Yesterday brought one of those wonderful conjunctions when two pieces of reading unexpectedly speak to each other. In the afternoon, I was wasting time on the Internet when I came across the English novelist and actor Stephen Fry’s warm review of a new biography of P. G. Wodehouse. Fry writes:
They say it would take a lifetime simply to copy out the works of Bach or Telemann. Much the same is true of Wodehouse. I know: at school I hammered out all of his novel Fringe Assets on an electric Remington in an effort to teach myself to touch-type, an effort that took me a term and a half.
Then, last night, I was reading in The New York Review of Books the Princeton University historian Anthony Grafton’s review of The Rule of Four, a new campus potboiler about two Princeton seniors who begin to crack the mysteries embedded in Francesco Colonna’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, which Grafton calls “a strange but dazzlingly printed and illustrated book, exotic even when Aldo Manuzio first published it in 1499.” Grafton has nice things to say about the novel, singling out for particular praise its affecting portrayal of undergraduates who become intoxicated with scholarly puzzles, especially in the context of writing the “senior thesis.” Grafton writes:
Undergraduates do all sorts of things at universities. They play computer games, they eat pizza, they go to parties, they have sex, they work out, and they amuse each other by their pretensions. What most fiction has ignored is that a lot of them also spend vast amounts of time alone, attacking the kinds of intellectual problems that can easily swallow lifetimes. In the perilous months of their last years at good colleges and universities, seniors parachute into mathematical puzzles, sociological aporiae, and historical mysteries that have baffled professionals. With the help–and sometimes the hindrance–of their teachers, but chiefly relying on their own wits and those of their close friends, they attack Big Questions, Big Books, and Big Problems.
In different ways, Fry and Grafton each offer an encomium to the college hours spent alone, doing something that may or may not pay dividends, financial or professional, later in life. But they describe very different students, and the difference is instructive. For me, Fry’s experience is typically English, or at least typically Oxbridge of a certain time. Even though typing is not studying, Fry’s purposeful typing metonymically conjures the student who would seem to know what he wants to study and what skills he wants to acquire, and who is left, but for occasional meetings of classes and tutorials, to the devices of his own curiosity and self-instruction. One imagines, in other words, that when Fry was done typing, he moved on to a serial reading of all of Trollope’s novels.
Grafton, on the other hand, describes something typically contemporary and American, or typically Ivy League, the feint toward scholarship, the dabbling in it, well-meaning but emphatically an exception to the rule of well-roundedness, which requires that students be engaged in many activities–applying for summer jobs and post-graduate fellowships, often while practicing three hours a day for intercollegiate athletics.
Fry’s memory of teaching himself to type by working through Wodehouse is emblematic of one kind of college life lived, the one that Camille Paglia describes as her education alone in the stacks of Yale University’s Sterling Library, the education that Philip Larkin got with his fellow poets in small literary clubs at Oxford University. It’s an education made possible by free time, gotten by those students who go to class but otherwise do not clutter their lives with extracurricular activities. By contrast, what Grafton describes, the independent study or senior essay, is in some ways a small sampling of that education, one term or one year spent trying out the life of the mind, giving it a test run, perhaps to figure out if one is suited to graduate school, which offers the concentrated academic experience that busy undergraduates almost never have anymore.
Both authors offer praise–Fry’s implicit, Grafton’s explicit–for something provided by college life at its best, something all too rare afterwards, to be cherished while one can: the uninterrupted moment. But for Grafton’s students those moments are a part of the curriculum, while for Fry they were a self-conceived plan of self-improvement.
Now, I have taught at Wesleyan University, Yale, and Stanford University; and I have taught some very brilliant students. In fact, they only seem to get brighter; I doubt very much whether I or many of my friends from the Yale class of 1996 would be admitted to Yale today. But it is nearly impossible to imagine any of my former students or classmates finding the time to type out a Wodehouse novel. For that matter, we would be unlikely to read a Wodehouse novel, insofar as professors don’t assign his books, and nobody has time for extra-syllabus pleasure reading.
Reflect for a moment on the elegant asceticism of Fry’s project. It is just him and his typewriter, clacking away, in a time before Internet connections, before dorm room telephones, no Palm Pilot, only one purpose at hand, to improve his typing while channeling the words of his century’s great English humorist. Some books sit on his shelves, volumes of Auden and Wilde and Waugh. In a few hours there is to be an appointment with a professor, then later, an assignation at the pub. It’s cold outside, and his college scarf is wrapped about his neck.
