I. I am sitting in a large auditorium in Princeton University’s McCosh Hall. The year is 1979. The course is International Relations. Just weeks earlier, I had arrived on campus, suitcase in either hand, via plane, train and Dinky. Not quite fresh from the farm, but in fact my high school sweetheart’s family did own and run a dairy farm. So in this and many respects, I had in fact traveled much, much farther than just 776.4 miles to the heady environs of the world’s best college (though it styles itself a university, and rightly so).
I am sitting in this auditorium, hunched over my notebook, on fire to get every word of this lecture down. Around me sit 250 other students, After several minutes, the professor stops mid-sentence. We look up, all 250 of us. “I’ve been speaking complete nonsense since the beginning of this class. How long were you going to sit there and listen to this stuff without questioning it?”
II. The following year, I finally realize that my college girlfriend has been making weekend trips to New York not to visit “friends” but to keep trysts with an older man. I miss several classes when I return to Georgia to lick my wounds. The professor is clearly distressed for me when I return to campus and visit her office in East Pyne, but that does not prevent her from stamping my transcript with a B- for Latin 108.
Many years later, when I am a doctoral student in classics at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, I see Janet Martin back there, sitting in the last row of the audience for my first big conference paper. The NYU professor who introduces me, taking note of my background in high school teaching, makes an ironic comment and lifts an eyebrow, inviting everyone to join in the fun of humoring this schlemiel. As I begin to speak, my old Princeton professor makes steady eye contact with me and nods with satisfaction every time I turn a phrase or hammer home another point about Germanicus in Tacitus’s Annales: wham/nod, flourish/nod, kaboom/enthusiastic nod. And when I finish, I see from the expression on her face that she is mentally dusting from her hands the ashes of that NYU snob.
III. During my junior year at Princeton, I go to East Pyne to see a professor during her office hour. The paper on myth that I was sure was stellar has earned something like a B. Respectable, but a disappointment. I ask her why she thinks it is a B paper. She says that she simply does not agree with the views and approach of the critic on whose scholarship I had relied. When I say that I am intrigued by his approach (though I could not have distinguished “structuralism” from a hole in the ground), she says, with a hard-to-identify tone in her voice, “Yes, I think you would make an excellent structuralist.” I would realize only years later that she meant to be cutting, i.e., that she was commenting unfavorably on my intelligence, my moral commitments, or quite possibly both.
So, what is the point of these stories? The point is this: It would be very difficult, even if we limit ourselves to just one person, to construct a cogent account of what that individual experienced at Princeton (A.B, 1979-1983), Harvard (Ed.M., 1986-1987), Yale (Summer 1990), and UNC-Chapel Hill (Ph.D., 1991-1997). Far too many irreconcilable but undeniable truths. So we would end by throwing our hands into the air: our “one hands” together with our “other hands.”
In Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite & The Way to a Meaningful Life (Free Press, 2014, reviews by Garner in the New York Times, Grafton in the New York Times, Lozada in the Washington Post), Bill Deresiewicz quotes a Yale student as saying that “[i]t’s hard to build your soul when everyone around you is trying to sell theirs.” Of the top universities, he says that there are religious colleges “four levels down on the academic totem pole, enrolling students whose SAT scores are hundreds of points lower than theirs, [which] deliver a better education, in the highest sense of the word, than do those institutions.” Schools like the ones I attended “no longer know what the education they offer is about” and actively discourage good teaching.
As a result, “[t]he system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”
The estimable Tony Grafton, from whom I took a remarkable course at Princeton on the Renaissance and Reformation periods of European history, does not entirely disagree: “Much of [Deresiewicz’s] dystopian description rings true. American universities spout endless, sickening self-praise. Professors are chosen for their specialized knowledge and receive no serious instruction in the art of teaching. As each field of study becomes denser with argument and discovery, its practitioners find it harder to offer broad courses. Students have complained for years that career services offices point them in only two or three very practical directions. Above all, many students suffer from the relentless anxiety, the sense of exhaustion and anomie, that their hyperactivity generates and that Deresiewicz powerfully evokes.”
My experiences may be only partially relevant to this debate. After all, I graduated from Princeton more than 30 years ago. I think, though, I can say this much without apology:
- To Deresiewicz’s point, I suppose, even if it’s merely implied, whenever and if ever it happens that a similar book focused on students at, say, America’s community colleges draws even half as much attention as Excellent Sheep is now enjoying, then we’ll have evidence that we are making some progress. Then we’ll know that our most selective colleges and universities are having some success not just in training future management consultants and hedge funders, but also in educating citizens and the leaders whom our citizenry needs.
- And to Deresiewicz’s welcome observation that “we already have a teaching faculty — … contingent workers. We just need to make them into a real faculty, not a class of academic helots,” add the description by Grafton of the other side of the coin, a description that I fully endorse. Namely, that despite the egregious problems that exist, let’s celebrate the fact that many students are able to find “their people,” viz., “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 … [on which see photo below].” In other words, to damn the Janet Martins with the rest is simply to compound the frustration and dismay that truly dedicated scholar-teachers like Grafton and Martin, together with so many other examples from my long schooling (Nugent, Most, Connor, Champlin, Gotoff, Zetzel, Hanson, Fleming, Duckworth, Mack, Stadter, Linderski, Houston, Smith, Ellington, et al.) must surely feel as they set their own principled course amid a professoriate that Deresiewicz is justified in excoriating and that even Princeton’s legend-in-his-own-lifetime, nothing-if-not-fair-minded Stan Katz has publicly fretted about:
The new environment for higher education has created a situation in which professorial worlds are multiple, complex, and conflicting. I think I am not simply being nostalgic (though I “grew up” professionally at the end of the earlier world) when I assert that we have lost something along the way. We have lost a sense of commonality as professors, the sense that we are all in this together—”this” being a dedication to undergraduate teaching and not just specialized research. We have lost a belief in the relevance of teaching undergraduates for the health of our democracy. We have lost confidence that what we do in teaching and research is inherently good, and not primarily a utilitarian occupation. We have lost the conviction that we have a calling, that as professors our duty is to profess. (1)
Excellent Sheep is not an especially good book on the state of higher education. It makes only a half-hearted attempt to capture the “multiple, complex, and conflicting” reality of where we are. Such is the nature of the polemic or manifesto, I suppose. But it’s also true that if I had a child who aspired to attend one of these highly selective, so-called prestigious schools, I would make sure that he or she had a copy and that it got read.
1 See Stanley N. Katz, “What Has Happened to the Professoriate?” Chronicle of Higher Education, October 6, 2006