What a beautiful piece from the New Yorker In the thick of exam preparations, swim-or-sink instincts, unspeakable ennui (or deep uncertainty), it is worth remembering that the college years are the years of ‘dawning realization’. What have you learnt this year?
What College Can’t Do
The New Yorker · by · August 6, 2014
There’s a special joy in giving someone advice that’s sure not to be followed—“Wake up at the same time every morning”; “Don’t check your e-mail while on vacation”—and William Deresiewicz must have felt it when writing his recent cover story for The New Republic, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League.” Hypercompetitive colleges, Deresiewicz wrote, are the replicators of the ruling class, recruiting and training “young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.” Better to go to a state school, where the student body is more socioeconomically diverse, or to a “second-tier” liberal-arts college, where “real educational values” persist, than to submit yourself or your child to the careerist “machine” of élite higher education. This is a slightly fantastical way of looking at college—is there really any reason to think that students at Reed are more intellectually curious than students at Columbia?—and its real-life applicability is hard to gauge. But Deresiewicz’s article resonated because it echoed broader cultural concerns about busyness and overwork. It’s now widely accepted that adult Americans as a whole act pretty much the way Deresiewicz thinks Ivy League kids act. Americans work too much, think too much about work, and cultivate an air of competent yet maniacal busyness.
In recent years, essays lamenting the culture of overwork—and the superficial, self-centered, self-destructive busyness that develops from it—have become a genre unto themselves. Ostensibly, these essays are about manageable subjects, subjects about which it’s possible to have a single opinion, like higher education, parenting, or “mindfulness.” But they are also about another, larger subject, which, in its glacial, impersonal force, seems to transcend opinion. That subject, more or less, is modernity. In the background of an essay like “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League”—and of essays like “No Time to Think” or “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” both published in the Times—is the looming presence of the arrhythmic, unreassuring modern world, which seems always to be speeding things up in a senseless way. Modernity is the sort of problem that’s both very old and very new. Baudelaire coined the term, in 1860, and the first great literary treatments of modernité, such as “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” date from the nineteenth century. And yet to read “Ivan Ilyich,” a story about a workaholic lawyer and his atrophied inner life, is to see how much our contemporary busyness problem owes to a process that’s been going on for centuries.
To think about busyness in terms of modernity is to think about its deep roots. In part, busyness is a matter of economics: it has to do with bosses driving workers harder (or admissions committees asking more of applicants), and with the forces of meritocracy making life more competitive. But it also has a spiritual dimension: careers mean more to us because the traditional sources of meaning, like religion, mean less; increasingly, work is the field upon which we seek to prove our value.
Because of modernity’s dual nature, it’s hard to figure out what role it plays in your life. If you’re feeling anxious, overworked, and uncertain about what the point of all your work is, is your boss to blame, or is it just modern life? If you’re unhappy at Yale—which, one student tells Deresiewicz, is “stifling to the parts of yourself that you’d call a soul”—then why are you unhappy? It could be that the practical circumstances at Yale are soul-crushing. (There are a lot of extracurriculars.) It could be that you’re cut off from other sources of meaning. (Deresiewicz thinks that Ivy League students live in a “bubble of privilege,” with a “narrow conception of what constitutes a valid life: affluence, credentials, prestige.”) Or it could be that modern life makes thoughtful people feel, as Deresiewicz puts it, “emptiness and aimlessness and isolation.”
It would be comforting, in a way, if the Ivy League were a particularly soulless place. But is that really a plausible thing to say about a place like Yale, with its playing fields and courtyards, its libraries and theatres, and—most importantly—its population of energetic, intelligent, optimistic young people? I tend to draw the opposite conclusion from Deresiewicz’s data: the fact that you can feel soulless in such an intellectual paradise suggests that the problem is bigger than college.
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That’s not to say that Deresiewicz’s essay doesn’t tell us something important about élite colleges. It puts into relief the stresses they are under, and the sometimes impossible demands that we make upon them as modern people looking for comfort in a changing world.
In many ways, élite colleges are premodern places. Harvard was founded in 1636—we are as distant, time-wise, from “The Importance of Being Earnest” as they were from Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses. Teaching or learning in such a place, you can’t help but notice the sharp line that divides the old world in which universities were created from the world in which they exist today. Many of the buildings on campus are Georgian or churchlike, but, around them, glass-walled laboratories have sprung up. Latin mottoes are inscribed over the doorways, but inside the old classrooms students read Eliot, Woolf, and Sartre. Quaint, outmoded traditions—caps and gowns, school songs—persist, but only ironically: few people now care about tradition for tradition’s sake. The presence of those old buildings can make you unreasonably optimistic; maybe modernity, like modernism, is just a historical period, a style. On the whole, though, the campus itself suggests the opposite: that modernity is an epoch—huge, dramatic, and irresistible—and that it is transforming the university.
