On Excellent Sheep: What is College for?

ExI read Bill Deresiewicz’s book Excellent Sheep (subtitled The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life) at the beginning of the year, over a period of a few days before starting second semester of my junior year at college.  I had bought the book at Politics & Prose in D.C. and, perhaps appropriately, finished it moments before the Amtrak I was on pulled into New Haven—as if, now armed with an extreme scepticism of all I was about to encounter, I was ready for the next semester.

Deresiewicz was formerly a professor at Yale until he left to write, which (rightly or wrongly) comes across as a decision to practice much of what his book preaches. Purportedly focussing by its title on elite, liberal education, the latter part of the subtitle gives away the fact that Excellent Sheep is far more wide-ranging, and comes closer to being no less than a manifesto on humanity today—“Society is a conspiracy to keep itself from the truth” and similar comments are tucked away mid-paragraph throughout. The book deals in turn with four “characters”: Sheep, Self, Schools and Society.

Deresiewicz has a wonderful and all-too-rare skill for capturing and putting into words the inner fears, thoughts and questions that so many people try to dismiss as quickly as possible. By forcing many permutations of these fears onto the page, he speaks to the various ways that each of us formulates these doubts and concerns.

“One of the saddest things for me in all of this is listening to kids in high school, or those who’ve just arrived at college, express their hopes for their undergraduate experience and knowing how likely they are to be disappointed. For despite it all, the romance of college remains: the dream, as Bloom puts it, of having an adventure with yourself. Beneath the cynicism that students feel they are forced to adopt, beneath their pose of placid competence, the longings of youth remain. There is an intense hunger among today’s students… for what college ought to be providing but is not: for a larger sense of purpose and direction; for an experience at school that speaks to them as human beings, not bundles of aptitudes; for guidance in addressing the important questions of life; for simple permission to think about these things and a vocabulary with which to do so.”

At another point, speaking of what one gives up by pursuing higher education, Deresiewicz draws attention to how college also closes down opportunities as well as opening them. This is a side to education rarely spoken of.

“What then, finally, is it all for? Our glittering system of elite higher education: students kill themselves getting into it, parents kill themselves to pay for it, and always for the opportunities it opens up. But what of all the opportunities it closes down—not for any practical reason, but just because of how it smothers you with expectations? How can I become a teacher, or a minister, or a carpenter? Wouldn’t that be a waste of my fancy education? What would my parents think? What would my friends think? How would I face my classmates at our twentieth reunion, when they’re all rich doctors or important people in New York? And the question that exists behind them all: isn’t it beneath me? So an entire world of possibilities shuts, and you miss your true calling.”

This question of “What is university for?” is a thread throughout the book, one that cannot be answered in a single paragraph—it bears, in this sense, an uncanny resemblance to the question “What is modernity?” that college students may be all too familiar with. The book itself is Deresiewicz’s answer, and he takes a stab at answering the question directly at numerous points, in addition to the paragraph I quoted above.

“Why college? College, after all, as those who like to denigrate it often say, is “not the real world.” But that is precisely its strength. College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance. It offers students “the precious chance”, as Andrew Delbanco has put it, “to think and reflect before life engulfs them.”

“Practical utility, however, is not the ultimate purpose of a liberal arts education. Its ultimate purpose is to help you learn to reflect in the widest and deepest sense, beyond the requirements of work and career: for the sake of citizenship, for the sake of living well with others, above all, for the sake of building a self that is strong and creative and free.”

“College helps to furnish the tools with which to undertake the work of self-discovery… The job of college is to assist you, or force you, to start on your way through the vale of soul-making.”

But I find Deresiewicz’s most poignant answer in a separate article, where he discusses college’s purpose directly in terms of the advent of modernity (thereby answering college students’ two most persistent questions in one deft move):

“Modernity is a condition of ever-increasing acceleration, but only, until recently, for adults. For the young, modernity means — or meant — something different. The modern age, in fact, invented the notion of youth as an interval between childhood and adulthood, and it invented it as a time of unique privileges and obligations. From the Romantics, at the dawn of modernity, all the way through the 1970s, youth was understood to have a special role: to step outside the world and question it. To change it, with whatever opposition from adults. (Hence the association of youth and revolution, another modern institution.) As college became common as a stage of life — one that coincides with the beginning of youth — it naturally incorporated that idea. It was the time to think about the world as it existed, and the world that you wanted to make.

But we no longer have youth as it was imagined by modernity. Now we have youth as it was imagined by postmodernity — in other words, by neoliberalism. Students rarely get the chance to question and reflect anymore — not about their own lives, and certainly not about the world.”

