M is for Mandarin

Via 11D, here’s an article by William Deresiewicz that I like considerably more than his recent standard-issue world-we-have-lost complaint about contemporary English Departments.

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.

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17 Responses to M is for Mandarin

  1. Dear Dr. Deresiewicz,

    To the man with the Boston accent and the Red Sox cap, I kindly suggest you discuss with him the game of baseball, as he is probably familiar with it. You may like to throw in a word about Manny-Being-Manny or the bloody sock, two subjects with which I believe this man will be familiar.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Maybe we need a first-year seminar on talking points for bridging class and social differences.

    “Week 1: Talking About the Weather”
    “Week 4: Sports! (Remember not to talk about lacrosse)”
    “Week 11: The Hard Stuff: Religion, Politics, Varieties of Cheeses”

  3. Hey, this may be just the spin I’ve been looking for–a way to explain how valuable and relevant and public-spirited it is for me to be teaching overachieving college students how to write a pop song. When it comes to form, genre, and public communication, what can match that?

  4. Bill McNeill says:

    If you were William Deresiewicz’s plumber would you want to get sucked into a conversation with him? After going through his entire article, I’m inclined to dismiss it as self-regarding piffle from an Ivy League nitwit, but the charitable reading you give it raises an interesting question: is college supposed to be the place where you learn to talk to people who aren’t like you? I think there’s a narrow and a broad way to phrase this question, and I’m only inclined to answer yes for the former.

    The narrow version is “should it be part of the mission of the liberal arts in academia to teach rhetorical skills that are useful for communicating to a mass audience”? To this, I think the answer is yes. Being able to talk to people outside your area of expertise about your area of expertise is not a skill everyone is born with, but it can be learned, and college seems like a good place to learn it. The burden might fall particularly hard on those areas of the liberal arts that have an inherently political cast such as history and political science. It is possible to identify reasons why contemporary universities might not do a good job at this (overspecialization in academic fields, a professoriat that is too homogeneously liberal upper middle class) and ways to go about fixing them.

    The broader version is “is college the primary place where people learn to be comfortable around people who aren’t exactly like themselves”? To this, I think the answer is a resounding no. Being able to communicate across cultural barriers is a valuable skill, but college seems like exactly the wrong place to learn how to do it. For me this falls into the long list of life skills–some of them important public-citizen type life skills–that universities cannot provide simply because higher education is not the end-all be-all means for making a well-adjusted person in society. Even if Ivy League programs were reformed to the point where the future Deresiewiczs of the world were able to chit-chat comfortably with their plumbers, where does that leave the poor plumbers? (Nodding politely and trying not to roll their eyes, I imagine.) There’s something admirable in the idea of a liberal arts education being a transformative experience for the whole person and not just the intellect, but if you push the transformative bit too far you end up with a noblesse oblige fantasy that doesn’t give enough credit to people who don’t go to college.

  5. hwc says:

    …self-regarding piffle from an Ivy League nitwit

    Thank you. I couldn’t even finish reading the quote. The elitism made my skin crawl.

    I would say that the inability of an Ivy League graduate to make chit-chat with a baseball fan plumber speaks more to a comprehensive failure of the admissions office than anything else. Where do they find these people? Maybe they should stop looking there?

  6. prof.e says:

    May I recommend to everyone a research project that requires you to talk with (and not just to) the non-academic public? I just finished something that involved a lot of historical hobbyists, and I found that, in fact, we did have a lot to say to each other.

  7. lfc says:

    I agree with much of what Bill McNeill says. There are certain social skills people have to learn outside of a formal setting, assuming they don’t come “naturally”. As anecdotal evidence, I offer the fact that I went to an Ivy League university (for college not grad school) and don’t have any trouble conversing with plumbers or most other people, possibly because I realize that they have opinions and views about a variety of subjects beyond sports.

  8. Timothy Burke says:

    I don’t see why you shouldn’t *try* to learn wisdom, or what people might call “emotional intelligence” in college. Which what I think lets you be comfortable enough in your own skin to talk with and live with and be with people who aren’t you. But I don’t see what I can be expected to do as a professor to reliably and repeatedly teach wisdom, most especially considering that I don’t especially see that as something I’ve achieved myself, most certainly not achieved as a part of my specialized training as an academic.

  9. Bill McNeill says:

    You know, the American educational institution in which people learn to socialize across class lines isn’t college, it’s high school. Even though school districts are determined by neighborhood, and academic tracking correlates with socioeconomic status, if you go to a large enough public school you’re likely to be lumped in with people from a fairly broad set of backgrounds. I remember an AP history teacher I had (back at Abington Senior High, not so far from from Swarthmore as it turns out) telling the class, “Unless you go into the military, this is probably the last time in your life you’ll spend a lot of time around people who are different than you.”

  10. jpool says:

    Week 11: The Hard Stuff: Religion, Politics, Varieties of Cheeses

    See, I would think cheese would come up in the curriculum both earlier (Week 7: Not assuming that others share your particular lifestyle or interests) and later (Week 13: Trying not to be condescending; Recognizing when people know something about what you’re talking about or When others’ peculiar interests overlap with your own) than the religion and politics section.

  11. Justin says:

    Tim: I’m curious what it is about War News Radio that gets the students that kind of feedback. It sounds right, but I’m having a hard time concretely imagining what form the feedback takes.

  12. Timothy Burke says:

    I think the feedback comes in four ways.

