Gallery of art and thoughts

The cartoons and contemplations of a twentysomething copy editor.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Ivory-tower tales

Two recent articles, one in the Weekly Standard and one in the Wall Street Journal, contain interesting insights into the academic life.

First, the Weekly Standard article, "Civilization and its Malcontents," by Joseph Epstein. The author poses the question "Why are academics so unhappy?" while reviewing Princeton professor Elaine Showalter's book on college novels. Epstein writes that the gripes of les clercs may seem strange given their job security and enviable work hours. He subsequently contends that the professorate -- who consist of "people who are good at school" -- become disillusioned, in part by academic life and in part by seeing "people who got lots of B's in school" now "driving around in Mercedes, buying million-dollar apartments, enjoying freedom and prosperity in a manner that strikes the former good students, now professors, as not only unseemly but of a kind a just society surely would never permit." Among the underachievers who have done well after graduation, of course, are Al Gore and George W. Bush.

Epstein writes engagingly, but awkwardly. We see him haranguing academia for its political correctness (in the humanities, at least; nary a mention of the situation of the sciences, except for a nod to the Larry Summers imbroglio) and defending the boring old days of, say, the great-leader theory of history. This, perhaps, makes giddy reading for conservatives, but what does it have to do with explaining why professors are so disenchanted?

The good-student/bad-student hypothesis is an interesting one, however. But what more could academics get that would balance the situation with the plutocrats who didn't care about Plato or photons yet waltzed into million-dollar jobs on Wall Street nevertheless? Perhaps what bothers the professors is the fact that you don't need to have a liberal arts education to succeed -- financially, socially, politically -- in today's United States. It bothers me, too. But since it doesn't seem likely that our democratic republic is going to transform itself into Plato's Republic anytime soon, perhaps our professors could enjoy their pretty decent work lives just a bit more.

Now, on to this morceau from the Wall Street Journal. Journalist Michael Steinberger charges Harvard, my alma mater (Class of 2000), with getting too much media coverage due to the prevalence of journalists with Crimson ties. Steinberger adds that this coverage is misguided because Harvard's influence in the spheres of politics and business is diminishing; the sun may be finally setting on the Harvard Empire.

Points worth considering. Yet in criticizing the journalists who lavish so much ink to Harvard, Steinberger omits to mention his friends who compose the Journal's "Best of the Web Today." Thanks to its reputation as a liberal bastion, Harvard makes a wonderful whipping-post for conservatives. Is it agenda, rather than diploma, that fuels the interest in the Kremlin on the Charles? Probably a mixture of both. Also, Harvard is a selling-point, thanks to movies like "Good Will Hunting" and institutions like the Hasty Pudding Theatricals, and it's easily recognizable to the public -- which prompts media coverage as well.

Has Harvard's star been eclipsed? Perhaps Steinberger is focusing on the wrong institution. Harvard may merely be the most visible of the elite colleges that are viewed as tickets to success. And the path to such success does not begin at these colleges. Rather, the sons and daughters of privilege in this country start their journey at the same place they did at the turn of the 20th century: the St. Grottlesex schools. The country needs to recognize this.


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