I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
A spatial structure, the sentence also suggests a temporal sequence. Thinking clearly, it wants us to recognize, leads to thinking independently. Thinking independently leads to living confidently. Living confidently leads to living courageously. Living courageously leads to living hopefully. And the entire chain begins with a college that recognizes it has an obligation to its students, an obligation to develop their abilities to think and live.
Finally, the sentence is attributed to an individual. It expresses her convictions and ideals. It announces that she is prepared to hold herself accountable for certain responsibilities.
“The Seismologist,” an altered found photograph. All artwork by Julie Cockburn © The artist. Courtesy Flowers Gallery, London
The second text is not a sentence. It is four words floating in space, unconnected to one another or to any other concept. Four words — four slogans, really — whose meaning and function are left undefined, open to whatever interpretation the reader cares to project on them.
Four words, three of which — “leadership,” “service,” and “creativity” — are the loudest buzzwords in contemporary higher education. (“Integrity” is presumably intended as a synonym for the more familiar “character,” which for colleges at this point means nothing more than not cheating.) The text is not the statement of an individual; it is the emanation of a bureaucracy. In this case, a literally anonymous bureaucracy: no one could tell me when this version of the institution’s mission statement was formulated, or by whom. No one could even tell me who had decided to hang those banners all over campus. The sentence from the founder has also long been mounted on the college walls. The other words had just appeared, as if enunciated by the zeitgeist.
But the most important thing to note about the second text is what it doesn’t talk about: thinking or learning. In what it both does and doesn’t say, it therefore constitutes an apt reflection of the current state of higher education. College is seldom about thinking or learning anymore. Everyone is running around trying to figure out what it is about. So far, they have come up with buzzwords, mainly those three.
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William Deresiewicz ’s most recent book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (Free Press), is now out in paperback.
More from William Deresiewicz:
I went to college early in this century, when the drug of choice on campus was sleep deprivation. Students trying to do more than the day allowed would run their work into the night and brave the bleary consequences. Many boasted of two or three hours of rest; they often seemed like hopheads relishing a wild trip. I partook. Often, after classes, I’d rehearse with the campus orchestra I played in. Later, I’d go to the offices of the school newspaper, where it might be my turn to proofread the next morning’s edition. By the time the pages closed, it would be 3 or 4 A.M. I’d walk home, perch at my desk, and finish writing a course paper. A new day, somehow, had already begun. This was a great excuse to drink more coffee. Between lectures, I might visit with professors, meet deadlines for internships or fellowships, or (with a sense of wanton luxury) read through the hundreds of pages I’d been assigned. I had a federal work-study job. I wrote an honors thesis from archival research. Once, I woke up at my desk—or, more precisely, on my desk, face down, arms splayed out, murder-in-the-study style—with a caffeine-induced cramp freezing my left leg and the imprint of a notebook spiral winding down my cheek.
Misadventure of this sort wasn’t too troubling. Most students at élite schools knew what they were getting into long before they actually got in. A few years earlier, David Brooks had published a much read article in The Atlantic, heralding what he referred to as a generation of “Organization Kids”: “incredibly industrious” students who were “streamlined for ascent.” Such schedule-keeping shaped the mores and expectations of my college career (as it was aptly called). Kids often devised unholy modes of coping. Someone I knew liked to resolve all-nighter jet lag with a double hit of NyQuil: she would get into bed early, start reading, and let the draught knock her out. (Others had harder pharmaceuticals.) One student, an early inductee into Phi Beta Kappa, told a campus publication that he sometimes hid his hair under a hat, because his schedule did not always give him time to bathe.
Occasionally, one or another of us would have a Wilfred Owen moment in the trenches. But, in general, the company soldiered on. My parents’ degrees had not been in the liberal arts; my presence at an élite college was neither predestined nor remarkable, and, like many with an upward approach, I aspired to take school seriously. Early in my freshman year, I’d had a vision of myself as a much older man, a professor, gray-haired and bespectacled and maybe a little fat, trundling home from a campus music recital in a long blue coat. This older self would brew tea, switch on his desk lamp, and spend a few hours pecking away at a subdued but brilliant study of American modernism before collapsing into an armchair with a book. It seemed great. But it didn’t seem the life for which I was being trained. Instead, there was the breakneck schedule and the projects reaching for a world beyond the university gates.
