in contexts where each person would understandably assume that the other occupied a white-collar status or was at least headed that way.
My impression from Streib’s biographical sketches is that during early phases of their relationships, mixed-class couples tended to think of differences in their background mainly in terms of family income. When describing his own class origins, Orwell wrote: “You notice that I define it in terms of money, because that is always the quickest way of making yourself understood.” So it is, but other aspects of class come into view only after spending some time with the other person’s family -- experiencing something of the world they grew up in, the attitudes and norms that shaped them.
Streib identifies two general patterns of value and behavior associated with the partners’ origins. Those who come from professional white-collar families exhibit what she calls a “managerial sensibility.” They tend “to plan, deliberate, mull over and organize their resources, their children and their daily lives,” while their spouses are prone to a “laissez-faire sensibility” and prefer “to feel free from self-constraint... to go with the flow and live in the moment.” (Carpe diem is a better characterization of it than laissez-faire, but que sera sera....)
Such broad generalizations are not easily distinguished from stereotypes -- and as someone who would fall into Streib’s blue-collar-origin cohort, I’ll point out that her “managerial sensibility” also exists in the lower orders, where it is known as the work ethic. In any event, The Power of the Past focuses largely on how managerial and laissez-faire sensibilities play out in the various domains of family life, and how couples come to understand the contrasts and strains.
The most interesting finding is that mixed-background spouses tend to be attracted to each another by personality traits missing from their own sensibility: the highly organized daughter of lawyers falls for the easygoing trucker’s son. Complications and conflicts inevitably ensue. Resolving or containing them is certainly possible, though it is much more complex and drawn-out a process than the romantic comedies would have you believe. (My white-collar-origin spouse would surely agree.)
The author’s insights are necessarily limited by the size and narrow demographics of her pool of subjects, but also by abundance of happy endings, or at least of lasting unions. Class conflicts can be resolved in good marriages -- but it doesn’t always work out that well. I don’t think Marx ever had divorce in mind when he referred to “the mutual ruin of the contending classes,” but the statistics imply that is the usual outcome.
Tobacco itself is no aphrodisiac, but one of the great tropes of classic American cinema might be called “the precoital cigarette” -- an emblem of desire smoldering on-screen when Humphrey Bogart gazes at Lauren Bacall, or when she exhales after accepting a light.
It was foreplay by proxy, or as much of it as Hollywood once allowed. And 70 years later, the scenes still work. All the gestures of asking for a smoke or offering one -- the moments of sharing a cigarette or plucking it from someone’s lips to make way for a kiss -- still communicate feelings of intimacy and languor, even for audiences that remember seeing the blackened lungs of smokers in health class and have never doubted the surgeon general’s warning.
The students whose behavior Mimi Nichter analyzes in Lighting Up: The Rise of Social Smoking on College Campuses (New York University Press) are in a similarly untenable position. They feel the allure while knowing better. “Young adults have the highest prevalence of smoking of all other age groups,” she notes, “with approximately 35 percent reporting that they currently smoke.”
At the same time, the undergraduates whose rituals and folk culture interest Nichter (a professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona) recognize the stigma attached to smoking. Bogie’s aura has faded. The smoker has become a pariah: unwelcome in restaurants and other public places, a menace to the health of others through secondhand smoke, at best the pitiful dupe of Joe Camel and other shills for Big Tobacco.
So how do they handle the cognitive dissonance? The short answer is that they make a distinction between enjoying a few cigarettes in social situations while in college and really being a smoker, i.e., someone addicted to nicotine for life. The contrast parallels that between social drinking and alcoholism. Social smoking is occasional rather than compulsive, something done in groups, never alone. No stigma need apply.
The comparison works at another level, since most of the social smoking discussed in Lighting Up takes place at parties where cigarettes go with alcohol “like cookies with milk,” to use one sorority girl’s expression.
As an anthropologist, rather than a psychologist, Nichter is ultimately less concerned with the rationalizations for smoking than the group situations and norms in which it is embedded. Besides conducting surveys and drawing on the work of other researchers, she has gathered detailed accounts of social smoking from native informants (freshmen and sophomores) and checked her ethnography by presenting draft chapters to her classes: “Students have told me that my descriptions of student life and smoking and drinking on campus are quite accurate.”
The picture that emerges is in some respects familiar to anyone who has ever been on a college campus in their late teens. Smoking, like drinking, is one of the behaviors perennially available for asserting the adult right to make decisions, which makes it appealing even for those who hadn’t been rebellious enough to try it in high school.
But Nichter’s inquiry also finds in effect now a common attitude towards social smoking as something to do while in college, but only then. It’s something you can and will quit once in “the real world.” Giving it up sooner would mean the loss of both a stress reliever and a set of routines useful for sociability. There are benefits to being able to introduce yourself via bumming a cigarette, to go outside for a smoke with friends at a party and to collect your thoughts before saying anything by pausing to light up.
Nichter’s respondents understood their smoking as “a habit that they engaged in when they chose to, at times when they and others seemed appropriate. ...Being really addicted, defined as ‘needing your cigarettes wherever you are,' was associated with those who were weak of will or had real problems. In contrast, many college students saw themselves as needing to smoke but only in a limited number of contexts.”
It’s not clear from Lighting Up’s otherwise very detailed account just when this cluster of attitudes and behaviors emerged. But occasional remarks by the author suggest that the antismoking public-service announcements of the past 20 years or so had a lot to do with it. Depicting smoking as addictive -- and reminding the public that tobacco companies have done research on how to make their products even more so -- seems to have had the paradoxical effect of encouraging young people to prove themselves able to light up while remaining in control.
But there are problems with such limit-setting efforts. One is that there is no definite threshold at which nicotine becomes addictive. The difference between smoking only at social events on weekends and low-level daily smoking (one or two cigarettes per day) begins to blur quite rapidly with students who begin unwinding on Thursday afternoons.
And while the undergraduate social-smoker ethos may be prepared to go cold turkey after the senior year, current trends make graduation less of a decisive transition point than it once was:
“Many grads today are stepping into an uncertain future, where the prospect of finding a good job in a timely manner is unlikely. Their 20s may be characterized by multiple moves (in and out of their parents’ and friends’ homes) and compounded by multiple stressors, not the least of which is finding oneself in a time of high unemployment and low wages. Moving into adulthood is now an elongated process, as markers of ‘settling down,’ like marriage, edge upward into one’s late 20s, if that. For those who have come to depend on the comfort of cigarettes during their college years, this array of life stressors may make cutting back or quitting more difficult, despite their intentions and understandings of the harms of tobacco.”
Smoking as a deliberate and controlled way to enjoy oneself is completely different from developing a nasty habit tinged with a death wish -- or it can be, for a while. The cigarette companies depend on people overestimating how much time they really have, and they're in no real danger of losing money on that score.