There’s this essay, from The American Scholar, that’s been eating at me, and entertaining me. It’s by William Deresiewicz, until very recently an English professor at Yale. Deresiewicz tells us that he finds, or found , it impossible to talk to his plumber. “So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language,” and so on.
That a guy named Deresiewicz can’t talk to a plumber still cracks me up, but even funnier is that this isn’t even the point of the essay. Because it’s not Deresiewicz’s fault that he’s snobbish and anti-social, but rather the fault of his elite education.
That’s precisely what he says. Elite education “makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you”. Yeah, pal, you. “My education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class.” This message was “unmistakable.” So if you – is it still you? – went to an Ivy and missed this message, you must have skipped too many classes. And your parents scrimped and saved and sacrificed so much so you could go there. For shame.
Deresiewicz advocates a return to a more humanistic model of education, although he gives few hints as to what that might look like. Based on his weird, gratuitous crack at the Yale economics and computer science departments, it must involve forcing students in the sciences and social sciences to take more humanities classes. Yet he doesn’t seem to think that the literature students are any better.
Come to think of it, he was once one of them, and look how that turned out. One reason – possibly the main reason – I spend so much of my time reading literature is that it introduces me to a range of people that I will never meet, and, given that most of them “lived” in the distant past, never could. Viking poets, Japanese ghosts, Victorian lady travelers. I don’t just meet them, but I see the most intimate details of their lives, even their thoughts. Deresiewicz points to a quotation from Terence as a humanistic ideal: “nothing human is alien to me.” Easier said than done, and probably not quite true for anyone, but this is central to why I study literature, why my “Currently Reading” list is currently entirely about Japan, why I’m tempted to drop everything for classical Sanskrit literature.*
So what happened? I was thinking that maybe Deresiewicz should spend some time with the farmers and carpenters in Adam Bede. JD at What Do I Know?, who pointed me towards this essay, recommends Rabelais, a powerful cure for many ills. But I don’t think they will work here. Deresiewicz is the author of one scholarly book, titled Jane Austen and the Romantic Poets. That’s right. He’s a Wordsworth expert! He has read and reread “Michael” and “Resolution and Independence” and they were useless to him. His education was just that damaging. William and Dorothy had no problem talking to that leech gatherer, although come to think of it he was a voluble fellow, and now I realize that the fault may lie with the shy plumber.
In Mansfield Park, a girl from a poor family is taken in by her rich relations. Fanny is abused and ignored, and her snobby cousins sometimes have trouble knowing how to talk to her. A key sequence of the novel is when Fanny returns to her poor family after many years and finds herself horrified by the noise and disorder and bad behavior. In her most virtuous act, Fanny manages to take one of her younger sisters with her when she returns to the rich family. Deresiewicz is an expert on this novel, too.
Some of this may be unfair, but Deresiewicz specifically criticizes his Yale students for failing to recognize the useful lessons contained in literature. For example, they can’t see why Emerson, in his essay on friendship, puts a high value on solitude. Youth, it turns out, is callow. I wonder if Deresiewicz is akin to Okakura here. If one reads that big shelf of books and is still self-absorbed, ambitious, and narrow, then something went wrong, he thinks.
Joseph Epstein has written (I’m paraphrasing) that the only reason to go to an Ivy League school is so you don’t spend the rest of your life blaming your failures on not having gone to an Ivy. His point, or at least the part not about envy and resentment, is really very simple – that a good education is available at lots of schools – and I once thought it was clever and wise. Yet here I find a fellow who actually blames his failures, and those of many others, on having gone to an Ivy. Joe, you let me down.
Tomorrow, I’ll give Epstein a chance to redeem himself.
The essay was published recently in The American Scholar. I’m not convinced that it’s worth reading – the closer I looked at it, and the more I thought about it, the less logical its arguments seemed – but some smart people think otherwise, it does contain a number of points that I have ignored, and it’s pretty short.**
* For good reason – come back later in the week.
** There’s the possibility that this is all some sort of Swiftian provocation, by which I mean, all made up. I’m not so good at recognizing those.