Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Ivy League Angst

It seems that in our troubled age there are many books about what’s wrong with the Ivy League, and Alexander Nazaryan has written a review of three of them. This includes William Deresiewicz’ Excellent Sheep, which I wrote about here; an exposé fraternity life at Dartmouth by Andrew Lohse; and Jeff Hobbs’ investigation into the death of Robert Peace, a drug-dealer’s son from Newark who did very well at Yale but then ended up back home in Newark dealing drugs and was killed in a gang hit. (Interesting aside about Peace: his brains and his ambitious mother got him into an elite prep school, where everyone assumed that he was actually from a well-to-do family and just acting like he was from the hood.) So, diverse assortment of books tackling the problem from three very different angles.

Bring them together and you get a concentrated brew of gargantuan expectations, question begging, and pitiful whining such as I have seldom seen. Says Nazaryan,
Together, these three books make a persuasive case that the Ivy League is, collectively, a moribund institution, a triumph of marketing whose allure far exceeds its social utility. After all, if our finest colleges can neither turn relatively privileged men like Lohse into models of society nor vault someone like Peace out of the urban destitution from which he’d so nearly escaped, then what are they good for?
Let me say it again: nothing works for everybody. If it is an indictment of any educational system to say that some of the students emerge unscathed, then every system is a failure. Indeed the Ivy League fails to touch many students. So?

But there emerges from Nazaryan’s review a deeper sense of disquiet, summed up in this lament from Jeff Hobbs:
Nobody, it seemed, was making the money he’d thought he would make, inhabiting the home he thought he would inhabit, doing the thing he’d thought he would do in life. Nobody was fulfilling the dreams harbored on graduation day. . . . Why did none of it resemble the great theater of life pitched to us grandiosely in college?
Gee, I don’t know, maybe because life is like that. The problem here is not the Ivy League, it is the expectation that life for most people could ever be a “great theater.” The whole thing reaches its nadir when Nazaryan notes that while Deresiewicz doesn't have many statistics, he has stories that are more compelling than numbers:
“You cannot say to a Yalie ‘find your passion.’ Most of us don’t know how.” No study can capture such dismay.
OH YE GODS. I can't believe my parents are spending $50,000 a year but I still can’t find my passion! Poor me! Oh woe! Oh dire fate!

So these authors think we should expect our colleges to save emotionally disturbed kids from the tough streets of Newark, keep 19-year-olds from acting stupidly around alcohol, and insure all their students find a “passion” that will be so meaningful that it will get them all to pursue public service or art instead of going to Wall Street. That’s not much to ask, is it?

Let me try to set my boiling sarcastic outrage aside and approach these complaints again, more seriously. After all, lots of smart people seem to think there is something to all this.

This is where I end up: every complaint these authors raise against the Ivy League and its students is actually a complaint against our society. So, Ivy League students care too much about success and money and not very much about learning – just like the rest of America. Ivy League students are shallow, annoying, drink too much, lack empathy for the poor – check. Ivy League students have trouble finding real meaning in their lives – this is pretty much the defining malaise of the post-modern world. How would any college go about fixing all of this for its students? The one intelligent criticism Nazaryan makes of Excellent Sheep is that Deresiewicz complains about students not finding or seeking meaning without saying anything about how that might be done:
Deresiewicz writes under the implicit assumption that his readers agree with him about what constitutes a “meaningful life” and are, in fact, hubristic enough to judge whether the life of another lonely, confused and bewildered human has “meaning” or not. Though he uses the word on nearly a dozen occasions in the book, it is never quite clear what he means by it, even if his lament for English majors is a pretty good clue. For the most part, he defines meaning in negative terms, with a career at Silver Point Capital being about the least meaningful thing you could do with your Brown education.
Exactly. I have my own ideas about where meaning might be found, but I would not presume to hold them up as a model for the rest of America or even the whole Ivy League. The glory and the tragedy of our time is that we are not handed any formula for a meaningful life but must work one out our own. Many people never do, and some suffer from it. But that is not Yale’s fault. Indeed if Yale tried to impose any particular version of the meaningful life on its students, this would 1) be resisted from every side and 2) fail spectacularly. There is only so much that one institution can do, even one with as much money and prestige as an Ivy League university.

The thing that bugs me most about books like these is the culture of grievance they represent. Nothing is good enough for us; nothing can be celebrated unless it is found only among a tiny subset of counter-cultural misfits. Everything is bad and getting worse. And not in some definable, fixable way, but as part of an insidious, vaguely ominous assault on the whole civilization launched by forces so obscure and tentacular they might as well be the Illuminati. Please, if you have some ideas about how to make college better, let’s hear them. Otherwise keep your dire rumblings about the collapse our civilization to yourself.


