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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