My, how times have changed. Read a Jane Austen novel and notice how characters think, act, and speak in relationship to each other. Observe the many layers of delicacy and tact with which they address each subject of conversation. Pay close attention to the ceremony, forms of address, and complex manners that guide the characters’ behavior. Then watch an episode of Real Housewives, a reality show that depicts the lives of fabulously rich women in locations across the country. I watched a full episode today for the first time, and I could hardly believe what I was seeing. These women are dyed, Botoxed, collagen-injected, surgically altered, and so thickly painted with makeup that they are almost beyond differentiation from one another. They are coarse in expression, vulgar in taste, and crude in conversation.
The show I watched alternated between petty arguments and mean-spirited gossip. If the setting had been changed, if the mansions had been switched out for trailer parks, the hot red Ferraris for beat up Pintos, and the Prada fashions for Jaclyn Smith clothes from K-Mart, not a word of dialog would have needed to be changed. These exceedingly wealthy people, whom many in society emulate and from whom they derive social cues, spoke and behaved like stereotypical “trailer trash.”
Lately, I’ve been pondering this fairly recent transition that has occurred among the upper classes. We have gone from a culture that demanded education and manners to a culture that possesses an equal amount of wealth but embraces a “cheap” lifestyle. While it appears that things have only gotten worse, I believe that this cultural transition actually represents both a gain and a loss and points us to the real problems underlying both our current society and the more “refined” societies of the past.
The most significant loss that has occurred in the transition between the old aristocracy and the new is loss of higher education. The richest people in the world today are not likely to hold graduate degrees; many, like Bill Gates, do not even possess a college education. While college does not remedy all of society’s ills, it does provide people with a bigger view of the world and of their place in it (this does not mean that you must go to college to be broad minded; there are many ways, in today’s resource-saturated world, to self-educate). Consider the ancient Greek and Roman aristocracies. They were educated in the seven liberal arts: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. They had to demonstrate mastery of each one of these disciplines before they were allowed to even begin to dabble in philosophy, which was considered the greatest of all disciplines, transcending the other seven. The benefits of this type of education were numerous, but above all, it produced a well-rounded, broad-minded person. This high standard of education was maintained throughout the Middle Ages (although few were educated during that time), burst into full flower during the Renaissance and Reformation, and shipwrecked on the philosophies of the Enlightenment. From Descartes came Dewey; lo and behold, education became less about developing students as whole persons and more about preparing students for very specific jobs. Today’s aristocracy does not have an intellectual family legacy to uphold; people seek the shortest and easiest path to wealth and fame, often bypassing the rigors of a liberal arts education and focusing only how to “get rich quick.” The resulting class of people has the illusion, because they have the money, that they are knowledgeable and wise, when in fact they are often terribly narrow-minded and ignorant.
Unfortunately, this situation is not likely to improve soon. Many of the richest, most powerful people in society are entertainers, and it is in their best interest to keep the public obsessed with music and movies rather than philosophy and theology. Many in the entertainment industry like to perceive themselves as enlightened educators. A cursory examination of award-winning movies indicates that the “thinker” movies that tackle important social issues are much more likely to be patted on the back than the embarrassing twaddle that constitutes the majority of our theatrical diversions. The Hotel Rwanda type of movie will always beat the Legally Blonde at the Oscars. Yes, movies can occasionally do some good by drawing attention to an overlooked problem in society, but their impact is severely limited. However, Hollywood enjoys pretending that it is essentially a beacon of light so that it can justify its existence and try to make itself feel like it has a purpose other than making our 80-odd years of life on earth pass a little faster (which is all it really does). Perhaps a dose of the liberal arts would benefit the entertainment industry; maybe movie directors ought to be required to master grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music before they create a philosophical film.
As a side note, Just consider the word amuse as a little anecdotal example. Muse means “think” and the prefix a- means “not.” A-muse literally means “to not think.” What does it say about our society when the richest and most venerated people are the a-musers while the professors are counted among the ranks of the lower middle class?
Another tragic loss that has occurred in the transition to the modern aristocracy is the lowered standard for acceptable behavior in polite society. Cursing is widely accepted, dirty jokes are considered harmless, and the topics of conversation in the highest circles are either mindlessly trivial or offensive. Granted, I realize that the women depicted in Real Housewives are not selected by the show’s producers because they are classy and elegant. I have no doubt that these producers search out vulgarity and crudity because they know that it sells, and I am also certain that polite, well-mannered people do exist among the modern aristocracy. However, all of society, and young men and women in particular, often look to the media to set the standards for behavior. Without positive role models, without the beauty of ceremony and ritual to guide human behavior, we descend quickly into instinctual, animal-like reactions to the world.
So the solution is simply a return to the refined society of Jane Austen, right? We ladies will don our empire-waisted dresses, gentlemen will return to white gloves, and we’ll hold regular balls where we display our English country dancing skills (actually, the balls part doesn’t sound too bad!). Unfortunately, the problems with the old aristocracy were profuse. Yes, their education was both broad and deep, but it was only given to those who were already wealthy and powerful! How many Einsteins and Beethovens were born to the peasant class in the Middle Ages and unable to develop their genius because of their status? The old aristocracy used their wealth and knowledge to oppress the poor and ignorant. While Jane Austen’s world looks lovely on the surface, it was built on the backs of suffering masses who lived in dark poverty. The status of the upper classes gave them a feeling of superiority over those from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds so that they felt justified in their prejudice, colonizing and enslaving whole races of people (again, to avoid a hasty generalization, I must note that there were exceptions; for example, William Wilberforce, who used his wealth and education to help end the slave trade).
And then there was the situation of women. While it might look pleasant to sit around all day and look pretty, women were treated as weak-minded, inferior beings. They were viewed as terrible burdens, which is why when a man married a woman, she came with a dowry. They were given only enough education to make them seem appealing to potential husbands, and their primary purpose in life was to marry and bear male children to continue the family line.
Today, many of the injustices created by past prejudices are being mitigated or eliminated. It is more possible today than at any other period of history for people who have been historically oppressed to obtain an education and create a good life for themselves and their families. Wealth is being increasingly disseminated, so that we are not a society run by the privileged few. Opportunities for scholarships, good jobs, and respectable living environments abound. The list of benefits goes on and on.
Personally, especially as a woman, I prefer today’s aristocracy over yesterday’s, but that’s not to say that we have to make a choice. We don’t have to choose either ignorance or prejudice. We can work to emphasize the liberal arts, promote positive cultural models for young people, and reintroduce ceremony and ritual into our society at all levels—not just the wealthiest. We can hold on to our preciously-bought freedoms, take advantage of our unique role in history, and experience the best from both worlds.