William Deresiewicz: Chris Hughes "embodies—including the 'entitled little shit' part—a lot of what I'm saying"

"We've basically reduced what it means to be human to market terms," says brilliant critic of Ivy League/higher ed

Published January 2, 2015 11:59AM (EST)

       (Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc./<a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/user_view.php?id=2918607'>Pgiam</a> via <a href='http://www.istockphoto.com/'>iStock</a>/Salon)
(Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc./Pgiam via iStock/Salon)

Describing William Deresiewicz’s "Excellent Sheep" as a book about higher education is a bit like calling Upton Sinclair’s "The Jungle" a story about meat. Yes, Sinclair was writing about meat, but he was also writing about regulation, corruption, poverty and the failures of the state.

And, yes, Deresiewicz takes college education as his subject—specifically, the way that elite colleges like Yale and Harvard, in his view, encourage conformity and careerism among their students, the so-called “excellent sheep.” But he’s also gunning for a particular notion of meritocracy, and for a society that, he argues, has gone way too far in commodifying individual lives and intellectual culture.

I spoke with Deresiewicz last summer. Since then, "Excellent Sheep" has made an appearance on the New York Times bestseller list, and Deresiewicz has toured college campuses across the country. Reached by phone for a follow-up conversation this month, Deresiewicz spoke with Salon about the implosion of The New Republic, the scandal at UVA, and how Harvard, of all the schools he’s visited, treated him the worst.

Since we last spoke, you went on a tour of, what, five Ivy League schools? I gather you survived.

Yes, I survived. It was five Ivy League schools and quite a number of other schools as well.

Did reactions differ from place to place?

It had been put out there that I had said these kids were worthless, which isn't true. It would take a few minutes, usually, for things to warm up. They would see that I'm human and that I regard them as human, and we'd be able to hear each other.

The one exception was at Harvard. It had to do not with the students, but with the way the event was structured. At Harvard they put together a panel of deans and senior faculty. I thought before the event started that this meant they were taking what I had to say seriously.

That wasn't the case at all. What it really meant was that they were so threatened by what I had to say that they had to arrange this occasion where they were going to basically burn me in effigy in front of a hostile audience. They proceeded to ask very hostile, defensive and quite frankly foolish questions. It was really an awful experience. Some students recognized this; people wrote letters to the editor in The Crimson. Harvard really disgraced itself and missed an opportunity.

Why do you think Harvard reacted that way?

I couldn't say, except that it's the Ivy League [school] that’s most implicated by what I was saying. Naturally Harvard would feel the most among the Ivies because it is the flagship university. It has no place to hide, you know?

Maybe it has to do with the particular individuals involved. I mean, they’ve constructed their entire ego structure on a foundation of the kinds of credentials I call into question.

It's been a rough year for higher education, with athletic and sexual assault scandals at UNC, Florida State, and, of course, the University of Virginia. Does your takedown of elite colleges apply, more broadly, to the culture of higher education in the United States?

Yes and no. I certainly think a lot of what I'm saying applies beyond selective colleges. This is a more general trend in the way we understand education around the world, which is that we understand it in purely practical market-oriented terms. My feeling is that this reflects a wider understanding of what life and society are for. We've basically reduced what it means to be human to market terms, to getting and spending. So education, which is about preparing you to be human, has also been reduced to those terms.

The specific things you're talking about, I don't know that they're really directly connected to what I'm talking about. They are connected in this sense: because colleges for several decades have been forced by specific changes in government policy to treat their students as customers, schools have focused on everything except instruction in core liberal arts fields. That also includes a lot of spending on athletics, and on the kind of culture that athletics and fraternity life create.

It can seem as though there's something fundamentally conservative about your book, in the sense of looking to the past. Have we always been dreaming of an educational golden era that's one generation previous to us?

Maybe you could point to where in my book I express that kind of nostalgia for the past.

I’m thinking of Joshua Rothman’s response to your book, over at The New Yorker. He argues that the problem isn't with higher education, but with a contemporary world that pushes us to live accelerated, anxious, market-oriented lives. In Rothman’s view, there's a nostalgia for the premodern in "Excellent Sheep."

