A Student of History

A Student of History

The title image is of my brother (left) with Greg in Marseille.

Greg Valdespino is one of my oldest and best friends. But this doesn’t mean we were always friendly. We began our friendship competing for the best grades in class. For a while I was on top (I’m good at exams), and I wasn’t afraid to brag. But in high school, Greg shot forward, and it was his turn to rub it in. Greg quite dramatically won our long competition by graduating third in our class and going off to become a true scholar. (I wasn’t either 1st or 2nd.)

Now that we’re adults—or trying to be—Greg has become an even better friend than before, in part for his rare ability to be simultaneously serious and silly. It is difficult to combine a strong sense of what is right with an ability to laugh at oneself, but Greg somehow manages it. He also manages to make me feel like I don’t know the first thing about history. Here’s our conversation:


ROY LOTZ: Can you give me some description of your education? Do any professors or classes stand out for special mention?

GREG VALDESPINO: I went to public school in Sleepy Hollow, from Kindergarten to twelfth grade. And I do remember most of my history teachers from this time. There are phrases and quotes of individuals I remember about why history is important to them. 

But the big influence was Ms. Heskestad, who was my eighth and tenth grade teacher, who was a foundational, educational figure in my life. She really kind of let me deeply geek out and engage in history, as something you can really get obsessed with, making history the big thing I pursued. (And of course she’s French, and I’m a sucker for France.) I would even go to her office every day before school—or once or twice a week at least—and just talk about the readings that we had for AP European History. And I don’t know why she let me do this, but I did. She had better things to do with her time.

Then, after Sleepy Hollow, I went to Stanford for four years. At first I was hesitant to do history, since I didn’t just want to do the thing that I was really good at in high school. And I took a history class on medieval Europe and I hated it. Or I loved it, but I was really bad at it. It was at 9 a.m. and I kept falling asleep. And the professor slapped the table pretty frequently to wake me up. (It was a twelve-person class, so it wasn’t like I could be hiding in the back.) And since I was always the last person to arrive to class, I would have to sit right next to the professor, so he’d be in the perfect position to slap the table. It was not a great introduction to higher learning.

But then I took a class while I was studying abroad, with professor Caroline Winterer, who is a historian of American intellectual and cultural history in the eighteenth century. She did a class on French-American connections since the colonial period. And it was just spectacular. She had this marvelous, beautiful way of using history to reveal the complexity of the past, and the impossibility of pigeonholing past actors, and the astoundingly complex ways that they thought about their world, and that the ways that they thought evolved over time and produced the way we think… And she gave these beautiful lectures about construction of forms of knowledge and ways of approaching the world. I didn’t think it would be so moving, but it was.

Then I got the chance to do my own research in France, where after studying 18th-century intellectual history, I was in this village, talking to people about memories of World War II. To go from an intellectual approach of history to people’s actual relationships with the past—two different ways of looking at history—was a kind of master-class in the subject. So after that I was totally committed to being a historian. Within a year, I went from “Do I want to major in this?” to being like “I want this to be my life.” Even though Caroline Winterer kept telling me that it was a bad idea. 

There’s a thing Rabbis do with converts, where they have to push them away three times to find out if they’re really committed. And the first three times I told Professor Winterer I wanted to go to grad school, she admonished me about how terrible an idea that was, and how awful grad school is, and how I’ll never get a job. Then, only by senior year, the fourth time I did it, she started making a game-plan.

I finished Stanford with a history degree, knowing that I wanted to be a historian. After two years off, I started a Ph.D. in history as the University of Chicago, where I work under Leora Auslander, who is a historian of modern Europe, and Emily Osborn, who studies social history and history in West Africa. And they are glorious, and they are very different, and very wonderful.

RL: Why did you choose history as opposed to any other discipline?

GV: I think I started studying history because I was interested in stories. And I found real stories more interesting than fiction. I thought that looking at past events was an interesting way of understanding humanity, and “the human condition” (except that the longer I studied it I realized I don’t believe in anything called “the human condition,” or if I do it’s very qualified).

