Since 2009, no commencement season or back-to-college September has passed without a deluge of denunciations of upscale, liberal-arts colleges. Journalistic exposes, arm-waving jeremiads, sober analyses, reverential invocations of liberal education’s imperiled mission, poignant memoirs of undergraduate years, and novels, by turns prurient and profound, depict America’s most venerable colleges as portals to a soulless regime whose future global managers learn how to practice self-marketing, consumer marketing, predatory marketing. They also learn how to be poster boys and girls for “diversity” and merit without making themselves seriously answerable to any republican polity or moral code.
We’re also told that the public itself has shifted from paying for access and enrichment in higher education -- via the G.I. Bill and huge expenditures on universities -- to burdening students individually as customers and careerists instead of funding them as citizens who’ll learn the arts and sciences of self-discovery and shared self-governance in a republic, whose leadership crucibles used to be the colleges themselves.
These charges are true, and worrisome. So why are they landing only like fireworks, not depth charges?
One reason is that the charges are being made not politically or even intellectually but commercially -- marketed to their supposed targets not as citizens who might actually challenge current arrangements but as consumers of the books and articles themselves. Peddling denunciations is part of a very old game, sometimes a very profitable one, but it’s not a way to renew the colleges or a republic.
The title "Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life" announces a sermon for sale, as if peddling a semi-religious guide to redemption. Its author, William Deresiewicz, has been traversing the country like an itinerant preacher, storming one upscale campus after another.
Many of his charges strike me as true enough. (I’ve made many of them myself): Elite colleges have lost their civic and moral compasses and been compromised, less by leftist revolutionary agendas than by cruder market forces. But Deresiewicz assails the system with windy bromides that sound like fragments of commencement speeches urging listeners to do noble things that neither their families nor their institutions have prepared them to do; or with warmed-over revolutionary rhetoric; or, worse still, with sound-bites from anguished letters that come off like texting. All these exhortations serve really as palliatives, not prods.
Deresiewicz, a former Yale associate professor of English, does offer an important admonition: Go to college to create a self, not just a career. Humanities taught properly and taken seriously show you that you’re not the center of the universe by proving that some classical authors knew you better than you know yourself.
When that happens, it’s both humbling and exciting. Induction into the Great Conversation across the ages about lasting challenges to politics and the human spirit moves you back and forth between art and life. If you move with wise, attentive mentors, you become not a consumer or an employee but a citizen who can reflect on your circumstances, resist what’s wrong in them, and deliberate with others to change them.
But what if colleges aren’t nurturing such teaching and learning much anymore? Here, jeremiads like Deresciewicz’s tend to default to mere moralizing that may be entertaining but is often snarky, terminally ironical, or utterly empty.
For example, the New Republic titled an excerpt of Deresiewicz’s book “Don’t Send Your Kids to the Ivy League: The Nation’s Top College Are Turning Our Kids Into Zombies” and posted a photo of a Harvard pennant in flames.
Excuse me, but aren’t most editors, staffers and writers at that faux-contrarian magazine Ivy Leaguers, from its owner and publisher Chris Hughes and its editor-in-chief Franklin Foer and its literary editor Leon Wieseltier on down?
Have they all met and pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor to dethrone their alma maters? Have they sworn off sending their own kids to these colleges? Or are they playing with the insecurities of 18-year-olds and their parents with yet another of the click-bait headlines and graphics they produce each day to redecorate the cage of their own house-broken hopes?
Probably the latter, notes Harry Lewis, former dean of Harvard College and author of "Excellence Without a Soul," which is scathingly but responsibly critical of the Ivies. Even though Deresiewicz pays obeisance to Lewis’ book by citing him several times in "Excellent Sheep," Lewis notes wryly on his blog, Bits and Pieces, that the New Republic’s excerpting of Deresiewicz is just “part of the fun being had by people who went to great universities, making money telling other people that going to a great university isn't worth it.”
(Taking Lewis’ point, sort-of, the magazine has just posted a moderate defense of the Ivies by a community high-school director who has sent many students to them. But predictably, the magazine, trapped imitating CNN’s long-discredited “Crossfire” format, flippantly entitles the response, “Send Your Kids to the Ivy League!” Hey, whatever brings traffic….
Is Deresiewicz, whom the magazine has made a contributing editor, caught up in this game? So judges the all-seeing editor and wise critic Chris Lehmann in In These Times:” “Having sealed his reputation as a defender of the examined life, Deresiewicz now acts as an Oprah Winfrey for the undergraduate set,” writes Lehmann, noting that Deresiewicz "lavishes would-be students with unsolicited advice, from what sort of schools to enroll in … to how best to spend a year away from the academic grind—work at a 'part-time job,’ while quartered in a ‘lousy apartment with a bunch of friends.’ If nothing else, Deresiewicz enthuses, ‘you’ll probably meet the kinds of people that you’d never have had a chance to otherwise.’