Deresiewicz often seems unsure about who to blame for our education system’s failure to live up to the promise of the liberal arts. Much of the book is directed against universities (and by implication their administrators, as in a whole chapter on “The Institutions”), as are his articles (like The Neoliberal Arts, from which the above quotation was taken from). And yet he quotes Ross Douthat, who talks about how Harvard “remains one of the best places on earth to educate oneself”, but how “it will not actively educate you, will not guide or shape or even push back in any significant way.” These are two separate approaches to living up to the liberal arts, Deresiewicz’s being institution-focussed and Douthat’s, individual-focussed.

I wondered whether, even if universities entirely adjusted their missions back to an ideal liberal arts-style education as Deresiewicz seems to want, students would reject this wholesale. An education of the kind that Deresiewicz describes, “a self inflicted wound”, as he quotes Lewis Lapham, must be exactly that. Self-inflicted. There is, besides, no such thing as an inflicted education, since it seems impossible to educate someone against their will. I think the promise of liberal education depends entirely on individual students, so long as universities have the right tools for students to use.

My college experience has been transformative, and the longer I am at college the more I learn how to educate myself. Each semester I learn how to better grab at the opportunities I have, to use books to give meaning to my experiences, to discuss what I read with professors who can tell me what book should then come next.

On the one hand, Excellent Sheep grabbed my shoulders and shook them, as only books that describe deep and unspoken experiences are able to. I saw all-too-clearly the miseducation that Deresiewicz describes, the need for “something more” in education, the waste of minds that happens so frequently. But on the other hand, I realised that what was also grabbing me as I read was how my college education matches, to a surprising extent, the education that Deresiewicz’ idealises and spends much of the book lamenting the death of.

Deresiewicz seems to me trapped by his age and position: he feels he can write most directly to American “adults” (non-students) and the university administrators he worked with for so long, but realises that the people who have most to gain are current and future college students themselves. This is visible in his continual switching between third-person (“Do students ever hear this?”, he laments seemingly to politicians who solely speak of STEM subjects) and second-person (“Once you get there, keep your eye on the ball. You can’t just passively absorb an education.”) And Deresiewicz cannot be blamed for this. On the contrary, it is a great gift to raise these questions so succinctly and so poignantly, no matter who the questions are directed to.

But these questions I had while reading Excellent Sheep left me feeling that colleges are not particularly to blame. Sure, I would like it if there were more of an overt institutional focus on the humanities and on the classical tradition of the liberal arts. My own experiences leading up to college and during it make me inclined to agree with Deresiewicz on all this. But even were that done, it might not do anything for students themselves. What is needed instead, it seems to me, is a new generation of college-aged champions of the liberal arts to inspire other students to grab hold of the education we already have at our fingertips. We need students to start changing the prevailing narrative away from education-as-a-way-to-a-job, and towards education-as-a-way-to-a-meaningful-life. We need to escape all the subtle aspects of the existing narrative, like how university rankings are often done based on average graduate earnings, and have people show in actions even more than words how we can live our time at college focussed on a far greater purpose.

And make no mistake: that greater purpose is life itself, as Deresiewicz shows so well in this book. Yet college seems so often understood solely as the way to a prestigious career. Champions of the liberal arts will be those people who show us how college itself deals with life, with our lives, and who therefore show us how these four years can be grasped and not squandered on just a part of the whole.

Deresiewicz’s immense contribution may be as the person who gave rise to these new champions, these standard-bearers who will make the liberal arts cool again. And that is, essentially, what this is all about: understanding, as students, the true worth of four years to transform our lives.

Declaring Makes It So: What it Means that the U.S. Now Thinks it is a Pacific Nation

 

Note: this article was originally published on Fox & Hedgehog.

In a speech to the Australian Parliament in 2011, President Obama declared that “Our new focus on this region [the Asia Pacific] reflects a fundamental truth—the United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation.” His phrasing belied a rather circular logic: if the United States has always been a Pacific nation, how can it suddenly take a new notice of the region it believes marks its own identity? And if the United States must now declare itself to be a Pacific nation in order to be one, doesn’t its absence of prior declarations show how new this understanding of itself as a nation is?

A declaration of national identity in terms of geography is very different from a declaration in terms of ideology or creed. The latter, I believe, are internally focused declarations. The Declaration of Independence, for instance, is the declaration that speaks to Americans as a people about what as a nation they stand for. It describes the markers of difference between Americans and the British. But declarations of geographic identity are not like this. Declarations of geographic identity speak externally, giving those outside the nation an idea of what that nation believes its interests to be.