As I go through my Ph.D. I think less and less that the reason to study history is stories—even though I love stories—and instead I think that we study history to understand the formation of ways of being and thinking, and how they emerged and evolved and changed over time, and how they’re always doing it.

One of my advisors says that “history is the study of change over time.” And we’re always within that. We are the inheritors and the products of change over time, but at the same time we are also producing and participating in that flow of new changes. So it’s a way of viewing the world that’s in constant flux. And there’s a humility to that which I appreciate. It gives me the ability to think beyond the moment. Or at least try to.

RL: What are some of the books—both academic and non-academic—that inspire you the most?

GV: In high school, one summer, I read both King Leopold’s Ghost by Adam Hochschild—about the Belgium Congo (spoiler alert: it was bad)—and Things Fall Apart by the Nigerian writer Chinua Achebe. So it’s two very different—not complementary—perspectives on how to think about colonialism in Africa. I think that was the first time I ever thought about the history of Africa in any serious way.

In college, the most important book I read was probably The Wretched of the Earth, by Franz Fanon. As far as my intellectual trajectory goes, this book was foundational.

RL: That’s about colonialism right?

GV: Yeah, he’s a psychoanalyst thinking about the consequences of colonialism for black men—and it’s very much about black men, not at all about black women, very misogynistic. It’s a classic psychoanalytical, existentialist approach, like “the black man is created by the white gaze”—these things that have become very common knowledge now. But he was one of these pioneering thinkers. He was one of the main intellectuals of decolonization. So reading that was like a bolt of lightning. And I remember in my class of 90 people only one other person liked it (who now studies black radical thought) because Fanon advocates violence as a form of self-affirmation. It’s a very controversial book. And I bought into it, immediately.

There’s a wonderful book called Affective Communities, by Leela Gandhi, where she talks about the relationships between South Asian and British radicals in turn-of-the-century London. And she looks as vegetarians, spiritualists, anti-colonialists, homosexuals, and how they were imagining different kinds of political relationships that weren’t about similarity. Where the basis of political community isn’t forming bonds with people who are like you. And she has a wonderful theory of political action, rejecting identity politics in the sense of communities formed to include people like us and exclude others.

Then there’s this awesome book by James H. Sweet, called Domingos Álvarez, and it’s a micro-history, a history of one person. It’s based on these inquisition files for this guy who is from what is now Benin. He’s kind of magical healer who gets enslaved and sent to Brazil. But he eventually gets freed, and he becomes a healer in a community in what is now Rio de Janeiro. Then he gets accused of witchcraft, captured by the Inquisition, and sent to Lisbon in the 1760s. There he’s interviewed, producing hundreds of pages about his life. Sweet’s book is an astounding intellectual biography of him, and his efforts to use his medicinal practices to form a community and resist the social death of slavery. It’s a beautiful resurrection of a man’s life, but it also opens up a way for us to understand African intellectual traditions in the creation of the modern world.

RL: What qualities do you think a good historian should have? 

GV: A good historian definitely needs patience and the persistence to get through archival work, which is often extremely boring. They need to be simultaneously self-critical and confident. Self-critical, in order to not just use their own biases to explain the past. But confident, to believe that they are saying something worth discussing. And they need to be endearingly excited about things. Without irony, and without a need for an audience.

RL: Is there one worst intellectual sin that a historian can commit?

GV: I mean the classic answer is an anachronism, of course. That means using a term or a logic or a conceptual framework of the present to explain the past. It’s a sin because it doesn’t do service to actually explaining the past or its relationship to the present. But of course some people, including myself, believe that we shouldn’t separate the present from the past, because we really can’t escape the present or put it aside. But the anachronism is the classic great sin of historians.

