Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Misserved By Privilege

Via Kottke, William Deresiewicz, "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education":

It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League dees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. “Ivy retardation,” a friend of mine calls this. I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn’t talk to the man who was standing in my own house...

I have a friend who went to an Ivy League college after graduating from a typically mediocre public high school. One of the values of going to such a school, she once said, is that it teaches you to relate to stupid people. Some people are smart in the elite-college way, some are smart in other ways, and some aren’t smart at all. It should be embarrassing not to know how to talk to any of them, if only because talking to people is the only real way of knowing them. Elite institutions are supposed to provide a humanistic education, but the first principle of humanism is Terence’s: “nothing human is alien to me.” The first disadvantage of an elite education is how very much of the human it alienates you from.
But this suggests that it isn't going to an Ivy League school that screws you up, or even becoming (gasp!) a professor. It's spending your entire life from cradle to grave in a self-sustained cocoon of privilege, thinking that you've been "taught.. to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class. I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me." I don't think you learned that lesson on your first day at Yale; as the South Pacific song goes, "you've got to be carefully taught," and that teaching started early.

It is, in other words, partly a function of what Deresiewicz calls "the mechanisms that get you there in the first place: the private and affluent public “feeder” schools, the ever-growing parastructure of tutors and test-prep courses and enrichment programs, the whole admissions frenzy and everything that leads up to and away from it," and partly a function of the rest of the institutions that support elite privilege that have nothing directly to do with an Ivy League education: the neighborhoods you live in, the clubs you belong to, the sports you play, the vacations you take, the friends you keep, what you read and watch and eat and talk about.

Deresiewicz doesn't want to think of school in terms of careers, test scores, hot contacts, or any other kind of material or quantitative achievement -- what English professor would? -- and he's pushing a newfound kind of class consciousness to get that point across. But I don't think he actually realizes the extent to which he's caught up in a particular kind of privilege. After all, when you're not born into it, you actually do have to spend a remarkable amount of time worrying about money, and getting ahead, and making the best of your opportunities. And it seems like even if the self-enclosure of the elites is ultimately suffocating for some of them, the kinds of resources possessed and opportunities offered by top-flight schools serve students who begin by looking in from the outside remarkably well.


Dan said...

I read this essay in its entirety a few weeks ago. Some parts are compelling, but on the whole its a mess. Most of the essay does nothing to clear up how the author might better have been prepared to talk with plumbers, making the opening vignette feel disconnected at best and misleading at worst.

Tim said...

The plumber thing is six kinds of messed up. Are we supposed to lament that a noble education no longer trains elites how to treat their inferiors? You can exchange "plumber" for "nanny," "gardener," etc. If there's a crisis in upper-class relationships with the people who serve them, it's half class (and/or race) guilt and half fear of awkwardness.

The author never mentions that the plumber actually knows a lot more than he does, which puts him at a disadvantage. Treat the man like a professional; talk about your pipes. That's what he's there to do. If you have to make small talk, Jesus, talk about baseball.

Dan said...

I just posted this at Snarkmarket, but I figure you're the most likely person to care, so I'm cross-commenting here as well:

Deresiewicz's piece bugged me from the start, and not just because the plumber story reflects more on the author's inanity than anything else. (Tim and I discussed this over at Short Schrift awhile back) But I couldn't place my dislike precisely until just now, after having read an essay by Lionel Trilling from 1961, "On the Teaching of Modern Literature." Sadly, I can't find a version online to point to, but it's published in Trilling's Beyond Culture and also in Hollinger and Capper, eds., The American Intellectual Tradition--a copy of which I know Robin to own, and he'll be happy to lend it to all of you reading this.

Trilling's essay has two lives. In broad arc it tells the story of a teacher's problem: how to teach a modern literature that feels too intensely personal and too dangerous to the compromises necessary for social life, and then how to overcome the disappointment of having students prove their skill in making even the most distressing literature domestic. Its second life is an argument, not a story. It claims modern literature to have its origins in the attraction to the spiritual, the sexual, the primal, the animalisitic part of the self that emerged out of the most rationalist and modern of late nineteenth century thought. The point of the essay, as I see it, is to play out the tension of the modern condition: the see-saw between yearning to let the self run wild and submitting to the constraints of social order. Trilling hopes to see his students shaken by this modern literature, thrown from their everyday lives. When they write essays laced with interest, but not madness, he feels let down. Yet one presumes he would have been more distressed to have seen decorum fly out the classroom window.

Moreover, Trilling doesn't blame his students too harshly. In fact, he holds open the possibility that some of his students were shaken to the core by their encounter with The Magic Mountain or The Wasteland. He believes it possible and even likely that his students choose not to share their most personal thoughts with him, and that his encounter with them misses their fullness of being.

Trilling, a perceptive critic as ever, admits that he cannot know his students completely, and gives them the benefit of the doubt. Deresiewicz lacks this intellectual humility. He judges his students too harshly, and in haste to criticize culture does them violence. That is what pissed me off about the essay. And Lionel Trilling helped me see it.