What is “old?”: Middle-class pretensions

Recently to improve my German, I began viewing a soap opera titled Altes Geld (Old Money). The series was so bad, I stopped watching halfway through the first season. The show follows a super-rich family as they move from travesty to depravity and back. While the characters are presented as an old, established family, in truth they aren’t. The family made their fortune by collaborating with the Nazis. At the time the show aired, their fortune would have been only seventy years old. As a friend of mine said in response to the premise, “that isn’t old money—just an old way of making it,” meaning crony capitalism and opportunism, not siding with the Nazis. Despite my reaction to the series and its anti-rich message, it did make me think about what is “old” and what this means in the sense of legacy or tradition in a society, which in my view is turning increasingly toward fictions as part of a nostalgic utopian vision.

The so-called patriarch in the tv series pontificates on familial tradition and the way things have always been done. As they are a new family, I’m fairly certain the patriarch’s monologues are satirical; after all the family isn’t old enough to have any real traditions and the way they’ve done things is certainly not to be emulated. Yet, an attitude, a posturing of being people who know things, have tried-and-true ways of doing things which is (probably) satire on a soap opera appears in real life as a trope, repeated with gravity by public figures, often in the context of a “decline of the middle-class.”

A common feature in the declinist narrative is a supposed failure of public, or in American English, state schooling systems. Attached is an implicit or explicit middle-class proclamation of “this is the way we’ve always done things,” a claim which is taken at face value by both speakers and audience. Yet, it isn’t. At best, the “middle-class way” dates to post-World War II, much like the ersatz old family and their traditions in Altes Geld.

Anecdotally, I know one arch-Conservative who is devoted to the declinist narrative, particularly in relation to public education. He is a first generation public schooler. His own parents, who were of the War generation, attended private religious schools. Lest readers misinterpret the religious aspect, pre-World War II, private schooling offered by religious institutions was often the only option for children whose parents were of modest means but who wanted something better than a local state school.

The arch-Conservative’s parents were part of a phenomenon discussed by David Willett in his book The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – And Why They Should Give It Back. Willett, who always has to issue a disclaimer that he is a boomer himself, talks about how the boomers were betrayed by the War generation as they were the ones who, for the first time in recorded human history, stopped putting the next generation first in that they stopped trying to find the best educations for the boomers. People who in previous generations would have sent their children to private schools, and who themselves had usually benefited from attending such schools, sent their children (the boomers) to public school instead. Willett argues that the boomers themselves were the victims of intergenerational theft; their crime was perpetuating it on their children, through repeating the patterns of their own parents.

Although Willett limited his study to Great Britain as that is his area of expertise, I can anecdotally say that a similar phenomenon occurred in the US. My grandfather was a boarding school boy, kept there at great expense and effort on the part of his coal miner father who wanted something better for his son. My grandfather, who fulfilled on his father’s dreams (graduate degrees from good universities, Naval commander, successful business owner) though, did not repeat the pattern exactly and his children attended (initially) an absolutely rubbish public school. If there was any logic to that decision, it was “that’s the way things are,” though he of all people should have known that there was no need for deterministic attitudes. To repeat: both coal miner’s son and boarding school boy – during the Great Depression!

Returning to the first-generation state schooler, his children are second-generation public schoolers, and he complains about how expectations for them have not matched reality—an infallible sign of decline. But the chasm between expectation and reality is society’s fault, in his declinist narrative. That his own parents betrayed him and he then foisted that betrayal on his children is not a factor. No, public school is a “tradition” in his family. Yes, in the same way a new money family whose fortune is not even a century old can have traditions.

The gulf between the pre-War and the War generations did not occur in a vacuum. To close, I ask the reader to contemplate the following paragraph from Virginia Woolf’s speech “The Leaning Tower,” which she, a devoted Marxist, gave in 1940 to the Workers’ Educational Association:

(NB: Virginia Woolf used the term “public school” to signify old, private preparatory boarding schools, not state schools in the American sense.)

There are two reasons which lead us to think, perhaps to hope, that the world after the war will be a world without classes or towers. Every politician who has made a speech since September 1939 has ended with a peroration in which he has said that we are not fighting this war for conquest; but to bring about a new order in Europe. In that order, they tell us, we are all to have equal opportunities, equal chances of developing whatever gifts we may possess. That is one reason why, if they mean what they say, and can effect it, classes and towers will disappear. The other reason is given by the income tax. The income tax is already doing in its own way what the politicians are hoping to do in theirs. The income tax is saying to middle-class parents: You cannot afford to send your sons to public schools any longer; you must send them to the elementary schools. One of these parents wrote to the New Statesman a week or two ago. Her little boy, who was to have gone to Winchester, had been taken away from his elementary school and sent to the village school. “He has never been happier in his life”, she wrote. “The question of class does not arise; he is merely interested to find how many different kinds of people there are in the world…” And she is only paying twopence-halfpenny a week for that happiness and instruction instead of 35 guineas a term and extras. If the pressure of the income tax continues, classes will disappear. There will be no more upper classes; middle classes; lower classes. All classes will be merged in one class. How will that change affect the writer who sits at his desk looking at human life? It will not be divided by hedges any more. Very likely that will be the end of the novel, as we know it. Literature, as we know it, is always ending, and beginning again. Remove the hedges from Jane Austen’s world, from Trollope’s world, and how much of their comedy and tragedy would remain? We shall regret our Jane Austens and our Trollopes; they gave us comedy, tragedy, and beauty. But much of that old-class literature was very petty; very false; very dull. Much is already unreadable. The novel of a classless and towerless world should be a better novel than the old novel. The novelist will have more interesting people to describe—people who have had a chance to develop their humour, their gifts, their tastes; real people, not people cramped and squashed into featureless masses by hedges. The poet’s gain is less obvious; for he has been less under the dominion of hedges. But he should gain words; when we have pooled all the different dialects, the clipped and cabined vocabulary which is all that he uses now should be enriched. Further, there might then be a common belief which he could accept, and thus shift from his shoulders the burden of didacticism, of propaganda. These then are a few reasons, hastily snatched, why we can look forward hopefully to a stronger, a more varied literature in the classless and towerless society of the future.

A classless society built on betrayal of the futures of the young generations and treachery toward the sacrifices of the pre-World War II generation, that is the “tradition” of the modern middle-class. Their society is not even a century old, but it is already presented as a utopia of stability and homogeneity. It is time to recognize it for what it is: an ill-informed charlatan aping both the mannerisms of true tradition and the honor and dignity that come with it, while proclaiming itself the epitome of a classless society.   

2 thoughts on “What is “old?”: Middle-class pretensions

  1. “Willett, . . , talks about how the boomers were betrayed by the War generation as they were the ones who, for the first time in recorded human history, stopped putting the next generation first in that they stopped trying to find the best educations for the boomers.”

    A truly ridiculous assertion. High school completion rates in the U.S. more than doubled between 1940 and 1980, and college completion nearly tripled in that time. And those have continued to rise, as the boomers educated their own children. To imply that boomers were less well educated than previous generations is contrary to truth.

    I suspect that this article’s disparagement of public schools (however much they may fall short in some places and in some respects) results from an unrevealed prejudice.

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