This scene could be at Princeton or Yale today, though more likely at Ohio State University or University of Southern California, where students are less aggressively over-committed and the odd intellectual might be holed up in his off-campus apartment just doing his thing. But at any American school, it would be fairly uncommon. Rather, the infatuation with Wodehouse would be slotted into one term, senior year. A professor would chaperone the infatuation.
Our students have lost the space in which to act with purpose, which I think of as narrow but deep attention, not quite obsession but a healthier version of it. The ideal is now versatility, four years of learned attention deficit disorder (except in sports, where the three-sport dilettante has been replaced by the highly directed thoroughbred one-sport stud). As activities have multiplied, the curriculum has diversified, which is both a cause and an effect. Choosing from a menu of activities–academics, sports, student government, community service, etc.–students spend less time on academics, and what time they do spend is forcibly divided among various disciplines or “distribution groups.”
In an attempt to preserve the ideal of the liberal education, and to ensure the numeracy and cultural literacy that high schools often do not, well-meaning committees have mandated well-roundedness. At my college, I was required to take three classes each in four distribution groups: languages; history and philosophy and the other humanities; social science; and the “hard sciences” of math, biology, physics, and so forth. A curricular review committee recently increased the number of distribution groups to five.
Thus does the space for single-minded purposefulness–for typing over a Wodehouse novel, or reading the Wodehouse corpus, following a single interest until it is exhausted, and sacrificing other opportunities along the way–thus does that space shrink ever more. Born physicists are forced to master a bit of German, poets are required to study calculus–one never hears this ideal of well-roundedness questioned. It is gospel that we all must be minimally conversant with a dozen subjects, even as fewer and fewer students are deeply knowledgeable in, say, American history or Latin. We lament the decline of knowledge, but well-roundedness, often in the guise of the “liberal” education, is one culprit.
Other writers have noted our decreased capacity for concentration, how our lives have sped up and the world is too much with us. That is not my purpose here. While I do worry that Americans are less capable than ever of sustained attention, I am less concerned with what our hyperactive world is doing to our personalities than with the values underlying these changes, this intentional slide toward hyperactivity. What does it say about our view of the good life? A college that once required a narrow, classical curriculum and now requires ten times more breadth; and whose student culture diminishes study time in favor of myriad extracurricular activities; and–what’s more–whose mission used to be avowedly religious or patriotic and now is only “to prepare students for their roles as citizens” or some such formulation–such a school has no strong notion of its own purpose, and no vision of the purposeful life it means to prepare students for. Well-rounded and liberal is a perfectly nice way to be–I hope it describes me–but it connotes no particular meaning or calling or purpose. It’s a way to be, not a reason to be.
Do you know where you’re going to?
“But wasn’t it always thus?” some will ask. I don’t think so. Obviously, it still isn’t thus at schools with religious missions, like Brigham Young University or Yeshiva University. Military academies, too, have purpose: to turn out soldiers who will defend the country. But even a secular and apolitical school, one with no obvious purpose except to cram some learning into the heads of privileged boys and girls, can have a climate that facilitates deeper purpose in its students, that gives those boys and girls space and time to figure out what they are here on earth for.
I return to the example of Stephen Fry at his typewriter. I don’t know where he went to school, but wherever it was, I imagine that he pulled decent grades and fulfilled all his obligations while still having time for his odd and rather masochistic project. His school must have been–or at least I fantasize that it was–a place with dead time. Perhaps there was an expectation that students fill that dead time with hobbies, or with conversation, or with deep reading. Perhaps, of course, there were no such expectations at all, and most students drank away the dead time at the pub–Fry might have been one such student, a compulsive typist and committed dipso–but still, empty time makes us think. Boredom is a great builder of persons. It took London to make Charles Dickens, but it only took Minnesota to make Sinclair Lewis and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Check out the hundreds of organizations vying for new students’ attention at a typical “Freshman Bazaar”: with so many ready-made activities, what student ever wonders how he will fill his time? When I got to college, I immediately tried out for the debate team. I had been a high school debater, a pretty good one, and I naturally assumed that debate would be my thing in college, and that the other debaters would be my friends, debate parties would be where I would have my wild times, and so forth. (I confess that it now sounds as if I was aiming rather low, fun-wise, but there it is.) As it happens, I didn’t make the debate team. I didn’t even make the second round of tryouts. Now, this story could have had a happy ending. I might have joined an improv comedy troupe or become an editor of the literary magazine. I could have joined the lightweight crew team. In short, I could have found a new avocation. Instead, I joined the Political Union, the closest facsimile available of the debate team.
