Wednesday, August 17, 2016

What is Education for? William Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep and the Religious Tradition

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the Catholic school’s role in perpetuating our American meritocracy. It’s been an underlying theme of this whole blog, and I wrote about it most directly last year in a post on F.Scott Fitzgerald’s experience in a Catholic prep school. That post has since developed into a more polished article that should run in the near future in a Catholic periodical.

One of the leading voices on this whole phenomenon (not in regard to Catholic schools but to education in general) has been William Deresiewicz. For several years I’ve used his outstanding 2010 essay “Solitude and Leadership” for fodder for classroom discussion. Recently, I made my way through his 2014 book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, a jeremiad against an Ivy League culture (Yale especially) that, in his view, grooms graduates to be self-congratulating overachievers with very little sense of purpose.

A jeremiad the book is indeed, and were it not for the fact that Deresiewicz is largely correct in identifying the issues that plague elite education, I would have put this book down within a few chapters. His tone is unbelievably cynical, and he comes across as an uncharitable scold. At his worst points, such as in the chapter entitled “Inventing Your Life,” his writing resembles something like a high-school student’s in its shallow grandiosity, flitting from claim to claim, his paragraphs propelled by clichéd directives. Consider the following proclamations, taken from just five successive paragraph over two pages: “Deciding to invent your life is not the answer…Give yourself time…waste is not waste…You’re going to be a very different person in two or three years…Inventing your life is not about becoming an artist or activist or entrepreneur or any other particular thing…” and so on. Gaggy.

Deresiewicz also seems to lack a sense of who his target audience is here. The real issues, he claims, lie not with students but with the institutions themselves and, more broadly, with a larger culture that perpetuates the existence of an insular elite technocracy. Much of the book is directed towards that larger culture, but several chapters seem more tailored for current teenagers, and read like a made-for-Twitter commencement speech, albeit one whose message is entirely antithetical to most such speeches.

For all of these foibles, though, Deresiewicz is spot-on in identifying what I’ve come to understand as the fundamental disease of modern education, which is that it proceeds from the assumption that the world exists for us, rather than the other way around. Schools now, in their official administrative communication as well as their marketing, seem to suggest that the purpose of education is to improve students’ standing in society, so that when they are done with their time in school others may look upon what they have accomplished and say, “well done.” In other words, the world exists for you, not the other way around.

This view assumes a symbolic relationship between students and their objects of study. The goal of an education, in this understanding, is not to be changed by what you learn but instead is to acquire tokens that can be cashed in or exchanged for something later—prestige, job security, salary, respect, etc. These tokens can be many things, such as grades, awards, test scores, etc, and the mad drive to acquire them Deresiewicz appropriately calls “credentialism.” It’s a kind of consumerism, really: we are defined by what we can make visible to others, by the pile of stuff that we can list for all to see, and that, we hope, will boost our reputation and ensure a “successful” life.

Lost in all of this is education’s commitment to transforming the self, to things like virtue, character, and questions of purpose. This commitment, Deresiewicz concedes, was mostly abandoned somewhere in higher ed’s sinuous history, the key date for him being 1964, when admissions-policy changes at Yale marked the beginning of the end of the WASP aristocracy. Deresiewicz by no means wants to return to the good ‘ol boy days; in fact, much of the book bemoans the fact that the current commitment to student diversity in fact is superficial, and colleges are just as homogenous, in terms of social class, as in the old days. He acknowledges, though, that something important was lost in the transition from aristocracy to meritocracy, and that somehow we’ve managed to get rid of the best parts of education while retaining the worst, that the baby has been thrown out of the window and the dirty bathwater is still sloshing in the tub. Places like Yale and Harvard still pick from a narrow pool of elite students; the only difference is that now once those select young men and women get there, their education no longer has a center, a guiding vision that allows their various classes and majors to cohere.