But I think the real great sin is looking for documents and evidence that feed your pre-existing theory as opposed to letting your theory emerge from the evidence. That you don’t go into an archive knowing what your argument is going to be. Your argument emerges from the research. Otherwise, you just do bad work. You won’t move knowledge forward in any meaningful way. Of course, it’s the same problem in any kind of research, and it’s extremely difficult not to do this, at least a little bit. 

RL: How do you think history should be taught at the university level?

GV: I think that it’s important to assign a combination of secondary and primary sources. People need to get excited about engaging with the objects of the past. And you need to give them direct access to the words of people who came before us. But if you just give them those words, images, or objects without any framework, then people will have no ability to understand how exciting they are, beyond just “This is cool!”

You get them in with the coolness, with the story, but they become historians by learning how to analyze it. The most important thing is to teach people that history is a debate, and an analysis, and they have the right to do that analysis, to be historians, to debate it. As opposed to a high school style, which is “Here is the narrative.” People need to be given permission to make the narrative. And in order to do that they need to have access to both the data points and the broader debates.

RL: But do you think there’s a danger to this, in a sense that it gives people the license to write history to reinforce their own preferred narratives?

GV: I’ve gone past my postmodern crisis in college. Obviously all positions are personal and subjective. But that doesn’t mean that some positions aren’t more accurate than others. You need to ground historical study in evidence. Everyone has a right to be a historian. But in order to be a historian, you have to work with the sources, you have to do the analytical work. And if I can prove you didn’t do the work, or I have contrary evidence, I can disprove you. That’s what makes it different from story-telling. 

RL: Can you describe some of your doctoral research?

GV: The basic question of my dissertation is: When, where, and why did West Africans’ ability to feel at home become a political and social issue in France and Senegal in the 20th century. So essentially what I’m asking is: When did individuals’ ability to feel physical senses of comfort and social senses of belonging within certain spaces become central to certain people’s understandings of broader social and political debates. What role did these debates play in colonialism? And how does studying this allow us to rethink our understandings of colonial cultures and ideas of segregation, separation, unity, and multiculturalism in the 20th century?

RL: Can you tell us something about how you went about researching it?

GV: I’ve done archival work in France and Senegal. I did a year in France and about three months in Senegal, and I’ve spent the past year writing. The archives were mostly government archives: the National Archives of Senegal, the National Archives of France, the Colonial Archives of France, various regional archives in France, a few archives of housing agencies, or police archives. I’ve done some oral history, I’ve spoken with some nuns and missionaries. So I’ve gone all over looking at textual sources, a lot of photographs, films, novels.

RL: What kind of textual sources were they, exactly?

GV: It can be anything from a police file, to a census record, to shipping inventories. A problem is a lot of my actors aren’t literate. So even though I would love to have more letters—and I have a good amount—they mostly aren’t there. And they didn’t end up in government archives all the time, for obvious reasons. But I do have a lot of soldiers’ letters that were intercepted by censors. I have letters that individuals wrote to state officials when they were either trying to get support after their homes were destroyed by the state, trying to get support for community centers, trying to get interventions in insalubrious housing. But I don’t have a ton of interpersonal letters, unfortunately.

Each chapter in my dissertation is oriented around a specific kind of space that was seen as a solution to, or the cause of, the problem of how to make West Africans feel at home. And a big source-base for pretty much every chapter are inspections or plans of those spaces. Those can be textual inspections but also drawings, blueprints, photographs, audiovisual records, interviews with residents… it runs the whole gamut.

RL: How do you approach writing up your research? What are you trying to accomplish?

GV: I’ll answer the second part of the question first, because I think it’s harder. Basically, I’m trying to make an argument—that’s the core. An argument that allows us to view something in a new way. The structure of my dissertation is it moves chronologically from 1914 to 1974, and each chapter is about a different time and place. So I’m trying to use home as a lens to reinterpret a certain period that people have been studying. I want to make an argument that allows us to see something in a new way. And which allows us to see West Africans and their sense of belonging as essential to this time period.