And those were the wild parties I got to attend.
It would have been far better, I think, to have been thrown onto my own resources. Without a hundred other student organizations–encouraged by the college, which funded them and employed a full-time dean to supervise them–all ready to catch me, I might have fallen into some late afternoon of the soul. I might have sought the consolations of philosophy, or begun attending old movies shown by the film society.
When I didn’t make the debate team, I cried and cried. If I wasn’t a debater, I didn’t really know who I was. Now I had to confront this hole in my life, a hole into which my entire identity seemed to have fallen. Who was I? If not a debater, who would I be? I asked those questions for about two days, during which I read Gloria Naylor’s novel Linden Hills, simply because after finishing my homework I didn’t know what else to do with my time. I had not made any friends yet, and I had no extracurricular life to speak of. Then I found the Political Union, and the search was over.
By criticizing the buzz of activity that takes place on college campuses, including the vibrant voluntary associations, I am being somewhat heretical, for the current wisdom is that the more such associations people join, the better. As Robert Putnam and others have argued, we have to get back to our Elks lodges and bowling leagues, our synagogue sisterhoods and reform societies.
These organizations can be soul-saving. When the relatively urbane Carrie Milford gets to Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, in Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, what is she to do but set about joining clubs and then starting her own? And who among us would dare argue that the temperance ladies of the nineteenth century or the NAACP activists of the twentieth were mere committee people, joining clubs to avoid seeking real purpose? What could be more purposeful than what they were doing?
On college campuses today, there are many students who find their activities to be deeply purposeful: the students of Campus Crusade for Christ, for example, or the rabid football players at a Big Ten school. I only want to suggest that they are the exception. The students whose commitments are few and serious, not varied and promiscuous, are to be commended–but as a rare breed. More numerous, I think, are the students who see their college commitments as provisional, tentative, and–not to be too cynical, because here I am thinking of myself ten years ago–résumé-building. Their activities are accoutrements, not passions. They provide more diversion than meaning.
However, some surveys show that young people are activists more than in, say, the 1980s. While not the students of the later 1960s, they do volunteer more, and protest more, than their older siblings of ten or twenty years ago. They seem to care more about the state of the world. Millions of students do volunteer work while in college, and politically conscious students have made campuses important loci of the anti-sweatshop and anti-globalization movements. One could argue that these serried activities must give students meaning and purpose.
The University of Maryland political scientist William Galston has tried to test that assertion; he has studied the civic engagement of Americans in different age groups and different regions, as measured by charity work, voting, and other factors. His first conclusion, as all religion scholars could have guessed, was that people in Utah are the most altruistic citizens, at all ages; the Mormon church requires that its members give time and money. And so Mormons do. Religiosity is the best guarantor of altruism in America.
But campuses are less religious than in previous eras; the secularism that shocked William F. Buckley, Class of 1950, into writing God and Man at Yale is unsurprising and generally approved of today. It’s not such a small point: colleges used to send students out as missionaries, while today they organize job fairs for investment bank recruiting. The college life is more pluralistic, and more tolerant, but it’s also more capitalistic and less concerned with the moral life. So right there we have some evidence that should make us wonder just how meaningful levels of volunteering are.
Galston also found that while there has been an increase in volunteering among high-schoolers and college students, it is mainly of the sporadic kind, more likely to be once a month than once a week. In any event, the urge to volunteer peaks in college, then passes. Looking at the high school class of 1992–my high school class–Galston found that 19.8 percent of us volunteered when we were tenth graders, 38.4 percent as high school seniors, 40.7 percent as college juniors around 1994-95, and only 32.5 percent of us in 2000. My informal head count of my friends suggests that the number has fallen further today. Whatever today’s students think they are going to school for, it’s not evident from looking at their voluntary activity.
