Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The necessity of slaughtering the meritocracy of excellent sheep in order to breed more excellent sheep

I was considering reviewing William Deresiewicz's new screed against the meritocracy, follow-up to his now-ancient essay on his difficulties communicating with his mechanic, but in keeping with my all-important New Year's resolution to stop beating dead horses and a Twitter friend's affirmation that this horse was indeed dead, I decided not to. But what is this blog if not an equine cemetery? So I'll still mention it here. I do like Deresiewicz's writing for the American Scholar a lot, especially "Love on Campus," but on the meritocracy question, he is emblematic of the bipartisan impasse in cultural writing whereby we slam elite colleges without providing any real alternative to them.

That's not to say people don't make suggestions - admission lotteries, or Great Books for all, or most commonly, the commencement speech standby: a pop-transcendentalist excoriation to individual students to stop grade-grubbing and go introspect, preferably on an alpine mountaintop or some other Romantic setting, and then to thine own self be true, or whatever. But no one is really capable of wishing for anything other than a society - and by extension an educational system - in which the best flute players get the best flutes. Because on what other basis would we award the flutes? Parentage? Wealth? Hair color? The alternatives are inconceivable to us, and that's as true of those who can imagine the dangers of a pure meritocracy as of the tech-utopians who prefer computer overlords to less intelligent human ones. So everyone who begins by roaring about the imperative to dismantle "the system" ends by bleating pleas to improve it. The problem initially set out is meritocracy itself, but by the end, it's only our current approach to merit that's wrong: it's too narrow or biased, it excludes minorities, the poor, the rural, the sad. What that really means is that merit is still the standard, but that we need a better meritocracy, not "another kind of society altogether," as Deresiewicz boldly announces in his TNR book plug.

The two halves of Deresiewicz's essay perfectly depict the contradiction of this way of thinking. In the first part, we have the classic Rousseauian critique of conventional education*: it denatures man, teaching him to live for others under conditions where real citizenship - the wholesale Spartan dedication of the self to the common good - is no longer possible. The result is confused and contradictory men who are at war with themselves, "always appearing to relate everything to others and never relating anything except to themselves alone." Elite schools suppress individual nature with their insane admissions demands and their "greasy pole" ideology of success. The result is basically zombies:
Our system of elite education manufactures young people 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 really Rousseauian solution to this is of course to dismantle universities altogether and educate all men "for themselves" rather than for society, but it follows from this that we may have to dismantle society too, so commentators understandably shy away from that conclusion. Then the waffling begins. And what are Rousseau's most recurrent and ubiquitous injunctions but, "Don't waffle!" and "There is no half-way!" (That's a direct translation.) So the romantic, Rousseauian beginning quickly deteriorates into a technocratic, anti-Rousseauian ending. When all of society is the system to be smashed, everyone suddenly drops the sledgehammers and takes up the duct tape instead.

This dilemma explains the blatant bait-and-switch in the second half of Deresiewicz's essay. It's entirely a lament of the unjust exclusion of the poor from an educational system that Deresiewicz has just denounced as corrosive to the soul. Now the problem is suddenly that the opportunities for corrosion are not universal enough. In Part 1, for example, we are informed that the "national leadership" into which a degree from these schools will catapult you is "nothing more than getting to the top. Making partner at a major law firm or becoming a chief executive, climbing the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy you decide to attach yourself to." In Part 2, a deficient understanding of leadership is apparently no longer the problem, but rather that "we have contracted the training of our leadership class to a set of private institutions." In Part 1, the problem is that students pursue staid, unimaginative careers like medicine and live programmatic lives. In Part 2, the problem is that they get their medical degrees from Penn instead of Ohio State, and live in, I guess, NYC instead of Dayton. What about the souls of the poor? How will they benefit from joining the Ivy League Zombie Track? Will they not be zombie-fied just like their affluent peers? How will the zombie track be improved by their presence?

Instead of answering these questions, Deresiewicz borrows from Charles Murray's "bubble" logic the feel-good suggestion that if the children of doctors just socialized more with the children of coal miners, America would be better. No mention whether its universities would be better or its students less "anxious." Was any of their anxiety, timidity, and lack of intellectual curiosity caused by their lack of exposure to the children of coal miners in the first place? Were the defects of the university curriculum or its culture caused by it? Unlikely. But wouldn't society be better off if it weren't so economically stratified? Now we've totally abstracted from our concern for the individual soul into a concern for the national soul. We've become social engineers. And like Murray, Deresiewicz recommends many ways that you - elite university student that you are - can turn your very presence into a form of charity and uplift for the poor by voluntarily and sacrificially placing yourself in their midst. No more building houses for charity over spring break and all that condescending frivolity; now the thing to do to help the poor is to play-act at being poor yourself.

How to do this? You might find the types of places where the poor like to congregate - waitressing jobs, state schools - and frequent them. Once there, you will learn from their down-homey values how to act like less of an "entitled little shit" (though, as a volunteer for this lifestyle, you will still technically be one), and they from your maniacal work ethic and ambition how maniacally and ambitiously. The suppressed intellectual curiosity of the Ivy League striver will finally be satisfied by his summer of washing dishes and wiping tables, while the other dishwashers will learn from him the poetry of Alexander Pope that he listlessly memorized for class and be inspired to attend the Ivy League themselves, where they will be turned into gradgrinds and sent home summers to wash dishes in order to inspire subsequent poor people to become like them. In the process, all schools will somehow become excellent so you won't even need to go to an Ivy League school to get a good/bad education and simultaneously satisfy your no-longer-contradictory longings to live for yourself and be approved by others. In sum, it's gonna be real good in the future, when there is a better meritocracy that is therefore no longer a meritocracy at all, and everyone is rewarded for their equal and unequal talents equally and unequally, thereby eliminating altogether the social scourge of entitled little shits.

The problem is, if you're not willing to consider distributing the best flutes by lineage or height, then you're not really against meritocracy. Rousseauian individual soul-training is tempting, but Rousseau is emphatic that there can be no educational system made from it, and maybe even no education in the first place, so it may not offer the best model for the systemic reform of education. One can worry about perfecting souls or about equalizing systems, but equalizing systems of soul perfection may prove impossible. Judging by his earlier articles, Deresiewicz is at bottom a soul-perfecter and not a system-equalizer, which is almost always the better thing to be anyway.

*As the great mid-century thinker Lesley Gore once said: It's my blog and I'll generalize if I want to.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Things to see and do

Sometimes you just have to update, even if you have nothing to say.

A highly selective encyclopedia of political thinkers.

- Here is Market Basket, the incredibly cheap grocery chain in MA to which I never lived close enough to be able to shop regularly, looking like the Soviet Safeway* on a bad day. I hope it stays in business, even though I'm living no closer to it this year than previously. But everything in Boston is so expensive that there has to be some reprieve somewhere, even if only in discount tomatoes.

- I've been reading Sholem Aleichem and I.B. Singer, some for a summer seminar and some more out of curiosity, and this is my most blog-able discovery: it's apparently not unusual for Ashkenazi Jews to be blond. All my life, I've been told that blond Jews were an anomaly and possibly evidence of some long-forgotten intermarriage to a wandering Swede who one day circa 1860 found himself in Galicia, but there are plenty of blond Jews in these stories.

*The Soviet Safeway is the Safeway in the Watergate building in D.C. Or it was that Safeway; I don't know if it's still around. But in the two summers that I spent nearby, it would regularly run out of food mid-week.