Category Archives: Columbia

Third Week

It’s so rare, in my life as an American PhD student, that: a) I get to have the experience of going to the pub after a seminar; b) that going to the pub after a seminar makes me want to go home and Have Ideas and Do Academic Work. Usually I am aggressively procrastinating on doing any real work whatsoever, and generating largely pointless admin to avoid coping with the reality of whether I am intelligent enough to take on the weightier tasks of orals and prospectus.

At the pub a faculty member was pontificating about the differences between grad school in the US and the UK. One difference is surely the prevalence of beer as a lubricant, and that as something that smooths relations between grad students and faculty, rendering those categories something other than a capitalist managerial hierarchy. Another is the view, deeply embedded in American culture, that alcohol is Not Helpful, followed by the realization that I was the only woman of the relatively gender-divided seminar who wanted to go on to the pub after. It has actually–I thought, listening to the men in the pub pontificate about politics–been rather a long time since I pointedly noticed that I was, by choice, the only woman in the room. I related to the group the story of the conversation I once had with a female colleague in an adjacent field, with whom I shared the unease of knowing that we felt comfortable in those kinds of masculine intellectual environments–especially when our gender could be erased when the conversation took a particular route–and yet that many other women might feel profoundly alienated by the same environments, and that we were letting the side down. I thought about how unimpressed I was by the male student with the posh English accent who came up to me after my class last night and tried to convince me that drama rehearsal was a good reason to miss whole weeks of my course. “I know what you are,” I didn’t say, “and for that reason I enjoyed your contributions to our class discussion–but that doesn’t mean I’m taken in.”

I came home and I felt I had no choice but to turn to a Word document that contains my latest thoughts on the subject as it arises in the late nineteenth century. Which is not to say that there is an easy story to tell here about class and gender and elitism, or that I have a political program to advance, or that there is not something about me that is complicit in perpetuating a kind of elite masculine intellectual culture that holds others back. But rather just to say that I’ve come a long way, baby, in the last decade-plus, an astounding journey back and forth across the Atlantic and the centuries, something that has left me increasingly convinced that there is something to say about the pub and the academics in it, not so different to what there is to say about Guitar Hero in Scripps Ranch in 2005, or Cameron’s late Cabinet, and thus why it was that I watched Lindsay Anderson’s if… over and over in high school, a leftist public-school romance with an ironic Kipling reference truer to what it is like to have your character formed by a southern Californian suburban comprehensive high school than any thing I know.

In the summer, just a few days before 23 June, I reunited with some old friends in East Oxford (a cartwheel of streets that feel more viscerally like home than any place I’ve ever known), and their sharp, informed political analysis was exactly what I needed to give me purchase on what was going on in the run-up to the referendum. In large part because of those pints drunk and those views exchanged, I was neither surprised by the referendum result a few days later, nor overwhelmed by it as a grand tragedy. When I posted on Facebook that I’d had a lovely time that evening, however, I was chastised for my self-absorption—a criticism that still haunts me these months later, as we face another, even more momentous, electoral contest between reactionary populism and “liberal elites,” of whom of course I am one. I said tonight in the pub that I am a liberal elite, and my politics are those of a liberal elite, but of course I am glad the world is not made up of liberal elites and I wouldn’t wish my politics on anyone else. I like that formulation, happy that it provides me with some measure of peace, proud that I’m getting better at accepting my differences of political opinion with my colleagues and that I can move past being paralysingly tortured by them. But I also like that the pub provides—across, I would hazard, classes and cultures—a space in which to pontificate, to test out ideas, to say outrageous things and see how people react, to attain some measure of control in our own social universes from events and power politics that seem so vastly removed from us as to be outside our agency. Some would hope, presumably, that the pub is the beginning, a first conversation that leads to a regenerative kind of democratic politics, a sort of Chartism for our time. I, on the other hand, am skeptical of Chartisms, particularly when a feminist critique is applied to them; and also because of the particular life experiences that I’ve had (institutionalized as I have been since the age of majority, and indeed rather longer), which have led me to view physical locations where food and drink are shared as ends in themselves, their physical location within communities (colleges, neighborhoods) constitutive of a kind of public sphere that seems very thin on the ground in our virtual age. As I was walking to work today, I found myself recalling the crazy things anonymous readers of the student newspaper used to say about me in the online comments, recalling what it was like to be a figure of outré radicalism, where now I find myself so often on the right. I remember by contrast the challenging but civil conversations I had in my last semester at Princeton, when people walked up to me—in the dining hall, the chapel, the library, my cooking co-op, outdoor spaces—and respectfully disagreed with the point of view I expressed in an op-ed that was skeptical of Annual Giving. Shout all you like after a few drinks in the pub, but you still have to see the members of your community when you’re cold sober the next day.

