I am extremely cultured. I know history and philosophy and I’ve read most of the classics (and can fake many of the ones I haven’t read). I enjoy opera and theater (but not ballet or symphony, though my sister loves ballet) and old movies and classical music. I can swim and play the piano and embroider and cook (though I was never able to get over my complete lack of artistic talent when it comes to drawing or painting or my complete boredom with ballet lessons). #2 and I can trade Gilbert and Sullivan or PG Wodehouse jokes with ease. I know which silverware to use at a fancy restaurant (pro-tip: start with the outermost) and how to pretend I know what I’m talking about with wine. Sadly I only speak two languages (English and Spanish), but I know enough French and Italian to get around as a tourist or to get most literary references without Google translate (ditto Latin).
I used to think that I had all this culture because my parents were sharing what they enjoyed, and culture was something to make it easier for me to entertain myself. (And part of this is true– my father is a European immigrant who grew up in a fancy US coastal city, so his love of operetta patter songs is as real as his love for Jacques Brel or the Beatles.)
But a couple years ago I was rereading Penrod, by Booth Tarkington (free on Kindle). In addition to being shocked by the casual racism and animal cruelty that I did not remember from my initial childhood reading (from my mother’s childhood hard copies), I was struck by a passage. Penrod, who is established as having been from a middle- to lower-middle- class family, takes ballroom dancing and etiquette lessons. A public school kid, this is the only time he rubs shoulders with the private school children of the town elite. His mother wants to social climb. His parents, I realized, are trying to help him advance.
Recent readers of the blog may also be aware of my current turn to regency romances. In regencies (and in steampunk), women have “accomplishments”– somewhat useless entertainment skills such as embroidery or harp or watercolors that are class markers. Wealthy tradespeople could send their daughters to finishing school so as to marry up into the aristocracy without embarrassing their impoverished future sons-in-law.
One of my mother’s refrains has always been, “to make you a more cultured person.” And “to give you opportunities I didn’t have.”
I suspect that many of these skills and much of this knowledge that was poured into me may have been for the same reason we were pushed into math and science. To improve our lot in life with the next generation.
But… Penrod was written in the 1910s. By the time he was an adult, the parlor manners he resisted being taught along with the formal dancing would be archaic. In Regency novels, the landed aristocracy of the early 19th century would be replaced with the age of industry and business would supplant tenant farming. Eventually, stenography would be a more important skill for young ladies than the harp.
I always thought, growing up, that once I got to college I would meet people who were passionate about opera and history and so on. (Note, this is one of the reasons that #2 and I hit it off right away in high school.) But even though I went to a top small liberal arts college, that was not the case. I would even occasionally have to explain literary references to professors in college and graduate school. I did spread my various loves to my friends (especially those with cars!) and in return picked up passions for anime and Asian food. High school also provided me with nerd culture in abundance adding, for example, the entire Monty Python library to my repertoire.
As an upper-middle class citizen approaching middle-age, I haven’t found my elitist skills to be particularly useful. They still provide me joy, but to be honest, they are not shared by many people. I don’t have much outlet for them away from the city. When I am in a city partaking, I’m surrounded by professionally coiffed white hair. These elite class markers are markers of a previous generation.
Times change. Social class markers vary. The approaching-middle-age elite who we rub shoulders with today are also first generation wealthy and formerly from the midwest. They are not from East coast old money. And so, my esoteric knowledge that my mother worked so hard to provide me with, those classics I was forced to read to “be a more cultured person,” were not as useful as the love of math and ambition that she also fostered. In fact, I’m a bit out of place with them– elitist in many eyes.
But fortunately, even when it is lonely, cultural knowledge still provides personal entertainment. It still makes jokes more funny and deepens appreciation of even modern media (since people in the film industry who direct and design are remarkably cultured themselves). So maybe that itself is enough in this ever-changing world.