The essay below just appeared on Bari Weiss’s Substack (I believe the piece os free, though I subscribe, as should you if you read often). The essay is by William Deresiewicz, an author who taught English at Yale and wrote a book summarizing the essay below, as well as a new book coming out in August. First the two books (click on screenshot to access Amazon links):
First, the book from 2015; it gets high ratings and was a New York Times bestseller (I haven’t read it):
The new essay book, out August 23. Here’s Amazon’s blurb:
What is the internet doing to us? What is college for? What are the myths and metaphors we live by? These are the questions that William Deresiewicz has been pursuing over the course of his award-winning career. The End of Solitude brings together more than forty of his finest essays, including four that are published here for the first time. Ranging widely across the culture, they take up subjects as diverse as Mad Men and Harold Bloom, the significance of the hipster, and the purpose of art. Drawing on the past, they ask how we got where we are. Scrutinizing the present, they seek to understand how we can live more mindfully and freely, and they pose two fundamental questions: What does it mean to be an individual, and how can we sustain our individuality in an age of networks and groups?
And today’s essay; click screenshot to read:
The piece deals with how to reconcile two phenomena Deresiewicz observed in his Yale students (his quotes are indented), and whether they’re connected with Wokeness:
I taught English at Yale University for ten years. I had some vivid, idiosyncratic students—people who went on to write novels, devote themselves to their church, or just wander the world for a few years. But mostly I taught what one of them herself called “excellent sheep.”
These students were excellent, technically speaking. They were smart, focused, and ferociously hard-working.
But they were also sheep: stunted in their sense of purpose, waiting meekly for direction, frequently anxious and lost.
Now I can’t comment on undergraduates any longer, as I’m too far removed from the classroom. Certainly a lot of undergraduate behavior I read about, like the assault on Gibson’s Bakery by Oberlin students (and Oberlin College), or the shenanigans at Evergreen State College, bespeak immaturity as well as conformity. (I’m of course not denying a large element of conformity in the student society of the antiwar Sixties, but, as this essay argues, that was a different kind of rebellion.
Part of Deresiewicz’s thesis is that students are “sheep” because they are infantilized by modern society: highly trained but with few opportunities to grow up. One reason, I suppose, are the theses floated in Lukianoff and Haidt’s book The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure: that young people are now taught the tripartite lesson that, as I quoted in 2018.
1.) We young people are fragile (“What doesn’t kill you makes you weaker.”)
2.) We are prone to emotional reasoning and confirmation bias (“Always trust your feelings.”)
3.) We are prone to “dichotomous thinking and tribalism” (“Life is a battle between good people and evil people.”)
I don’t think one can entertain much doubt that these tropes are ubiquitous in secondary schools and campuses, and are also impediments to emotional maturity.
As an example of emotional immaturity, Deresiewicz mentions the the opprobrium that rained down on his ex Yale colleagues Nicholas Christakis and his wife Erika when Erika wrote an email to the students in their “house” (they supervised a residential group of undergrads) saying that students use their own judgement when choosing Halloween costumes.
Well, the idea that one should use one’s judgement rather than follow Woke dictates got the students so riled up that both Nicholas and Erika, after being verbally assaulted in the most horrible way (see below) left Silliman House, and Erika left Yale for good.
It still gives me the chills to watch this video of a bunch of students yelling at Christakis at Yale after the “Halloween” incident. Can anyone deny that these students are, well, damn immature, as well as entitled?
Why is this video relevant? Because, says Deresiewicz, it raises a question:
I was so struck by this—that our “best and brightest” students are so often as helpless as children—that I wrote a book about it. It came out in 2014, not long before my former colleague Nicholas Christakis was surrounded and browbeaten by a crowd of undergraduates for failing to make them feel coddled and safe—an early indication of the rise of what we now call wokeness.
How to reconcile the two phenomena, I started to wonder. Does wokeness, with its protests and pugnacity, represent an end to sheephood, a new birth of independence and self-assertion, of countercultural revolt? To listen to its radical-sounding sloganeering—about tearing down systems and doing away with anyone and anything deemed incorrect—it sure sounded like it.
But indications suggest otherwise. Elite college graduates are still herding toward the same five vocational destinations—law, medicine, finance, consulting, and tech—in overwhelming numbers. High-achieving high school students, equally woke, are still crowding toward the same 12 or 20 schools, whose application numbers continue to rise. This year, for example, Yale received some 50,000 applications, more than twice as many as 10 years ago, of which the university accepted less than 4.5%.
