There is currently a common belief in the Western world that high culture and arts are quite elitist and lead to discrimination: high-end humanities such as classic literature and philosophy, deep knowledge of history, arts or science are inaccessible to the common folk yet very rewarding economically and socially. To what extent is that true and can we – and should we – change it?
Have high arts and humanities actually hindered social mobility in the past?
From Antiquity up until the 19th century, the world was largely a society of classes. Indeed, since the 1960s there has been a consensus among historians, including prominent ones such as Fernand Braudel who worked on Mediterranean societies in the Middle Ages, that there was some vertical and horizontal inter-generational social mobility before the 19th century: some families were getting richer or poorer through generations and they could also change their main activities of subsistence. Both types of social mobility could take place through the military – mostly because officers and nobles killed in wars had to be replaced – but also through religious and administrative institutions which needed “qualified” labour. And while one could argue that at the end of the Middle Ages a more rigid society of orders arose in Europe, so too did the political and economic power of merchants; hence, vertical social mobility was still very present.
In that context, were high arts and literature a stumbling block for the poor? Not really, because the discrimination the “low-born” faced was mostly due to their lineage, and not to their lack of knowledge of the higher arts and humanities. Actually, there are many important historical figures who rose from very poor backgrounds into places of great power, like Pope Gregory VII; in these many examples and in life in general, high culture was actually used as a selection mechanism. Take for instance the Imperial Examination in China. It started in 200 BC and lasted until the beginning of the 20th century, and was a way to rank candidates for the administration of the Chinese Empire. The exams evolved over time but always involved knowledge of Confucian literature, of traditional Chinese history, of writing and painting techniques, along with other essential parts of Chinese high culture. From that description alone, one could definitely assume that this examination blocked the poor from entering the administration. However this reasoning fails because, considering that an examination favouring the poor would never have been accepted by the nobles, the only other alternative would have been selection into the administration based on lineage. Hence the Chinese Imperial Examination was an excellent compromise: it managed to prevent the least talented from the “highborn” from entering the administration while recruiting the most talented of the “lowborn”. The second appeal of such competition is that it was a way to define Chinese high culture and its ideals. In other words, it was also a way to unify culturally the Empire, or at least
its elites, and to spread desirable ideas.
So, historically, one should know that negative discrimination was very often based on one’s blood and not on one’s knowledge of the arts and high culture perpetuated by the nobles. In truth, one can argue that, in the past, using high culture to rank and discriminate people was beneficial to societies who did it, because it was the best alternative in a world where connections and lineage were everything.
How about now?
Much later, the industrial revolution in the second half of the 19th century and the advent of democracy and Capitalism in Europe, changed the foundations of social mobility completely. In these times, both vertical and horizontal social mobility in-
creased very rapidly as a direct result of the lower classes getting richer through new technological advancements in medicine, machinery and agriculture. Additionally, basic education, easier access to loans, and an increase in mobility allowed future generations to change career paths more easily. Nowadays, inter-generational mobility is decreasing in the West because growth has stalled, but is on a strong upward trend in developing countries. It is in this setting that the famous French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu – and many other sociologists – argued that arts, humanities and high culture are a tool of the bourgeois, of the rich, to prevent the poor from moving up the social ladder. In his opinion their main medium of oppression are schools, exams and competitions for highly qualified jobs because they all require such knowledge. For him, the elites are so self-preserving and organised that they have imposed their own culture, a high culture which is inaccessible to the poor, into schools.
Now, who could argue that arts and humanities are discriminating? Bourdieu’s empirical work already proved it: in any study on income, children who succeed at school have better paying jobs; at the same time children with rich parents succeed much more in school than children with poor parents, especially in the humanities. Hence, high culture requirements contribute to social reproduction and it is still the case today. As a matter of fact, in current France, most grandes écoles – the top universities in engineering, politics and management – require a high proficiency in French but also an extensive knowledge of French classic literature, philosophy and arts. So for anyone who has not been exposed to these texts and ideas from birth, it is extremely difficult to bridge the gap. An even harder ceiling can be found in countries where only one type of thought and behavior, only one type of culture, is allowed at the top such as Vietnam where adherence and knowledge of communist ideas and ideals is required.
So indeed we observe that high culture contributes to social reproduction, but to come back to Bourdieu, his explanation of the origins of social reproduction is extremely far-fetched, and most likely rooted in the marxist belief that the capitalist elites are, as a class, actively trying to destroy the social ladder. The much simpler and rational economic explanation is that the rich are like the rest and are not trying to change a whole system but simply acting individually in their own interests. More specifically, first, in any family the children will inherit the preferences of their parents, and will transmit their preferences to their own children in the future. This means that in rich families preferences for humanities and arts will be transmitted through generations. Second, on average, richer households are much more forward looking than poorer households, so that they will make “smarter” investments for their children and teach them about science and literature from an early age to ensure their future success. These controversial yet relatively old observations were first quantified by nobel prize winner Gary Becker in the 1970s, and largely explain what rich households teach to their children and why. Finally, the nail in the coffin against Bourdieu’s claims is the following: when a rich household emigrates, the advantage the children had because of their culture should vanish; So, by Bourdieu’s theory, they should fare way worse; However, in reality, we observe the contrary, rich kids are on average doing very well at school, even if they migrate.
Could we and should we eliminate discrimination based on high culture?
Knowledge – or the lack of knowledge – of philosophy, literature, etc… Leads to social reproduction. So, from an economic point of view, removing this “cultural” barrier to economic and social success could be seen as efficient. It would make the market for top schools and best jobs more competitive as it would decrease the threshold for entering the competition. Consequently, it could theoretically increase social mobility and total welfare. But there are many reasons to believe the contrary.
First, if these “cultural” barriers are removed, what would be the alternative? Possibly selection based on connections, which is a worse outcome. Possibly higher thresholds in maths, science, history and politics, but these subjects are as hard to apprehend for underprivileged children as literature and the humanities. Second, schools and businesses are private, so it is difficult to remove these “cultural requirements” in a democracy. Third, removing these requirements may have the opposite effect on social mobility because rich families can move their children to schools which still teach high culture. There is actually some evidence of this phenomenon in the U.S: in neighbourhoods which are diverse in terms of income, there is a growing trend of rich
families – including left-leaning families – to send their kids to private schools (see The New York Times “Family by Family, How School Segregation Still Happens”). Finally, there is a powerful philosophical and political argument to be made in favor of selection based on humanities and arts. This is an argument which is very popular among conservative and religious intellectuals such as François-Xavier Bellamy, a leading member of the right-wing French party Les Républicains. As mentioned briefly previously in the case of China, the arts and humanities which are taught or required for a job are most often important ideas and pieces of history over which a nation is built. In that sense, should a country not require its economic and political elites to be comfortable with their own high culture? Shouldn’t these important ideas, ideals and works be promoted, and hence their mastering be expected of people in positions of power?
This question is obviously open and controversial, because there is a lot of potential for abuse. Whether it is learning Latin in France, or knowing by heart the revised biography of Lenin and Mao in China, some teachings and parts of high culture should not be taught or required for a job. Thence, a middle ground could be struck: some dose of discrimination based on arts and humanities could be healthy for social cohesion and the social ladder, but also to push the ideals we think are important. And yes, we could do that and are already doing that because culture is always changing, be it with state intervention or not. Therefore, thinking that high culture will disappear if we do not teach it is foolish, because the rich will transmit it anyway and will segregate themselves. So through schools, museums and festivals, the nice and interesting parts, yet difficult to understand, of one’s own culture could be transmitted to those who grow up and have grown up without it.
by Hippolyte Boucher (September 2019)