On the whole, I’m trying to produce a new understanding of empire. People say that empire is always predicated on distance and separation, and that’s true in many ways. But closeness is also a central part of empire. The paradox of empire is that it’s an entity that is predicated simultaneously on unity and division, which is very counterintuitive to our understanding of politics. So the reason empire’s didn’t work is that they’re based on the politics of differentiation when politics is supposed to be based on similarity.

But for so many people this wasn’t a paradox, and so many West Africans and French people were trying to think of make this distance and closeness work politically. So I’m trying to produce a new understanding of empire that acknowledges that, for many people, the distance did not preclude it from also being intimate. And I don’t mean “intimate” in the sense of sex, I mean that you can bring these political structures close into your life. That’s my overall argument—changing our ideas of empire and why it worked or didn’t work in certain moments.

As far as when I’m writing—a totally different question, I suppose—it’s about getting all of those little arguments in each chapter that will get me to the big argument. And in the process, the first phase is what I call “word vomiting”: just write, write, write. Get all the quotes from all the sources I think are relevant and then I just kind of stream-of-consciousness analyze them. I kind of arrange them roughly into a sequence I think might be interesting, but I don’t really know what I’m going to say about them when I start writing. I write about them, and write around each of these quotes, until I get to an end.

And that’s the first draft. It’s usually about sixty pages of absolute gobbledygook. And then I ask: What’s the argument here? And then I spend weeks trying to craft an argument out of that word vomit. So I imagine vomiting onto my computer and then scrubbing it away, until I get to the argument that was underneath the vomit. 

RL: Just like Michelangelo. You remove every part of the stone that doesn’t look like a beautiful sculpture. Just like you remove every part of the vomit that doesn’t look like a dissertation.

GV: Beautifully put. I even have a separate word document that’s just called “Scraps,” because I find it much easier to delete things if I know they’re going somewhere and not just being deleted.

So, basically, the writing is the thinking. You can’t think without writing—or at least I can’t. That means that you’re going to do a lot of crumpling up paper and throwing it away. But you have to write down those thoughts first

I try to get a good chapter draft done in 4-6 weeks. When I’m in the writing phase, I write about 4 hours a day. So with that pace, by the end of a few weeks, I should have a pretty solid chapter draft that has gone through 2 or 3 revisions. My goal is to have six substantive chapters and an introduction and a conclusion. Each chapter is about 40 pages. So, pretty thick.

RL: More broadly, why do you think it’s important for society to have good historians?

GV: I was thinking about this, because we had a round-table for the history department, examining COVID-19 from a historical perspective. And I think what a historian can contribute is narration. Not storytelling, but an analytic narration. Because the way we narrate the past determines the lessons that we draw from it.

So, for example, if the narration of the coronavirus crisis is: “There was a problem in 2020 and science solved it,” then this will overlook the months of social and economic dislocation that occurred before a vaccine was (hopefully) found. Rather, we need to emphasize that long-term changes in our economy and social structure made us vulnerable so that, when there was a disruption that required time to develop a technical response, we weren’t able to handle it. The lesson we draw then isn’t “Make a technical fix,” but “Make a technical fix, and design the economic and social infrastructure that can handle the time in-between the appearance of the problem and the solution.”

That’s just the COVID example. The way that you narrate the way that something happened completely structures how you move forward into the future.

RL: So do you think that history is about learning from our mistakes?

GV: To some extent it is learning from our mistakes. But what does that really mean? We can say “We know slavery is bad,” but the bigger question is “Why did slavery emerge?” In fact, slavery is the rule, historically. It’s only the last two hundred years where it’s been banished from certain parts of the world.

So I do think learning from our mistakes is important. I don’t think that history is bound to repeat itself. That’s not how the world works. History echoes, maybe, but it never repeats. So we learn from our mistakes, but we need to understand why those mistakes occurred. Because many of the structures that created those mistakes in the past are still with us.

