Of Dreamlessness



Zeteo’s staff is a mix of the graduate-student aged and the emeritus aged, and this helps me (on the emeritus side) see more clearly where my generation is ending up. At a meeting the other day, one young staff member, whose great interest is participatory democracy, was expressing his hopes voire belief that electronic tools can facilitate a revival of participatory democracy. My sense is rather that we can already see, and will soon see more clearly, how electronic tools have played a large role in further reducing autonomy and, indeed, thinking.

The other day in New York I saw a long line, and I wondered what people could possibly be doing waiting in such a line first thing on a beautiful Monday morning? Were they anxious to apply for some job? No. They were waiting to buy the latest version of an electronic gadget. Our largest “votes” now are as consumers, and these votes are as channeled by money (advertising) as our political votes are.

How far my generation has fallen, from the utopian dreams and experiments of the Sixties, to stagnant incomes, long hours at not very fulfilling jobs we feel lucky to have.

But again, I take these views to be generational—a reflection of how far my generation has fallen, from the unprecedented middle-class prosperity of the post-World-War-Two period, and with it the rise of a vibrant counter-culture in the Fifties and utopian dreams and experiments of the Sixties, to stagnant incomes, to long hours at not very fulfilling jobs that we feel lucky to have, and to a kind of dreamlessness.

All this by way of calling attention to “How Bad Are the Colleges?”, a review by Christopher Benfey in the October 23 New York Review of Books. Benfey, a professor of English, poet, and reviewer, is writing about former Yale professor William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. (Apparently an excerpt from the book in The New Republic— “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League”—has become the most-read article in the history of that magazine.) A quote from Deresiewicz’s text:

The system manufactures students 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.

Benfey’s more sober, nuanced response has a lot to be said for it. The line that has stuck in my head is the very last one. I will set it up by putting it in bold and giving the immediately preceding sentences as well. And, again, thanks in part to my younger Zeteo colleagues, I am coming to see such observations as the heartfelt, sad expressions of my particular generation’s view:

Deresiewicz wants, laudably, to instill independence and audacity among students. More colleges with a higher tolerance for risk, for passionate weirdness in curriculum and teaching, might well help our children make a more distinctive world for themselves. How far off such hopes now seem.

— Wm. Eaton

William Eaton is the Editor of Zeteo. A collection of his essays, Surviving the Twenty-First Century, will be published by Serving House Books. For more, see Surviving the website.


Credits & Links

The photo was found on a Web page of the International Business Times. The caption reads: “A man wearing a mask depicting Apple’s late co-founder, Steve Jobs, holds up a cardboard cutout of Apple’s new iPhone 6, as he walks into the Apple Store at Tokyo’s Omotesando shopping district, Sept. 19, 2014. Reuters.”

Benfey’s review: How Bad Are the Colleges?

Deresiewicz’s Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League

A related piece of my own: Where are our dreams?

Click for pdf of Of Dreamlessness

One comment

  1. Daniel D'Arezzo

    “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.” William Deresiewicz makes this conventional claim while at the same time making the more controversial claim that America’s elite colleges do not, in fact, teach undergraduate students to think for themselves–that Ivy League students are caught up in a bubble of privilege that encourages groupthink. Yet it is the conventional claim that I find annoying.

    Nearly everyone can think (by which I mean that nearly everyone can solve problems, which may involve asking for help), but many people don’t think clearly. Does anyone think clearly all the time? I doubt it. The best sign that someone can think clearly is that he or she recognizes when he or she has not thought clearly. Perhaps what Deresiewicz means by “learn to think” is to have the ambition to think more clearly.

    Is college a place that instills that ambition or is it a place that attracts people who already have that ambition? “Ambition” may be the wrong word. Deresiewicz’s point is that the Ivies are full of ambitious people who are not distinguished for their thought. Is it possible that clear thinking is actually a taste? Just as there is a gene that leads many people to reject bitter foods, so that they end up with a lifelong aversion to broccoli, could there be a gene that creates an aversion to clear thinking? What a wonderful thought! Just as one wouldn’t insist that everyone eat broccoli, one should also, out of courtesy, not insist that everyone think clearly. Certainly this notion makes Congress understandable and even tolerable.

    Is college one’s best chance to learn to think more clearly? Since only seven percent of the world’s population have a college degree, I have to hope that there are other chances that are at least as good. I also want to hope that people who have not started thinking clearly by age 21 may yet have a chance to do so.

    Shakespeare did not go to college, and his success on the stage unnerved at least one college man, Robert Greene, who called him an upstart crow. The theater was Shakespeare’s best chance to think clearly, and I think it continues to be that for others.

    Alfred Russel Wallace did not go to college but he was an avid reader. Not everyone who is an avid reader thinks clearly; Wallace had his lapses as well. Still, entering into conversation with the books one reads is an avenue to clearer thinking. I had to go to college to learn how to do that.

    Or maybe I just needed to mature a little. Throughout my teens, my adolescent brain was absorbing a lot of information but not processing it very well.

    Whether college matters is a topic that interests me, in part because I went to grad school and even taught English composition at the University of California Santa Barbara. I taught poems, essays and short stories and read my students’ writing, and it was torture for them and torture for me, but I never really questioned why we were doing what we did. I thought I was making some students more literate, but there were really very few who had any interest in literature or in writing about it. Did my classes help students to think more clearly? I doubt it. Did I make literature less appealing? No doubt about it.

    Deresiewicz’s article was read by a lot of people because we have so much anxiety about college. Parents worry that if their kid doesn’t get into an elite college then the kid will not have the best possible life. If the article persuaded some people not to worry, then it did some good. But I don’t think it persuaded anyone that college isn’t the only option. That’s a whole other article.


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