Élite higher education today makes two promises. It is a liberal-arts idyll, free from the demands of breadwinning or real-world “usefulness.” It is also an acceleration tube, where students gain life momentum befitting their competitive entry. Can it be both?
William Deresiewicz, a former professor of English at Yale, believes that choices must be made. Shortly after leaving the university, six years ago, he published a widely discussed essay in The American Scholar describing élite college students as whiz careerists caught up in a system that “rarely asked them to think about something bigger than the next assignment.” Now, some pointed essays later, he has sought to thread together his complaints into a prickly graduation tassel of a book. “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life” (Free Press) is an attack on college culture in this overscheduled age. The sheep are the students—he also calls them “Super People,” “an alien species,” and “bionic hamsters”—and he thinks that, with respect to their education, everything they do right puts them in the wrong.
“The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it,” he writes. His complaints turn most violently against the Ivy League and its spiritual siblings. The problems don’t start there, though. High schools, the job market, prestige-seeking universities, distracted professors, and parents—especially parents—all contribute to a culture in which kids are supposed to perform before they even start to learn. The trouble, he believes, began in the mid-nineteen-sixties, when the old, aristocratic standard for college admission (were your people the right people?) ceded to the modern meritocracy (were you the right person?). The old model never disappeared entirely, and today’s applicants are expected to be academic overachievers who also have noblesse-oblige-like claims to “leadership” and “service.” They’re meant to do it all, and they do. But they don’t know why, or how, to find fulfillment in the absence of new hoops to jump through.
Learning is supposed to be about falling down and getting up again until you do it right. But, in an academic culture that demands constant achievement, failures seem so perilous that the best and the brightest often spend their young years in terrariums of excellence. The result is what Deresiewicz calls “a violent aversion to risk.” Even after graduation, élite students show a taste for track-based, well-paid industries like finance and consulting (which in 2010 together claimed more than a third of the jobs taken by the graduating classes of Harvard, Cornell, and Princeton). And no wonder. A striver can “get into” Goldman Sachs the way that she got into Harvard. There is no résumé submission or recruiting booth if you want to make a career as a novelist.
The net effect, Deresiewicz believes, is the smothering of students’ “souls”:
College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance. . . . The job of college is to assist you, or force you, to start on your way through the vale of soul-making. Books, ideas, works of art and thought, the pressure of the minds around you that are looking for their own answers in their own ways: all of these are incitements, disruptions, violations. They make you question everything you thought you knew about yourself.
When Deresiewicz is not engaging in this kind of brochure balladry, he is a charismatic and elegant writer. But his desire to get students working on their souls—not just figuring out the historiography of the Dreyfus affair or learning to perform gel electrophoresis—means that he sometimes points them in bizarre directions. Like many embattled humanists, Deresiewicz is eager to explain why he is not a scientist. “We ask of a scientific proposition, ‘Is it true?,’ but of a proposition in the humanities we ask, ‘Is it true for me?’ ” he writes. “The highest function of art, and of literature in particular, is to bring us to that knowledge of ourselves that college ought to start to give us.” He later drives the point home: “ ‘That’s me!’: the essential experience of art.”
This is a stunning definition, and not just because it is plainly untrue. (Do we appreciate Borges’s “The Library of Babel” because we see ourselves in it? Is familiarity the essential experience of “Blue Velvet” or, for that matter, “Spaceballs”?) Reading for self-recognition is the default factory setting in most people’s minds. It is precisely the approach to literature that you don’t need to attend college to learn. When Deresiewicz insists that an objective of literary study, and the multiple perspectives it admits, is ultimately to give kids “models” and “values” that may inform their self-understanding, he’s embracing a pretty solipsistic measure of virtue—something closer to therapy than to scholarship.
