Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Education vs. Literary Theory

This month’s Atlantic includes an essay by Walter Kirn which ranks among the best magazine articles I’ve ever read. Entitled "Lost in the Meritocracy: How I traded an education for a ticket to the ruling class," it tells the story of Kirn’s time at Princeton where, as a middle-class overachiever from Minnesota, he never really fit in. As many people in this situation do, he constructed a false identity for himself, and post-structuralist literary theory gave him just facade he needed. I’d reproduce the whole thing here if copyright laws let me; alas, I’ll have to include just these three paragraphs instead:

I chose to concentrate on English, since it sounded like something I might already know. I assumed that my classmates and I would study the classics and analyze their major themes, but instead we were buffeted, almost from day one, with talk of "theory," whatever that was. The basic meanings of the poems, short stories, and plays drawn from the hefty Norton anthologies that anchored our entry-level reading lists were treated as trivial, almost beneath discussion; what mattered, we learned, were our "critical assumptions."

I, for one, wasn’t aware of having any. Until I was sixteen or so, my only reading had consisted of Hardy Boys mysteries, books on UFOs, world almanacs, a Time-Life history of World War II, and a handful of pulpy best sellers linked to movies (The Day of the Jackal and The Exorcist stand out), which I’d read for their sex scenes. I knew a few great authors’ names from scanning dust jackets in the town library and watching the better TV quiz shows, but the only serious novels I’d ever cracked were Moby-Dick and Frankenstein—both sold to me by a crafty high school teacher as gripping tales of adventure, which they weren’t.

With no stored literary material about which to harbor critical assumptions, I relied on my gift for mimicking authority figures and playing back to them their own ideas disguised as conclusions that I’d reached myself. The deployment of key words was crucial, as the recognition of them had been on the SATs. With one professor the charm was "ambiguity." With another "heuristic" usually did the trick. Even when a poem or a story fundamentally puzzled me, I found that I could save face through terminology, as when I referred to T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as "semiotically unstable."

But Kirn was smart enough to know that it was all a scam, and managed to pull himself together in time to secure a scholarship to do graduate work at Oxford. Moreover, during the summer before he left for England he took ill with pneumonia. Confined to his bed, he started to do something new--he began reading, first The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, then Great Expectations, and on and on from there.

I apologize for referring readers to an article that’s available only to subscribers, but I consider this piece alone worth the price of a subscription. If you know someone who has one, try to get a peek at it.    

Discussions - 3 Comments

This story sounds like some of the classes I took at a Midwestern b-level state college.

I could come to a "rap-session" all juiced up but spouting out the catch-phrases was all that I needed to do. Despite falling far short of the documented requirements I managed to get a much better grade than what I deserved.

The class was intro to philosophy and the prof looked like a Sixties guy who wasn’t quite certain the 60s was over.

John: Read the piece. You are correct. First rate. Should we give it to students? I know one Princeton grad who’s going to get a copy, although someone might have to read it to him.

I have recently graduated from Colorado College. It is a small liberal arts college that is a bit of a playground for the upper middle class and those who didn’t want to go Ivy League but still go to a place where they can still marry powerful people. IE Lynn Cheney and her daughters hail from my school. Aside: Dick blames my school for turning his daughter into a lesbian. Anyway, I love articles like the one mentioned above. There is a dark underbelly to our top tier universities. I have witnessed it first hand. However, people only seem to get little glimpses of it in the mass media. Wolfe’s Charlotte Simmons was a good start, but for all its descriptions of boorish behaviour, it still didn’t touch on some of the more common pathological behaviour that I witnessed every weekend at a playground for the privileged white upper class. "Lets go to my house in Vail this weekend, ski, and do lots of coke" would be a sentence that I’ve heard a few times.

I was good friends with a lower-middle class girl from the poorer suburbs of Denver. She is a hard worker and has a brilliant mind. However, the sad paradox is that she had so much time to study because she was both consciously and unconsciously excluded from any invitations to go drink in Vail, and all other such occasions.

If Derrida was still around, I think he would love to deconstruct the language of the American top-tier university. There are code words that upper class kids use to identify each other. Little ’innocent’ stories that tell others where you fit in the scheme of things. For instance, there was the girl who went to Andover and found it normal when she walked in on Paris Hilton doing coke in the girls bathroom. And it was natural that the heir to the Snapple corp. would want to take her to the dance, and could.

Each year these kids piss away enough money to keep thousands of children in the world alive.
They too have mastered the key words and the key concepts. They are the ’smoozeing’ generation. Americans need to take a long hard look at their belief that this is a meritocracy, that it is possible to be upwardly mobile. Or that we even want to encourage people to get to the top. Or at least what we define as the top. I’ve been there, I’ve seen it, and it’s not a pretty sight.

I knew a girl who got busted by the campus police for taking a ziplock bag full of coke into a school dance. It was reported to the police, they did nothing. Her parents were informed. Their reaction? They lowered her allowance. I stopped getting an allowance when I was 18, she gets busted buying coke with her allowance and it gets reduced.

They guy who gives all the kids on campus their coke graduated from the school two years ago. He works at the local car dealership. He hangs out with the young daughters of lawyers, investment bankers, etc. Deluded by the images of MTV, and so many magazines, they have a constant and unabaiting desire to be thin. (You see, college is where you meet your future husband who will inherit Dad’s seat of the board of MGM and then you can become one of the women on Desperate Housewives and shop all day and have wonderful sex with the lawn boy, and you can only do that with the figure of Jennifer Garner) So, they have figured out that coke is better than any diet pill and will fuck the dealer for the coke.

The grandmothers sit around the country club in Florida and tell their friends of how well their grandchildren are doing in one of America’s finest schools. Little do they know their precious and innocent are becoming experts in how to make fake ids, cut lines of coke, construct beer bongs and play drinking games. The police learn to stay away from all of this. The one time I did see someone arrested, he turned out to be the son of the governor of Ohio or somewhere and was soon let go. Its tough to get convictions when the kids are getting a lawyer off the gun. Its more productive from a dollar per conviction point of view to patrol the poor neighbourhoods where those arrested are less aware of their rights to counsel, and if they were, have no money to afford them.

We need to take a hard look at what we are encouraging our kids to become. Uncritical acceptance of first principles leads to dogma which leads to uncreative thinking. Think about all those who accepted the laws of Newton as if they had been handed down straight from God himself. Relativity blew them apart, and the more dogmatic the adherence to Newtonian Physics, the harder the fall. As Alfred North Whitehead instructs, we should first beware of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.

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