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.