On Stars and What They Eat

BY AARON BARLOW

The other day, in a post on student agency, I complained again about the erzatz meritocracy of our star system of education. I tend to focus my attention in this area more on the classroom itself, where the best students get the most attention and support, though I do mention that the same tends to be the situation for faculty. Curiously, in terms of timing, in an interview today with Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed, John Smyth, author of the new book (which I hadn’t heard of) The Toxic University: Zombie Leadership, Academic Rock Stars and Neoliberal Ideology, takes my limited thoughts further:

Academic superstars are seen as important emblems with which universities can sustain the myth that the competitive way is working, that some institutions and departments are top dogs, and that hierarchies are the evidence that the market does indeed sort things out. Recruiting and constructing superstars is also a backdoor way of blaming those deemed not to have made it, and to make it look as if success has to do with personal attributes and the application of effort, while conveniently ignoring the structural conditions necessary for success as an academic…. In other words, constructing superstars, who are given privileges unimagined by rank-and-file academics, shifts the blame onto individuals while allowing austerity measures to be implemented with little room for opposition.

The same applies to how students are too often treated: We create stars and then blame the rest for not attaining that status, for not taking advantage of whatever possibilities are available—so begin to limit those possibilities.

The erzatz meritocracy creates itself out of money and imagination, money it gains through a variety of ways from inheritance to hard work to crime, and a vision it creates out of its own self-congratulations. It then imposes barriers for others, making real the difficult task of joining it. Some of these, according to David Brooks in an odd column in The New York Times yesterday, are structural, others cultural.

A lot of people have taken Brooks to task since his column appeared yesterday, not least because of a strange anecdote about going to lunch with a friend who has “only a high school degree.” Italian sandwiches panicked her, so they “ate Mexican.” What this has to do with barriers, structural or cultural, is never made clear. Writing for Salon, Erin Keane comments:

The secret, which I’m happy to share with David Brooks over lunch as long as he’s buying, is that true cultural barriers can’t be separated from structural barriers. They are intimates; often, they feed off one another.

She’s right. You can’t address one without addressing the other, and neither can be understood through cuisine.

My composition students laughed when I shared Brooks’ column with them this morning, laughed particularly at the dining anecdote. That led to a spirited discussion of food and how it can be a starting point for writing about culture (though in ways quite different from what Brooks must have been contemplating). One Mexican student said that he had not tried one Mexican restaurant I mentioned for two reasons: First, he can get better at home and, second, its name (“Cinco de Mayo”) is too much a cliché, making him think that the food is likely as boring as the name. None of my students (few, if any, from the upper middle classes) could think of anything problematic about the Italian foods that Brooks imagined his friend found threatening (“soppresatta”). This is Brooklyn, after all. We had a spirited discussion that included back-and-forths on the palatability of grits and scrapple and whether cornbread should be cooked with sugar. My students showed that they know food and the variety of cuisines better, probably, than Brooks. They talked of Cuban/Chinese fusion, of passion for barbeque, of where to find the best Thai food in a city that is largely ignorant of the fine points of that cuisine and of the breakfast storefronts where the eggs are always done to the perfection of each customer’s order.

Eating well is not necessarily an upper-middle-class prerogative. Many poorer people understand “fancy” foods even if they cannot afford to eat them every day—and may understand how to eat better than Brooks probably does—while sticking to a budget.

The unsaid heart of Brooks’ argument is that we should stop worrying about structural impediments to advancement and start concerning ourselves with the cultural. Just teach people how to approach foods they’ve never tasted and our problems will be solved!

If he would accompany any of my students to lunch (letting them choose the venue), he might learn something.

And which would be the star?


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2 thoughts on “On Stars and What They Eat

  1. All good points, which makes me think about Brooks’ column/little story all that much more. Your students might come from working class backgrounds, but they are also all in New York City where these kind of fancy Italian sausages and Cuban/Chinese fusion restaurants exist. (FWIW, I went to a Cuban/Chinese place when I was in NYC in the winter– it was quite good.) Out here in the hinterlands (well, not really– we’ve got lots of good food in Ann Arbor too), I’m guessing the food knowledge of many of my working class students isn’t quite as good.

    Anyway, I agree entirely with what you’re saying and the more I think about Brooks, the more confused I become.

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    • I thought about the NYC part of it as I was writing. You are right: Anyone here has probably had more exposure to various cuisines than Americans elsewhere… which is another aspect to all of this: geography. Nothing is as simple as Brooks makes it out to be.

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