Deresiewicz is concerned about the particular character of meritocratic elitism in contemporary higher education, and about the relationship between how higher education sees tomorrow’s elites and how it sees tomorrow’s middle managers.
As in his earlier piece, I think he overstresses the extent to which some of the problems he’s talking about are novel or contemporary. Take for example his opening paragraph:
It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League dees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. “Ivy retardation,” a friend of mine calls this. I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn’t talk to the man who was standing in my own house.
I don’t think the best and the brightest of the Ivy League in 1920 were just hanging out with the working man over brats and brews. But little of their elite status was attributed to the transformative impact of their education, nor were there any pretenses that a university education was or should be available on an egalitarian basis. The Ivy League was part of a system of class and social distinction but it was not generating that distinction. It was a finishing process that gave an elite its manners and distinctions. Then (and now) there were both students and scholars who pursued learning and erudition with extraordinary seriousness and commitment, but they were the exception rather than the rule.
It was only after 1945 that higher education was considered both something that a democratic society should make available to most of its citizens and something which had profoundly transformative and aspirational implications. Earlier pressures towards practical or applied knowledge, whether technical or otherwise, also reached a full flowering in American and European higher education after 1945. The role of the university in producing a higher standard of living in the United States after 1945 is pretty well-documented: this is not just a story we imagine. Small wonder that the university is still expected to secure the economic prospects of its graduates, whatever else it might do for their minds, character or cultural outlook, because that’s what the university has done.
I think Deresiewicz is right about some of the cultural outlook and competencies of elite college and university students, and right to suggest that at least some of that has to do with the competitive pressures that get them into those institutions and the curricular and extra-curricular experiences they have when they get there.
Leave aside some of his transposition of his own own idealized preferences onto a universalized scale for a moment. (He worries, for example, that his current students can’t imagine solitude as Emerson did. I don’t see that, and frankly, even if I did, so what? There’s nothing universal or necessary about Emersonian brooding off in the wilderness somewhere, nor is that a prerequisite for living an introspective life.)
Where I think he’s right on the mark is that the template for the highly competitive, aspirational student produces a contradictory sort of performance of egalitarian concern for social transformation coupled in many cases with an exquisitely elitist affect, that many bright students become less socially and culturally literate rather than more so in their four years in college. Deresiewicz worries that the commitment to social transformation he sees in past generations of American intellectuals has disappeared, and that few students see themselves as being on an intellectual journey or pilgrimmage. They think for themselves, he remarks, “only because they know we want them to”. (So too do many speak of social transformation: because that is what a potential holder of power in the future is supposed to do.)
This is one reason I really like Swarthmore’s War News Radio. People involved in the program have heard my schtick on this project many times. What I usually say is this: I don’t care so much that the program helps students to understand the war in Iraq or Afghanistan, or to know more about the Middle East. I’m somewhat indifferent about whether it makes them better journalists or whether the shows are of a consistently high quality. What I like about the program is that the students who seriously participate in it gain confidence and experience in speaking conversationally to a wide variety of strangers, and they get a much better understanding of the usefulness and limitations of academic knowledge. This is a kind of education that Swarthmore and most institutions like it provide in limited (or nonexistent) ways, that some of our students may take a very long time to acquire (or may never acquire at all, particularly if they become academics themselves.) I stress that in some cases, participants may find out that academic knowledge is immensely useful or enlightening. The point is not to denigrate all that happens within the ivory tower and exalt all things beyond its boundaries as salt-of-the-earth goodness.
The process works for War News Radio because the students are operating beyond the protective screen we otherwise provide to them, and get a kind of feedback about what comes off well and what comes off badly that we might either not be able or willing to provide in other circumstances. Over the years, I’ve sometimes been struck that students involved in political or administrative business inside the college take stances or positions that are just weirdly disconnected from common sense or they have a totally tin ear for inadvertent insults they’ve dished out, and the problem is that nobody’s going to tell them so.
Deresiewicz flirts with a declensionist answer to his problem, with a hint that once upon a time, there were thoughtful intellectuals rather than 21st Century mandarins. As usual, I don’t buy it. I do think there’s a problem here, though. The answer might be trying to get students to see education more as a journey, though the more that gets put into the official “mission statement” of higher education, the more that will just be one more thing that tomorrow’s applicants learn how to game and perform for our approval. I’d rather concentrate less on the difficulty of transforming the subtle attitudes and predispositions of our students and more on concrete pedagogies and programs. One thing I get from War News Radio is that students can get a much richer sense of how to speak and self-present (and how to listen and understand) if we ask them to practice more modes of communication, to work with more than one kind of literacy or in more than one register. The problem with that insight, unfortunately, is our own limitations. It’s hard to ask your students to translate academic or intellectual insight into other forms and genres of public communication if you neither appreciate nor understand those genres yourself.