Deresiewicz believes that colleges can push the modern world out, that the proper role of a college is to be anti-modern. On today’s élite campuses, Deresiewicz writes, “everything is technocratic,” centered on “the development of expertise”; wouldn’t it be better, he wonders, if colleges replaced expertise with soulfulness? “The job of college,” he proposes, is “to help you become an individual, a unique being—a soul.” By this measure, religious colleges “deliver a better education, in the highest sense of the word,” than do Ivy League schools. The implication is that, by rearranging their priorities, colleges could recapture the purity of purpose they once had. They could bring the past into the present.
But this both underestimates the power of modernity and overestimates the power of colleges. It’s often said that professors today are narrow specialists; in fact, everyone is a specialist, because the modern world is built on specialization. (In his speech “The American Scholar,” Emerson said that the “state of society is one in which the members have suffered amputation from the trunk, and strut about so many walking monsters—a good finger, a neck, a stomach, an elbow, but never a man.” What was true in 1837 is even truer now.) The same goes for the idea that one can “become” a soul in college. Perhaps it was once the case that, during the four years of college, you could build a self by reading books. But things are no longer so straightforward, because we have an ambivalent relationship to the knowledge of the past. (We also have an ambivalent relationship to the arts. Time spent with art is as likely to make us feel alienated, unknowable, and decentered as it is to make us feel reassured.)
These modern facts affect everyone. They make us more worried, more uncertain, and more spiritually reticent; they bring down, over everyday life, an atmosphere of worldliness and irony; and they push us toward busyness, shallowness, and practicality. The fact that modernity makes us all more practical should also make us more open-minded about one another. It’s not just literary types, like Stephen Dedalus, who struggle with modernity; regular people, like Leopold Bloom, struggle with it, too. (In “Ulysses,” Bloom has a boring job: he sells ads for a newspaper.) Modernity submerges us; it makes us harder to know. So Deresiewicz makes a mistake in ascribing to his students, as personal failings, the problems of the age in which they live. He finds their practical striving distasteful, and complains that they “dressed as if they were ready to be interviewed at a moment’s notice.” Who cares how they dress? In “The Waste Land”—a poem that is about, among other things, modern busyness—people seem superficial, hollow, disengaged, and exhausted. But the problem isn’t their individual choices; it’s the age, which shouts, at every opportunity, “HURRY UP PLEASE ITS TIME.” Inside, they are as alive as ever—but in ways that are “not to be found in our obituaries / Or in memories draped by the beneficent spider / Or under seals broken by the lean solicitor / In our empty rooms.”
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It’s hardly the case, of course, that élite colleges can’t be improved; they can. (Deresiewicz’s essay closes with many good suggestions: give up legacy admissions, put a limit on the number of extracurriculars an applicant can list, stop caring about U.S. News & World Report.) But it is to say that college can be improved only in certain ways. Much of the conversation around the “crisis in higher education,” especially around the cost of college, is important and useful. But it’s needlessly complicated by what amounts to nostalgia for a premodern university. Colleges aren’t monasteries. They can’t give their students spiritual sustenance; they can’t provide an escape from modernity. And they shouldn’t be faulted, or punished, for that.
There are good ways of responding to the modern world, but they don’t have much to do with college. In “Ulysses,” we admire Bloom’s attitude of curious acceptance, which seems to be rooted in his disposition. In Proust, we learn to take solace in memory (Proust is hard to teach, in part, because twenty-one-year-olds have barely had time to forget anything). In “Anna Karenina,” the answer seems to be patience and the passage of time. Levin flirts with the Deresiewiczian idea of escaping from modernity; maybe, he thinks, he should marry into a farming family, forget about writing his book, and cultivate a mode of life that allows him to live cheaply, simply, and away from the striving, citified world. In the end, he recognizes that he cannot pry himself loose from his own era. He marries the woman he loves—an upper-crust girl from Moscow—and admits to himself that, when it comes to the purpose of life, “nowhere in the whole arsenal of his convictions was he able to find, not only any answers, but anything resembling an answer… . He was in the position of a man looking for food in a toymaker’s or a gunsmith’s shop.” In the end, Levin does the best he can; he nurtures a tentative faith, muddles through, tries to live a good life, and only occasionally despairs. Could a better college education have helped him avoid that? Not really.
One of the ironies of college is that the impossibility of reading your way out of the modern predicament is something you learn about, as a student, by reading. Part of the value of a humanistic education has to do with a consciousness of, and a familiarity with, the limits that you’ll spend the rest of your life talking about and pushing against. So it’s probably natural for college students to be a little ironic, a little unsettled. It’s time, meanwhile, to admit that the college years aren’t for figuring out some improvised “sense of purpose.” They’re more like a period of acclimatization—a time when realizations can dawn. If you’re feeling uneasy about life, then you’re doing the reading.