But to make another point, we should also learn that there were roads not taken in history that maybe we should try to take. That’s a big part of what I do. Part of the reason I study empire and the way people tried to make empire work at home is because now we have the narrative of the failure of multiculturalism in Europe. But I’m part of a group of historians who say that there were people who tried to make empire work by trying to imagine a society that wasn’t premised on similarity, but difference, and that difference wouldn’t be an obstacle to solidarity and unity. Why did that vision fail? And how could we resurrect that vision?

The historian E.P. Thomson said that we must save the past “from the enormous condescension of posterity.” The people in the past were not worse or more foolish than we are, and we aren’t smarter than them because we came after them. We can learn a lot from them. And we can be better by trying to be more like them in certain ways. That’s what I dislike about a lot of liberalism and a lot of progressive politics is that there’s always a move “forward.” But some things might have been better in the past. 

A great example is that living in multi-generational housing might actually be better. And that used to be the norm. I think we’ve lost a lot. History is not progress and it’s not loss. It’s loss and gain. We need to understand what we’ve lost and try to resurrect it, or at least get it back in some way. 

And the last thing I like about history is that historians don’t panic as much. Because we know that human beings have survived horrible things. Not individuals, of course, but humanity. Historians have the benefit and advantage of seeing things in the long term. Horrible things happen, but I think historians are less crisis-prone. Or maybe just I am. Even in wars and holocausts, people survive—and I mean people with a capital “P.” 

So there’s analytic narration, there’s learning from the past, and there’s the ability to avoid crisis-thinking. Because we don’t think well when we think in terms of crises.

Review: The Trial

Review: The Trial

The TrialThe Trial by Franz Kafka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Back in university, I had a part-time job at a research center. It was nothing glamorous: I conducted surveys over the phone. Some studies were nation-wide, others were only in Long Island. A few were directed towards small businesses. There I would sit in my little half-cubicle, with a headset on, navigating through the survey on a multiple-choice click screen.

During the small business studies, a definite pattern would emerge. I would call, spend a few minutes navigating the badly recorded voice menu, and then reach a secretary. Then the survey instructed me to ask for the president, vice-president, or manager. “Oh, sure,” the receptionist would say, “regarding?” I would explain that I was conducting a study. “Oh…” their voice would trail off, “let me check if he’s here.” Then would follow three to five minutes of being on hold, with the usual soul-sucking on-hold music. Finally, she would pick up: “Sorry, he’s out of the office.” “When will he be back?” would be my next question. “I’m not sure…” “Okay, I’ll call back tomorrow,” I would say, and the call would end.

Now imagine this process repeating again and again. As the study went on, I would be returning calls to dozens of small businesses where the owners were always mysteriously away. I had no choice what to say—it was all in the survey—and no choice who to call—the computer did that. By the end, I felt like I was getting to know some of these secretaries. They would recognize my voice, and their announcement of the boss’s absence would be given with a strain of annoyance, or exhaustion, or pity. I would grow adept at navigating particular voice menus, and remembered the particular sounds of being on hold at certain businesses. It was strait out of this novel.

When I picked up The Trial, I was expecting it to be great. I had read Kafka’s short stories—many times, actually—and he has long been one of my favorite writers. But by no means did I expect to be so disturbed. Maybe it was because I was groggy, because I hadn’t eaten yet, or because I was on a train surrounded by strangers. But by the time I reached my destination, I was completely unnerved. For a few moments, I even managed to convince myself that this actually was a nightmare. No book could do this.

What will follow in this already-too-long review will be some interpretation and analysis. But it should be remarked that, whatever conclusions you or I may draw, interpretation is a second-level activity. In Kafka’s own words: “You shouldn’t pay too much attention to people’s opinions. The text cannot be altered, and the various opinions are often no more than an expression of despair over it.” Attempts to understand Kafka should not entail a rationalizing away of his power. This is a constant danger in literary criticism, where the words sit mutely on the page, and passages can be pasted together at the analyst’s behest. This is mere illusion. If someone were to tell you that Picasso’s Guernica is about the Spanish Civil War, you may appreciate the information; but by no means should this information come between you and the visceral experience of standing in front of the painting. Just so with literature.

