THE CENTER FOR THIRD AGE NEWSLETTER – AUGUST 2014
1. FATHER WILLIAM’S MUSINGS
2. THE ONE LETTER TO READ BEFORE SENDING YOUR CHILD TO SCHOOL
3. DON’T SEND YOUR KID TO THE IVY LEAGUE
4. KURT VONNEGUT ON READING, BOREDOM, BELONGING & HATE
5. SEARCH INSIDE OR OUTSIDE?
6. DEPROGRAMMING THE CULT OF THE COACH
7. THIS MONTH’S LINKS
QUOTES OF THE MONTH – WILLIAM DERESIEWICZ & GLENNON DOYLE MELTON
“Is there anything that I can do, a lot of young people have written to ask me, to avoid becoming an out-of-touch, entitled little shit?”
“We don’t send you to school to become the best at anything at all… We send you to school to practice being brave and kind.”
1. FATHER WILLIAM’S MUSINGS
August greetings, Dear Friends…
Our family has more teachers in it than you can shake a stick at, so it’s natural for us to pay attention as the school year begins. This week old FW is staying at grandson Etienne’s house where both parents Sophie and Scott are teachers, and I’m also caught up in the excited and anxious energies that accompany starting a new school year. Thus August’s newsletter focuses on ‘education’ and some of its cultural consequences now and for the future.
This month’s quotes represent poles of possible educational outcomes for me, and I’ve personally experienced both. Let me tell you first my story of “becoming an out-of-touch, entitled little shit.”
This lovely quote comes from Yale professor William Deresiewicz, the author of “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and The Way to a Meaningful Life” who taught at my alma mater four decades after I escaped. Seems not a lot has changed.
I call myself a “Recovering Yalie” meaning that, while I am still “an out-of-touch, entitled little shit,” some awareness of my sickness has permeated the “Ayn Rand Nietzschean superman” idiocy I bought into by graduation in 1960. Both George W and Cheney also attended, and the latter repeatedly credited Professor H. Bradford Westerfield with having helped to shape his approach to foreign policy. Doesn’t seem to be a lot of “recovering” going on there.
So how does a middle-class St. Louis boy get indoctrinated into believing he really is “entitled”? I resisted at first, pretty obnoxiously. Instead of wearing low-cut tennis shoes and having soaking wet feet all winter (like the preppies did), my response was to add a black leather jacket to my wardrobe sophomore year. Didn’t get me a lot of points, especially painful when not asked to join the mostly mid/southwestern fraternity I aspired to. I put Fonz’s jacket away, knuckled under in other ways and was allow entry the next rush. Not understanding how much of my soul I was giving up, I rejoiced.
In simplest terms, “entitlement,” if you didn’t arrive at Yale with it, osmosed into you from every direction and level. Here’s a favorite example, but I must ask you not to allow the blatant misogyny to distract you from the power of the “entitlement” brainwashing.
The Yale Coop sold a plentitude of clothing, dishes, decals and other paraphernalia to help you less-than-subtly advertise your Yale-ness. Among the array were banners you could put on your wall. In 1957 my five roommates and I hung this proudly in our suite:
‘WHEN BETTER WOMEN ARE MADE, YALE MEN WILL MAKE THEM!”
In those dark ages, we didn’t even know there was such a thing as sexist chauvinism, but we took the idea of “YALE MEN” dominating everything as natural and right. There are infinite things totally wrong with this idea, and misogyny heads the list. But one way “osmosing entitlement” permeated our consciousness was in the words “BETTER” and “YALE MEN.” Together they imprint that “YALE MEN” are a single breed and, as such, SUPERIOR” on every significant dimension. What nonsense! And how we swallowed it!
Later I came to believe Yale was precisely the right size to foster such stupidity – not small enough to be intimate and not large enough to support diversity. I first experienced such diversity when I returned to graduate school at UMass-Amherst in 1969. Between the 20,000+ students from all ways of life and the societal upheaval of the 60’s, I finally began my recovering from the “entitled little shit” I had become.
Like Deresiewicz, I recommend not sending your kids into any environment – including the Ivy League – where they are likely to be imprinted with a lasting mindset of group superiority.
So enough from the dark side.
What if the learning of content, useful for Second Age careers, can now be best done on-line with supporting hands-on experiences? What then are schools, and especially colleges, best suited for?
Let’s consider the possibility Glennon Doyle Melton suggests:
“We don’t send you to school to become the best at anything at all… We send you to school to practice being brave and kind.”
Please read her inspiring “THE ONE LETTER TO READ BEFORE SENDING YOUR CHILD TO SCHOOL” that follows these Musings as there’s no way I can improve on what she’s done.
Have a wonderful start to your school year, whatever form it takes…
Much love, FW
2. THE ONE LETTER TO READ BEFORE SENDING YOUR CHILD TO SCHOOL
BY GLENNON DOYLE MELTON, MOMASTERY.COM, JULY 21, 2014
Glennon is a new-found treasure for old FW, and she has inspired me to share her loving wisdom with my grandson, Etienne. His father, my eldest son, Scott, a middle school teacher, is also sharing this with his students as school starts as is youngest daughter/teacher, Katina. I hope you may find it as useful in your family’s lives…
BRAVE IS A DECISION
Tomorrow is a big day. Third Grade – wow.
