Tuesday, August 26, 2014

The Devil's Workshop

I beg pardon for not having posted for nearly a week.  Thanks to heat and humidity and allergens, I've been contending with sinus congestion that interferes with my concentration, and so I have half-a-dozen unfinished posts in the pipeline.  A First World Problem, I know ("Sinuses Clogged / Can't Write a Blog Post").  But hey, I'm retired, I don't have to carry relentlessly on if I don't feel like it.

William Deresiewicz apparently dusts off his critique of Ivy League schooling every few years.  I wrote before about his American Scholar piece on the topic from 2008, and according to Grady Olmstead at The American Conservative, he published a similar piece at The New Republic in July, no doubt to help publicize his new book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.  Olmstead pointed to a review of the book by Nathan Heller in The New Yorker, and something he quoted from it deserves comment.  (I actually tried to post a comment under the article, but it disappeared, as have other comments I've tried to post there in the past couple of weeks.  Maybe I've been blocked?)

Anyway, as one of Heller's "good points," Olmstead offers this:
And despite Deresiewicz’s criticisms of students’ frantic schedules, Heller writes that “the truest intellectual training could be how to stay calm, and keep thinking clearly, in the high-strung culture in which students need to make their lives.” These are truly lessons that will remain relevant throughout a person’s life.
Well, yes and no.  My first reaction was that one could say the same of any mother of small children, who must also keep calm and keep thinking clearly under a great deal of pressure, especially if she's a single mother.  But it also would apply to students at non-elite schools who carry a heavy academic load so as to graduate on time, and who may well work a job or two in order to keep their loans at a minimum.  Some of those students will also be mothers of small children, adding to the pressure.

Time management is important, but it isn't "intellectual training," let alone "the truest intellectual training."  I wonder if some of the usual elite distrust of leisure isn't in play here, not just for the proles but for everybody.  People do need to learn to manage their time just as part of the process of being adults, but intellectual as well as artistic training must leave time for reflection, time to sit back and dream and mull things over.

A friend posted the above demotivational meme on Facebook recently.  I knew, of course, that it is satirical and not to be taken at face value, so I commented, "I'm not?  Then what are these pension checks I'm getting for?"  My friend replied kindly that I'd worked hard for many years, so I'd earned the right to dream.  Which, given her own busy life as an academic, made me wonder if she'd missed the point of the meme herself.  I answered that I know many people who've worked a lot harder than I have, but have no pensions or even (in some cases) Social Security to look forward to; and maybe even more important, you don't have to earn a right.

There have always been elements of society that distrust people who aren't busy all the time, because the devil makes work for idle hands to do, and there's nothing more devilish than questioning the prerogatives of the rulers.  Pronouncing a driven, leisure-free, reflection-free existence as a positive good is, it seems to me, a declaration of allegiance to those rulers.

P.S.  According to the blogger post count, this one is number 1900 since I began the blog in May 2007.  Just saying.