G. Verloren said...

The problem I have with your argumentation as presented here, is that the Ivy League schools actively bill themselves as being capable of providing all the fixes people expect of them. People didn't just magically get the notion that the Ivy League was going to improve their lives - the concept was marketed to them, sold to them, and ingrained in them on a cultural level.

It's like the diamond market. When you actually step back and appraise the entire industry with a critical eye, you see that diamonds are not rare at all. There are enough diamonds on the planet for every single person to have a pristine jewel the size of their fist if we really wanted. They're worthless hunks of carbon whose value is kept artificially high by the massive corporations that control the mines - literally buying up mines simply to close them down and artificially limit supply.

So why do people keep buying diamonds? Because these companies spend massive amounts of money and resources on promoting the cultural value of diamonds. They don't sell diamonds, they sell lifestyles and they sell symbols. They take a worthless hunk of carbon and they bombard people with the message that it is a necessary object for expressing one's romantic sentiments - that without these rocks you will be unhappy in your relationship, and that with them you will live a life of bliss, and that therefor justifies paying huge portions of your annual salary to afford stones the size of your pinkie nail. After all, how can you put a price on true love and happiness?

The Ivy League schools bill themselves not just as the cream of the crop, but as the de rigueur financial and personal investment for a young person to ever be someone of real consequence, wealth, status, or even true happiness. Sure, you could go to an affordable state college instead, but then you don't have the pedigree; the prestige; the mark of true class and personal ability and all the rest of that nonsense.

Society might well be to blame for collectively suckering students and families into believing these absurd fairy tale stories about the modern college system - of perpetuating the mythic "American Dream" in yet another format - but the Ivy League is directly responsible for exploiting that fact. Their entire profit model is based on promising people the moon, and then skipping out on the accountability when people complain about an unsatisfactory experience and want their money back.

When someone sells snake oil, you can't simply turn around and blame the consumers for being gullible enough to buy it. They're not knowing better certainly is part of the problem, but as a society we have an obligation to hold the profiteers and the conmen who try to make bank off trusting or ignorant people accountable.

So now that people are finally beginning to see just how much of a shell game the Ivy League business model is, the outrage is massive.

G. Verloren said...

To clarify my position, you had one line that really struck me.

"This is where I end up: every complaint these authors raise against the Ivy League and its students is actually a complaint against our society."

I think you're absolutely right with this sentiment. People are ultimately upset about the nature of our society.

But once you see something wrong with society and you want to change it, how do you go about doing that? Isn't targetting and criticizing the very social institutions that embody the values which upset you entirely reasonable?

If your complaint is against racism, it is perfectly natural to criticize government or social institutions which perpetuate or foster racism - such as courts passing descrimatinatory laws, or businesses employing descriminatory practices, et cetera.

If your complaint is against violent authoritarianism, it is perfectly natural to criticize violent or authoritarian institutions - ranging from our rapidly militarizing police forces, to our out of control spying agencies, to the courts curtailing individual rights, to private organizations championing violence and obedience, and beyond.

And if your complaint is about people being shallow, greedy, uneducated, unempathetic, and general disaffected and miserable, it is perfectly natural to criticize the very institutions that quietly foster those values within young people so they can maximize profits - particularly when those are our education institutions, which the public entrusts with the role of properly educating and positively shaping our youth into productive, well adjusted members of society.

John said...

Absolutely, the Ivy League profits from the assumption that their schools are a gateway to a "great theater" of life, and most American colleges profit from the notion that education is a higher and more noble sort of calling than grubbing for money. In that sense Ivy League recruiters and publicity departments are complicit in the sort of expectations I am complaining about.

But for some people an elite college really can be an amazing, mind-expanding, life-transforming experience -- it was for me. And for others it really is a route into money and power. Since the Civil War a majority of US Presidents have had a degree from Yale or Harvard.

I guess my objection to these complaints has something to do with my affection for Yale, which was a really great place for me.

But one of the main missions of my intellectual life, and this blog, has been to battle the negativity that I think permeates our time. We are a culture of whiners, grumblers, and peddlers of armageddon. (He whined.) Really the world is not so bad. Really there are many, many things in it that do not suck. I believe that complaint is of very limited utility in fixing anything; what is needed to end our problems is not just complaint about them but an alternative vision of a better world. Complaining about inequality will do nothing to end inequality until someone offers a better economic model and convinces people to pursue it.

I think bitterness is poison to the individual soul and useless to society, so I oppose it in any way I can.