If you can point to a single passage in the book that expresses that kind of nostalgia I'd be very interested to see it. I don't feel it and I don't say it.

The notion of higher education as involving not only vocational preparation and intellectual development, but something that used to be called character or moral development, has been foundational to American higher education from the beginning. I'm not looking back nostalgically at some golden age; what I'm pointing out is that there has always been this higher idea in higher education, and it's only in the last 40 years that we've lost it.

Modernity created a new idea about what it means to be young. To be young [in modernity] is to step outside of your own life. It's a phase between childhood and adult life where you get to look at the world and think about it and question it and decide what you want the world to look like. This was, in many ways, the engine of revolutionary energy during modernity for about 200 years. When college became the norm, at in least certain circles, that notion of youth as the time where you step outside of the world and you become a little rebellious and critical and you think about what you want the world to look like, that was also central to college. Rothman wants to talk about modernity, but he really didn't talk about the modern idea of youth, which is not about acceleration. It's about dissent.

I'm talking about the switch from modernity to postmodernity. Postmodernity, as I'm understanding it, is the time of neoliberalism or Reaganomics or market fundamentalism, where the only thing that matters about you is your function in the marketplace, your ability to make money and spend it. It's postmodernity that is destroying the modern concept of youth, and creating a new concept of youth where you go to college not to step outside the world and question it but simply to prepare yourself for the kinds of acceleration that Rothman talks about as belonging to adult life.

Does that same struggle between commodification and independent thought apply outside college? I’m thinking, specifically, of journalism today, and of the recent implosion of The New Republic, where you were a contributing editor.

We've always been a society where the market has been the dominant cultural and political factor but, historically, most of the time there have been counterbalancing institutions— and we can broadly call those institutions “culture.” That's meant the churches and the universities and art and thought and journalism.

What we have today is, first of all, a time when the balance is really getting out of whack. The market has come to predominate in a way that it hasn't in a long time. The other thing is that those very institutions of culture whose job it is to fight for and speak for other values like learning for its own sake, or beauty or justice or truth, they are being captured by the market. They have been bought by the market and been turned to serve the ends of the market. That’s true in higher education and it's true in journalism. It's also true in the churches, if you think about, for instance, the prosperity gospel.

What [New Republic owner] Chris Hughes doesn't understand is that The New Republic has never made money. The Nation loses money now, Harper's loses money now, and they've been reliant on benevolent plutocrats who recognize that there are more important things than the market and are willing to run them not as profit-making institutions but as institutions that have value for other reasons.

Why did that understanding break down so suddenly at The New Republic?

I was on the masthead there, but that doesn't really mean I knew anything about what was going on. I know what everybody knows, what people have been reading. Whether it's because [Chris Hughes’] husband lost his election or Hughes just got fed up or—whatever it was, suddenly he switched from being one kind of owner to another kind of owner.

What's interesting, I think, is that the language and attitude that the second kind of Chris Hughes embodies, that rhetoric and ideology was always available to him. It was almost pre-packaged and he could immediately pull it off the shelf. Obviously he had a lot of exposure to it because he worked in Silicon Valley, so he could immediately start to talk about all the crap they're talking about. It was already in place, waiting to go when he needed it.

Hughes is also an Andover and Harvard grad—very much from the elite academic world that you critique.

I think it's unfair to take one person and critique the whole institution with them, which I was really careful to avoid doing, but it certainly seems to be true that he embodies— including the “entitled little shit” part—a lot of what I'm saying.

A lot of colleges and publications are nonprofits, or, in the case of some publications, considering becoming nonprofits. Does the intellectual world you're describing have to migrate out of the marketplace altogether? Has there ever been a place for it in the market?

Universities are nonprofits, but we've already stipulated that the universities aren't doing a very good job. Also, to say that they're nonprofits—I mean, yeah, they're technically nonprofits, but there are people who work there who make an awful lot of money and, more to the point, they're very involved with the business world now. One of the big problems with universities is that they have been so captured by the market despite the fact that they are nominally nonprofits.