To repeat something that I once remarked of Dostoyevsky, Kafka is a great writer, but a bad novelist. His books do not have even remotely believable characters, character development, or a plot in any traditional sense. Placing The Trial alongside Jane Eyre or Lolita will make this abundantly clear. Rather, Kafka’s stories are somewhere in-between dream and allegory. Symbolism is heavy, and Kafka seems to be more intent on establishing a particular feeling than in telling a story. The characters are tools, not people

So the question naturally arises: what does the story represent? Like any good work of art, any strict, one-sided reading is insufficient. Great art is multivalent—it means different things to different people. The Trial may have meant only one thing to Kafka (I doubt it), but once a book (or symphony, or painting) is out in the world, all bets are off.

The broadest possible interpretation of The Trial is as an allegory of life. And isn’t this exactly what happens? You wake up one day, someone announces that you’re alive. But no one seems to be able to tell you why or how or what for. You don’t know when it will end or what you should do about it. You try to ignore the question, but the more you evade it, the more it comes back to haunt you. You ask your friends for advice. They tell you that they don’t really know, but you’d better hire a lawyer. Then you die like a dog.

Another interpretation is based on Freud. Extraordinary feelings of guilt is characteristic of Kafka’s work, and several of his short stories (“The Judgment,” “The Metamorphosis”) portray Kafka’s own unhealthy relationship with his father. Moreover, the nightmarish, nonsensical quality of his books, and his fascination with symbols and allegories, cannot help but remind one of Freud’s work on dreams. If I was a proper Freudian, I would say that The Trial is an expression of Kafka’s extraordinary guilt at his patricidal fantasies.

A different take would group this book along with Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 as a satire of bureaucracy. And, in the right light, parts of this book are hilarious. Kafka’s humor is right on. He perfectly captures the inefficiency of organizations in helping you, but their horrifying efficiency when screwing you over. And as my experience in phone surveys goes to show, this is more relevant than ever.

If we dip into Kafka’s biography, we can read this book as a depiction of the anguish caused by his relationship with Felice Bauer. (For those who don’t know, Kafka was engaged with her twice, and twice broke it off. Imagine dating Kafka. Poor woman.) This would explain the odd current of sexuality that undergirds this novel.

Here is one idea that I’ve been playing with. I can’t help but see The Trial as a response to Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. As their names suggest, they deal with similar themes: guilt, depression, alienation, the legal system, etc. But they couldn’t end more differently. Mulling this over, I was considering whether this had anything to do with the respective faiths of their authors. Dostoyevsky found Jesus during his imprisonment, and never turned back. His novels, however dark, always offer a glimmer of the hope of salvation. Kafka’s universe, on the other hand, is proverbially devoid of hope. Kafka was from a Jewish family, and was interested in Judaism throughout his life. Is this book Crime and Punishment without a Messiah?

I can go on and on, but I’ll leave it at that. There can be no one answer, and the book will mean something different to all who read it. And what does that say about Kafka?

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Review: Excellent Sheep

Review: Excellent Sheep

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful LifeExcellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life by William Deresiewicz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I still remember my first exposure to Deresiewicz. I had recently dropped out of graduate school—full of disgust and indignation—and as a form of self-therapy I was busy reading everything I could find about the flaws of higher education. Naturally, I jumped on Deresiewicz’s essay in The American Scholar: The Disadvantages of an Elite Education. It seemed to put into words so many things I’d been thinking.

A few days later, I was in the car with my mom and my brother (we were dropping my brother off at his elite university), bitterly complaining, and at great length, about the evils of the system. My mom turned on the radio.