“Excellent Sheep” is full of such confusions. At one point, Deresiewicz describes the goal of the liberal arts as “the pursuit of knowledge . . . conducted for its own sake.” At another, he suggests that such study will help students hone their “moral imagination.” (To explain this quality, he writes of George Eliot’s decision, in the eighteen-fifties, to flout the era’s social demands and live openly with the married critic George Henry Lewes, whose legal wife had paired off with another man.) “Anyone who tells you that the sole purpose of education is the acquisition of negotiable skills is attempting to reduce you to a productive employee at work, a gullible consumer in the market, and a docile subject of the state,” he writes. Ironically, a boomer-era bromide like this would be embraced by many of the parents whose advice he tells students to ignore. And he has a rather blinkered vision of its applications. Some graduates seeking a risky, self-made, change-inducing path may be drawn to tech startups. Deresiewicz pooh-poohs the prospect. “Revolutions in our tools—the kind that have been wrought by Facebook, Apple, Google, and so forth, the kind so many young people dream of making, as they work on their gadgets and apps—do not necessarily alter the structure of society,” he writes. Does lyric poetry?
His visions of authentic self-realization are at once precise and strangely unconsidered. “Everybody looks the same,” he complains of today’s élite campuses. “No hippies, no punks, no art school types or hipsters, no butch lesbians or gender queers, no black kids in dashikis.” Hold it right there. In 2014, self-differentiation takes forms other than outdated hippie and punk fashion; students dressed like that today are probably headed for a Halloween party. And anyone who cannot find a hipster or a lesbian on an élite campus is working from a long-expired field guide. Several times in Deresiewicz’s book, one has the sense that he is not so much seeking a better version of the contemporary university as reaching back toward an older one.
In 1971, Robert A. Nisbet, a sociologist who had become a vice-chancellor in the University of California system, published a portrait of university life called “The Degradation of the Academic Dogma” (not a title for the beach). Nisbet wanted to understand the student movements of the sixties. Their proliferation puzzled him, because earlier campus radicalism hadn’t sparked such vast upheavals within the university. In Nisbet’s view, big changes in the course of scholarly life were to blame. “From the thirteenth to the twentieth centuries, the essential structural elements of the university have remained largely the same,” he wrote. Those elements boiled down to a governing idea that he called “the academic dogma”: “Knowledge is important. Just that. Not ‘relevant’ knowledge; not ‘practical’ knowledge; not the kind of knowledge that enables one to wield power, achieve success, or influence others. Knowledge!”
That changed in 1945. The catalyst was money. “Wealth, approaching billions, began to pour into universities from federal government, from industries, and from foundations,” Nisbet wrote. The wealth was channelled into centers and institutes: a new kind of campus enterprise that pursued independent research, often for use outside the academy. For an aging professor like Nisbet, this was a galling shift. “Overnight, first in the natural sciences, then in the social sciences, and finally—here and there, at least—in the humanities, the academic scene was bestridden by that modern incarnation of Caesar, the academic capitalist, the professorial entrepreneur, the new man of power!” he exclaimed. Now jet-setting professors became public spokespeople for their fields. Research was transformed from a parochial, monkish pursuit into a profitable enterprise. The Chaucer scholar “no longer walked so tall on the campus.” A professor who spent a lot of time on teaching was probably a loser—otherwise, why hadn’t he been whisked away for high-profile research?
By most measures, of course, the postwar years seemed a high point for the American university. The G.I. Bill and broadening admissions policies opened even the Ivy League to candidates far outside the St. Grottlesex crowd. Graduate enrollment swelled, and, with the universities’ growth, so did professorial employment. Fresh departments (applied mathematics at Brown; linguistics at M.I.T.; Asian languages at Stanford) were created. New industries took root in the shadow of high-tech labs. Schools of art and drama were now fixtures on campus. Love beads, caftans, and other artifacts of proud differentiation appeared on the quad. Colleges became not just molders of clean young men but centers where people of many backgrounds could mold educations for themselves.
The groovy lore of college—the notion that it is a place to find yourself, follow your passions, learn to think in ways that benefit the world—dates to this era, too. Nisbet thought that these ideals were mostly feel-good bunk. Since when was it the university’s responsibility to solve all of society’s problems? he asked. And why should a professor rich in knowledge have to teach things that a callow nineteen-year-old considered “relevant” and “meaningful”? Academe ought to focus on the one thing that it actually did well: letting scholars teach what they knew. That teaching might nurture intellectual skills that the students could use in the real world, but how it did so was mysterious and, anyway, beside the point. People had a tendency to want too much from a college degree, Nisbet warned:
Far more deadly to the character of the university than its exploitation in economic terms is its exploitation in psychological terms. That is, cultivation of the pernicious idea that by sending young people to universities one is teaching them to be human beings, to become citizens, to become leaders, or to find peace of mind, individuality, liberal arts, “soul,” or whatever may be in the public mind at the moment.
