America and the Ivy League, Rediti; Incipit Columbia

I would apologize for my terrible Latin, except that it is rather a relief to walk down the streets in my new city and feel that my lack of Spanish, not my rudimentary Latin, is what most belies my ignorance. Amidst the culture shock of my first five days in Manhattan—the apartment building and the elevator; the oppressively constant noise; NPR instead of Radio 4; dollar bills; loud Americans who actually belong here; different products on the supermarket shelves; and much more—there is little to explain why Latin is the language that came to my mind when I decided to begin this post. Unless it was stepping onto the Columbia campus for the first time today, seeing the classical authors engraved on the facade of Butler Library and the Core Curriculum books for sale in the university bookstore, Latin and Greek everywhere on the logos of Morningside Heights’ various educational institutions, and a melange of Gothic and neoclassical architecture which evinces a very specific nineteenth-century American vision of the meaning and purpose of the university. Columbia in many ways is nothing like Princeton, but in their common historical investment in the liberal arts and in research, in their erection of temples of learning, they have more serious and meaningful connections than their common participation in a sports conference and an interlibrary loan system (though believe me when I say that being back in the Borrow Direct network was a significant factor in my decision to come here).

As all Ivy League graduates who read the internet are probably aware by now, one person who believes that Princeton and Columbia have a rather different set of commonalities is writer and former English professor William Deresiewicz, whose new book Excellent Sheep (teased at length in The New Republic) holds up what he calls the Ivy League (by which he really seems to mean Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Stanford, with perhaps a couple extras like Columbia) as evidence of what ails a generation of overambitious, careerist, narrow-minded, and above all anxious young adults. Instead of blaming the economy, or paradigms such as shifting trends in college-going and the differing priorities of students of different socioeconomic backgrounds or countries of origin, Deresiewicz thinks that these ills are directly perpetrated by the culture of a few select colleges, their admissions offices, and their teachers. (Mind you, he left full-time teaching himself over twenty years ago, giving his excoriation of Ivy League professors a hollow and bitter ring.) Let the youth of today go anywhere else, he pleads, even if it means that with less financial aid they would have to work their way through school. That would be a better education than anything Harvard or Yale could give you.

When Deresiewicz’s TNR piece first came out, I posted a long and emotionally involved essay on Facebook about it, but I don’t intend to rehash that here. It’s not a little embarrassing how myself and my fellow Ivy League graduates have gravitated towards the essay and projected all our own status anxieties onto it, and it’s important to remember that in the large landscape of higher education in the US, what anyone has to say about the Ivy League is pretty irrelevant. And it’s true that some of Deresiewicz’s diagnoses are accurate—though he is so ungenerous to students and teachers that not I nor a single one of the peers to whom I’ve spoken recognizes the universities we attended in his characterization.

I’ve taken a certain pleasure in reading a range of critical reviews of Excellent Sheep, but I’d like to quote at length from a review written by one of my own teachers, whose long dedication to teaching undergraduates is, in my biased opinion, unparalleled, and who is rather more optimistic about the youth of today:

Above all, many students suffer from the relentless anxiety, the sense of exhaustion and anomie, that their hyperactivity generates and that Deresiewicz powerfully evokes. No wonder, then, that when he sketched this indictment in an essay in The American Scholar, his text went viral. Many students have contacted him to confirm his diagnosis. Some of my students tell me that they still remember exactly where they were when they read his sharp words. Anyone who cares about American higher education should ponder this book.

But anyone who cares should also know that the coin has another side, one that Deresiewicz rarely inspects. He describes the structures of the university as if they were machines, arranged in assembly lines: “The system churns out an endless procession of more or less uniform human specimens.” Yet universities aren’t total institutions. Professors and students have agency. They use the structures they inhabit in creative ways that are not dreamt of in Deresiewicz’s philosophy, and that are more common and more meaningful than the “exceptions” he allows.

Many students at elite universities amble like sheep through four years of parties and extracurriculars, and then head down the ramp to the hedge funds without stopping to think. But plenty of others find their people, as one of my own former students says: the teachers who still offer open doors and open ears, the friends who stay up all night arguing with them about expressionism or feminism or both, the partners with whom they sail the deep waters of love (which, like sex, survives on campus). They come in as raw freshmen and they leave as young adults, thoughtful and articulate and highly individual. Deresiewicz observes their identical T-shirts but misses their differences of class and resources — just as he elides the differences between universities.

Even the academic side of the university offers richer and deeper experiences than Deresiewicz thinks. Recreating a life or building an argument, analyzing a text or chasing a virus, in the company of an adult who cares about both the subject and the student, need not be a routine exercise. It can be a way to build a soul — the soul of a scholar or scientist, who ignores our smelly little ideologies and fact-free platitudes, and cherishes precision and evidence and honorable admission of error. One reason some graduates of elite universities look unworldly is that those universities still try — admittedly with mixed results — to uphold a distinctive code of values.

When Deresiewicz looks at the universities, he sees Heartbreak House: a crumbling Gothic mansion, inhabited by polite young shadows, limp and exhausted. When I look at them, I see the Grand Budapest Hotel: stately, if fragile, structures, where youth and energy can find love and knowledge and guidance — places that welcome students who make creative fun of their teachers and other authorities, and help them go on having creative fun in later life.

The Columbia undergraduates have just started to arrive, and today campus was swarming with wide-eyed freshmen in shorts and t-shirts and nametags—they looked so young!—taking campus tours. Facilities teams were erecting the traditional big white tents (what the British call marquees) on lawns in preparation for start-of-term ceremonies and barbecues. There was a long line in the campus bookstore and returning students are all of a sudden pounding the pavements of Broadway. (A particularly surreal sight were the frat bros in brightly-colored tank tops, Atlanta Braves hats, and southern accents buying snacks in Rite-Aid.) It’s great being a grad student, and someone who will next year, and for the years to come, teach a small subset of these students: I know that if I were a freshman I wouldn’t necessarily have fit in with most of the kids I saw today, and I would have forlornly wandered the halls of the great temples to learning looking for grad students and professors to take me under their wings. But now I can smile warmly at the sight of these eager kids and think about how important the next four years are going to be for them and how much they’re going to learn. (At Columbia, I can also contemplate the rather bewildering thought that in a couple weeks all of them will be reading Homer and Plato.)

Maybe my time in the Ivy League has been unusually blessed. But although I do see a lot of anxiety and competition and careerism in the Ivy League, and I do see a lot of students in it solely for the grade and the job, I also see a seriously meaningful number of students and teachers working together to get tremendous personal and social value out of their liberal-arts education—and that value doesn’t disappear if the students do go into finance or if they don’t realize what they got until decades down the line. The start of the academic year is a special, romantic time—it has always been heart-soaring for me—and I’m starting to see what university teachers mean when they say that living in universities keeps them young. I can’t help but think that it is Deresiewicz’s loss that when he looks at Princeton or Columbia he doesn’t see this alongside (and perhaps underneath) the status-treadmilling.

Energy, enthusiasm, and luck to all those who are starting a new academic year in the coming weeks!

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