William Deresiewicz is an award-winning essayist, educational critic, and author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. A former professor and instructor at Yale and Columbia, Deresiewicz lectures and writes widely on the failure of contemporary elite American education.
This interview, conducted by telephone and edited for length and clarity, grows out of Deresiewicz’s lecture at the University of Notre Dame on March 19, "The Failures of the Elite Education System."
Michael Bradley: During your March lecture at Notre Dame you mentioned that while you’re not advocating for teachers to tell students what to think, or to impart to them their views on different issues, it’s essential to recover the moral dimension of education. Tell us more about that.
William Deresiewicz: I think it’s important to clarify what I mean by the moral dimension of education, especially in the context of a journal like Ethika Politika. I don’t want to be misunderstood.
It’s not just that I’m not advocating that teachers tell students what to think. I should hope that any kind of decent moral education doesn’t do that to begin with. But I’m also not just, or even primarily, talking about the kinds of things that people often think about when they hear the term “moral.” They’re not necessarily questions of good and evil, such as you might encounter in a philosophy class on ethics, where you have a train and a fat man and a Nobel Prize winner and you have to figure out who to kill, or something like that.
I’m primarily talking about the kinds of questions that don’t really fall on the spectrum of good and evil, or at least good and evil are not the primary considerations, because they’re about the kinds of choices that a person makes in his own life, and except in maybe a derivative way don’t affect other people.
Questions like: What do you want to do with your life? What’s important to you? What values and ideals are going to guide your life and your career? Ultimately, who are you going to marry, if you’re going to marry? How are you going to raise your children, if you have children? What I’m really talking about is helping students become autonomous adults.
I think people used to talk about character education, and probably they did often have specific character traits that they wanted to instill. And I suppose if I thought about it, I might come up with my own list. But I’m much less prescriptive. And maybe this is because of the age we live in, or because I’m a secularist, or a relativist. I have my own ideas of right and wrong. But what I’m really concerned about, because I think this is an urgent problem for students today, is that they think right and wrong through for themselves. And again, not right and wrong in the narrow sense, but: what is important to you, rather than, what has been important to the people who have been delivering the message about values to you for the first eighteen years of your life?
I think students tend to grow up very overprotected, very much too closely aligned to their parents. I think they tend to have a lot of trouble now finding their own direction, finding their own voice, finding their own sense of purpose. And I also think that a lot of elite education, and the kind of values that students absorb, is conducted within a kind of upper-middle class liberal consensus. I think, and I see this very much on liberal secular campuses, that questions of values are completely taken for granted, so much so that people don’t even know that they have values anymore, or that they have choices among values. And to me the highest purpose of a college education is to enable you to recognize what your own assumptions are, what the borders of your worldview are, and to use the past, other students, and professors to start to break that open. That to me is what a moral education is.
What you’re calling “moral” early in your response, some might call “vocational”—not in the narrower sense of vocational training, technical training, but “vocational” in the sense of a student asking himself: What am I to do? What are my passions? What sorts of courses should I pursue in life?
Are you comfortable using this word, vocational? You’ve written that a perception of the need to produce “return on investment” may lead students educated at elite universities to miss what you call “their true calling.”
There are two very distinct definitions of the word “vocational,” as I’m sure you know and most people don’t know. There’s vocational school, where you go and train to be a car mechanic. Or, you go to train to be a financial mechanic, which is what people do in the Ivy League now. And that’s a really degenerated form of the original meaning of vocational, which has to do with calling, and a sense of purpose. So if we define vocational in the second sense, which is never how it’s used anymore in educational contexts, then, yes, I’m talking about vocation.
But my whole problem with the way education is being conducted now is that it’s purely vocational in the first sense; it’s purely for the purpose of training students to pursue some line of work or another by endowing them with various technical and analytic skills. And the questions of, “Why are you choosing what you’re choosing? What are your options? What is this all about?”—in other words, questions of purpose—don’t enter into it. And that’s precisely what I want to open up.
And yes, asking those largest questions of meaning and purpose and value—you know, what is the good life and how should I live it—will inevitably shake your ideas about what you want to do in the world, vocationally. But it should also shake everything that you want to do in the world.