    1. (The most important, in my view): the small verbal and attitudinal cues from people the students are interviewing about whether the student is making sense, communicating naturally, and so on. I’m sure there have been participants in WNR who’ve been largely unable to pick up on some cues and haven’t improved much in their ability to connect with interviewees, and almost all of them have reported feeling uneasy about having to do this kind of work, at least at first, because they find it so intimidating. But the students who’ve really committed to doing it and have participated in the making of multiple pieces for WNR I think really become much more confident, less “academic” communicators.

    2. The feedback from the program advisor. This has been varied by the particular experience and insights our different advisors have brought to the program, but it has given the students a lot of advice that comes from outside the bubble of the college. Also one of my colleagues has devoted a tremendous amount of effort to advising the program and I think she’s given some of that same feedback to the students.

    3. The feedback they get from each other as part of the process of doing work that everyone gets to hear, comment on, and that has a public character. Normally our students are fairly inhibited and polite if they have to comment on each other’s work in a class, for all sorts of reasons. My impression is that the WNR students are still “nice” to each other, but I think the practical drive towards getting a program on the air, the constraints of the format and so on give the students a sharper, more incisive eye on each other’s work–and the consciousness that you’re making something that others will hear and comment on helps push away some of the overly dense, overly academic fog that often surrounds work elsewhere in the curriculum.

    4. I don’t know how much feedback they get directly from listeners–I keep meaning to send them comments, but I haven’t–but I do know they get a little from people who have an interest in the program. I think knowing you have an audience out there somewhere, that this thing goes beyond the borders of the college, that if you make a mistake or you’re unclear or you’re too caught up in theories of state formation that you studied last week in a course, it has consequences that go beyond the difference between a B+ and an A- on a paper, is an implicit kind of “feedback” that shapes the communicative ability of the students in new directions.

  13. Dance says:

    Eh. He makes a lot of legit points, but I’m not believing the overall conclusions. I may have to blog about it myself. I saw the NYT make essentially this same point about Obama a while back (sorry, cannot find the article)—that the Ivy League had destroyed his ability to relate to the common man— and I’m a little curious about the coincidence.

    re “is college supposed to be the place where you learn to talk to people who aren??t like you?” —well, that *is* one of the basic premises behind affirmative action and other social engineering of the college community.

    I agree with Bill McNeill’s general point that the problem does not form in the Ivy League, but is part of the general class stratification in the US. In fact, done right, upper-class students *will* meet people out of the ghetto at Harvard, etc. Anecdotal evidence—I came out of a poor/lower-middle-class family to go to an *elite* SLAC with children of trust funds, and came out of the SLAC better able to talk to plumbers than before, through general self-confidence. But those poor students are busily trying to blend, and god knows we don’t want any conservative republicans feeling *sorry* for us, so the rich ones might or might not notice the difference. But I have at least one trust-fund friend who I’m quite sure came out with a better concept of what poverty is in the US than he started with, hearing people talk about foster mothers, uncles in jail for drugs, etc. Me, I now have a vague-yet-reality-based sense of what it’s like to be a Prince, and I know friends from poorer families than I who were close friends with this Prince. I’ll accept that elite SLACs may foster cross-class friendships better than the Ivy League, but I saw quite a lot of them in my years at ESLAC.

  14. machine1972 says:

    I found Deresiewicz’s example of not being able to talk to his plumber to be a bit condescending. But I appreciate the main criticism of his piece, which is going after the whole careerist system itself, which starts long before students reach places like Yale. I’ve often wondered why students are in college at all if they’re not interested in the subjects they’re studying. If a students wants to work in business and not be concerned with humanities and sciences (at least beyond the usual “what do I have to do to get an A?” way), fine, then go to a business school where you can focus on that. But at many schools, students are required to take certain courses “because they have to,” and, well, it shows.

  15. Britta says:

    Hi Tim.,
    Honestly, I was a little offended by the assumptions behind Deresiewicz’s post. Not all Ivy students are from the upper class. In fact, although imperfect, the Ivies and other elite schools are probably getting slightly more class diverse each generation. With that in mind, why assume we’re all so high minded we have no contact with the hoi polloi? What’s to say the plumber’s kid isn’t at Harvard? Maybe I just write this because it touches a personal nerve: my father was the golden boy done good, a working class kid with a full ride to Princeton. He made a conscious choice to return to his roots, and as such, I grew up, middle class prodigy in a mixed socio-economic community. For me, the experience at Swarthmore was a little like Pygmalion: although I gained access into America’s upper crust, I lost the ability to relate unselfconsciously to my working class “roots.” And when I felt most out of touch was when I assumed there really was a large gap between me and my “intellect” and my friends. Bragging is always pompous, but a little earnestness goes along way. You might find that plummer isn’t as stupid as you think.

  16. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah, I agree with that too–the assumption that the plumber can’t talk to Deresiewicz is part of the problem.

  17. Dance says:

    Along those same lines, I was astonished by “I also never learned that there are smart people who aren??t ??smart.??”

    Dude, I had that one figured out in fourth grade.

    “SAT, GPA, GRE. You learn to think of yourself in terms of those numbers.” Sure, if you are an idiot. Seventh/eighth grade, knew the PSAT wasn’t a damn thing first time I took it. “I never learned that there are smart people who don??t go to college at all.” Speechless. I was *born* knowing that.

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