Chase – When I was in third grade, there was a little boy in my class named Adam.
Adam looked a little different and he wore funny clothes and sometimes he even smelled a little bit. Adam didn’t smile. He hung his head low and he never looked at anyone at all. Adam never did his homework. I don’t think his parents reminded him like yours do. The other kids teased Adam a lot. Whenever they did, his head hung lower and lower and lower. I never teased him, but I never told the other kids to stop, either.
And I never talked to Adam, not once. I never invited him to sit next to me at lunch, or to play with me at recess. Instead, he sat and played by himself. He must have been very lonely.
I still think about Adam every day. I wonder if Adam remembers me? Probably not. I bet if I’d asked him to play, just once, he’d still remember me.
I think that God puts people in our lives as gifts to us. The children in your class this year, they are some of God’s gifts to you.
So please treat each one like a gift from God. Every single one.
Baby, if you see a child being left out, or hurt, or teased, a little part of your heart will hurt a little. Your daddy and I want you to trust that heart- ache. Your whole life, we want you to notice and trust your heart-ache. That heart ache is called compassion, and it is God’s signal to you to do something. It is God saying, Chase! Wake up! One of my babies is hurting! Do something to help! Whenever you feel compassion – be thrilled! It means God is speaking to you, and that is magic. It means He trusts you and needs you.
Sometimes the magic of compassion will make you step into the middle of a bad situation right away.
Compassion might lead you to tell a teaser to stop it and then ask the teased kid to play. You might invite a left-out kid to sit next to you at lunch. You might choose a kid for your team first who usually gets chosen last. These things will be hard to do, but you can do hard things.
Sometimes you will feel compassion but you won’t step in right away. That’s okay, too. You might choose instead to tell your teacher and then tell us. We are on your team – we are on your whole class’ team. Asking for help for someone who is hurting is not tattling, it is doing the right thing. If someone in your class needs help, please tell me, baby. We will make a plan to help together.
When God speaks to you by making your heart hurt for another, by giving you compassion, just do something. Please do not ignore God whispering to you. I so wish I had not ignored God when He spoke to me about Adam. I remember Him trying, I remember feeling compassion, but I chose fear over compassion. I wish I hadn’t. Adam could have used a friend and I could have, too.
Chase – We do not care if you are the smartest or fastest or coolest or funniest. There will be lots of contests at school, and we don’t care if you win a single one of them. We don’t care if you get straight As. We don’t care if the girls think you’re cute or whether you’re picked first or last for kickball at recess. We don’t care if you are your teacher’s favorite or not. We don’t care if you have the best clothes or most Pokemon cards or coolest gadgets. We just don’t care.
We don’t send you to school to become the best at anything at all. We already love you as much as we possibly could. You do not have to earn our love or pride and you can’t lose it. That’s done.
We send you to school to practice being brave and kind.
Kind people are brave people. Because brave is not a feeling that you should wait for. It is a decision. It is a decision that compassion is more important than fear, than fitting in, than following the crowd.
Trust me, baby, it is. It is more important.
Don’t try to be the best this year, honey.
Just be grateful and kind and brave. That’s all you ever need to be.
Take care of those classmates of yours, and your teacher, too. You Belong to Each Other. You are one lucky boy . . . with all of these new gifts to unwrap this year.
I love you so much that my heart might explode.
Enjoy and cherish your gifts.
And thank you for being my favorite gift of all time.
***Each year people ask my permission to substitute their child’s name for Chase’s and read this letter together the night before school begins. YES. Others ask if they might change the word God to their family’s name for love and read it that way. OF COURSE. This letter belongs to all of us. I’d be honored if you took it and made it work for your family. Heck, tell ‘em you wrote it. I’m always picking up pre-made grocery buffet food, throwing it into a casserole dish, placing it triumphantly on the table and then stepping back and smiling as humbly as possible in the wake of such triumph. Same/Same. Love, G
Meet Glennon: http://momastery.com/blog/about-glennon/
See more at: http://momastery.com/gs-viral-posts/
3. DON’T SEND YOUR KID TO THE IVY LEAGUE
BY WILLIAM DERESIEWICZ, THE NEW REPUBLIC, JULY 21, 2014
THE NATION’S TOP COLLEGES ARE TURNING OUR KIDS INTO ZOMBIES
In the spring of 2008, I did a daylong stint on the Yale admissions committee. We that is, three admissions staff, a member of the college dean’s office, and me, the faculty representative—were going through submissions from eastern Pennsylvania. The applicants had been assigned a score from one to four, calculated from a string of figures and codes—SATs, GPA, class rank, numerical scores to which the letters of recommendation had been converted, special notations for legacies and diversity cases. The ones had already been admitted, and the threes and fours could get in only under special conditions—if they were a nationally ranked athlete, for instance, or a “DevA,” (an applicant in the highest category of “development” cases, which means a child of very rich donors). Our task for the day was to adjudicate among the twos. Huge bowls of junk food were stationed at the side of the room to keep our energy up.