This book is an odd jumble. While barely more than 200 pages, it attempts to be a manifesto, an exposé, a path to tranquility, a work of cultural criticism, and a philosophy of education. Needless to say the book fails to be every one of these things, but this doesn’t mean it fails to be any of them.

Deresiewicz’s first section, wherein he talks about the flaws in the system, is the most successful, since it is what he knows about. In a nutshell, the problem with American higher education is that there is an enormous amount of pressure and prestige for precious little substance.

Young people have more hoops than ever to jump through: if they want to go to Harvard, they must be super students. They can’t afford to stop for one moment. They need to get excellent grades, take all the toughest subjects, be leaders in extra-curriculars—at least six!—maybe found a few clubs themselves, outcompete their peers in the SAT, and in general tick off all the rights boxes.

The problem, of course, is that the things that look good to the college admission office often have dubious educational value, and are most often the product of privilege as much as talent. The vignette that most stuck with me was about the “college enrichment programs” that took young people on carefully choreographed trips, so they would have some good stories for their college essays. (This is not to mention the writing assistance, sometimes bordering on ghost-writing, that the wealthy can afford.)

The ironic part is that all of this stress and effort does not lead to social mobility, since the wealthy already start with such a big advantage. Each cohort of students at elite universities is disproportionally upper or upper-middle class. This is no coincidence, since universities need a sizable number of “full-freighters”—students whose parents can afford to pay the enormous tuition costs—in order to stay afloat.

Even more ironic is that it doesn’t even lead to an excellent education. As the university becomes increasingly reliant on wealthy students, the students increasingly get treated like customers. The university cannot afford to fail them; it cannot even afford to make them uncomfortable, which is arguably a prerequisite to genuine learning. Grade-inflation is rampant. Universities focus on hiring a few research professors, because these professors bring more prestige. Though experts, these professors are often not especially good teachers; and besides, there aren’t very many of them. The bulk of the teaching gets done by contingent faculty, chronically underpaid, always underappreciated, who come and go, without the time or resources to teach to their potential.

Instead of education, these universities focus on ranking. The problem is that the ranking is not based on quality of instruction, but on things like admission rates: the more selective, the better. It benefits elite colleges to advertise to students who have a very low chance of getting in, since if they apply and get rejected, the school looks better.

The result is a system obsessed with prestige at the expense of learning. From the moment students arrive to their final graduation speech, students are praised for being the best, the brightest, the most wonderful. And yet they are enmeshed in an educational system that encourages them to put themselves into boxes for admissions, that rarely challenges their fundamental beliefs, and that leaves them with a sense of entitlement, a sense that they deserve all of the nice things their elite education will give them.

So what should an education do? This brings us to part two and three of Deresiewicz’s book, which I thought were much weaker. He has a lot to say about the value of a liberal education, about self-discovery, taking risks, questioning beliefs, developing a philosophy, finding your real passion, and lots of other nice clichés. To be fair, these are clichés for a reason: in some form or another, they are the goal of a true education. Nevertheless, I didn’t find Deresiewicz’s prescriptions particularly insightful or inspiring.

Finally, Deresiewicz aims his sights at society as a whole. What has this educational model done to our country, and how can we fix it? All the recent presidents, as products of “the system,” come in for a good bashing—especially Barack Obama, who Deresiewicz finds to be arrogant, condescending, technocratic, while totally blind to genuine ideological differences. The book ends with a widespread, sweeping, universal condemnation of the entire upper and upper-middle class. Their time has passed, he thinks, and they must be removed from the stage of history, just as the old, aristocratic WASP class had before them.

What are we to make of all this? It’s clear that the book bites off far more than it can chew. Ambition is certainly not a problem; but when ambition so far outpaces execution, it certainly is.