“As such small-bore counsel piles up across the pages of "Excellent Sheep," you realize that, for all his declamations, Deresiewicz remains obsessed with the fine-tuning of elite experience.” It's bad enough that the real Oprah actually gave Harvard's commencement address this year.
In another review, just posted in BookForum, I foresee a big coronation and great sales for the book when it’s published late in August. But I don’t foresee much real change in directions that matter. For every prospective young person whom Deresiewicz scares away from the most selective colleges, others will be driven all the more desperately by those same warnings to get in.
For the whole truth about these colleges and their students, as Deresiewicz acknowledges only in passing (“I’ve had many wonderful students,” etc.), is what it has always been: While many graduates (and, yes, even some dropouts) become dray horses and show horses of the financial, legal and corporate business establishments, a critical mass of them have been nurturers and leaders of civil society’s most important strengths. Citizen-leaders strong enough to balance worldly openness with moral obligation come from all over American society, of course – from inner-city churches, immigrant settlement houses, rural farm villages, labor unions, Little Leagues, YMCAs, state universities, and denominational and historically black colleges. But an astonishing number of those institutions and associations -- including Obama’s Punahou School in Hawaii and my wife’s high school, the American College for Girls in Istanbul -- were founded and/or led by “missionary” graduates of Yale and other old colleges. It should be no affront to anyone else to note this.
In BookForum I explain what’s driving Deresiewicz’ histrionics, so here I’ll just add a couple of suggestions for would-be prophets:
Before you advise 18- or 20-year-olds, as Deresiewicz does in his book, to leave their collegiate Cities of Destruction on a fabled Pilgrim’s Progress to “a meaningful life,” be sure you’ve undertaken such a pilgrimage yourself. If, instead, you’ve stayed in the Ivies for 24 years -- as Deresiewicz did after following two older siblings from private schools to Columbia, where their father was an award-winning senior professor -- don’t spend another five years shouting angrily while darting in and out of the gates, as I show that Deresiewicz has been doing.
Instead of calling college students "entitled little shits" and "zombies," as Deresiewicz does in the book, try to emulate Dwight Macdonald, a descendant of not one but two Puritan presidents of Yale, who started his own magazine, Politics, in the 1940s and recruited some of the most compelling writers of his time -- Albert Camus, Nicola Chiaromonte, Daniel Bell, Paul Goodman -- to write, as Macdonald himself did, against the grain of his times. Or write like George Orwell, who went “down and out in Paris and London” and delivered truths about wars and crusades with the hard-won wisdom of one who’d actually fought in them.
Instead of ingratiating yourself to the publishing industry, magazine editors and awarders of literary prizes, even as you’re warning students not to court professors and deans, find better ways to plumb the abysses of our society and say what really needs to be said about them, as Orwell (and, for that matter, Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald) have done.
Don’t be arch or flip about this. George Scialabba warns that “Utopia’s false friends, revolutionists and abolitionists, insist that it can be constructed out of present materials through an heroic act of will.” Don’t be a false friend to students you barely know. Show them what it would really take to weave a better social fabric, alone and together. Discover how to do it with them instead of haranguing them. Not all of them will be prophets, but some will be organizers and mediators and arbiters who give prophets breathing room. When liberal-arts college graduates do that, as many have, they strengthen a society in ways that wealth and national-security engines cannot.
One critique of colleges that moves in this constructive direction is the Washington Monthly’s College Guide and Rankings. It departs from others by asking, as the editors put it, “not what colleges can do for you, but what colleges are doing for the country.
“Are [the colleges] … improving the quality of their teaching, or ducking accountability for it? Are they trying to become more productive — and if so, why is average tuition rising faster than health care costs? … Are we [as a society] getting the most for our money?” The guide answers in ways that confound other more commercialized, career-driven rankings.
Still, where do we find the moral imagination and the will to live by such assessments even as market and cultural riptides pull us in other directions? An answer you weren’t looking for and may not want to hear comes from the Puritan founders of Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth and from their theological “cousins,” Presbyterians who founded Princeton and northern Baptists who founded Brown: That answer runs politically and (dare one say it?) even spiritually deeper than many of us want to go.
Puritans founded Yale in 1701 because they thought that Harvard was corrupting the Puritan “city upon a hill” by embracing uncritically a world increasingly connected, but flattened, by commerce. The world isn’t flat, Yale’s founders insisted. It has abysses that open suddenly at our feet and in our hearts, and students need a faith strong enough to plumb them, face the demons in them, and, if necessary, defy earthly powers in the name of a higher one.
A tall order! But how the old colleges tried (and sometimes actually succeeded) to meet that challenge is worth examining. I’ll do that at some length in Democracy Journal this winter. Meanwhile, on the higher-ed horizon I’m seeing too many fireworks, and too many excellent sheep who think they’re prophets.