In other words: we’re here to tell you everything you should know about Chaucer, not to fix your life.
To look at Nisbet’s plaintive book alongside Deresiewicz’s is a beer-goggles experience. For all its reactionary bluster, “The Degradation of the Academic Dogma” was perceptive and prescient. The turn it traced, from Western-canon “knowledge” to scholarship drawing on the outside world, marked a seam not only in the culture of the university but in postwar intellectual life more generally. The seam runs through Deresiewicz, but it is squiggly. He wants the aloof focus of the old university. He also wants the broader cultural responsibility of the new one. His book attempts to sweep away the fatuous ambition of college today, but it falls back on another, less cohesive set of myths.
The collision of old and new ideals is clearest when it comes to the gnarly socioeconomics of collegiate education. The professors at the old university were, with few exceptions, white, male, trained through direct lineage, and self-selected for an interest in the Western canon. The students at the élite schools were mostly patrician, also white and male, and, owing to these and other factors, not terribly anxious about their post-graduation circumstances. Deresiewicz is right that today’s college students are more risk-averse. That’s partly because there’s much more risk to be averse to. A Yalie of the Nick Carraway generation could afford to “stand outside the world for a few years,” as Deresiewicz puts it. It cost nothing: a Wall Street job awaited.
Today, the markets wait for nobody, and leaving college with nothing except your course credits makes you exactly one of nearly two million Americans, most of them job-seeking, who received a bachelor’s diploma this year. (About a million more took higher degrees.) Credentialism—the pursuit of markers of success for distinction in the eyes of strangers—is what happens when you wipe away the grime of old-boy exclusivity. And the cost of a college education isn’t easy to ignore. Deresiewicz bristles at the idea that unprofitable pursuits, like philosophy or travel, are “self-indulgent” for young people at the cusp of graduation. “Going into consulting isn’t self-indulgent?” he protests, railing at the assumptions of the money-minded. “It’s not okay to study history, because what good does that really do anyone, but it is okay to work for a hedge fund. It’s selfish to pursue your passion, unless it’s going to make you a lot of money, in which case it isn’t selfish at all.”
His complaint is sound, but these quandaries are distinctly middle-class. Deresiewicz suggests that someone who grew up poor should be at least as eager to turn down the lucrative consulting job and take a risky road as anybody else. “If you grow up with less, you are much better able to deal with having less,” he counsels. “That is itself a kind of freedom.” The advice seems cheap. When an impoverished student at Stanford, the first in his family to go to college, opts for a six-figure salary in finance after graduation, a very different but equally compelling kind of “moral imagination” may be at play. (Imagine being able to pay off your loans and never again having to worry about keeping a roof over your family’s heads.) William S. Burroughs, a corporate scion of élite genealogy, began reinventing himself at Harvard as a louche explorer of the underworld. Why shouldn’t someone who grew up in a crack-blighted neighborhood be equally free to reimagine himself as a suit?
Like many before him, Deresiewicz points out that the promise of pure meritocracy is something of a farce. In 1985, only forty-six per cent of students at the two hundred and fifty most selective colleges were from the top quarter of income distribution; a decade and a half later, fifty-five per cent of the students were. This is thought to be in part because of a growing commercial test-preparation industry, and because enrichment culture, like music lessons and service trips abroad, is a part of bourgeois life. S.A.T. scores track with the level of both parental education and parental wealth. The upper middle reproduces itself in the guise of the best kids rising to the top. “Affirmative action should be based on class instead of race, a change that many have been calling for for years,” Deresiewicz writes. It is his strategy for breaking the upper-middle-class cycle, and it’s a reasonable notion. But it requires viewing college as a socioeconomic elevator: you go in disadvantaged and you come out comfortable, thanks to the fine job you got, thanks to the credentials and connections you acquired along the way. It is the very model that Deresiewicz has been urging us to smash.