There are a lot of things that make me an early-twentieth-century liberal, some more objectionable than others. Tonight, what stands out to me is the pub, or (as I’ve often said) the college hall: a space many find repulsive and intimidating, but with which I (for whatever reason) feel that I know where I am; a space on which, even if fascism does come to America, I’ll continue to place my bets. There really is something about the connections you can make across political lines when you’ve properly got to know your interlocutors, and when you’re in a space (a dining hall at an elite college with endless supplies of free guacamole, a particular kind of drinking establishment with precise social rules about who buys whom drinks, a welfare state) in which certain structures are in place to smooth (if cosmetically) over social divides. I still think these are the spaces in which important things happen, even if they are things which reinforce power structures and which depend on encoding the system of references that inheres in a reference to the men who walk up and down every afternoon from 2 to 4 on King’s Parade. If not by any means the only things which demand the historian’s attention, they certainly do demand it.

I am a pessimist about politics at present, and whether I can find a socially and politically relevant role for this work if things in my country do become very, very bleak remains to be seen. One thing I do want to become better at is to live out the implications of my work; to participate more wholly and less judgmentally in the public sphere and systems of local politics, the cultivation of one’s own garden, in which I claim to have some faith; and to find a way of using the perspective that I can bring to American and British elite male intellectual and political culture for good.

Back to School

I am sitting in a cubicle (my computer is broken and I had to come into work to use one there) and I am meant to be creating tidy little summaries of monographs about the eighteenth century Church of England (corrupt or vibrant? you decide!). But weighing on me is the script of The History Boys, which I pulled off the shelf on my second day back in New York for the new academic year. I have seen the film so many times I have most of the dialogue memorized, but I had only read the script once, five years ago now, when I bought it at Blackwell’s on my first tour in Oxford. At the time I noted that the play seemed more morally ambiguous about “handling the boys’ balls” than the movie is (was able to be?), but now on the other side of the teacher/student divide, I noticed much else besides about how the play handles the problem of pedagogic eros. There are three things I think it’s worth pointing out about the play, particularly if you’re familiar with the film.

1. It seems like one of, if not the most, central driving force of the play is Irwin’s fear that he will turn into Hector. In the play it is much clearer that Irwin is gay, and knows himself to be gay, and that his conversation with Posner when the latter comes out to him as well as Dakin’s proposition are real moments of crisis to him about what that means for his future as a teacher. So is the scene with the three teachers outside the headmaster’s door when it is being explained to Irwin and Mrs Lintott that Hector is being let go. It seems like Irwin makes this sharp tack into telly-don life as a way of escaping the fate of Hector—and more what the fate of Hector means about being in tantalizingly close proximity to teenage boys than it does about having failed to become a scholar or having only gone to Oxford for your PGCE and not for your undergrad degree. None of this really comes out in the film, though now that I am more familiar with the play script I can see that the actors (almost all of whom were also in the West End production) are putting this into their portrayal of the characters.

2. I don’t know Alan Bennett’s corpus well, but I believe that people say that in the plays there is typically a character based on Bennett himself. The film would lead you to believe that character is Posner, whose struggles with his homosexuality get a sweet, sympathetic hearing, and who ends the closing scene by saying that he lived up to his teachers’ example by becoming a teacher himself. In the play, by contrast, it’s very clear that the Bennett character is Scripps, the devout Christian, who becomes a writer and actually narrates the play, stepping out of the scene to provide a retrospective view on events. In an introduction to the published script, Bennett cements the connection, discussing how religious he was as a teenager and explaining that he puts his own experience of going up to Oxford for interview directly into the mouth of Scripps. Posner, by contrast, grows up a really hapless eccentric, essentially broken by all the events, who fails to find a profession and becomes a crank: in the middle of the play, we see him as an adult, confusedly, almost crazily, trying to wrest some kind of apology from Irwin for what happened when he was a sixth-former. This adds to the sense that the play offers a rather different account of homosexuality as a sexual orientation and the significances of that than is offered by the film. The play and the film were produced fairly close in time to each other, though, and fairly recently. I can see why the film might have wanted to do less to valorize sexual abuse of minors given that it achieved a much wider audience than the play, but otherwise I’m not sure why the treatment of homosexuality seems so different.