You wrote in an essay in the American Scholar that “the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers.” I’ve been intrigued that you also speak often of souls. For example: You say that good books “do the work of getting the soul in motion.” You say of Ivy League grads that “their souls do not weigh more” than less educated people. You’ve written about the merits of a “pilgrim soul.” You’ve said that the liberal arts are to be “soul-enriching,” not merely mind-enhancing.
Do religious institutions, by virtue of the fact that many of them take themselves to be cultivating the soul in addition to the heart and the mind, have any sort of advantage over secular schools where liberal arts education is concerned? I’m aware that there might be equivalence in the way in which you’re using “soul” and these institutions are using “soul.”
I talk about this a lot in the book, especially in chapter five. It’s a key chapter, called “What Is College For?” It’s a short chapter. It kind of lays out what I understand the essential job of a college education—education in general—to be, and I say it’s about building a self. I quote some texts that use the word “soul” instead of “self,” namely, a famous passage from the letters of John Keats. And I say that in terms of how I use the term “soul” it’s just an equivalent for the term “self,” although I know there are other ways it can be used.
So I specifically say that in that sense it’s different in important respects than the way we normally think about the word “soul” in a religious context, where the soul is this eternal thing that’s somehow separate from or distinct from the self, certainly the earthly self.
I also think this is in the New Republic excerpt and I know that Steven Pinker in particular freaked out about this, and some other people have really freaked out about it, because there’s so much misunderstanding of and prejudice against religion for reasons that are both fair and unfair now in secular circles. But I say in the book that I think religious schools often do—including ones not even like Notre Dame but ones that people maybe haven’t heard of outside their own state—often do a better job. That’s an impression that’s not based on a lot of data, but some observations.
And I think it’s for reasons that are implied in your question: The nature of a religious institution is such that it sees its role as something more than just vocational training, however high a level of technocratic training, in that it still understands education as having something to do with the soul.
If we go back to what I said before about moral education, choosing your own values, and opening up questions that have been settled by your childhood, then I imagine that there are limitations as well. Religious institutions may want to place a boundary around that; do you want people at Notre Dame—kids who come in from Catholic families, Catholic high schools, with Catholic beliefs—questioning Catholicism, questioning the existence of God? Maybe not. So I think religious institutions have to balance wanting kids to have questions. Are they going to be happy with the answers they give?
The problem with secular institutions is that secular knowledge is value-neutral. And this is why I encounter a lot of resistance from people like Pinker to the whole idea that education should be about something more than intellectual training, that there is this other role. Because you start getting entangled with questions of value, which need to stay out of the laboratory and the library, in the sense of scholarship.
So I think both kinds of institutions face their own challenges, but I think at least religious institutions are still set up to do this. And in that sense I do think they have an advantage.
In 1997 John Mearsheimer delivered his well known “Aims of Education” address at the University of Chicago, presenting to incoming students the nature of the university education that it wishes to offer. He said, “there is a powerful norm at this institution to not tell you what to think about important issues,” and argued that Chicago was rightfully a “remarkably amoral institution.”
But within the liberal arts is a value-judgment concerning the goodness simply of seeking to know things, or even, in the way that you put it, that it’s good to ask questions, ask self-reflective questions, ask oneself about what one’s vocation (in the broader and deeper sense) may be. And if that kind of questioning and seeking is part of a liberal arts education, that constitutes some kind of moral knowledge even if it’s an uncontroversial and underlying moral knowledge that may animate any inquiry, any search for knowledge at the university.
What do you think about this? And do you think that non-religious institutions would have a hard time admitting or accepting even this dimension of a liberal arts education?
So, yes, absolutely. Every person’s life, every institution, is constituted by certain values, even when you don’t think you have any values. But I think any halfway reflective professor at a liberal arts institution recognizes that the institution embodies certain values. Whether he wants the education itself to embody a search for value is a different issue.
We can certainly imagine people rejecting that value and saying, no, people should not question the values they’ve been given. I was going to say that it’s hard to imagine any concept of education that doesn’t involve that. But actually it’s not hard to imagine. We know that there are people who don’t want their kids to get an education, or to get too much of an education. Sometimes they’re religious fundamentalists. I have some in my family: didn’t want to send his kids to college, because he didn’t want them asking questions. Or, we can imagine a rejection of that kind of education out of a neoliberal ideology, as in the cases of Scott Walker and other Republican governors and spokespeople for a neoliberal idea of education that says, “it’s just about training workers for the workforce.” And the people who vote on textbooks in Texas, or make curricula down there, don’t want kids learning about Darwinism, don’t want things that are learned in the family to be challenged.
