Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Doing it better, meritocracy edition

One last post on the meritocracy theme: a short essay that does it better. No revolutions in the name of uncovering the boundlessly interesting soul within, no absurd embrace of the most vulgar careerism just to spite the idealistic in the name of the people:
Colleges aren’t monasteries. They can’t give their students spiritual sustenance; they can’t provide an escape from modernity. And they shouldn’t be faulted, or punished, for that...One of the ironies of college is that the impossibility of reading your way out of the modern predicament is something you learn about, as a student, by reading. Part of the value of a humanistic education has to do with a consciousness of, and a familiarity with, the limits that you’ll spend the rest of your life talking about and pushing against. So it’s probably natural for college students to be a little ironic, a little unsettled. It’s time, meanwhile, to admit that the college years aren’t for figuring out some improvised “sense of purpose.” 


Helen Andrews said...

"Perhaps it was once the case that, during the four years of college, you could build a self by reading books. But things are no longer so straightforward, because we have an ambivalent relationship to the knowledge of the past. (We also have an ambivalent relationship to the arts. Time spent with art is as likely to make us feel alienated, unknowable, and decentered as it is to make us feel reassured.)"

I don't have much faith in this guy's grasp of the argument he's supposed to be rebutting if this is what he thinks soul-cultivation looked like in olden times. "Straightforward," "makes us feel reassured," not "ambivalent"—good grief, where did this guy's picture of life before Modernism come from?

Surely one of the purposes of higher education is to give graduates a less caricaturish sense of the past than that implied here. Come to think of it, that's a big part of soul-cultivation, too.

Withywindle said...

Rothman cites the wrong Russian text. The Cherry Orchard is what's relevant; and he plays the voice of Lopakhin.

Miss Self-Important said...

Yes, he's pretty ambiguous about the "premodern university" actually was, a shortcoming of the essay. The line that "college is not a monastery" suggests that Rothman envisions it as something like, well, a monastery. Which, if that were true, would account for the assumption that it housed men of unambivalent purpose. And it's not altogether untrue, at least for those who pursued scholarship as a lifelong vocation. It's not the whole story of premodern life, of course, but it's at least fair to say that the premodern European university had narrower aims than today's universities.

But I thought the point that, "Part of the value of a humanistic education has to do with a consciousness of, and a familiarity with, the limits that you’ll spend the rest of your life talking about and pushing against" was a much better explanation for why people write these articles and why they are so widely read and commented on than O'Connor's snob-hunting.

Anonymous said...

Having failed to read the item in its entirety - and yet true to both Chicago and Wall Street form having formed Big Ideas on the matter during the bathroom break - I can say that I like the quote in isolation. It was either David Brooks, Charles Murray or the Kardashians that once opined, "don't fool yourselves, most of you [elite college grads] will come to terms with the system. Statistically, you are the future of the system." Give or take a few words.

Miss Self-Important said...

Great wisdom always visits during the bathroom break.