It's polemical title leaves us in no doubt of what to expect from this book. William Deresiewicz has written a passionate attack on everything that’s wrong with today’s elite universities and colleges and the credentialed students who attend them. He terms it “a letter to my twenty-year-old self,” who would have benefited from hearing about such matters. Instead, he went dutifully through the correct academic motions: He majored in biology and psychology at Columbia, then decided it was literature he must pursue; graduate study and teaching at Columbia was followed by 10 years at Yale, after which he left the academy. (He doesn’t say whether he was denied tenure or decided not to stand for it.)
The book emanated from an essay he published in the American Scholar about the “disadvantages” of an elite education, an essay that received widespread response and launched him into his current role as culture critic, visiting many institutions and talking to the inmates thereof. By “elite” he means prestigious universities and colleges, as well as “the large universe of second-tiered schools.” More sweepingly, this includes “everything leading up to and away from” such schools, from applications to post-college careers in medicine, the law, investment banking, and “consulting” (the last two of which are chosen by large numbers of graduates). Deresiewicz criticizes the students who, as “excellent sheep,” play the college game all too well; but he adds that his critique is really directed at their parents (“the rest of us”), who cooperate and encourage the game with money and other resources.
As a professor of literature at one of those elite institutions, I have noted that parents are concerned that their children be taught to write well—a useful skill in various careers—but are not at all worried about what their children are reading. These students, “super people,” victims of high achievement, engage in a “frenzy of extra-curricular activities” but are not as happy as they may look. Deresiewicz says that in his 10 years of teaching at Yale, he was unaware of the depths of unhappiness from which many of his students suffered, evidenced by the increasingly used college health facilities. He also charges them with a willingness to “color within the lines” their education had marked out for them. He finds very little passionate concern with ideas, even at the level of the once-famous college bull sessions that must have fallen by the wayside—too time-consuming, perhaps? Nor is he impressed by the Diversity that all elite insitutions pat themselves on the back for having achieved.
To Deresiewicz, everybody looks pretty much alike, extremely normal:
No hippies, no punks, no art school types or hipsters, no butch lesbians or gender geeks, no black kids in dashikis. The geeks don’t look that geeky; the fashionable kids go in for understated elegance.
As he sees it, “diversity” pretty much means that “thirty-two flavors of vanilla” are now available on campus.
If one were to protest that these charges smack of simplification, even sensationalism, and adduce this or that person who doesn’t conform to the norm Deresiewicz stakes out, he would say: Of course, but no matter; his exaggerations are of a real, unfortunate situation. In the chapter that treats the history of how things came to be what they are, he notes the replacement of an “aristocratic” system of colleges and universities that existed up into the 1960s. This system was taken to task by the onetime president of Yale, Kingman Brewster, who helped create a “meritocracy,” displacing the old-boy network that was already being undermined as more colleges became coeducational. In the last few decades, acceptance rates have declined enormously, with some colleges even expanding their applicant pool so as to make their rates more impressive. Add to this the U.S. News & World Report’s yearly ranking to stoke the competitive fervor. In any given year, accepted students will be assured that they are the most intelligent, diverse, extraordinary group of young people ever so lucky as to fall in with one another.
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.
This is what may result from reading Pride and Prejudice or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, if you read “alertly, with your mind and not just with glands.” But how to subordinate or subdue those glands, for want of a more inclusive term, to the claims of reason and of art? Newman again: “Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and the pride of man.”
He was speaking about the failure of even a liberally educated person to deal with original sin, the passion and the pride of human beings. Against such forces, education may well not “work.” Even if you spare today’s young the glamour of original sin, they have their own giants to contend with. For all the strong truths in the first half of Deresiewicz’s title—“The Miseducation of the American Elite”—its second half, “and the Way to a Meaningful Life,” carries with it some whistling in the dark.
William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst College.