3. Twice in the play, characters ask with some urgency, “Why does Hector lock the door?” This is not a line in the film, and it gives an added frisson of weirdness to what it is Hector does in his classroom. Of course, both the play and the film make clear that Hector only touches the boys on the motorbike—but the locked door both introduces the problem of suspicion (as in history, stories about pedagogic eros are as much about what people fear might be happening as about what is happening), and helps our minds to make a connection between Housman and Brief Encounter on the one hand and genital fondling on the other. It raises huge questions about educational structures that transcend the fantasy environment of the play, sharpening this moral question Bennett wants us to come away with about whether the boys have been “scarred for life” or whether they’ve had a really special educational experience that resounds throughout their later lives.

As anyone who reads the New York Times knows, I came back to New York just at the time that the NLRB ruled that graduate students at private universities can be considered employees and as such are entitled to form unions. My university and the union my colleagues are trying to form was the test case. The senior administration at my university, by contrast, argue that unionization would damage relations between graduate students and faculty/the university and disrupt the things that make the university special as a place of work, study, and community. My orals reading in eighteenth-century English social history suggests to me that graduate students and post-PhD academics have much more in common with pre-industrial guild artisans, the clergy, or possibly other traditional professions than they do with industrial workforces, and I have little patience for the small but vocal minority who support unionization at the expense of other models of relation, or who use unionization rhetoric as a way to co-opt all academics into a proletarian struggle as much as, if not more, romanticized as my craft-and-calling vision. But even so, there is no evidence to suggest that the senior administration’s claims hold water. And The History Boys dramatizes how that is so. Learning is a matter of personal relations, structured in deep emotional investments of all kinds: desire, power, adoration, longing. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by those emotions, especially if you are someone who temperamentally is intoxicated by teaching, and troubling things can happen behind locked doors. Individuals who struggle to get along outside educational contexts can look to the institutional structure to provide them things they can’t find elsewhere: affection. appreciation. a lover. a family. And genuine desires to connect, which can be deeply sympathetic and endearing, can easily be turned to highly inappropriate ends. The History Boys is unquestionably a sexist play, but it shows us that these things happen not necessarily because of the patriarchy, but because well-intentioned people get a little too far up their asses in imbuing transference with some kind of positive value. As the headmaster says in both the play and the film in response to Hector’s high-minded invocation of a western tradition of pedagogic eros—eliciting an unexpected moment of sympathy for a character the play seems to want us to hate—”Fuck the Renaissance…. This is a school.” Present-day structures of human resources and health and safety and harassment policies and so on bring us down to earth, keep us from getting carried away or thinking we’re special, and remind us that duty of care is about the students, not about us and our feelings, which we need to find healthier and less grandiose ways of working out. In this case, bureaucracy isn’t a bad thing, and reforming and making more efficient the bureaucracy currently in place, or trying to introduce a new kind of bureaucracy through a framework such as unionization, are worthwhile goals.

The problem we’re left with, though, is that you can’t hate Hector, even though he has committed the grossest violation of professional ethics, and even though a well-played Mrs Lintott would make clear just how small and self-absorbed are all these men by whom she’s surrounded. The problem is that, like Irwin, some of us might have more of a Hector fantasy than we’d like to admit. And while we might agree with the headmaster, Mrs Lintott and the boys that “there’s not room for his kind anymore,” and probably view that on balance as a good thing, we might well still feel a sense of loss at Hector’s passing, and a sense that that yearning has a role to play in determining who we are as teachers and as students.