I do think it’s also true that there are people like that within universities, within liberal arts institutions. I would say people like Pinker. He pretty much said this in his rebuttal to me: “I know how to teach people psychology. I don’t know how to teach them to build a self.” He kind of ridiculed the idea. He doesn’t think it’s his job. And the truth is he’s not trained for it. This is why I think the liberal arts colleges in general do a better job than research universities at teaching undergraduates, at giving undergraduates true liberal education. Because it’s still part of their mission.
I think a lot of people still at least pay lip service to this. I mean, the dean of Harvard says to his freshman, “think of your education as transformational rather than transactional.” The question is whether it actually happens and whether the institutions are still set up to make it happen.
One could pose the question of whether a professor like Pinker would admit the following: that knowledge is a good worth pursuing, that knowing things tends to enrich one’s life, are moral qualities, moral realities that he’s imparting to his students, even as he claims not to be competent to help cultivate those students’ selves.
Well, I couldn’t speak for him. I’m not sure if this is him—I think this is him but I’m pretty sure it’s also Sam Harris, whom I think in many ways is alike to Pinker. But these guys and other people with a scientistic attitude, who think that science can answer all questions, are those types. The idea is—and this is what I alluded to earlier when I spoke of the self-enclosed world of values of the liberal class—that they think that we’ve arrived at a point in human development where everybody knows what society should look like. Questions of value have been settled. And to the extent that they haven’t been settled it’s because not everyone has reached the stage of enlightenment that the western liberal class has.
You might say to Pinker, the idea that “knowledge is a good” is a value that can be debated. He might say, “Well, only an idiot would think that it’s open to debate.” So they think that society can just be engineered, that there really are no value questions to be asked anymore. It’s just a question of how do you do, how do you get to the state that we all know we should achieve. And I think that’s part of his blindness about what education should be for.
[Sam] Harris has come out in the past couple of years advocating for a kind of silence or attentiveness, and how making a practice of it can enrich one’s life. Of course this made waves in part because people were saying, “Is this Sam Harris condoning some form of meditation? Could this be construed as some form of prayer?”
You’ve written a great deal about the need for solitude, and how solitude is a kind of precondition for the self-reflection that students badly need. What kinds of practices might students cultivate to give themselves more silence amid their schedules at elite universities?
Make their schedules less busy. Eliminate the things they don’t really need to do. Turn off their phones. Shut the door. Open a book. How about that?
The thing is that there are no genuine barriers to finding solitude. They’re all just barriers of habit and psychological compulsion. And you can get over those.
A few months ago the journal First Things featured an essay by the philosopher Roger Scruton called “The End of the University,” in which Scruton says, “we can no longer entrust our high culture to the universities.” He goes on to suggest that we need to embrace institutions other than universities as our repositories of culture and moral knowledge, as incubators of self-reflective and self-critical values. He mentions institutions like journalism, think-tanks, associations of scholars, and private reading groups.
Where the future flourishing of the liberal arts is concerned, what prospects do you see for a turn in modern American universities? Do you see elite universities changing for the better in this respect in the near future? Or will the kind of transformation that these universities ought to be affecting have to take place in other kinds of institutions, because for one reason or another that turn is simply not going to happen?
I’ve heard versions of this argument informally, people asking, “Should we just give up on the colleges?” You’re not asking me to pass judgment on that idea, but here’s what I think about it. The institutions of civilization were substantially destroyed in the late Roman Empire, and they survived as little flames in the monasteries. And eight centuries later learning was revived, although really it was revived because it survived in a more robust way in the Muslim world.
Yes, the universities are really problematic as repositories of human knowledge and the liberal tradition. But they have tremendous institutional resources: resources that may be diminishing, may be at this point merely historical accidents, since the drift of the culture and indeed of universities themselves is hostile to them. But you’re not going to reproduce that. I don’t know how many English professors there are now—several tens of thousands, I think. And multiply that by whatever to get the total number of humanities and fine arts professors. You’re not going to reproduce that outside the university. It’s would be like the dark ages. And I don’t think we should inflict the dark ages on ourselves willfully.