The junior officer in charge, a young man who looked to be about 30, presented each case, rat-a-tat-tat, in a blizzard of admissions jargon that I had to pick up on the fly. “Good rig”: the transcript exhibits a good degree of academic rigor. “Ed level 1”: parents have an educational level no higher than high school, indicating a genuine hardship case. “MUSD”: a musician in the highest category of promise. Kids who had five or six items on their list of extracurriculars—the “brag”—were already in trouble, because that wasn’t nearly enough. We listened, asked questions, dove into a letter or two, then voted up or down.
With so many accomplished applicants to choose from, we were looking for kids with something special, “PQs”—personal qualities—that were often revealed by the letters or essays. Kids who only had the numbers and the résumé were usually rejected: “no spark,” “not a team-builder,” “this is pretty much in the middle of the fairway for us.” One young person, who had piled up a truly insane quantity of extracurriculars and who submitted nine letters of recommendation, was felt to be “too intense.” On the other hand, the numbers and the résumé were clearly indispensable. I’d been told that successful applicants could either be “well-rounded” or “pointy”—outstanding in one particular way—but if they were pointy, they had to be really pointy: a musician whose audition tape had impressed the music department, a scientist who had won a national award.
“Super People,” the writer James Atlas has called them—the stereotypical ultra-high-achieving elite college students of today. A double major, a sport, a musical instrument, a couple of foreign languages, service work in distant corners of the globe, a few hobbies thrown in for good measure: They have mastered them all, and with a serene self-assurance that leaves adults and peers alike in awe. A friend who teaches at a top university once asked her class to memorize 30 lines of the eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope. Nearly every single kid got every single line correct. It was a thing of wonder, she said, like watching thoroughbreds circle a track.
These enviable youngsters appear to be the winners in the race we have made of childhood. But the reality is very different, as I have witnessed in many of my own students and heard from the hundreds of young people whom I have spoken with on campuses or who have written to me over the last few years. 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.
When I speak of elite education, I mean prestigious institutions like Harvard or Stanford or Williams as well as the larger universe of second-tier selective schools, but I also mean everything that leads up to and away from them—the private and affluent public high schools; the ever-growing industry of tutors and consultants and test-prep courses; the admissions process itself, squatting like a dragon at the entrance to adulthood; the brand-name graduate schools and employment opportunities that come after the B.A.; and the parents and communities, largely upper-middle class, who push their children into the maw of this machine. In short, our entire system of elite education.
I should say that this subject is very personal for me. Like so many kids today, I went off to college like a sleepwalker. You chose the most prestigious place that let you in; up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth—“success.” What it meant to actually get an education and why you might want one—all this was off the table. It was only after 24 years in the Ivy League—college and a Ph.D. at Columbia, ten years on the faculty at Yale—that I started to think about what this system does to kids and how they can escape from it, what it does to our society and how we can dismantle it.
A young woman from another school wrote me this about her boyfriend at Yale:
Before he started college, he spent most of his time reading and writing short stories. Three years later, he’s painfully insecure, worrying about things my public-educated friends don’t give a second thought to, like the stigma of eating lunch alone and whether he’s “networking” enough. No one but me knows he fakes being well-read by thumbing through the first and last chapters of any book he hears about and obsessively devouring reviews in lieu of the real thing. He does this not because he’s incurious, but because there’s a bigger social reward for being able to talk about books than for actually reading them.
I taught many wonderful young people during my years in the Ivy League—bright, thoughtful, creative kids whom it was a pleasure to talk with and learn from. But most of them seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them. Very few were passionate about ideas. Very few saw college as part of a larger project of intellectual discovery and development. Everyone dressed as if they were ready to be interviewed at a moment’s notice.
Look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. A large-scale survey of college freshmen recently found that self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in the study’s 25-year history.
So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk. You have no margin for error, so you avoid the possibility that you will ever make an error. Once, a student at Pomona told me that she’d love to have a chance to think about the things she’s studying, only she doesn’t have the time. I asked her if she had ever considered not trying to get an A in every class. She looked at me as if I had made an indecent suggestion.
There are exceptions, kids who insist, against all odds, on trying to get a real education. But their experience tends to make them feel like freaks. One student told me that a friend of hers had left Yale because she found the school “stifling to the parts of yourself that you’d call a soul.”
“Return on investment”: that’s the phrase you often hear today when people talk about college. What no one seems to ask is what the “return” is supposed to be. Is it just about earning more money? Is the only purpose of an education to enable you to get a job? What, in short, is college for?
The first thing that college is for is to teach you to think. That doesn’t simply mean developing the mental skills particular to individual disciplines. College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance.
Learning how to think is only the beginning, though. There’s something in particular you need to think about: building a self. The notion may sound strange. “We’ve taught them,” David Foster Wallace once said, “that a self is something you just have.” But it is only through the act of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique being—a soul. The job of college is to assist you to begin to do that. Books, ideas, works of art and thought, the pressure of the minds around you that are looking for their own answers in their own ways.
