Tuesday, August 19, 2008

So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values.

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.


  1. Also ignoring any Swiftian possibilities...

    I have only scrolled 1/3 of the way through and am somewhat nauseated. His subhead is "Our best universities have forgotten
    that the reason they exist is to make
    minds, not careers"—but it sounds like he's saying the exact opposite. They've made his mind, not just his career, "elite."

    I did not go to an Ivy (though I did go to, um, "the Harvard of Canada") but all my experience with friends who stayed in the States and people I've met since has impressed upon me that this is a class issue, not a university education one. When he says:

    "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."

    He didn't miss out on these facts because he went to an Ivy, but because his entire life leading up to that was sheltered in some way. I went to a high school where well under 50% of the graduating class was going on to higher education, and about 50% of those that did went to community college. Plenty of people I went to university with have no conception of this, because they spent their prior life in prep school or boarding school and all their parents were college-educated professionals.

    I think when he goes on to discuss how going to an elite university takes away your opportunity not to be rich, also, is completely absurd. It's the people who don't go to great colleges, by and large, who are most concerned with working a paying job when they get out. Ivy kids do unpaid internships, charity work, earn a pittance at nonprofits—because they have outside support. Deresiewicz discusses the inculcation of progressive values into the rich at these schools; that progressivism is real and I find it strongest among the prep-school-to-Ivy types I know now.

    Long comment, but...I guess I'm just not sure what all the hand-wringing is for. Rich people and poor people don't understand each other!!!

  2. I guess the first question is - is what he is purporting even true in the first place? Do people coming from Harvard or Yale or Princeton or wherever feel superior to non-Ivy Leaguers? I can't answer that question. I do recall, however, that even at my small, private west coast university we were often reminded how "special" we were. I can only imagine the message might be stronger at a university with an international reputation.

    I'm so glad you've taken such a harsh view of this article, because its making me think about it more than I might have otherwise. I've now read it a few times. At first glance I did find his arguments rather compelling, probably because I've now become so familiar with the Swiss education system and when the two are compared, a lot of what he mentions in his article stands out. If you're interested, I'll talk about that.

    However, I think you make an excellent point that a person shouldn't blame anyone but him or herself for not being able to relate to someone of a different social class or educational background. Deresiewicz may be making an example of himself to prove a point without pointing harsh fingers, because you'd think if the guy were really aware of the problem, then voila, problem solved.

    I believe, perhaps incorrectly, that the majority of Ivy Leaguers come from America's upper class, so what do the 18 years behind their 4 years at school have to do with the phenomenon he's describing?

    His grade inflation argument was fascinating to me, I've read a little about grade inflation in the US and do believe it is a problem...that it would be extreme at Ivy League schools is not what I was expecting, so if that really is the case, I'm disappointed.

    I may have to write my own post on the article, this comment is getting way too long and I'm jumping all over the place.

  3. Nicole, the statistics for my high school are almost exactly the same as yours. Statistics are clearly not a strong point for Deresiewicz. Plenty of Ivy grads seem to figure out how to not be rich - they're smart kids.

    verbivore - yes, I'm interested in how the Swiss deal with this. As for grade inflation, it's real and should be an embarrassment at certain schools - Stanford, Harvard, I'm looking at you. But it's also limited in some ways - hard sciences typically grade harder than social sciences which grade harder than humanities. And PhD programs certainly don't pull any punches.

    Still - I agree that a real fear of flunking out of Yale could usefully motivate certain students to work harder. But to become passionate about ideas and cultivate the life of the mind? Unlikely.

    Thanks for the long comments - thoughtful, helpful stuff.

  4. It may have just been chemistry. I remember a meeting like that with someone, a teaching colleague everyone said was a really great guy. The mutual first impression was that we would have absolutely nothing to say to each other. There is no animosity between us and we practice all the usual courtesies, but otherwise neither of us knows what to say when we are in each other's company. There are others whom I find more objectionable that I can have a normal conversation with, but I cannot have a conversation with him.

  5. No, Deresiewicz blames all of his classes, not just Chemistry.

    Sorry, went for the joke! Assuming D.'s anecdote is even true, there are obviously many possible causes, none of which would make for much of a magazine article. Although, come to think of it, neither did this one.