Harvard Grad Unsure If Élite Colleges Have Value

Nathan Heller, a Magazine Writer, attended an "élite college." He is characteristically (for an "élite college" alumnus) reluctant to name it in the latest issue of America's Last Bulwark Against the Death of Culture. (He does tell us it ain't Yale.)

But Heller nonetheless feels free to enumerate his activities at the "élite college" in detail:

Often, after classes, I'd rehearse with the campus orchestra I played in. Later, I'd go to the offices of the school newspaper, where it might be my turn to proofread the next morning's edition. By the time the pages closed, it would be 3 or 4 A.M. I'd walk home, perch at my desk, and finish writing a course paper. A new day, somehow, had already begun. This was a great excuse to drink more coffee. Between lectures, I might visit with professors, meet deadlines for internships or fellowships, or (with a sense of wanton luxury) read through the hundreds of pages I'd been assigned. I had a federal work-study job. I wrote an honors thesis from archival research. Once, I woke up at my desk—or, more precisely, on my desk, face down, arms splayed out, murder-in-the-study style—with a caffeine-induced cramp freezing my left leg and the imprint of a notebook spiral winding down my cheek.

Hm. Sounds stressful. Heller offers this catalogue in a 4,000-word essay on William Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, which makes the argument that the Ivy League is turning out exhausted, risk-averse automatons leading just the kind of back-breaking lives Heller describes.

Except Heller doesn't like the book. I think. It's sometimes hard to tell. He meanders, in each paragraph, from musing to critique to agreement and back to musing. A sample:

When Deresiewicz is not engaging in this kind of brochure balladry, he is a charismatic and elegant writer. But his desire to get students working on their souls—not just figuring out the historiography of the Dreyfus affair or learning to perform gel electrophoresis—means that he sometimes points them in bizarre directions. Like many embattled humanists, Deresiewicz is eager to explain why he is not a scientist. "We ask of a scientific proposition, 'Is it true?,' but of a proposition in the humanities we ask, 'Is it true for me?' " he writes. "The highest function of art, and of literature in particular, is to bring us to that knowledge of ourselves that college ought to start to give us." He later drives the point home: " 'That's me!': the essential experience of art."

This is a stunning definition, and not just because it is plainly untrue. (Do we appreciate Borges's "The Library of Babel" because we see ourselves in it? Is familiarity the essential experience of "Blue Velvet" or, for that matter, "Spaceballs"?) Reading for self-recognition is the default factory setting in most people's minds. It is precisely the approach to literature that you don't need to attend college to learn. When Deresiewicz insists that an objective of literary study, and the multiple perspectives it admits, is ultimately to give kids "models" and "values" that may inform their self-understanding, he's embracing a pretty solipsistic measure of virtue—something closer to therapy than to scholarship.

Hm. So "That's me," in Heller's view, is not just not the "essential experience of art," it is "stunning" to describe it that way. But also, "That's me," is the "default factory setting... in most people's minds." These statements are not very compatible but... here they are.

In spite of all this solipsism and bad reasoning and embrace of "therapy," Heller can't seem to actually bring himself torch the damn book. Instead he concludes, wanly:

Would better college years have made those people more fulfilled? Even in the era of fast tracks and credentialism, the psychic mechanisms of an education are mysterious. Let teachers like Deresiewicz believe. For a couple of hours every week, students are theirs in the classroom to challenge and entrance. Then the clock strikes, and the kids flock back into the madness of their lives. Did the new material reach them? Will the lesson be washed from their minds? Who knows. They heard it. Life will take care of the rest.

Look: Deresiewicz's book, which I have flipped through but have not read with carefulness, seems pretty bad. Heller seems to sort of know this. But why won't he say it? Heller's half-hearted genuflections, to me, encompass America's whole "Ivy League problem" in a nutshell. If Deresiewicz is trolling, if all his bloviating about the function of art and education is really missing a point, he should be called to account for it, whether he's a respected critic or not. And no matter where he taught or went to school.

If Heller can't do this, why is he reviewing the book?

And it is possible, indeed admirable, to do this. Case in point: A month ago, an excerpt from Excellent Sheep went up at The New Republic, and everyone lost their goddamn minds about it. A professor named James Marino, of Cleveland State University, much more effectively handed Deresiewicz his ass on a Wordpress blog. Marino skips all the abstract stuff and goes for the jugular:

Even the title of that article is disingenuous. William Deresiewicz has never studied or worked outside the Ivy League. He has three degrees from Columbia. He taught for ten years at Yale. Public colleges, and the students at public colleges, are merely rhetorically convenient symbols for him. He displays no understanding of, and no curiosity about, what those places and people are actually like.

Is going to an Ivy League school worth it? Unless you are already a person of enormous inherited privilege, the question is disingenuous. Of course it is. This question is like the popular media question, "Is going to college worth it?" No one asking that question honestly believes that they would have been better off not going to college; they would not be writing in whatever magazine is asking the question this week if they had not gone to college. And none of them would be willing for their own children not to go to college. Asking the question is an act of dishonesty. The writer is at the very least deceiving him- or herself.

Gotta say, that post gets more actual analysis in under 1,000 words than Heller's entire article manages. It'd be nice if someone say, took up the actual funding crisis in public education in the scant space there now is for book review-essays.

[Image via Shutterstock.]