So which is it? Is élite college the idyll where intellectually curious young people find the time to engage with the great books and those who love them; learn from one another without impingement from the outside world; and then leap off the cliff of the unknown? Or is it the launching pad, where, in exchange for hard work and some forward planning, students—most crucially, those from marginalized communities—are positioned for careers worthy of their capabilities and a long-term safety net? “I used to think that we needed to create a world where every child had an equal chance to get to the Ivy League,” he writes. “I’ve come to see that what we really need is to create one where you don’t have to go to the Ivy League, or any private college, to get a first-rate education.”
Fortunately, that world already exists. It’s possible to get a topnotch education at any number of public universities and liberal-arts colleges, both of which Deresiewicz cites as alternatives to the Ivies. He has learned that you can get great seminar teaching, liberal-artsy students, and idyllic apartness at small schools like Kenyon and Reed. And he has seen that you can find diversity at large public institutions such as the University of California. How distinguishing are these features, though? Outside the classroom, Reed boasts its own flavor of extracurriculars, career-tracking events, and service outreach. (There is even a proprietary “leadership development” program.) U.C.L.A. offers fifty-eight freshman seminars this fall, on topics ranging from Martin Buber to space meteorology. Beginning with steep and far-reaching admissions standards, both show the sins and the saving graces of a school like Yale. The spectrum of liberal-arts institutions is both narrower and more continuous than Deresiewicz allows.
Nor are its tensions new. Edward III, lauding the University of Oxford in 1355, singled out not only its scholarship but the way that it funnelled smart people into statecraft. Harvard’s foundational charter, from 1650, is largely a document about who is allowed to elicit “sundry gifts, legacies, lands, and revenues for the advancement of all good literature, arts, and sciences” from the pocketbooks of people around town—a project to which the university remains impressively committed. The awkward balance between mind and matter, academics and ambition, doesn’t pervert college’s native mission. From the earliest days of the institution, it has been the fragile nature of the thing itself.
A chief terror of higher education for a lot of students isn’t the exams, or the term papers, or even the terribly narrow but weirdly long bunk beds. It is the choice involved in working through an uncharted terrain whose potential is reported to be limitless. That task is a microcosm of life. The mystery of what will matter, how the pieces will in hindsight fit together, is equally pressing for the overachiever and for Deresiewicz’s risk-seeking soul person. And, despite what Deresiewicz fears, it’s possible to build a vivid and enduring education in the rush of large, élite schools. That may, in some sense, be the point. The stresses of an era can’t be wished away; the truest intellectual training could be how to stay calm, and keep thinking clearly, in the high-strung culture in which students need to make their lives.
The best advice I ever got in college came from the freshman-year adviser to whom I had been assigned. (“Kids are basically handed a course catalogue and told to figure it out for themselves,” Deresiewicz writes, but that’s not true.) I had come into her office with a dog-eared copy of the catalogue. I thought that maybe I would take a class on Keats? And physics? My adviser, who taught history, shook her head. “The topics aren’t important,” she said. “What you want to do is find the people who are the best teachers and the best writers and take whatever they teach.” It’s advice that would have pleased Nisbet, with its deference to the faculty, and Deresiewicz, with its unconcern for usefulness and the achievement track. It certainly pleased me.
And I’m sure that if I had been a Yale student I’d have ended up in Deresiewicz’s classroom. By every indication in his book, he is a caring and inspired teacher. Élite universities no doubt need more like him. (Deresiewicz left Yale after failing to get tenure; he now lives in Portland, Oregon, and writes.) Beneath his fury at the failings of higher education is an almost religious belief in its potential. The stakes are, in truth, lower than he thinks. A college education, even a poor one, isn’t the final straightaway of self-realization, after all. It is the starting gate. College seniors leave with plans for law careers and then, a J.D. later, find their bliss as graphic artists. Financiers emerge as novelists. Avowed actors thrive in corporate life. And some alumni, maybe more than some, never get there; they work, marry, bear kids, buy homes, and feel that their true lives have somehow passed them by.
Would better college years have made those people more fulfilled? Even in the era of fast tracks and credentialism, the psychic mechanisms of an education are mysterious. Let teachers like Deresiewicz believe. For a couple of hours every week, students are theirs in the classroom to challenge and entrance. Then the clock strikes, and the kids flock back into the madness of their lives. Did the new material reach them? Will the lesson be washed from their minds? Who knows. They heard it. Life will take care of the rest. ♦