All this is jumbled up in my head as I deal with the more mundane aspects of back-to-school, like booking classrooms and buying notebooks (and getting back to orals), making it difficult to think straight. I’ve spent an hour writing this. I suppose the moral of the story is a caution against assuming that there is a straightforward black-and-white answer to the future of the university, of education as a vocation, and of the Youth of Today. These issues are huge ones, unequal to any particular political program. I suppose, then, that they wind up making a case for the humanities, since they deal with the deepest questions of the emotions and intellectual responses that make us human, and how we live among other humans in a community and a polity. From the fairly basic type of textual analysis I attempted to do for The History Boys here, to the more large-scale questions about the structure and culture of educational institutions which I intend to approach historically in my dissertation, there are clear avenues for how to approach what seem to be intractable and extremely complicated problems, and clear social and affective roles for my colleagues and I to play, regardless of how we approach questions of reform and revolution.

A Short Essay Upon Submitting Grades

I submitted my grades yesterday, and so I am back to doing something I have not done in years, now, since the beginning of the Sidgwick project (and Christ, how different life looked then): writing up archival findings from scratch, making a first attempt to put them in a kind of order and add interpretation, trying to link that interpretation rigorously to the work of other scholars (that’s the part I’m worst at). I’ve written a little about some of the evidence already, but this is the first time I’m trying to do it on a large, PhD-scale canvas. And it feels great. It makes me happy to be alive. I’m all the more excited that this is the first piece of serious historical work I’ve done that has an explicitly feminist cast, and that seeks to make an intervention into the field of women’s history. Aside from the Sidgwick article MS this is the first thing I have written in a couple years that is not a historiographical essay. It’s like blood is flowing in my veins again.

The first year of teaching went well, all things considered. I have known all my life that a life of service to higher education is defined in terms of one’s teaching of undergraduates, and I began this academic year in terror that I would fail at this most central and morally freighted task. Happily, I found I have some modest natural aptitude for the work, and many things on which I hope to improve as I continue to TA and then begin to teach classes of my own. It is easy to teach at a place like Columbia: my students are universally intelligent, kind, motivated, respectful, and curious. Teaching is an intellectually and emotionally engaging kind of work. It is obvious that it is meaningful.

But I also admitted to myself a couple months ago that I am not sure that I would be as fulfilled in a job that did not afford me the opportunity to write and to work with words. Many of my mentors have told me that the thrill of the classroom gives them the strength to keep writing. I don’t want to say that for me it’s the other way round–aside from anything else, it’s too early to say. And I know that lecturing is a kind of writing, and I know that service to the university matters more than seeing one’s name on the cover of a book. But. When I think about what job I would do if I have to leave the academy, which usually involves having to make a choice between teaching and writing, I think I might choose writing (and editing) over adjuncting or teaching in a school. For one thing, teaching is hard, grindingly hard: hard enough this year with 22 students at a time (I know, fancy Ivy League); seemingly impossible with hundreds. For another, I am good at writing: good enough at it that when I do it I manage not to hate myself quite so very much.

Since I came to Columbia it has been necessary, in a way that it was not in the political climates of other institutions, to reckon with my privilege. The word is an unhelpful one—to some it says too much, to others too little—but for me it has meant two things: learning for the first time (I know) about whiteness and blackness in the United States, and that I am white and therefore my hands are stained with blood; and learning on a more mundane level that coming from an academic family gives me access to knowledge and points of view that many of my colleagues lack, and that have made my passage through graduate school markedly smoother thus far. There are predictable advantages: I have known that there is such a thing called a graduate student all my life; I am rarely intimidated to talk to faculty in a professional or a social context; I know what a provost is, and a hiring line, and how the tenure system works; if I am not sure how to handle an interaction with a colleague or a student crisis, there are two people whom I can call up at any time to ask for advice. And then there are less predictable ones: I know that this life is not easy, I know that everyone does not win the lottery, I know what it is like to work at a less elite institution than Columbia (or Princeton or Oxford), I know what it is like to have a high-status job and not very much money, I know that a life in universities is a life of service to a greater good without immediate personal reward, I know how lucky I am. I know what it looks like when someone has a vocation. It is hard, then, to admit, when one looks at who one is and what one wants, that one might imagine a career for oneself that doesn’t look exactly like that of one’s parents and one’s other teachers. One might have implausibly high aspirations in some areas, and more modest ones in others. And one might have to confess to oneself—this is truly difficult to write—that, knowing that the career only gets more difficult after the cushy Ivy League PhD, one craves a life of greater comfort, of greater space to think and to breathe and to love, than most academic jobs can provide. If teaching, and trying to make one’s institution run a bit better for everyone, is the tradeoff for summers of quiet, of ideas, of getting to know oneself and days spent in libraries or walking across southeast England not speaking to anyone, well—that’s probably the best tradeoff there is, at least as far as I’m concerned. But could I lose the summers? I suppose at some point I’ll have to, because probability suggests that one can’t sustain such a life of extraordinary good fortune as I have had for long. But at least I can admit to myself that I am fallen enough to need the summers—more, perhaps, than I need the classroom or my colleagues—in order to feel that life is worth living and that I am capable of doing good. For in the summers I am able to access a world in which I do not have to struggle—against intellectual history bros, against bureaucracy, against dogmatic leftists, against insecurity, against self-hatred, against dirty and crass Manhattan—and I am able to be at peace. How to do good and help others while maintaining that peace is, of course, the question yet to come. But today I am grateful not to have to set foot in the department for three months, and to have the gift of writing.