Deresiewicz is not religious, but in his desire to explain education’s purpose he keeps bumping up against the spiritual. He speaks directly of students finding their vocation, that one thing that, in coming to understand themselves, they discover that they are called to do. He argues for re-grounding education in the humanities, and in doing so finds himself constantly apologizing for using terms that have religious overtones. Consider the following passages: 
I’ve been using the word soul, and though I’m not religious, I find that only a religious language has sufficient gravity to do these questions justice. For we are speaking of the most important thing: no less a thing than how to live.
I’ve found that religious students are often the ones who possess the greatest degree of moral autonomy. Religious colleges, quite frankly—even obscure, regional schools that no one’s ever heard of on the coasts—often do a much better job in that respect [addressing the questions of “meaning and purpose”]
Belief, for many reasons, is unavailable to Deresiewicz, and, I imagine, to most of those teaching in the elite schools about which he’s writing. Perhaps there is no profession in America less inclined to orthodox religious practice than English professors, especially those employed by secular universities. Reasons for this phenomenon are much too complicated for me attempt to address here, but I’ll simply take that premise as foundational as any statement one could make about the world. In tracing the genealogy of the humanities, Deresiewicz rightly identifies 19th-and early-20th-century aestheticism as the connection between the historically religious goals of education with the wilderness of solipsism in which we now find ourselves. Allow me to quote at length: 
The humanities are what we have, in a secular society, instead of religion…As traditional beliefs were broken down…the arts emerged as the place where educated people went to contemplate those questions of meaning and value and purpose…Instead of looking in the Bible, you read Dostoevsky, or listened to Beethoven, or went to see an Ibsen play. Libraries, museums, and theaters became the new churches…The arrangement became known as aestheticism, the religion of art. “The priest departs,” said Whitman, “the divine literature comes.” A Portrait of the Artist dramatizes this precise transition. Instead of joining the Catholic clergy, where he would have had the power to enact the transubstantiation [I don’t think that “enact” is the right word to use here, theologically speaking, but we’ll forgive Deresiewicz] Stephen chooses to devote himself to performing the miracle of literature, “transmuting the daily bread of experience into the radiant body of everlasting life”—that is, into the imperishable stuff of art.
It is no coincidence that English became an object of university study around the very same time aestheticism crystallized as an idea. The center of the college curriculum slowly swung from the Greek and Latin classics, taught by rote as fixed bodies of knowledge, to English and the other humanities...The change was actually a form of continuity. Most colleges had been founded as church-affiliated institutions; now they sought to carry on their spiritual mission under the secular dispensation. Beside the specialized programs of study in the scientific and other disciplines that were also introduced in the late nineteenth century (majors, in other words), there emerged the humanistic components of the liberal arts curriculum, including the “Great Books” and other “general education” courses that were designed to provide an opportunity for students to reflect upon “the big questions.” The minister in the college chapel, preaching doctrine, gave way to the professor in the classroom, leading a discussion.
So, according to his trajectory, as the religious faiths that gave birth to universities (Harvard and Yale were originally religious schools, after all) ceased to have cultural purchase in the post-Enlightenment era, institutions sought to retain what was valuable about their heritage—i.e. the focus on the big questions—while sloughing off the doctrinal baggage. The result was aestheticism, the transcendence of art, preserved in the subjects that constitute the Humanities. But in doing so, in compartmentalizing science and history and philosophy and literature, in allowing students to pick and choose majors, it grew less and less evident that the goal of an education was to transform students, or, more simply, to form them. The goal of college began to resemble what it looks like today—a place to acquire information to put to use for one’s own purposes.

So what about those institutions for which religious faith is not an untenable proposition but a living reality? Here is where secular criticism of the meritocracy (coming from folks like Deresiewicz, Mark Edmundson, and David Brooks) should spur Catholic schools to reclaim some of their own territory when it comes to the Liberal Arts. Many Catholic colleges still require students to take core credits in subjects like English, Theology, Philosophy, and the Social Sciences, but how many schools provide a meaningful framework for these requirements, orienting them around the big questions?

In other words, in most Catholic schools an incoming freshman—let’s say a Finance major—will see that he has to take so many courses in these core subjects, perhaps two in each. But that’s where the requirements stop, in most places. Usually that student will be able to pick and choose whatever interests him to fulfill those requirements. Considering most offerings in these subjects, that might be highly specialized courses: one semester, he might take Intro to English and US History before 1850; the next he might choose something with a sexy title like Philosophy of the Body and something rather ho-hum like Old Testament Wisdom Literature. Now, if the student comes from a high school where he’s gotten a good understanding of European History or Ancient Philosophy, these courses might be able to speak to each other; he might be able to draw out some similar themes, or understand that they involve the same essential questions. Given such a foundation, the student might have a sense of what it is that he wants to learn, what ideas he’d like to explore more fully in their various iterations in each discipline.

