Category Archive 'William Deresiewicz'

29 Jul 2014

“Not an Entitled Little Sh*t”

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YaleYarnsPrint

Andrew Giambrone (Y ’14) retorts to William Deresiewicz: “I’m a Laborer’s Son. I Went to Yale. I Am Not “Trapped in a Bubble of Privilege.

As a financial-aid kid whose life-prospects were significantly bolstered by attending an elite school, this subject is very personal for me, too. I come from a family of construction workers and laundry-owners in Brooklyn, the descendants of Italian and Chinese immigrants, respectively. My father is a laborer and my mother a human resources worker; they’ve both changed jobs across the years, owing to the recession and family circumstances. We don’t occupy an enviable financial situation by any means, and I’d hate to think our unsteady progress from working- to middle-class somehow makes me, as Deresiewicz puts it, “an entitled little shit.” He may have sleepwalked into college, but it’s wrong to assume we all did

Read the whole thing.

23 Jul 2014

Deresiewicz Attacks the Ivy League

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Commons
Yale’s University Commons, the freshman dining hall

William Deresiewicz criticizes American elite education from what might almost be a conservative perspective, but in the end he thinks the answer has to be a Utopia in which “you don’t have to go to the Ivy League, or any private college, to get a first-rate education.” Good luck with that, Bill.

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.” …

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.

Deresiewicz is right and he is also wrong.

Elite culture in America always worshipped money and success. What is different today is that elite culture no longer respects its past or feels any meaningful connection to the rest of the country or the rest of society, except for recognized victims groups, patronage of which is useful for credentialing of the elite.

He’s right that race-based affirmative action is silly, and efforts at egalitarianism ought to be based on family finances and geographic representation. But, he fails to recognize that the education of national elites is not, in the end, about leveling. It is about building a leadership class, and our problem today is that American society has lost touch with its own identity and has replaced everything including conservation and transmssion of culture and paideia itself with left-wing power games based upon ressentiment.

15 Jul 2014

English Departments Today

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Deresiewicz
William Deresiewicz

Critic, and former Yale professor, William Deresiewicz did a really excellent job of savaging Lawrence Buell’s The Dream of the Great American Novel

Buell’s book tells us a great deal about American fiction. What it also tells us, in its every line, is much of what is wrong with academic criticism. We can start with the language…. Here is a fair sample of Buell’s prose:

    Admittedly any such dyadic comparison risks oversimplifying the menu of eligible strategies, but the risk is lessened when one bears in mind that to envisage novels as potential GANs is necessarily to conceive them as belonging to more extensive domains of narrative practice that draw on repertoires of tropes and recipes for encapsulating nationness of the kinds sketched briefly in the Introduction—such that you can’t fully grasp what’s at stake in any one possible GAN without imagining the individual work in multiple conversations with many others, and not just U.S. literature either.

That’s one sentence. There is an idea in there somewhere, but it can’t escape the prose—the Byzantine syntax and Latinate diction, the rhetorical falls and grammatical stumbles. Schmidt’s smooth sentences urge us ever onward. Buell’s, like boulders, say stop, go back.

The truth is that by academic standards, Buell’s writing isn’t especially bad—which makes him, as an instance, even worse. By the same token, he isn’t noxiously ideological in the current style, isn’t an “-ist” with an ax to grind or swing—all the more reason to deplore how thoroughly (it seems, reflexively) his book bespeaks the reigning ideologies. Buell, whose careful terror seems to be the possibility of saying something politically incorrect—the book does so much posturing, you think it’s going to throw its back out—appears to have absorbed every piety in the contemporary critical hymnal. You can see him fairly bowing to them in his introduction, as if by way of ritual preparation. There they are, propitiated one by one—Ethnicity, Globalism, Anti-Canonicity, Anti-Essentialism—like idols in the corners of a temple.

The frame of mind controls the readings. Novels aren’t stories, for Buell, works of invention with their own disparate purposes and idiosyncratic ends. They’re “interventions” into this or that political debate—usually, of course, concerning gender, race, or class, as if everyone in history had the same priorities as the English professors of 2014. Nearly every book is scored against today’s approved enlightened norms. Gone With the Wind loses points for “containing” Scarlett and embodying an “atavistic conception of human rights” but wins a few back for being “even more transnationally attuned than Absalom,” exhibiting “maverick tendencies in some respects as pronounced as Faulkner’s,” and engaging in “an act of feminist exorcism that Absalom can’t imagine.” Go team!

In the case of Uncle Tom’s Cabin—a book that makes this kind of reading sweat, being heroically progressive by the standards of its day but embarrassing by ours—pages are spent parsing its exact degree of virtue. Witnesses are called:

    Here, as critic Lori Merish delicately puts it, Stowe “fails to imagine African Americans as full participant citizens in an American democracy.” George Harris’s grand design to Christianize Africa looks suspiciously imperialistic to boot, veering Stowe’s antislavery critique in the direction of what Amy Kaplan trenchantly calls “manifest domesticity.”

I feel as if we’re back in Salem. Maybe he should have just thrown the book in the water to see if it would float. Buell is a person, one should say, who uses terms like cracker, redneck, and white trash without self-consciousness or irony, which makes his moral teleology all the more repulsive—his assumption (and it’s hardly his alone) that all of history has been leading up to the exalted ethical state of the contemporary liberal class.

The one kind of standard that Buell will not permit himself is an aesthetic one. Like many academics now, he’d rather cut his tongue out than admit in public that he thinks a book is good or bad.

