Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Less Than Sheltered Groves

I guess William Deresiewicz's advice to the nation's rising college class of 2018 is old news by now.  For those of you who missed it, you can follow the link, read the title, and fill in the blanks yourself. The article is another entry in the genre of plangent wails about the corruption of elite universities, written (as usual) by someone who received his entire education from and spent his entire career in such universities-- and which  will be read (again, as usual) exclusively by people who attend, have attended, long to attend, or long for their children to attend these same universities.

My heart briefly goes out to the high school senior who reads the article and, in a fit of idealistic passion, throws her Princeton acceptance letter in the trash and decides to go cultivate her soul on the high seas.  I beg such a one to note that Deresiewicz evidently did not follow his own advice.  (Wittgenstein too, from his seat at Cambridge, used to tell his students that they ought to chuck academia and go work with their hands-- yet two recurring motifs of his own life history, in Ray Monk's telling, are that 1) he spent most of his career in academic circles; and 2) he was overwhelmed by a crippling depression whenever he was taken away from them.)

I beg such a person not to heed D.'s words, that is, until I realize that she or he is not likely to exist.  This is so because Deresiewicz's article will, like most members of its species, probably only sharpen the appetite of the nation's rising freshman for the status an elite education confers-- for the opportunity to join next year's crop of kids who "Go To School in Boston" or "Go to a College in New Haven."  After all, D. by his own example holds out to the reader the most tantalizing of authorial identities-- not only has he, by all measures, joined the nation's academic elite, he has also renounced it after the fact, and all its works.  This is a display of true sovereignty over fortune that the reader is only likely to envy, and wish to act out for her- or himself.  You might aspire to be the aristocrat who renounces his titles, but you first have to get hold of the thing you would grandly abjure.

D. is aware of such objections, and, as in any effective authorial response, he manages to make them seem ridiculous just by repeating them back to us.  And indeed, I can't argue with D.'s central claim, which I take to be that elite schools often perpetuate a toxic inequality and the attitudes that go along with it.  I also have to point out that D.'s article has moments of very keen sociological insight: "The irony," he writes for instance, "is that elite students are told that they can be whatever they want, but most of them end up choosing to be one of a few very similar things."  Here's another, the aptness of which is quite impressive: "In the affluent suburbs and well-heeled urban enclaves where this game is principally played, it is not about whether you go to an elite school. It's about which one you go to [...] It doesn’t matter that a bright young person can go to Ohio State, become a doctor, settle in Dayton, and make a very good living. Such an outcome is simply too horrible to contemplate."

However, wouldn't it be nice to read these criticisms-- just for once-- from someone who hadn't been empowered to voice them by the very fact of his life-long association with elite universities?  I suppose you can't win either way.  A non-Ivy Leaguer writes in this vein and it's deemed sour grapes.  An Ivy Leaguer does it, and it's difficult to escape the impression that he is trying to deny to others what he himself is currently savoring.  Roger Scruton once said the following, rather inappositely, of Bernard Williams-- I find it describes much better our voluble American penners of anti-Ivy broadsides: theirs is, to borrow Scruton's words, a "class of intellectual snob, whose principal concern [... is] to destroy the social and intellectual privileges that it ha[s] enjoyed before the next generation of upstarts [can] get hold of them."

But the trouble is that I agree with D. -- and disagree with Scruton -- about the value of those "social and intellectual privileges," or at least about the degree of fairness that informs their distribution.  It may be hypocritical of D. to enjoy the fruit of the Ivy-covered tree while kicking away the ladder by which he ascended to it-- however, we are all utter hypocrites, in our various  fashions, and I would rather that we be hypocrites, on the whole, who nod sadly in the direction of truth and justice, than that we be frank and unapologetic evil-doers.  D. should at least be praised, then, for seeing something wrong with inequality, even if he has privately benefitted from it.

Where D. goes wrong is not in his thesis, therefore, that higher education must become more democratic if ours is to remain a democratic society.  Where he goes wrong is in his failure to write with sympathy about the choices young people make, amidst the options that are available to them under our current social rubric.  It is not fair to blame college students for their exaggerated fears about the fate that might befall them on the other side of graduation.  They are in a very unstable time of life, and our society, frankly, is a frightening place in which to begin a career, for reasons D. points out.  That young people do not meet these fears with fully developed selves is only to be expected-- it is part of being young.