I don’t think it has to be either-or. The kinds of things Scruton is talking about can happen and maybe they are preferable to university humanities departments. But I think it would be an enormous mistake to give up on the departments for the reasons I’m saying.
I also think that people still do good work within that context: teachers that are good teachers, good scholars. I have lots of problems with the academic humanities, and not just because they’re withering; I have problems with the way they conduct their business. But they still make room for a lot of great things. Lots and lots of American and non-American young adults still go to college. We’ve got them there, and we should use that.
Now, are the universities going to get better? I don’t know. Obviously the trends are not looking good. But I still think that there are schools that do things well, and like I said, I think the framework is still there. It still enables important, valuable things to happen.
You’ve written in one of your essays that “the best place to cultivate the life of a mind is not within an educational system whose real purpose is to reproduce the class system.” You’ve also observed that students are arriving at elite institutions already having been trained to think in the ways that these encourage them to continue thinking. What role do you see for the classical academy movement and also homeschooling in confronting this problem?
I don’t know a lot about them. And of course homeschooling is as various as the parent. I met a homeschool mom with a couple of ten-year-old twins in Chicago and I just thought, based on her kids, “this is the greatest thing ever.” And actually I met her at a talk I gave at a classical academy, the Chicago Grammar School. I think it would be considered one of those. It’s a classically based education, which also seemed terrific. There’s also Montessori, though that doesn’t extend to high school usually, and schools in that philosophical vein.
I don’t know that it’s about the model per se. I think that it’s really about any kind of model that isn’t obsessed with elite college admissions. That’s the tradeoff. That’s the decision that you have to make. Are we going to focus on true learning for the kid right now, whether he’s ten or fifteen? Or are we going to gear everything, measure everything, toward elite college admissions, which schools often do for real economic reasons—they can charge a lot of tuition, they can get a lot of donations … I mean this is the business model, right?
And of course every fancy private prep school that’s a feeder school for the elite colleges will pay the same kind of lip service. And even the parents will pay the same kind of lip service that you would get at any of these other places: “cultivating independent thinkers, creative thinkers, blah blah blah.” The question is, what do you really care about? And what I try to say in the book at length, to individual students, and I would say to schools, too, is that you can’t have it both ways. Maybe the kid will get into a prestigious college anyway. But you can’t fake this. It’s going to be a tradeoff. And the tradeoff is probably going to involve the sacrifice of some amount of wealth, whether you’re an individual or a school. That’s the issue.
This final question goes in a different direction. Schools have commencements this time of year. What’s your take on uproars about cancelled commencement speakers and what I see to be the cousins of that phenomenon, which are trigger warnings? How do you see these reflecting on or relating to corrupted elite education?
I’m not sure that the connection is immediate. But I will say, having just spent a semester teaching at a liberal arts college—Scripps College in Claremont, one of the five Claremont colleges—I talked and thought about this stuff all the time. And I think it’s terrible. I think political correctness has become a flesh-eating bacteria that’s feeding on the brain tissue of American college students. I think it’s probably worse at the liberal arts colleges. That’s my big problem with liberal arts colleges. But from what I hear it sounds like it’s pretty bad in places like the Ivy League too.
Is there a connection? I don’t know. I think political correctness can flourish in the context of an educational system that no longer values, no longer champions, free and open inquiry.
So my idea is that you shouldn’t have trigger warnings and political correctness and so on because your job is to question your assumptions, including your liberal, politically correct assumptions. But of course that’s not how people talk about college anymore. So the rhetorical resources to combat political correctness are not there so much. The professors who speak out against political correctness will say that college is a time to confront uncomfortable ideas. But less and less is college a time to confront any ideas. Even at places like Harvard.
That to me is the connection. But I think it’s an indirect connection. I think there are all kinds of other reasons, and they have to do with the politicized state of our culture and our politicized professoriate. I think it’s ironic that professors are howling about trigger warnings, ironic because I feel like they’ve propagated the ideology that has led to them, and this is kind of like being eaten by their own children.