College is not the only chance to learn to think, but it is the best. One thing is certain: If you haven’t started by the time you finish your B.A., there’s little likelihood you’ll do it later. That is why an undergraduate experience devoted exclusively to career preparation is four years largely wasted.
Elite schools like to boast that they teach their students how to think, but all they mean is that they train them in the analytic and rhetorical skills that are necessary for success in business and the professions. Everything is technocratic—the development of expertise—and everything is ultimately justified in technocratic terms.
Religious colleges—even obscure, regional schools that no one has ever heard of on the coasts—often do a much better job in that respect. What an indictment of the Ivy League and its peers: that colleges four levels down on the academic totem pole, enrolling students whose SAT scores are hundreds of points lower than theirs, deliver a better education, in the highest sense of the word.
At least the classes at elite schools are academically rigorous, demanding on their own terms, no? Not necessarily. In the sciences, usually; in other disciplines, not so much. There are exceptions, of course, but professors and students have largely entered into what one observer called a “nonaggression pact.” Students are regarded by the institution as “customers,” people to be pandered to instead of challenged. Professors are rewarded for research, so they want to spend as little time on their classes as they can. The profession’s whole incentive structure is biased against teaching, and the more prestigious the school, the stronger the bias is likely to be. The result is higher marks for shoddier work.
It is true that today’s young people appear to be more socially engaged than kids have been for several decades and that they are more apt to harbor creative or entrepreneurial impulses. But it is also true, at least at the most selective schools, that even if those aspirations make it out of college—a big “if”—they tend to be played out within the same narrow conception of what constitutes a valid life: affluence, credentials, prestige.
Experience itself has been reduced to instrumental function, via the college essay. From learning to commodify your experiences for the application, the next step has been to seek out experiences in order to have them to commodify. The New York Times reports that there is now a thriving sector devoted to producing essay-ready summers, but what strikes one is the superficiality of the activities involved: a month traveling around Italy studying the Renaissance, “a whole day” with a band of renegade artists. A whole day!
I’ve noticed something similar when it comes to service. Why is it that people feel the need to go to places like Guatemala to do their projects of rescue or documentation, instead of Milwaukee or Arkansas? When students do stay in the States, why is it that so many head for New Orleans? Perhaps it’s no surprise, when kids are trained to think of service as something they are ultimately doing for themselves—that is, for their résumés. “Do well by doing good,” goes the slogan. How about just doing good?
If there is one idea, above all, through which the concept of social responsibility is communicated at the most prestigious schools, it is “leadership.” “Harvard is for leaders,” goes the Cambridge cliché. To be a high-achieving student is to constantly be urged to think of yourself as a future leader of society. But what these institutions mean by leadership 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. I don’t think it occurs to the people in charge of elite colleges that the concept of leadership ought to have a higher meaning, or, really, any meaning.
The irony is that elite students are told that they can be whatever they want, but most of them end up choosing to be one of a few very similar things. As of 2010, about a third of graduates went into financing or consulting at a number of top schools, including Harvard, Princeton, and Cornell. Whole fields have disappeared from view: the clergy, the military, electoral politics, even academia itself, for the most part, including basic science. It’s considered glamorous to drop out of a selective college if you want to become the next Mark Zuckerberg, but ludicrous to stay in to become a social worker. “What Wall Street figured out,” as Ezra Klein has put it, “is that colleges are producing a large number of very smart, completely confused graduates. Kids who have ample mental horsepower, an incredible work ethic and no idea what to do next.”
For the most selective colleges, this system is working very well indeed. Application numbers continue to swell, endowments are robust, tuition hikes bring ritual complaints but no decline in business. Whether it is working for anyone else is a different question.
It almost feels ridiculous to have to insist that colleges like Harvard are bastions of privilege, where the rich send their children to learn to walk, talk, and think like the rich. Don’t we already know this? They aren’t called elite colleges for nothing. But apparently we like pretending otherwise. We live in a meritocracy, after all.
The sign of the system’s alleged fairness is the set of policies that travel under the banner of “diversity.” And that diversity does indeed represent nothing less than a social revolution. Princeton, which didn’t even admit its first woman graduatestudent until 1961—a year in which a grand total of one (no doubt very lonely) African American matriculated at its college—is now half female and only about half white. But diversity of sex and race has become a cover for increasing economic resegregation. Elite colleges are still living off the moral capital they earned in the 1960s, when they took the genuinely courageous step of dismantling the mechanisms of the WASP aristocracy.
The truth is that the meritocracy was never more than partial. Visit any elite campus across our great nation, and you can thrill to the heart-warming spectacle of the children of white businesspeople and professionals studying and playing alongside the children of black, Asian, and Latino businesspeople and professionals. Kids at schools like Stanford think that their environment is diverse if one comes from Missouri and another from Pakistan, or if one plays the cello and the other lacrosse. Never mind that all of their parents are doctors or bankers.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few exceptions, but that is all they are. In fact, the group that is most disadvantaged by our current admissions policies are working-class and rural whites, who are hardly present on selective campuses at all. The only way to think these places are diverse is if that’s all you’ve ever seen.
Let’s not kid ourselves: The college admissions game is not primarily about the lower and middle classes seeking to rise, or even about the upper-middle class attempting to maintain its position. It is about determining the exact hierarchy of status within the upper-middle class itself. In the affluent suburbs and well-heeled urban enclaves where this game is principally played, it is not about whether you go to an elite school. It’s about which one you go to. It is Penn versus Tufts, not Penn versus Penn State. It doesn’t matter that a bright young person can go to Ohio State, become a doctor, settle in Dayton, and make a very good living. Such an outcome is simply too horrible to contemplate.
This system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead. The numbers are undeniable. In 1985, 46 percent of incoming freshmen at the 250 most selective colleges came from the top quarter of the income distribution. By 2000, it was 55 percent. As of 2006, only about 15 percent of students at the most competitive schools came from the bottom half. The more prestigious the school, the more unequal its student body is apt to be. And public institutions are not much better than private ones. As of 2004, 40 percent of first-year students at the most selective state campuses came from families with incomes of more than $100,000, up from 32 percent just five years earlier.
The major reason for the trend is clear. Not increasing tuition, though that is a factor, but the ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game. The more hurdles there are, the more expensive it is to catapult your kid across them. Wealthy families start buying their children’s way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel (“enrichment” programs, to use the all-too-perfect term)—most important, of course, private-school tuition or the costs of living in a place with top-tier public schools. The SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is parental income, which it tracks quite closely. Today, fewer than half of high-scoring students from low-income families even enroll at four-year schools.
The problem isn’t that there aren’t more qualified lower-income kids from which to choose. Elite private colleges will never allow their students’ economic profile to mirror that of society as a whole. They can’t afford to—they need a critical mass of full payers and they need to tend to their donor base—and it’s not even clear that they’d want to.
And so it is hardly a coincidence that income inequality is higher than it has been since before the Great Depression, or that social mobility is lower in the United States than in almost every other developed country. Elite colleges are not just powerless to reverse the movement toward a more unequal society; their policies actively promote it.
Is there anything that I can do, a lot of young people have written to ask me, to avoid becoming an out-of-touch, entitled little shit? I don’t have a satisfying answer, short of telling them to transfer to a public university. You cannot cogitate your way to sympathy with people of different backgrounds, still less to knowledge of them. You need to interact with them directly, and it has to be on an equal footing: not in the context of “service,” and not in the spirit of “making an effort,” either—swooping down on a member of the college support staff and offering to “buy them a coffee,” as a former Yalie once suggested, in order to “ask them about themselves.”
Instead of service, how about service work? That’ll really give you insight into other people. How about waiting tables so that you can see how hard it is, physically and mentally? You really aren’t as smart as everyone has been telling you; you’re only smarter in a certain way. There are smart people who do not go to a prestigious college, or to any college—often precisely for reasons of class. There are smart people who are not “smart.”
I am under no illusion that it doesn’t matter where you go to college. But there are options. There are still very good public universities in every region of the country. The education is often impersonal, but the student body is usually genuinely diverse in terms of socioeconomic background, with all of the invaluable experiential learning that implies.
U.S. News and World Report supplies the percentage of freshmen at each college who finished in the highest 10 percent of their high school class. Among the top 20 universities, the number is usually above 90 percent. I’d be wary of attending schools like that. Students determine the level of classroom discussion; they shape your values and expectations, for good and ill. It’s partly because of the students that I’d warn kids away from the Ivies and their ilk. Kids at less prestigious schools are apt to be more interesting, more curious, more open, and far less entitled and competitive.
If there is anywhere that college is still college—anywhere that teaching and the humanities are still accorded pride of place—it is the liberal arts college. Such places are small, which is not for everyone, and they’re often fairly isolated, which is also not for everyone. The best option of all may be the second-tier—not second-rate—colleges, like Reed, Kenyon, Wesleyan, Sewanee, Mount Holyoke, and others. Instead of trying to compete with Harvard and Yale, these schools have retained their allegiance to real educational values.
Not being an entitled little shit is an admirable goal. But in the end, the deeper issue is the situation that makes it so hard to be anything else. The time has come, not simply to reform that system top to bottom, but to plot our exit to another kind of society altogether.
The education system has to act to mitigate the class system, not reproduce it. Affirmative action should be based on class instead of race, a change that many have been advocating for years. Preferences for legacies and athletes ought to be discarded. SAT scores should be weighted to account for socioeconomic factors. Colleges should put an end to résumé-stuffing by imposing a limit on the number of extracurriculars that kids can list on their applications. They ought to place more value on the kind of service jobs that lower-income students often take in high school and that high achievers almost never do. They should refuse to be impressed by any opportunity that was enabled by parental wealth. Of course, they have to stop cooperating with U.S. News.
More broadly, they need to rethink their conception of merit. If schools are going to train a better class of leaders than the ones we have today, they’re going to have to ask themselves what kinds of qualities they need to promote. Selecting students by GPA or the number of extracurriculars more often benefits the faithful drudge than the original mind.
The changes must go deeper, though, than reforming the admissions process. That might address the problem of mediocrity, but it won’t address the greater one of inequality. The problem is the Ivy League itself. We have contracted the training of our leadership class to a set of private institutions. However much they claim to act for the common good, they will always place their interests first. The arrangement is great for the schools, but is Harvard’s desire for alumni donations a sufficient reason to perpetuate the class system?
I used to think that we needed to create a world where every child had an equal chance to get to the Ivy League. I’ve come to see that what we really need is to create one where you don’t have to go to the Ivy League, or any private college, to get a first-rate education.
High-quality public education, financed with public money, for the benefit of all: the exact commitment that drove the growth of public higher education in the postwar years. Everybody gets an equal chance to go as far as their hard work and talent will take them—you know, the American dream. Everyone who wants it gets to have the kind of mind-expanding, soul-enriching experience that a liberal arts education provides. We recognize that free, quality K–12 education is a right of citizenship. We also need to recognize—as we once did and as many countries still do—that the same is true of higher education. We have tried aristocracy. We have tried meritocracy. Now it’s time to try democracy.
William Deresiewicz is the author of “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and The Way to a Meaningful Life,” coming out August 19 from Free Press. He taught at Yale from 1998 to 2008.
Copyright 2014 © The New Republic. All Rights Reserved.
4. KURT VONNEGUT ON READING, BOREDOM, BELONGING & HATE
BY MARIA POPOVA, BRAIN PICKINGS, AUGUST 3, 2014
“Hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide.”
What makes the commencement address such a singular pinnacle of the communication arts is that, in an era where religion is increasingly being displaced by culture and secular thought, it offers a secular version of the sermon – a packet of guidance on how to be a good human being and lead a good life. It is also one of the few cultural contexts in which a patronizing attitude, in the original sense of the term, is not only acceptable but desired – after all, the very notion of the graduation speech calls for a patronly father figure or matronly mother figure to get up at the podium and impart to young people hard-earned, experience-tested wisdom on how to live well. And implicit to that is an automatic disarmament of our otherwise unflinching culturally conditioned cynicism – which is also why the best commencement addresses are timeless and ageless and sing to us beyond the boundaries of our own life-stage. They supply even us cynical moderns with something true, something soul-affirming, something we can hang our beliefs on in a non-ironic way.
Kurt Vonnegut – a man of discipline, a champion of literary style, modern sage, poetic shaman of happiness, and one wise dad – endures as one of the most prolific and sought-after commencement speakers of all time. Nine of his finest commencement addresses, along with some of Vonnegut’s own drawings, are collected in the wonderful compendium If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young (public library), which also gave us Vonnegut on kindness and the power of great teachers.
In one of the best speeches in the collection, Vonnegut addresses the graduating class at Fredonia College in New York on May 20, 1978. He begins, Patti-Smith-style, with a silly and seemingly mundane piece of advice that he uses as a springboard for a deeper reflection:
I suppose you will all want money and true love, among other things. I will tell you how to make money: work very hard. I will tell you how to win love: wear nice clothing and smile all the time. Learn the words to all the latest songs.
What other advice can I give you? Eat lots of bran to provide necessary bulk in your diet. The only advice my father ever gave me was this: “Never stick anything in your ear.” The tiniest bones in your body are inside your ears, you know – and your sense of balance, too. If you mess around with your ears, you could not only become deaf, but you could also start falling down all the time. So just leave your ears completely alone. They’re fine, just the way they are.
Don’t murder anybody – even though New York State does not use the death penalty.
That’s about it.
But that, of course, isn’t it, as Vonnegut is no mere goof. Speaking the same year that Susan Sontag bemoaned how false polarities limit us, Vonnegut cracks open the heart of his message:
I am being so silly because I pity you so much. I pity all of us so much. Life is going to be very tough again, just as soon as this is over. And the most useful thought we can hold when all hell cuts loose again is that we are not members of different generations, as unlike, as some people would have us believe, as Eskimos and Australian Aborigines. We are all so close to each other in time that we should think of ourselves as brothers and sisters.
He extends this notion of our shared humanity by poking gentle fun at our sense of entitlement, uniformly exerted despite the different particularities on which it is pegged:
We are all experiencing more or less the same lifetime now.
What is it the slightly older people want from the slightly younger people? They want credit for having survived so long, and often imaginatively, under difficult conditions. Slightly younger people are intolerably stingy about giving them credit for that.
What is it the slightly younger people want from the slightly older people? More than anything, I think, they want acknowledgement, and without further ado, that they are without question women and men now. Slightly older people are intolerably stingy about making any such acknowledgement.