I think it's always been a combination of profit and nonprofit, patronage and actually making money. Broadly speaking, we can look back all the way to Renaissance Italy and recognize that culture can't be understood as purely self-supporting. That doesn't mean it should be a ward of the state, but that we shouldn't expect it to pay for itself all the time.

This has been a busy year for social activists. But we’re not exactly living in the 1960s. Is there a connection between the decline of cultural institutions and the difficulty of generating activist movements?

The really visible, ’60s-style activism, that you might say Occupy was an example of, it seems, unfortunately, to come and go. In many ways, the millennial generation seems more committed to social change than any generation since the ’60s—certainly much more than my cohort in the ’80s—but the idea of social change seems also to have been captured by the market; it seems to exist within the market. Like, I'm going to start a company that makes sneakers in a socially responsible way. It's not that I don't think that's a good thing. I do. But, again, it's limited. It's limited by the boundaries of the market itself.

Basically, what they're trying to do is imagine a better version of the world we already have, instead of a different world altogether. We seem to be stymied in terms of thinking about how to do things outside of the market, how to imagine our way beyond a market.

There is some irony, here, in that I'm interviewing you for a for-profit publication, about a book that was published—very successfully—by a for-profit publisher. Even the critique of the market comes through its lens.

Well, that's true, and I haven't come up with an answer, either.

Is it possible that independent cultural life isn’t in decline, but just moving to places that are very different from anything we’ve seen before? In other words, is it just that university campuses and Washington, D.C.,-based magazines are not going to be the future of intellectual life?

Let me put it this way: I'm not someone who believes that we should start a third party. We haven't had a new political party in this country since the 1850s, but what we have had almost every generation is an internal revolution in one of the two parties. That's what happens, and the reason it happens that way, instead of starting a third party, is because the two established parties have enormous resources. To build something from scratch that's going to stand up to that is essentially impossible, but if you can take over one of these parties you already have at your hands an enormous machine for getting things done.

It's the same with college, or The New Republic, or whatever. Yes, it's possible for a curious young person to self-teach whatever they want. But it's hard, and not just for the individual. You have thousands of colleges in the country serving millions of students. To lose all that infrastructure that is set up to give people what I'm calling a real education, that's not going to be easy to replicate.

If it were easy to just reproduce The New Republic and start it up under another name then it wouldn't matter what Hughes had done, but he took something that was built up over decades and that had in place a system for producing really good journalism, really good cultural criticism 20 times a year, and he destroyed it.

You can talk about revolutionizing university, and there are only going to be ten universities in a couple of years, but what do you think is going to replace them? It's going to be a lot of shitty MOOCs. All the stuff that doesn't pay, all the really important stuff that colleges used to do, is not going to exist anymore. Yeah, people will be able to start it up again, but it's like the way civilization had to start up again after the Dark Ages, you know?

You don't feel like MOOCs can feed thinkers and intellectual culture?

I think they have a role to play, but at a very much lower intellectual level. Listen, real learning happens dialectically, right? Where did you go to college?


You went to Yale, and you probably took lots of seminars where you had really great discussions and lots of interactions with fellow students and teachers. That's where education happens; it doesn't happen by learning how to program computer code online. It's great that people can do that, but that's not the same thing. That's a technical education.

Your book's been out for about four months now. Do you see any colleges or administrators responding in a substantive way?

No, but I'm not in touch with things at that level. I wrote this for individual students and families. A lot of people, I mean a lot of people, have responded to me. Every day I get emails saying "this book changed my life.”

I also hear from people who are already doing things, whether it's a new kind of high school or a new kind of college or just parenting their children a different way. I think the book is sort of a tool and a voice for them, and it's kind of become a rallying point. It's the most visible expression of what a lot of people have been thinking. These things are already happening, and the book is maybe helping crystallize that consciousness.

By Michael Schulson

MORE FROM Michael Schulson