Some Things I Wish I Could Have Said in a Meeting Today; or, An Agnostic’s Sermon for Good Friday

It is Friday of 9th week (there are 16 weeks in our term), and I am exceedingly tired.

There are lots of ways that I could feel inadequate as a teacher, student, and colleague right now, and lots of things I have to do. But I cannot be strong and organized and involved every day, and right now I am going to do things for myself: make a pie, listen to Bach, start playing cut and paste on the bedroom floor while beginning a new manuscript (a dissertation chapter, even?).

My values—the things that make me feel whole and purposeful—may not be your values. In some ways it is unfortunate that the things that keep me going were forged in a childhood of suburban middle-class academic-brat privilege and a higher education at two of the more conservative and traditional elite universities in the Anglo world. It makes me sad, often, that this is the person that I am: that I am enough of a lily-livered liberal to identify as much with university faculty and administrators (the people who made me) than with the proletariat with which, as a graduate student, I am meant to identify.

In the past few weeks my teaching in American intellectual history has introduced my students to a range of topics—old topics, from Europe, rooted in the things I see when I look at the nineteenth century as a scholar. We’ve covered notions of democratic culture and education; we’ve covered Marx and marxisms; through quotation and paraphrase in twentieth-century American texts, some students heard about the Sermon on the Mount for the first time. I’ve done more talking in section than I would like the past few weeks, and I’ve not always been as flexible as I ought in indulging students’ desires to relate these texts to their present of racial, class, and regional conflict instead of to the past which I arguably too readily inhabit. But I left the present long ago, when I decided not to do another Washington internship or organize another LGBT protest; when I took the political buttons off my jacket and my bag.

It is so hard to put into words to those who weren’t there where I’ve come from: so hard to explain that the political resolve and personal self-confidence I needed to survive suburban San Diego in the years after 9/11 have transmuted into something quite different after eight years of higher education, a couple continents’ worth of passport stamps, hundreds of new friends, colleagues and acquaintances with radically different life experiences to my own. The farther I go, the less who or what I would vote for in an election has to do with what makes life worth living. It takes all my strength to do my duty to my vocation, my profession, and my university and then with what I have left to seek out some connection to loved ones, to the earth, to something spiritually greater than myself, against all the stresses and hurts of this city. Those who weren’t there can’t know, I think, what it meant then, those three times I did it, to live in a community that observed the rhythms of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter. You don’t have to believe anything about what might or might not have happened to Jesus to be less satisfied, when you come to the metropolis, by something that is lost when life does not stop to take account of the slow unfolding bounty of spring—to feel unmoored, to feel as if you have lost some assurances of what would constitute a good or moral life and how you might go about deciding it. As I said when I left Oxford (knowing I had made the right decision), there is something gravely perverted about philosophy that needs to posit the cocoon of high table and evensong and eight-week terms in order to evaluate ethical questions. But now there is something fantastically seductive in the knowledge that, 3,500 miles away, there is a paradise that for almost eight hundred years has existed with the stated purpose of learning with the intention of glorifying God. What I have found—as shameful as this may be—is that it is difficult to remain a committed American leftist when you know that such a place exists.

