Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Entitled Mediocrity, a.k.a. The Dubya Administration

William Deresiewicz has an article in The American Scholar, "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education," that is getting some well-deserved play recently. I suppose it's reminiscent of David Brooks's "The Organization Kid" from 2001, but the 2008 version adds a fitting post-Enron, post-G.W. Bush perspective.

Deresiewicz writes from his recent experience teaching Ivy League students, and comments on the social and emotional constraints they operate under: fear, careerism, conformity. The Ivies exalt a specialized type of intelligence, the analytical, at the expense of other intelligences. As has been remarked elsewhere, getting admitted is for some students the hardest thing about the Yale or Harvard experience, and once you're in, it's tempting to go with the flow and not make waves.

Deresiewicz observes that Ivy Leaguers have a lot more of a safety net than State College kids, and this carries over into a public, adult sense of entitlement that is corrosive to American life.

For the elite, there’s always another extension—a bailout, a pardon, a stint in rehab—always plenty of contacts and special stipends—the country club, the conference, the year-end bonus, the dividend. If Al Gore and John Kerry represent one of the characteristic products of an elite education, George W. Bush represents another. It’s no coincidence that our current president, the apotheosis of entitled mediocrity, went to Yale. Entitled mediocrity is indeed the operating principle of his administration, but as Enron and WorldCom and the other scandals of the dot-com meltdown demonstrated, it’s also the operating principle of corporate America . The fat salaries paid to underperforming CEOs are an adult version of the A-. Anyone who remembers the injured sanctimony with which Kenneth Lay greeted the notion that he should be held accountable for his actions will understand the mentality in question—the belief that once you’re in the club, you’ve got a God-given right to stay in the club. But you don’t need to remember Ken Lay, because the whole dynamic played out again last year in the case of Scooter Libby, another Yale man.

Proletarian fuck-ups lead to jail time, bankruptcy, or some other kind of socio-economic annihilation, with overtones of shame. When a CEO raids a pension fund, or a government official fixes a contract or squelches an intelligence report, banishment is short; the luckless party bounces back with shocking quickness. People marveled when Michael Brown, good old Brownie, fired in disgrace as the head of FEMA, was soon hired back as a consultant apparently to "analyze" his own failure. The case of Alberto Gonzalez, who is having trouble finding work in his post-Attorney General phase, is notable for being an exception. Of course, Gonzalez's social background is hardly the stuff of secret societies or horse shows.

One possible response to Deresiewicz is to roll the eyes at the the self-pitying elite angle, the "poor, poor me, having to serve on the faculty of Yale and Columbia" angle. And this is my partial response, when Deresiewicz extols "the opportunity not to be rich," and complains of difficulty conversing with the plumber who comes to his house to do a repair. The best part of the piece, though, may be his reflections on the purpose of intellectual life as opposed to a career.

Since the idea of the intellectual emerged in the 18th century, it has had, at its core, a commitment to social transformation. Being an intellectual means thinking your way toward a vision of the good society and then trying to realize that vision by speaking truth to power. It means going into spiritual exile. It means foreswearing your allegiance, in lonely freedom, to God, to country, and to Yale. It takes more than just intellect; it takes imagination and courage. “I am not afraid to make a mistake,” Stephen Dedalus says, “even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake, and perhaps as long as eternity, too.”

I've rarely seen that though encapsulated so well. I'm currently reading David Halberstam's The Powers That Be, which provokes thoughts on the "liberal bias" of journalism and the arts. (Halberstam writes of Henry Luce: "Why, he often wondered aloud, were all the talented writers liberals?") I get impatient with the David Horowitz - Michael Medved argument, that academia or the media is a liberal enclave due to some conspiracy, instead of due to a quasi-natural sorting process. Liberals are overrepresented on campuses and newsrooms the same way, and for similar underlying reasons, that conservatives are overrepresented on Wall Street. What marks the intellectual is the social commitment, the desire for communal progress and uplift, and such a commitment coincides with liberalism much more closely than with conservatism. An oversimplification, but a useful, fundamentally true one.

It was good and timely for me to read this article, as a parent. The eldest daughter and I are coming off a rough school year, her eighth grade year. To make a long story short, she brought home some lousy report cards, and I browbeat her about it. It's not that I expect her to be an Ivy Leaguer, she would be the first in her family if she became one, but I have definitely subscribed to the school of thought that says, Make the best grades possible and maximize the "quality" of the college you get into.

Much of this is midlife projection on my part. While I feel I lucked out in the college-admissions racket, getting into a better college than I probably deserved to, I also wish I had been savvier and more focused in my student days and seized more opportunities. I see 20-somethings eclipsing me and I find myself envious, which is a personal problem, not one to be dumped on my kid. She really does have a good mind, creative and idiosyncratic and daring, and I certainly don't want to fence it in. The best school, the best job, the best life for her are ones I can't even picture yet.

No comments: