The Magazine

Learn and Live

Doth this ex-Ivy Leaguer protest too much?

Sep 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 01 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
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In the face of all this, what can the student do who somehow begins to realize that, in the words of Columbia English professor Edward Tayler, he or she is there to “build a self” rather than add decorations to one already in place? Deresiewicz has some good advice for the many students who have to deal with their “helicopter parents.” Aided by new technologies, children can report daily to their moms and dads about how they’re doing. A memory: In my freshman dormitory, there was one pay phone on each floor (almost no one had one in his room), and the line you waited in on Sunday nights—when I sometimes tried to call home—was such as to discourage the attempt. Deresiewicz says bluntly, and I think wisely:  

Don’t talk to your parents more than once a week or even better, once a month. Don’t tell them your grades on papers and tests, or anything else about how you’re doing during the term. If they try to interfere with course selection, tell them politely to back off.

He quotes with approval an essay by Terry Castle that recommends a kind of “self-orphaning,” the idea that defying or disappointing one’s parents is the only way to build self-reliance. He doesn’t add that such strong advice is surely not about to be taken up by the majority of young people.  

Of course, it’s easier to say what not to do than to provide a “do” with convincing life. Deresiewicz’s recommendation is an old one: In his chapter called “Great Books,” he speaks of “that most powerful of instructional technologies,” “a liberal arts education centered on the humanities, conducted in small classrooms by dedicated teachers,” the product of which should be truly a liberal education. This idea was anticipated, and most eloquently formulated, by John Henry Newman in 1852, in the great Discourse V in The Idea of a University. Titled “Knowledge its own end,” Newman was at pains to distinguish “liberal” from “useful” knowledge, the latter of which he does not denigrate but which is not directed toward philosophical, general ideas. 

Newman’s outmoded (and to some, offensive) vocabulary—that the aim of liberal knowledge is to produce a “gentleman”—can still, with proper verbal modification, be respected. Newman justifies the pursuit of liberal knowledge with this fine rhetorical sweep that ends one of his paragraphs: “Not to know the relative disposition of things is the state of slaves or children; to have mapped out the universe is the boast, or at least the ambition, of Philosophy.” 

Deresiewicz never invokes Newman, and his principal aim is more aesthetically than philosophically directed. He is also, perhaps, more sanguine than his predecessor about the possibilities: “Art teaches empathy and cultivates the emotional intelligence; maybe it can make you a better person.” The “maybe” and the hopeful italicization of “can” signal Deresiewicz’s less-than-perfect confidence in his own recommendations. He believes in mentorship, and my own mentor (he would have despised the word) Theodore Baird, who devoted his life energies to the teaching of literature and of composition, used to declare that “education doesn’t work.” It was a claim I never asked him to explain, but it has remained with me. 

Deresiewicz tries hard not to be so gloomy, if that is the word, but doubts come creeping in when he surveys today’s scene, with economics the preferred major in seven out of the top nine liberal arts colleges. Then there are athletics, not just at Big Ten or Big South football and basketball schools, but at elite colleges that field both men’s and women’s teams in baseball, softball, tennis, squash, golf, crew, cross-country, track and field, and, especially these days, lacrosse. Living across the street from my college’s elite, newly minted athletic stadium, I had the dubious privilege last spring of witnessing endless weekend lacrosse tournaments for both men and women, stretching from morn to night and watched by numbers of parents equipped with large cars, dogs, and bottled water. Newman would have had some difficulty in dealing with this situation.

So the notion that students, elite ones or otherwise, can cultivate a new self by reading and discussing Hamlet or Middlemarch is, I fear, a utopist one, given the press of activities, pleasant diversions, career worries, and the demands of keeping up with at least four courses per term. 

If the liberal arts turn certainties into questions, the humanities do that, in particular, with ethical and existential certainties: our convictions about how we should act and whom we should be.