I think what I wind up concluding is that if we are to believe in self-care, in the dignity of work, in the place of universities and university teachers in modern Western intellectual and cultural life, that needs to encompass the possibility that university teachers will tell themselves a wide variety of stories in order to explain to themselves why they have taken on a job that has always been difficult, has always required some sacrifice of material comfort, less freedom than we might wish, and, of course, the constant presence of the young, which is both a delight and (particularly when they have midnight frat parties across the street from you) a burden. To survive Columbia, I tell myself a story that comes from Oxford and Princeton, from Arthur Sidgwick, Rose Sidgwick, Benjamin Jowett, T.H. Green, my teachers, my parents. My story is different to the ones my own teachers tell. It is very different to the ones my leftist colleagues tell. Maybe if I am fortunate enough to teach in a university for the next forty years, it will be rewritten over and over again.

I don’t wish to suggest that anyone else should adopt my story, my perspective. Sometimes I look someone in the eye and know that they understand what I mean when I say that it is my duty to serve the past, my students, my university, my professional community. More often than not, I realize that this perspective rests on having had what for me is the great fortune to have been raised with these values, and that what to me is the ultimate reason to carry on is to others simply a statement of their relative lack of advantages and opportunities. My perspective isn’t one about which it is possible to evangelize. But if I am to carry on in this line of work and way of life, I do think it is necessary to explain that it is as radical a statement against the neoliberalization of the university, or what have you, as any invocation of a class struggle.

This is a sermon for Good Friday because, this Easter weekend, many Christian faith leaders have said and will say something or other about the radicalism of Jesus’s message. I am sympathetic to the reading that (according to the story which may or may not have actually happened) Jesus died at the hands of an imperial authority and its collaborators because he spoke truth to power in a way that was seen as threatening to the stability of the regime. That that regime came ultimately to adopt some of the tenets of the faith his followers founded, that today in Manhattan people say together words that people in the Roman Empire were saying together almost a thousand years ago, is a jaw-dropping world-historical narrative, at which I think historians of all faiths and none ought to be astounded. But it’s also a story which is not completely assimilable to a narrative of anti-imperialism, struggles for social justice, organizing around political causes. Those who attended a Maundy Thursday service yesterday celebrated the night that Jesus, knowing that he was to be arrested for his sedition and immediately undergo an excruciating death, chose to observe the Passover seder with his closest friends (a group which, many scholars believe, included more women than the European Christian tradition has typically recognized) and to celebrate his love for and communion with them.

A couple weeks ago, I attended a spiritual retreat day in the Ignatian prayer tradition: looking for peace and space away from the city, and curious to learn more about a spiritual practice I had read about. In one exercise, we were asked to imagine ourselves as guests at the Last Supper. Reader, I don’t know what I think about Jesus or the Last Supper or his martyrdom or what he stands for, but I have been to many Passover seders. An image came into my head of Jesus saying the Hebrew blessing over the wine, and I burst into tears. That image left me emotionally raw for the rest of the weekend. At the time I was bewildered, but now, reflecting on it, I think I know why. The story is that Jesus was a brave, loving, charismatic figure who convinced many to follow him and who died for a cause of justice and equality—particularly for the poor—for which millions are still fighting. But it is also that, on the night before he was betrayed, Jesus not only sat at supper with his friends: he sat at supper in the observance of a holy ritual that, by then, his people had already been observing for centuries: a feast of thanksgiving for God’s deliverance, but also a set of customs rich in ritual meanings, conducted in a specific order, that are done simply because they must be done.

Even in the face of the greatest challenges for ourselves as workers, as Americans, as fellow humans, then, there is a place for the past, for tradition, for awareness of ourselves as belonging to a longer and grander human story. We might admire those who can both expel the money-changers from the Temple and preside over the ritual of a religious festival, but we can’t all be Jesus. But we can keep working as we are moved to work, keep loving as we are moved to love, and respect the most honest and heartfelt convictions of others as to what will build a better world as well as heal their own hurts and anxieties.

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!