Eventually, I recognized the deeper continuities at work. Excellent sheephood, like wokeness, is a species of conformity. As a friend who works at an elite private university recently remarked, if the kids who get into such schools are experts at anything, it is, as he put it, “hacking the meritocracy.” The process is imitative: You do what you see the adults you aspire to be like doing. If that means making woke-talk (on your college application; in class, so professors will like you), then that is what you do.
You might respond that no, we’re seeing real protest here, an assault on authority. Deresiewicz counters that a). these protests are not countercultural, but simply an amplified version of their parents’ views, and b). they differ from protests of the Sixties as the purpose today is “to vault you into the ranks of society’s winners, to make sure that you end up with more stuff.” He argues:
Wokeness functions as an alibi, a moral fig leaf. If you can tell yourself that you are really doing it to “make the world a better place” (the ubiquitous campus cliché), then the whole thing goes down a lot easier.
And who denies that they think they’re making the world a better place, even when they get someone like NYT science writer Don McNeil fired for saying the n-word in a didactic fashion on a NYT “field trip”, getting “Kimono Wednesdays” canceled at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, or gettin a statue of Jefferson removed from New York’s City Hall? Is the world a better place now that McNeil is out of a job or Westerners don’t get to try on kimonos? I doubt it; it’s a chillier and more divisive place. It’s a place of fear, where your adventurism and willingness to explore ideas are stifled by fear.
Finally, here’s Deresiewicz’s claim that students need to grow up:
In a recent column, Freddie deBoer remarked, in a different context, that for the young progressive elite, “raised in comfortable and affluent homes by helicopter parents,” “[t]here was always some authority they could demand justice from.” That is the precise form that campus protests have taken in the age of woke: appeals to authority, not defiance of it. Today’s elite college students still regard themselves as children, and are still treated as such. The most infamous moment to emerge from the Christakis incident, captured on a video the world would later see, exemplifies this perfectly. Christakis’s job as the head of a residential college, a young woman (one could more justly say, a girl) shriek-cried at him, “is not about creating an intellectual space! It is not! Do you understand that? It’s about creating a home!”
We are back to in loco parentis, in fact if not in law. College is now regarded as the last stage of childhood, not the first of adulthood. But one of the pitfalls of regarding college as the last stage of childhood is that if you do so then it very well might not be. The nature of woke protests, the absence of Covid and other protests, the whole phenomenon of excellent sheephood: all of them speak to the central dilemma of contemporary youth, which is that society has not given them any way to grow up—not financially, not psychologically, not morally.
The problem, at least with respect to the last two, stems from the nature of the authority, parental as well as institutional, that the young are now facing. It is an authority that does not believe in authority, that does not believe in itself. That wants to be liked, that wants to be your friend, that wants to be thought of as cool. That will never draw a line, that will always ultimately yield.
If this claim be true, what can we do about it? In this piece, at least, Deresiewicz is a bit short on remedies, though perhaps they’re in his big book.
Here are a couple of my remedies. First, treat students like adults. When I urged one of my colleagues to reply to a misguided student op-ed in the Chicago Maroon, I was told that professors should not criticize students, for that constitutes “punching down.” And that is pure guano. When students enter college, they deserve the respect of having their professors engage them in civil debate, not to have the faculty kowtow to them even in disagreement. Of course one must try to deal with the psychological stresses and competition that bear on students in elite colleges, at least, but in matters intellectual and political, shouldn’t should be treated as equals. (Except, of course, when it comes to letting them exercise power over the university.)
Second, ensure that every student entering college is given a good orientation in free speech: what it is, why we have it, and what happens when we don’t have it. I hope dearly that the University of Chicago will do this, but there’s no telling. And, of course, the Chicago Foundational Principles, including those of Free Expression and the Kalven report, should be adopted and in all colleges and universities.
In the end, though, if the attitude of entitlement and immaturity derives from a new way of raising children, as Lukianoff and Haidt claim, then the problems start much earlier. And I don’t know from child rearing.
Why does this matter? Because, as I’ve think we’ve learned, many of the problems afflicting our side, the Left, begin in college. Deresiewicz would argue that they’re sent out in the world without the requisite maturity. I’m not sure I agree 100% with that, but, as As Andrew Sullivan said sagely, “We’re all on campus now.” What is playing out in Hollywood, in the mainstream media, and on social media are all attitudes that began in universities. Ignore what’s happening on campus at your own peril.