D. ought to have seen this, especially when his own career exhibits a conventionally upward trajectory through the Ivy-covered halls.  One can forgive the hypocrite who knows and acknowledges his guilt-- who, as the Latin phrase had it, "sees the good but does the bad."  One cannot forgive the hypocrite who denounces others for the behavior he clearly displays.

I propose a more honest starting point to anyone who seeks to write about the ambitions of young people who have a lot less than they do (and young people starting out in college, even an elite college, evidently have a lot less that D. does).  Namely, I propose we recognize that a great deal of what we perceive as "selfishness" or "greed" in such people is really an outward projection of our own status anxieties.  We are so alarmed by the "grasping" of the young and ambitious, that is, in part because we fear they may lay hold of our own treasures and position.

Something similar happens whenever there is a rising "class," either in the academic or the social sense of the word.  It is always met by moral disapprobation tinged with insecurity.  The most egregious display of this type of unselfconscious snobbery I have come across recently is a essay by A.O. Scott, which I think merits a digression before I get back to D.'s argument, because it illustrates so well the problem I have in mind.

Scott begins by citing with approval the words of Virginia Woolf:
Woolf is proud to call herself a highbrow […] But the highbrow, though an aristocrat, is not a snob. […] ’I honor and respect lowbrows,’ Woolf asserts, ‘and I have never known a highbrow who did not.’ (Lowbrows are defined as those who are as committed to living as highbrows are to thinking.) This is because high and low are in alliance against the middle. […] What makes the middlebrows so contemptible? Woolf’s tautological response is their very middleness, their inability to be either one thing or another, and their habit of ‘indistinguishably and rather nastily’ mixing up art and life (the pure, complementary pursuits of the high and the low) with things like ‘money, fame, power or prestige.’”
That Scott could approve these views without any irony or self-reflection is both gut-churning and amusing.  The highbrow is "not a snob," as described?  No, according to Woolf, because she mixes with "charwomen," and that's proof.  What the highbrow doesn't like, in this telling, are simply those shopkeepers and middling sorts who care about money and position, and who lack the "authenticity" of the loyal servant who knows where he belongs. Nothing snobbish about that, of course.

Could Woolf really not perceive that it is precisely her own social position (and, no doubt in part, her Bloomsbury levels of money), that freed her from the much-deplored "materialism" of the middle classes?  The aristocrat may seem to be not much concerned with fortune or power, but only because she has such an awful lot of both that she fails to notice them, as the fish does not perceive the ocean.  And did it not also occur to Woolf that the reason she likes these imagined "low-brows" so much is that (at least according to the fantasy) they are willing to keep to their own ways, rather than aspiring to highbrow prerogatives? And does it escape notice to us that Woolf feels, toward these prerogatives, the same proprietary and clutching anxiousness of which she accuses the "middle-brows"?

The contempt that modern intellectuals feel for "bourgeois values" may, in other words, have more in common with the old aristocratic fear of "lower orders" who do not "keep in their place" than anyone likes to admit.  The intellectual or "serious" journalist or artist is always outside of the class system, perhaps, but always outside it in a way that is simultaneously above it.  Martin Amis wryly describes a conversation with his son in his memoir Experience: he is behind the wheel, as modern parents tend to be for most waking hours, when his son inquires: "What class are we?" Amis replies, "ruggedly," in his telling: "We don't buy that stuff [...] We're outside all that.  We're the intelligentsia."  His son pauses, and then prompts: "Oh [...] Am I an intellectual?"

Amis is being funny, and his account has the inestimable advantage of self-awareness.  His son's line of questioning as presented here seems to unmask, without really trying, the way in which a certain means of deploring "class snobbery" in fact displays a great deal of the same article.  Less self-aware, though equally funny, was Oscar Wilde's mother, whom Gertrude Himmelfarb quotes in the process of deprecating her son's use of the word "respectable."  "You must never employ that description in this house," she said: "It is only tradespeople who are respectable.  We are above respectability."