Above all, however, Vonnegut congratulates graduates for having blossomed into “Clarks,” named after “inhabitants of the British Isles who were remarkable for being able to read and write.” Twenty years before urging young women not to give up on books, Vonnegut celebrates the monumental gift of recorded thought:
You have spent most of the past sixteen or more years learning to read and write. People who can do those things well, as you can, are miracles and, in my opinion, entitle us to suspect that we may be civilized after all. It is terribly hard to learn to read and write. It takes simply forever. When we scold our schoolteachers about the low reading scores of their students, we pretend that it is the easiest thing in the world: to teach a person to read and write. Try it sometime, and you will discover that it is nearly impossible.
What good is being a Clark, now that we have computers and movies and television? Clarking, a wholly human enterprise, is sacred. Machinery is not. Clarking is the most profound and effective form of meditation practiced on this planet, and far surpasses any dream experienced by a Hindu on a mountaintop. Why? Because Clarks, by reading well, can think the thoughts of the wisest and most interesting human minds throughout all history. When Clarks meditate, even if they themselves have only mediocre intellects, they do it with the thoughts of angels. What could be more sacred than that?
Vonnegut moves on to the question of boredom and belonging:
No matter what age any of us is now, we are going to be bored and lonely during what remains of our lives. We are so lonely because we don’t have enough friends and relatives. Human beings are supposed to live in stable, like-minded, extended families of fifty people or more.
Your class spokesperson mourned the collapse of the institution of marriage in this country. Marriage is collapsing because our families are too small. A man cannot be a whole society to a woman, and a woman cannot be a whole society to a man. We try, but it is scarcely surprising that so many of us go to pieces. So I recommend that everybody here join all sorts of organizations, no matter how ridiculous, simply to get more people in his or her life. It does not matter much if all the other members are morons. Quantities of relatives of any sort are what we need.
(It’s hard not to wonder how Vonnegut might feel, if he were alive today – despite his unambiguous distaste for computers – about online communities and the relationships they sprout, which often spill into “offline” life.)
And yet, like Susan Sontag, he concedes that boredom is central to the human condition:
We are supposed to be bored. It is a part of life. Learn to put up with it, or you will not be what I have declared the members of this graduating class to be: mature women and men.
He leaves the graduates – members of a generation often criticized for being apathetic – with a meditation on the intoxicating poison of hate, which rings with double poignancy in our age of trolling and bullying:
As a member of a zippier generation, with sparkle in its eyes and a snap in its stride, let me tell you what kept us as high as kites a lot of the time: hatred. All my life I’ve had people to hate – from Hitler to Nixon, not that those two are at all comparable in their villainy. It is a tragedy, perhaps, that human beings can get so much energy and enthusiasm from hate. If you want to feel ten feet tall and as though you could run a hundred miles without stopping, hate beats pure cocaine any day. Hitler resurrected a beaten, bankrupt, half-starved nation with hatred and nothing more. Imagine that.
The members of your graduating class are not sleepy, are not listless, are not apathetic. They are simply performing the experiment of doing without hate. Hate is the missing vitamin or mineral or whatever in their diet, they have sensed correctly that hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide.
If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice to the Young is a treasure trove from cover to cover, full of Vonnegut’s expansive spirit and irreverent wit. Complement it with more excellent commencement addresses, including George Saunders on the power of kindness, Anna Quindlen on the essentials of a happy life, Bill Watterson on not selling out, Debbie Millman on courage and the creative life, David Foster Wallace on the meaning of life, Neil Gaiman on the resilience of the creative spirit, Ann Patchett on storytelling and belonging, and Joseph Brodsky on winning the game of life.
5. SEARCH INSIDE OR OUTSIDE?
BY RABIYA, AWAKIN.ORG, AUGUST 26, 2014
A famous Sufi mystic, Rabiya, was searching for something on the street outsider her small hut. The sun was setting and darkness was descending, as few people gathered around her. “What have you lost? What are you searching for? Perhaps we can help,” they said to Rabiya.
Rabiya said, “I have lost my needle.”
One amongst the people said, “Well, the sun is setting now and it will be very difficult to find the needle. Where has it fallen? That’ll help us narrow down the area on this big road. If we know the exact place, it will be easier to find it.”
Rabiya told them, “It is better not to ask me that question — because, actually, it has not fallen on the road at all. It has fallen inside my house.”
Everyone started giggling as if she was joking. Then a skeptic says out loud, “We always knew that you were a little insane! If the needle has fallen inside the house, then why are you searching for it on the road?”
“For a very simple reason: inside the house there is no light and on the outside a little light is still there,” Rabiya replied.
The people laughed and started dispersing. Rabiya called them back and said, “Listen! That’s exactly what you are doing: I was just following your example. You go on seeking bliss in the outside world without asking the most fundamental question: where exactly have I lost it?”
After a pause, she continues, “You have lost it inside, and yet you are looking for it on the outside for the very same reason — your senses are outward bound, your ears hear sounds on the outside, your hands touch things on the outside. That’s the reason why you are searching outside. For a very long time, I was also just searching on the outside. But the day I searched inwards, I was surprised. That is where I lost it and that is the only place it can be found.”