One weakness is that this book is so personal. By his own admission, Deresiewicz—the offspring of upper-middle class, Jewish parents, a former professor at Yale—is bitter about his experience in elite education, and it shows. For many years, it seems, he was dissatisfied and unfulfilled, consumed by feelings of envy and empty accomplishment, which accounts for both the self-help and the invective.

But emotion is a perilous guide. While at his best he is sardonic and witty, at his worst he is alternately whiney and preachy. His torrents of feeling often blow his vessel into strange waters—like the psychology of achievement addiction, or the dysfunction of government—where he thrashes about ineffectually.

This thrashing led to some tiresome writing. He has a tendency to write in epigram after epigram—none very clever—pounding and hammering his opinions into your head, while supplying few particulars and little evidence. He makes sweeping generalizations, all written in antitheses: “Everybody is doing this, and nobody is doing that,” “All of us care about this, and none of us pays attention to that,” and so on. He rarely qualifies his points, he does not address counterarguments, he does not betray even the least doubt of his righteousness and the system’s evilness. (The book’s condescending title is indicative of its fervor.) If I were his writing teacher, I would tell him it needs more work.

This book could really have been a long essay, focusing exclusively on the flaws of elite universities. The rest feels like self-indulgence and padding, an excuse to air his views and sell a book.

But for all his shortcomings, I think that Deresiewicz is making a vital point. All of his complaints boil down to one insight: meritocracy is insidious.

Now, how can this be? Isn’t meritocracy good? Isn’t is the only fair and just system? Well, there are several obvious problems. For one, what is ‘merit’? Any meritocracy must begin with some notion of worth; and this notion will always be shaped by cultural and economic pressures. You simply cannot measure the inherent ‘worth’ of a person, so you end up measuring people against some arbitrary standard—like analytical intelligence or academic pedigree—imposed by the outside.

But even if we could agree on a universal measure of ‘merit’ (which is impossible), there would be no guarantee that we could measure it perfectly. Some people will be lucky, others unlucky. And even if we could agree on a standard and measure it perfectly—two impossible conditions—we are still left with the question of reward. If somebody is in the top fifth percentile, how much wealth do they ‘deserve’? This will also be arbitrary, and whatever decision will likely not satisfy everyone.

So you see, first a meritocracy imposes an arbitrary standard, and then denies the existence of luck, and then distributes rewards along this standard arbitrarily. A meritocratic system is not necessarily fair—since people’s worth cannot be measured—nor is it necessarily effective—since chance will always play a role—nor is it necessarily just—since meritocratic systems can still be highly unequal. The most insidious part is that it makes people believe they deserve their rewards: the rich deserve their wealth, the poor their poverty.

This is essentially what Deresiewicz is complaining about. The American elite educational system tends to reward certain qualities that are not necessarily desirable (and which are usually associated with wealthy families), and then treat this unequal distribution as justified. But when you think about it, is it really fair that educational resources and prestige be concentrated in very few, very expensive institutions, instead of distributed more evenly throughout the system?

I agree with this fundamental critique. However, I am far from sure that I know how to fix it. For his part, Deresiewicz puts his faith in the old tradition of the liberal arts education.

While I am naturally very sympathetic to this idea, I always ask myself: Are the liberal arts compatible with big institutions? Can a tradition predicated on free thought, on questioning authority, and on open enquiry—a tradition that is not oriented towards job skills or economic gain—be made compatible with an organization of power and wealth? Can we really expect students to pay enormous tuitions to induct them into the life of the mind? Or can we expect tax-payers to support universities that do the same?

To me is seems that, in the United States, by asking our universities to be both liberal arts colleges and pre-vocational training, we are asking the impossible. The first tradition teaches us how to live, while the second teaches us how to work. The problem, it seems to me, is that in the United States we have come to identify so fully with our jobs that we can’t see the questions as separate. Deresiewicz definitely falls into this error, which he exemplifies by his endorsement of the “follow your passion” advice for a better life.

As I finish, I am left with more questions than when I started. And, as cliché as that sounds, that is still the sign of a good book.

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