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The Price of Progress and Should We Care?
Instructor: Chuck Acker
Thursdays • 8 classes – 9/23-11/18 (No class 11/11) • 10:15 AM-12:15 PM
Class size 7-25 students
16 seats remaining
This course is about the clash of class, the loss of industrial progress to pollution and disease, and the search for empathy in a nation divided.
It is the story of the working class, illustrated by the history of Mexico, Maine. The mill town promised well-being for everyone willing to work for it. Instead, these folks are now living not only with hopes diminished but also, sadly, with the scorn of many of us who carry the means of achieving wealth in our heads. We will refer to this latter class as the “aspirational class,” a term coined by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett. Its members are characterized by the skills, information, and power attained through education beyond high school.
We will look at how the differing orientations and preoccupations of the knowledge and working classes contribute to our great national divide. Finally, we will seek ways to minimize that divide.
Textbooks: In lieu of tuition please purchase (or beg or borrow) the Arsenault book, Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains. In addition, excerpts and summaries will be offered in the lecture part of the course from The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class by Currid-Halkett.
SYLLABUS: Course guide by units
UNIVERSITY OF MAINE AT AUGUSTA SENIOR COLLEGE
FALL SEMESTER 2021
Class Format: Zoom
Instructor: Charles W. Acker, Ph. D.
The Price of Progress And Should We Care?
This is a course about the clash of class, the loss of industrial progress to pollution and disease, and the finding of empathy in a nation divided. It is the story of a section of Maine which promised well-being for everyone willing to work for it, now living with hopes diminished, now looked down upon by us who carry the means of wealth in our heads.
We will be using two books as texts: The first of these is titled Mill Town – Reckoning with What Remains.* The second of these books is The Sum of Small Things – A Theory of the Aspirational Class, by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett. I am asking you, in lieu of tuition, to purchase (or beg or borrow) the Arsenault book. Excerpts and summaries will be offered in the lecture part of the course from Currid-Halkett.
(*ISBN 978-1-250-15593-1) (NY, St. Martin’s Press)
Mill Town is the story, on a deeply personal level, of a woman’s near- futile search for an official accounting for the death struggles of a community. Kerri Arsenault’s vision is clarified by living away but returning again and again to perceive what is happening in her hometown of Mexico, Maine (across the river from Rumford) and to the friends and relatives who remain there. It is also the story of the death of an industry, once prosperous but a region now poisoned by the chemicals and practices used by that industry. And it is the story of Arsenault’s father whose death appears as a metaphor for the demise of his community. Most Importantly, the book provides sympathetic insight into members of the working class, often derided by members of a class that most of us probably belong to.
The second book – The Sum of Small Things – could not be more different in style and content from Arsenault’s book, yet it also depicts a specific social class – most likely yours and – mine – which dominates our society and to which we may grudgingly admit our membership.
The term “aspirational class”and its application to our course requires some historical context. In 1889 social scientist Thorsten Veblen coined the term “leisure class” to refer to the group of people made wealthy by the burgeoning coal, oil, transportation and manufacturing industries. Members of this class signalled their status and social power by displays of “conspicuous consumption” – ownership and manners far beyond what are presumed necessary by the lower and middle classes. Currid-Halket has appropriated and reversed these terms to refer to the “aspirational class” in which membership is signalled more by “inconspicuous consumption” but with significant other characteristics, nonetheless.
Some writers have referred to this aspirational class as the “knowledge class” since its members are distinguished by the skills, information and power that they carry in their heads or educated minds. Hence most professions requiring education beyond high school (or entrepreneurship in IT) are automatically members of the knowledge class. Dependence on electronic technology is assumed. Income in this group is ordinarily sufficient to provide for retirement, college education for their children and residence in “preferred” housing, whether in the suburbs or inner city apartments. Travel or visit to resorts or exotic places are preferred means of vacation. Careful diet – shopping at Whole Foods, farmers markets, or more exclusive sources is important. Hiring nannies, housekeepers, sometimes on the sly, is done. Keeping in shape, regular visits to the gym or trainer are frequently practiced. Most important is keeping up with the current fashions to signal membership status. The aspirational class is most distinguished by keeping consumption low-keyed, but nevertheless working very hard at their chosen careers to afford membership. There are of course many people who have not obtained the requisite experience to belong, but they still aspire.
This course is in part about how the differing orientations and preoccupations of the knowledge and working classes contribute to our great national divide.
DESIGN OF CLASS WORK
There are essentially two parts of this course:
Part One, coming before the resort break, will be devoted to a discussion of materials from the Arsenault text. Students are asked to read the assigned chapters before class and be prepared to discuss their questions, objections and understandings drawn from the readings.
Part Two, planned for after the break will be concerned with quotations from the Currid-Halkett book, which appearing in this syllabus will be elaborated on and discussed in class. Additional reading, research and observations by students are encouraged.
Charles Acker holds a PhD in clinical and physiological psychology from UCLA to help him understand belief systems and mind-body relationships. In the distant past, he worked with community leaders, interested older citizens, Senior College Network promoters and key UMA personnel to help bring Senior College to Augusta.