All of this is by way of saying that a great deal of what falls under the heading of moral denunciation against the acquisitiveness and status hunger of people who are rising in the world, in fact reveals the extent of the denouncer's own self-interested tendencies.  It is a great shame that Bernard Williams was depicted by Scruton as a snob, in the article quoted above, because I actually find Williams to have uttered one of the most astute observations on this point that I've come across.  In one of his essays, he refers to: "the archetypal snobbish error about snobbery-- that it can afflict only those who are not actually in a superior position."  Snobbery, then, is like aggression (or rather, it is a form of aggression)-- it can assume indirect and devious forms.

To return to Deresiewicz, it is difficult not to convict him of something like Williams' "archetypal snobbish error."  He does not seem to realize, I mean to say, that his attitude toward the young, striving "super people" he describes in his essay might derive from a combination of some less-than-wholly-admirable features of the aristocratic mentality.

The first is insecurity of status.  We all feel it.  I confess to being myself a bit terrified by the vision of the thousands of Yale-attending, NGO-founding, precociously cynical automata that D. places before his readers. I'm only 24 and they already make my model sound obsolete.  But I also confess that my fear of these Stepford Students does not wholly derive from a disinterested concern with the future direction of society. It has something to do with fears of being rendered otiose, of losing a place in society, etc.

Similarly, I suspect that we might be so receptive, so willing to grant plausibility, to D.'s dystopian vision because it aligns so well with our insecurities.  We are always willing to believe the worst of people whom we fear might displace us-- we are also willing to attribute to them far greater power and intelligence than they actually possess.  I find in reality that people my age or slightly younger are never as clever as we have learned to present ourselves on paper; nor are we, I now flatter myself, quite the moral blight D. takes us to be.  We may have underdeveloped selves, but that's because our selves are still developing.

The second less-that-admirable artifact of the aristocratic mentality in D.'s article is displayed in his failure to understand with any real sympathy why young people want to join the social elite in the first place.  I suspect, like any aristocrat of old, D. simply has such a secure standing within that elite that any conscious and visible effort to join it appears to him as insatiable grasping.

I don't think we need to assume that kids today are especially deprived of moral training, or that their will to attain prestige and fortune is an unusually rapacious one, in order to explain the behavior D. describes.  Let us suppose for now he is right that these kids are willing to utterly exhaust their spirits in the attempt to strip every last piece of bark from the groves of academe.  I don't think they are, again, but suppose.  Well, their behavior could just as well be explained by the very social inequalities D. deplores, could they not?  These kids may, in short, simply be rather good social observers, who have noted the widening chasm in American society between those with privilege and those without, and who are justly terrified that they will end up on the wrong side of it.

Of course, they probably won't end up on the wrong side, even if they take D.'s advice and don't go to an Ivy League school.  Most of the kids who even bother applying to an elite university, it has been noted, already possess the various forms of capital and social advantage that will allow them to be successful elsewhere.

However, their fear is psychologically understandable, even if less than entirely rational, in a society that is marked by such a high degree of inequality.  One of the hallmarks of an unjust society like ours is that, even among the most well-off, those whose position seems most secure, the fear of losing that position is nonetheless pervasive.  The fear is not based on a rational calculation of odds.  It is based on the fact that the costs of failure in such a society are excruciatingly high, and they are distributed in an arbitrary fashion.  As a poem by Bertolt Brecht notes (Firmage translation):

"Even the houses in Hell are not all ugly.
But concern about being thrown into the street
Consumes the inhabitants of the villas no less
Than the inhabitants of the barracks."

One cannot rightly blame the inhabitants of the villas for their terror of the streets -- it is cruel to blame the person who already resides in Hell.  One is even less entitled to blame them if one lives in a villa oneself, and has done so for decades.  (A marginal note from the annals of hypocrisy: Brecht was himself apparently a great accumulator of real estate.)  This is where one faults Deresiewicz.

Where I praise him, however, is in his insistence that we should work together so that no one is cast out on the streets, such that the specter of that fate evaporates, and the need to cling to one's villas becomes less keenly felt.  This may amount to a truism, but it is nonetheless endlessly worth restating.

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