“On the one hand, young people both in high school and in college are doing volunteer work and service learning to a greater degree than before,” Galston tells me. “On the other hand, it appears to be that this is for the most part a thin glaze of frosting on a highly materialistic cake. The idea that there’s been an outbreak of altruism among today’s young adults might make a nice newspaper article, but it doesn’t add up.”
“There has been a steady rise since the sixties in self-admitted materialism or careerism,” Galston continues, “and a steady fall in the idea that the goal of college is to gain a deeper understanding of the world. The lives of today’s undergraduates are dedicated to a greater degree than ever before in my lifetime to classic careerism.”
Galston’s tentative explanation is that students feel less job security than his generation did in the 1960s, and so they spend more time shoring up their job prospects. No doubt there is some truth to this. But I would add that as we have begun to value the pluralist over the obsessive, as we have begun to say things like “diversity is a good in itself” and “we must prepare students to thrive in an age when knowing how to sift through information is more important than knowing the information itself,” we have also discovered anew the aesthetic of the well-rounded Big Man on Campus, he who gets the Gentleman’s C, even if grade inflation has pushed it to a Gentleman’s A-. It is curiously retrograde, rather Dink Stover. It is bourgeois and Rotarian. At the turn of the twentieth century, the Ivy League were finishing schools for Wall Street brokers–and at the turn of the twenty-first, the Ivy League are finishing schools for Wall Street brokers. Back then, academics were submerged in a sea of football games, fraternity pledge, and co-ed mixers; today, academic pursuits are mixed in the salad bowl of life with community service projects, singing group rehearsals, football games, fraternity pledge, and
If once upon a time the key to a job at the right bank or law firm was an adequate academic record and an exemplary array of connections made in the dining hall and the fraternity, today the key to that job is an adequate academic record and an exemplary number of other activities. The eight letters of recommendation that the Rhodes Scholarship committees ask for guarantee that nobody who has been passionately dedicated to one or two pursuits could possibly win. Promiscuous activity is the rule of the day.
I am no nostalgian, and I do not think that there was ever a time in this country when our institutions were well designed to nourish single-minded purpose. I am not sure I would want them to; there is nothing less attractive than an overdose of conviction, even, as Orwell reminds us, in saints like Gandhi. Most of us are more likeable and generally better citizens when we spread our supply of enthusiasm over many causes. That’s good for society, which is why Robert Putnam would rather we not bowl alone.
I just hope that a country as big and generous as ours has room for those who wish to type alone. It is my sense that, say, thirty years ago our campuses encouraged more seeking than they do today. The sense that our country was a rotting Denmark encouraged, in some students, an intellectual or emotional wanderlust. Social Scientist Jim Sleeper quit the Yale Glee Club after his junior year, in 1968, because, as he has told me, “With all that was going on in the world, I couldn’t spend the weekends touring in white-tie.” Instead, he began spending more time on the commuter train to New York City, where, along with some friends at Columbia University, he edited Response, a journal that became the house organ of the Jewish counterculture.
It may be that a country as diverse as ours needs leaders whose multifarious personalities somehow embody that diversity. The one thing that Bill Clinton and George W. Bush would seem to have in common is their social toolbox; they are both terribly adept at remembering people’s names and putting all different kinds of people at ease. Clinton happens to be a terrific intellect, but if we valued the intellectual persona, we would have made Daniel Patrick Moynihan president. If we valued the eccentric, we’d elect the bolo-tie wearing senator from Colorado, Ben Nighthorse Campbell.
But just because our country’s chosen representative figure seems to be the Everyman–or the frat boy, or the movie star–does not mean our colleges are charged with creating that type. If anything, it means the reverse, that they should encourage in students a dissident identity, if only for four years. They should help students try on a shirt of a different color.
A school with purpose is most likely to breed students with purpose. The liberal curriculum at the Ivies and other elite schools has become too liberal. It’s time to retrench. Hence my affection for the odd duck schools: Deep Springs College, the weird all-male junior college in the California desert that requires of students only a few, in-depth classes (including public speaking), but puts them to work at cattle herding and alfalfa farming. I like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where being a nerd isn’t just permitted, but practically required. I like religious schools.
