Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Badly conceived, ill-taught, under-confident

Let’s take one more dig at William Deresiewicz, using a couple of lines of his mentioned by nicole of My Life in Books in a comment:

“I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to elite colleges, often precisely for reasons of class. I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to college at all.”

I had omitted this quote because I thought it was encrusting the gilded lily with rubies. The Jane Austen specialist “never learned” that there are smart people who never go to college. I know that formal literary study often de-emphasizes biography, but this is ridiculous. Think of how much he would have learned from a Jane Austen biography, or even an encyclopedia article.*

No college for George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, or Ernest Hemingway. That’s off the top of my head. Isaac Bashevis Singer got as far as dropping out of the Tachkemani Rabbinical Seminary in Warsaw. Then there are the bad students – Theodore Dreiser, Henry James. James did give Harvard Law School a try. A lot of writers fall into this category.

Joseph Epstein, for one. He’s the product of an elite education, with an English degree from the University of Chicago. But in a talk published in the latest issue of The New Criterion (“A Literary Education”), he describes himself as the sort of student that teachers don’t remember. No, not the sort of student – teachers he met later in life never remembered him. He was neither the “good student” who figures out what the teacher wants and gives it to him (that was me), nor was he the passionate student, excited to plunge into the subject, the sort of student he would later, when he was an English professor, especially value (also me, I hope).

Deresiewicz says that the greatest disadvantage of elite education is that it is “profoundly unintellectual,” incapable of inspiring passion for ideas or helping students “ask the big questions.” Let’s see what happened to Joseph Epstein:

“I would say that the most significant course I took at the University of Chicago was a badly conceived one that was, in effect, a history of the development of the novel. This course was ill-taught by an under-confident instructor not yet thirty. The reading equivalent of a marathon, in ten weeks the course went – at the rate of a novel per week – from The Princess of Cleves through Ulysses, with stops along the way for Jane Austen, Stendhal, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, Mann, and Proust. What do you suppose a boy of twenty gets out of reading Swann’s Way? My best guess is somewhere between 15 to 20 percent of what Proust put into it.”

This is the class that did it for Epstein, that got him moving. He realized that:

“The endless details set out in novels, the thoughts of imaginary characters, the dramatization of large themes through carefully constructed plots, the portrayals of how the world works, really works – these were among the things that literature, carefully attended to, might one day help me to learn.”

I was the good student, but I had almost exactly the same experience in a freshman English seminar, “Innovative Fiction,” taught by an excellent but decidedly non-innovative novelist at Big State U.** We read Madame Bovary, and nothing penetrated, although I could give the teacher what he wanted. Next was A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and something began to rattle around in an empty part of my head. The Sound and the Fury finally did the trick. Borges, Nabokov, and Calvino came next, and I read them with growing enthusiasm. The mental category where I had put fiction was now much too small. Literature, it turned out, contained the world. The more I read then, the more I read now, the bigger that world seems to get.

Joseph Epstein is a superb essayist, first-rate short story writer, elegant raconteur, and fine critic. In his case (elite), and in mine (much less so), the university did what it was supposed to, but not in a way that was specifically predictable.

I don’t want to hang too much on the Deresiewicz piece, which is obviously based on an idiosyncratic reaction to his students and his employer. I am more interested in his reaction to literature and what he thinks it can do, in the classroom or outside of it. His privileged students may not be getting everything out of Emerson that he demands from them. But I don’t see how he is so sure that some version of Joseph Epstein is not sitting in his class, never raising her hand, but slowly realizing that there are some surprising things going on in these books. How else is a liberal education supposed to work?

More on Epstein tomorrow. His talk is available at the website of The New Criterion, but I believe it costs $3 or some such nonsense to read. I understand that libraries often subscribe to magazines.

* I’ve lapsed into open mockery, but I don’t see how “he doesn’t really mean what he’s writing” is a good defense here. Or, here's another try, he learned that there "were" smart people who didn't go to college, but not that there "are" such people.

** If I ever relax my anonymity, I should write an appreciation of this teacher, and a couple of others.


  1. I was a noticably good student at my Big State U (much more notable in my lit classes than my science, but I hope that's just because they were smaller), loved reading, and could pick a theme and write on it with the best of the non-lit-majors. None the less, as I was quietly sitting there, I didn't have any conscious transformative experience, but I think that my profs were doing their jobs and am grateful for the introductions into lands, books and ideas I wouldn't have explored otherwise.
    Then again, I can talk to the plumber.

  2. Although I must confess, when I was a graduate student in plant ecology, the conversation was uneasy with hair stylists. They could comprehend my career (and even if it didn't come up as part of chit chat it affected my hair, so professonally it was on the agenda) and childless happily single me couldn't gossip correctly. If I describe myself as a teacher and not a botanist I do much better these days.

  3. It's close to Romantic pedagogical nonsense to think that some sort of transformative experience is the goal of liberal education. Or at least that it should happen immediately. Give the poor kids some time. Value small changes as well as big ones.