But let’s face it. Students like that are rare because teachers who would impart such a desire to know are rare and high schools that would provide such an intellectual background are rarer still. And so most students at Catholic colleges hop from core class to core class until they’re through the requirements and go on to study something that will really be of use to them, in their eyes, and will really help them get ahead in the world. And, in most Catholic colleges, students graduate with no discernible distinction from their counterparts at secular schools, except that at their school they had to take two Theology courses and they had to walk past the chapel on their way to and from Macroeconomics.

I was fortunate that my school, Providence College, was (and still is) a flag-bearing institution in terms of its curriculum. Every student, over the course of their Freshman and Sophomore years, has to take four semesters of Western Civilization (Civ, for short), in total a 20-credit team-taught sequence that starts in the Fertile Crescent and plows through to the 20th-century. Though not a perfect curriculum (what is?) it gave me a base from which to launch all of my subsequent study (grad school in English and teaching literature to high schoolers). More importantly, it helped me understand that the purpose of the Humanities, of studying cultures and their art, is to help us know ourselves. That is, to guide us in our search for answers to the two essential questions: Why are we here? and What should we do about it?

I’ll never forget reading The Brothers Karamazov near the end of this two-year journey, and the thrill of starting to make sense, on my own, of the novel’s wide reach, the depth and breadth of the questions Dostoevsky raised. It was all coming together.

On top of Western Civ, PC required, if I remember correctly, six credits in each of the following subjects: Literature, Science, Social Science, Math, Philosophy, and Theology. So there was very little room to double-major in things like Economics and Finance. But for me, it was worth it. Those other Humanities requirements, with the backdrop of Civ, gained a resonance that they would not have otherwise. The same thinkers and movements kept popping up (Aristotle, Aquinas, Freud, Marxism, Darwinism, Romanticism, etc) and—perhaps this is the mark of a good school—the disciplines seemed less like islands in the roiling sea of academia and more like neighborhoods in the same city.

At the end of his book, Deresiewicz offers some suggestions for overcoming the “Hereditary Meritocracy,” such as devoting a higher percentage of tax dollars to higher education, basing Affirmative Action on class instead of race, and other policy changes. However, with the exception of a few generic suggestions to help professors teach well (reducing class size and de-incentivizing research), he has little to offer in the way of large-scale suggestions for re-grounding the undergraduate experience in virtue, character, and purpose.

Perhaps this is because orienting education around these ideals necessarily means wading into the territory of the spirit. What does the modern academy have to say about something that it long ago deemed off-limits? Grounding education in these essential questions is not a matter of applying one isolated discipline (Religious Studies) to another (Literature) but in seeing the whole project of education as having one goal and, essentially, comprising one thing: a unity in which the study of beauty (aestheticism) plays but one part. A commitment to aestheticism as the highest good, which is all Deresiewicz can offer, can only take one so far, for it prevents art from speaking to the deepest, most common human desires. (Perhaps we would all do well, myself included, by looking at what Cardinal Newman has to say about all of this. He wrote directly about these issues, not coincidentally, at the same time that aestheticism begin its ascent in the 19th century).

It has never been clearer to me that there are only two ways to understand education. One relegates the world to the service of the individual will; the other relegates the individual will to the service of the world. In the first, study is a means to self-aggrandizement; in the second study is done for its own sake, and, if done with the right attitude, has the effect of transforming the individual. There is no in-between, really. It’s becoming clearer to me that without an idea of anything that is larger and more powerful than individual desire (i.e. our current cultural milieu), education will necessarily take the first form. And the only places where an education in the second definition will survive are those places grounded in religious belief, or something very much like it.

I’m convinced that the only thing worthy of being called an education must follow the second path. So is Deresiewicz. He writes that we are called to look at things in their full particularity, “in itself and for itself—not in reference to you, as an instrument of your desire. But it isn’t just things; we also tend to treat each other as extensions of ourselves. Art forces you to do the opposite.” Art—aestheticism—is a good place to start when thinking about reinvigorating the humanities. But unless art, and the questions it raises, are open to the full spectrum, to our most fundamental human desires, we shouldn’t be surprised when the Humanities are a hard sell to the future leaders of America. Catholic schools are not so limited, and let’s hope they can take the cue (for who else will?) to reinvigorate their curricula with coherence.

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