6. DEPROGRAMMING THE CULT OF THE COACH
BY WILL LEITCH, SPORTS ON EARTH, APRIL 23, 2014
Klinsmann USMNT head coach Jurgen Klinsmann may be judged less on his team’s World Cup results than on how he affects soccer culture in America. (USA TODAY Sports)
The World Cup begins in less than two months, so I’ve been cramming. (I know soccer well enough to follow it casually for 47 months every quadrennial, then obsessively for the World Cup month.) I was reading USA TODAY Sports’s World Cup preview magazine when I came across an amazing quote from U.S. Soccer coach Jurgen Klinsmann.
Before we get to the quote, it’s important to remember that how Klinsmann will be judged for his performance as the leader of the U.S. soccer establishment goes far beyond how the team does in the World Cup. (Playing in the Group of Death, no one’s going to be all that sore if the team craps out this year.) Klinsmann, who won a World Cup as a player in 1990 and transformed German soccer as coach during the 2006 World Cup (where Germany made it to the semis and begged him to keep coaching the team), is here to remake the sport entirely. The United States is widely considered the sleeping giant of international soccer: The amount of talent potentially on hand is overwhelming, if only we could channel it. That requires a whole reworking of not just the national team, but the whole sporting culture.
Klinsmann wants to win games, of course, but in the long term, he’s trying to make soccer into a larger part of American culture than it is. There are signs he’s succeeding, from the unprecedented level of support from the American Outlaws fan groups — the Americans are considered likely to have one of the biggest road fan showings in Brazil — to the overall raised level of enthusiasm and exposure for the sport in recent years. (Mocking soccer from an American perspective might have felt clever 10 years ago; now you just look like an idiot.) But he still has a long way to go, and the key, as with all major societal changes, is youth.
Youth soccer has increased dramatically in recent decades, though I’ve always suspected that’s less because of the game’s popularity and more because it’s a way for parents to get their kids exercise without ever having to watch them strike out or miss a free throw or get thrown to the ground on a blitz. (As Chuck Klosterman once wrote, “A normal eleven-year-old can play an entire season without placing toe to sphere and nobody would even notice, assuming he or she does a proper job of running about and avoiding major collisions.”) But Klinsmann argues that getting kids to play soccer isn’t so much the point as much as it is getting the parents — and specifically the coaches — out of their way.
Here’s his quote, to USA TODAY Sports’s David Leon Moore:
“When you talk to coaches and parents, it’s very difficult for them sometimes to understand that the kid in soccer is self-taught. Coaches, different from baseball, basketball and American football, with a lot of timeouts and plays and all that stuff, are really just more the inspiration of the whole thing — the guide, in a certain way. But he’s not the decision maker on the field. This is a very different approach. Parents and coaches think they are making the decisions. I tell them, no, you’re not making the decision. The decision is made by the kid on the field. So maybe here and there you should just shut up and let the kid figure it out.”
This quote, whether Klinsmann means it to be or not, is basically an indictment of American sports culture. We fetishize the coach in this country. We are obsessed with authority figures, someone arriving to take supposedly lackadaisical, unfocused athletes and infusing them with discipline and purpose. When a player gives maximum effort, we don’t credit them with it: We credit the person standing off on the sidelines, with a steely glare. The actual demeanor, or the strategy, of the coach doesn’t so much matter. You can be a firebrand like Jim Harbaugh, a wonky technocrat like Brad Stevens, a sarcastic smirker like Gregg Popovich, a terrifying formalist like Nick Saban. All of them are fetishized because they have all tamed the mighty beast of Player. When their teams win, it’s because of them.
Klinsmann, really, is indicting this culture, one that doesn’t work in soccer and probably wouldn’t work in many countries other than this one. Klinsmann, obviously, is not a shrinking violet; he likes to have control too. But what he’s saying is not that we pamper our athletes too much, which is the most common kneejerk reaction in our sports culture. (I will never understand why we think the people running around and sweating are loafing while the ones paid to supervise them are the ones working hard.) It’s that we don’t leave them alone enough. The type of soccer player he wants is one that isn’t looking to impress a coach, or follow orders. It’s one who is passionate about the game enough to want to know everything about it, one who doesn’t need to be prodded, one who doesn’t instinctively look to the sidelines all the time to see if he’s doing everything the way he’s supposed to.
He is, essentially, looking for a non-American. He’s looking for us to change.
And I think he’s absolutely right. For any athlete to reach the highest level, they don’t need a coach to push them: To make it to that point, they must push themselves constantly, every day, every minute. The sacrifices the top-tier athlete makes in his/her life are difficult for us regular people to even comprehend. That’s enough. They are whom we should be fetishizing. When Klinsmann says, “So maybe here and there you should just shut up and let the kid figure it out” … he’s talking about soccer. But not really. He’s talking about America. We should listen to him.
7. THIS MONTH’S LINKS:
THE LIGHT WAY SCHOOLS MODEL…
SEL – A NEW MODEL OF SCHOOL REFORM…
GIVE ME GRATITUDE OR GIVE ME DEBT…
YOUR OWN JUKE BOX FOR ANY YEAR FROM 1960-2013!
10 WEBSITES TO MAKE YOUR LIFE EASIER…
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