11 Nov 2012

The Culture of the Smug

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Manhattan Upper West Side brownstones

William Deresiewicz
has an uncharacteristically self-critical commentary on the aesthetic sensibilty of the urban-based community of fashion elite.

[N]ow I wonder if there’s also something new. Not middlebrow, not highbrow (we still don’t have an avant-garde to speak of), but halfway in between. Call it upper middle brow. The new form is infinitely subtler than Midcult. It is post- rather than pre-ironic, its sentimentality hidden by a veil of cool. It is edgy, clever, knowing, stylish, and formally inventive. It is Jonathan Lethem, Wes Anderson, Lost in Translation, Girls, Stewart/Colbert, The New Yorker, This American Life and the whole empire of quirk, and the films that should have won the Oscars (the films you’re not sure whether to call films or movies).

The upper middle brow possesses excellence, intelligence, and integrity. It is genuinely good work (as well as being most of what I read or look at myself). The problem is it always lets us off the hook. Like Midcult, it is ultimately designed to flatter its audience, approving our feelings and reinforcing our prejudices. It stays within the bounds of what we already believe, affirms the enlightened opinions we absorb every day in the quality media, the educated bromides we trade on Facebook. It doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, doesn’t seek to disturb—the definition of a true avant-garde—our fundamental view of ourselves, or society, or the world. (Think, by contrast, of some truly disruptive works: The Wire, Blood Meridian, almost anything by J. M. Coetzee.)

There is a sociology to all of this. As Clement Greenberg pointed out in “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” (1939), the predecessor to Macdonald’s essay, high culture flourished under the aristocracy. Mass culture came in with mass literacy, while Midcult is a product of the postwar college boom, a way of catering to the cultural aspirations of the exploding middle class. Now, since the ’70s, we’ve gone a step further, into an era of mass elite and postgraduate education. This is the root of the so-called creative class, the Bobos, the liberal elite as it exists today. The upper middle brow is the cultural expression of this demographic. Its purpose is to make consciousness safe for the upper middle class. The salient characteristic of that class, as a moral entity, is a kind of Victorian engorgement with its own virtue. Its need is for an art that will disturb its self-delight.

Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan.

22 Oct 2012

Infrastructure and the State

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Former Yale English professor William Deresiewicz, in the American Scholar, gives a travel anecdotal spin to the usual liberal statist claptrap.

We were living in a middle-class suburb of a small city: lots of single-family houses with neat gardens, all of them surrounded by walls. Here are some of the things you would see on the other side, the public side: overflowing dumpsters; unpaved streets lined with garbage; smoldering trash fires; little rows of shanties tucked into corners of the neighborhood for the local servant class, the kind of miserable hovels that stretch for miles in places like Mumbai; and a small, polluted lake that no one in their right mind would have swum in. We never drank from the tap, of course; even certain kinds of produce were said to be unsafe. The phone was temperamental, too, and so was the television cable. One thing we were thankful for, however: we could breathe without feeling like we were damaging our health, something that could not be said in any of the larger cities we visited and the reason we were living where we were.

Being rich in a poor country, I discovered that year, is like being rich and poor at the same time. We could eat in any restaurant we cared to, could have had a fleet of servants at our disposal had we so chosen, but we couldn’t buy our own electric grid, or water system, or air.

I’ve thought of all this during the debate we’ve been having this election season about the extent to which business owners are responsible for their success. On the one hand, Democrats like Elizabeth Warren and Barack Obama, trying to remind entrepreneurs that they didn’t build the highway system themselves, or put their employees through school. On the other, people who continue to insist that they pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. Well, let them go to India and see what it’s like to live in a place where you can’t take public services for granted. We’ll see how far their bootstraps get them there.

Too many Americans, goes the common complaint, want other people to pay for them. Yet the same is true in generational terms. We have been able to live well, and do well, because we inherited a rich, well-functioning country, but for a long time now—I’m thinking of the tax revolt that began in 1978—we have refused to do our share to keep it going. Essentially, the bootstrap crowd is living off the civic-minded willingness to sacrifice of those who came before.

Left-wingers like Deresiewicz look at the world through pink, political lenses, seeing everything around them as the creation of the coercive administrative state. They also consistently award the State credit for the achievements of Society, Culture, and the Individual.

It has somehow escaped Mr. Deresiewicz’s attention that both America and India only have electricity in the first place because Thomas Edison lived in an economically free country where he could profit from invention.

America doesn’t have more reliable electric service than India because of Government. Our power grid works more reliably than India’s because we possess cultural traditions promoting individual responsibility and India is only slowly overcoming very different cultural traditions of dependence, exploitation, collectivism, and corruption. Our power system is the creation of private companies operating in a competitive market system governed by the rule of law.

The reliability of our power system is assured by self interest and the profit motive. In India, the delivery of power is a consequence of political decree as is any economic return to its providers. In America, if you fail to deliver services, even in a natural monopoly context, competitors are available to step in, you are replaced and go out of business. In India, politicians simply decide which satrapy will exploit what and whom. Performance, like profit, is secondary and beside the point.

People like Mr. Deresiewicz are, in reality, agitating for us to become more like India rather than vice versa. Their goal is to take decision-making power out of the hands of consumers generally, and give it instead to politicians. Instead of the free enterprise feedback system of profit and loss based on performance and competition, they want a system in which politicians, as in India, are simply allowed to select winners and losers.

If William Deresiewicz had his way, we would very shortly become a lot more like India.


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