What I find missing, alas, is the four-year humanities version, the college that encourages a deep humanistic rigor, a bookworm’s version of MIT. The University of Chicago, Columbia University, and St. John’s College are the closest we have: they have taken certain stands, there are certain authors you must read in order to graduate. But courageous as those stands seemed during the curricular battles of the 1980s, they are yesterday’s victories. Which will be the college to ban e-mail? To eliminate athletic recruiting? To require that its students register to vote? Which college president will venture that denying an ethnic group its own dean, making the students responsible for planning their own activities, will help them become more resourceful, enterprising adults? What school will not only add majors–environmental studies, Asian-American studies, computer science–but have the temerity to cut them?
There is, of course, a reason that most schools are as they are, rather than as I would wish them to be: supply and demand. Students like to be programmed. They appreciate having many new venues in which to achieve, many new student offices to hold. They would panic without their cell phones and e-mail and the lives that such conveniences afford. They are actually rather willing to see their political views challenged–Ayn Rand acolytes can easily be made into Keynesians by their freshman economics class–but few of them will stand to have their habits altered in ways that a more purposeful existence might require: no e-mail, no television, daily prayer, less choice in course offerings, required (and lengthy) community service, or whatever else. Like all free markets, the free market of education produces terrific abundance, dulling us all to the virtues of scarcity.
I wrote a great senior essay, exactly the kind that Anthony Grafton praises. It was about the sermons of William Sloane Coffin Jr., the chaplain of Yale College from 1958 to 1975. I read hundreds of sermons, as well as the authors cited in the sermons (St. Augustine, Reinhold Niebuhr, Erik Erikson), and flew, with money provided by my college, to Appleton, Wisconsin, to interview Coffin, who was spending the year teaching at Lawrence University. The good reverend and his wife billeted me for two nights and three days. One morning, Coffin awakened me early to join him as he walked his dog. We went to the graveyard where Senator Joseph McCarthy, an Appleton native, was buried. Coffin led his little pooch to the late senator’s tombstone, where the dog lifted his left leg, looked proudly at his owner, and peed on McCarthy’s grave. “Our daily ritual,” Coffin said with a laugh, and we turned to go back to his house.
I loved writing that paper. I worked on it sporadically for a whole year, probably five or ten hours a week. The final draft was thirty-five pages long. It won a commencement prize and probably got me into graduate school.
That is the upside of a Yale education. The downside came the year before, when I was selected to be one of twelve students in the advanced nonfiction writing class taught by the novelist Robert Stone. Stone was a brilliant teacher, a master cliché-spotter, a keen critic who always knew just what to say to make you ashamed of not having done better. We were expected to produce about thirty pages of writing that term, a quantity that I achieved in three ten-page essays. I probably worked for about four hours on each essay. That semester I was starring in a production of Hedda Gabler, teaching an English enrichment class to eight bright but poor New Haven middle school students, running intramural cross country, and dating a blue-eyed girl from Dallas. I didn’t do a very good job at any of those things. I was tired all the time. I had Robert Stone for a teacher, and I did lousy work. I blew it.
I believe in a college life that, if it does not permit time to type out a Wodehouse novel, at least allows time to turn in the homework that Robert Stone deserves. I can make some suggestions toward that end: drastically curtail grade inflation, as students in danger of getting a C will drop their extraneous activities; give special scholarships to students excellent in one activity; increase funding for students’ summer research; decrease funding for athletics and other student activities, and put the money into financial aid so that poor students don’t need as much part-time work. None of these suggestions will go very far, however. Maybe we need better, braver teachers, who publish less, teach more, and are unafraid to offend–role models.
In the meantime, we can take solace. As Coffin would say, I am not optimistic, but I am hopeful. Somewhere, someone is typing out Wodehouse. Grafton reminds us:
The great white-whale topics flirt with students. They seduce. Then they duck under the surface and avoid capture. Most students escape becoming obsessed with them…, [B]ut many find this whole strange experience hypnotically fascinating. Some are caught in the web of words of symbols or data, and awake, a year or two later, in the nerds’ Venusberg, graduate school.
In other words, sometimes a little bait is all it takes. And while colleges may not develop a sense of purpose in students with none, nor can schools kill purpose where it chooses to live.
–Mark Oppenheimer, the editor of the New Haven Advocate, is the author of Knocking on Heaven’s Door: American Religion in the Age of Counterculture and the forthcoming Thirteen and a Day: The Bar and Bat Mitzvah Across America. This article appears in the Winter 2005 issue of In Character and is reprinted with permission. In Character can be read online here.