The United States of America pre-1916 was just that—it defined itself on its own, consciously rejecting external labels of association. It stood for itself, and in its isolationism made no declarations of what external geographies it saw itself as part of. But 1916 meant that security required looking across the Atlantic to Europe, to events there that threatened American interests within its own borders. The Atlantic commitment grew and grew as U.S. interests were threatened for a second time by Germany, and then became seemingly irrevocable with the founding of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization as U.S. grand strategy came to embody the response to the Soviet threat.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization: an organization, focused on the Atlantic, that counts as members nations that share no border with that ocean, and which exists to respond to threats nowhere near the Atlantic. The Atlantic here is simply a construction used to declare externally where ideology and interests lie, without necessarily remaining faithful to geographic truth.

Even as U.S. territory in the Pacific was attacked in 1941, the response seemed not to require declarations of Pacific identity, but only an immediate military response. The focus of U.S. identity remained across the Atlantic, in Europe, where the U.S. saw itself fighting for its own values, rather than solely its territorial defence.

There were tepid attempts by the United States to look westwards following WWII—the South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO), for instance—but these did not extend to definitions of identity, even as the U.S. became embroiled in Vietnam. Christopher Hemmer and Peter Katzenstein have explained how following the Second World War the United States tried to secure itself both from the west and the east, but the approaches it took to doing so demonstrated the relative importance of each region. The U.S. preference for multilateral institutions in Europe and bilateralism in the Asia Pacific, argue Hemmer and Katzenstein, shows clearly where the United States’ self-identity lay during the latter half of the twentieth century. Because U.S. identity lay so strongly in Europe, it was willing to give up a larger degree of control to European partners through multilateralism than to those in the Asia Pacific. Existentially threatened by the Soviet Union, the U.S. was defined by the Atlantic connection.

The United States indeed shares a long coastline with the Pacific ocean. But geographic features do not define a nation’s identity. New Zealand, a country with no geographic markers other than the Pacific, nevertheless defined itself as a European country until forced to focus anew on the Pacific following the fall of Singapore. That a country geographically as far from another as is physically possible can still align itself ideologically to the other side of the world demonstrates the constructed nature of geographic identities. It seems disingenuous for the U.S. to claim long-standing identity as a Pacific nation merely because of its Pacific coastline, or its territories in that ocean.

But if the world’s superpower declares something to be so, it most often is. “The United States has been, and always will be, a Pacific nation.” It matters not whether the historical record supports this; that the United States now believes it is enough to change the record, to change the commitments of nations, to make it a fact that must be taken into account when calculating responses. It is a fact that is now incorporated into the international political security market.

All this is to say: geographic identity descriptors are the strongest statements that can be made by a nation to demonstrate a commitment to a part of the world. In other words, these types of statements are the broadest conception of a grand strategy, where all other components within a nation must then adhere to that broadest commitment made. Those who question the commitment should not do so easily, because such a descriptor has proven historically to be long-lasting and meaningful.

The United States’ “pivot to Asia” seems itself a component of its newfound Pacific identity. Without being a Pacific nation, it is a stretch of imperial power for the United States to claim interests in the East and South China Seas. Only through believing itself to be a Pacific nation can the United States justify its re-alignment of military and economic structures to focus on Asia.

It is also interesting to reflect on the Trans-Pacific Partnership in light of the new U.S. commitment to the Pacific. Discussion has been strong over the purported benefits of the TPP to signatories’ economies. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative estimates real income benefits to the United States of approximately $77bn annually; other sources put it at up to $131bn. At its best this represents a 0.5 percent increase in annual GDP resulting from the TPP—a not insignificant material benefit, but nonetheless not the sort of world-changing trade deal that the TPP has been billed as by governments. The fervour of the Obama administration in getting the TPP through represents, I think, the recognition that the deal would cement the U.S. de facto as a Pacific nation, as the major partner in the Pacific’s trade deal. To anyone who then questions the U.S.’ Pacific identity and commitment, the U.S. can simply point to the TPP and ask what all the fuss is about. Trade benefits are important, but pale in comparison to the effect that the deal may have on the U.S.’ grand strategy contra China.

There seem to be two further points of interest in relation to the TPP. First, there are signatories to the TPP that do not even touch that ocean, showing, just as with NATO, the necessity of constructed geographic groupings. Second, China is expected to lose approximately $35bn annually through a successful TPP implementation. If the deal was just about increasing incomes through increased trade, China would have been included in the deal. For the deal’s major partner it is about much more than that.

There are, I think, two things that can be taken away from this brief history of the U.S. as a Pacific nation and of the uses of geographic identity descriptors. The first is that U.S. allies in the Asia Pacific should be reassured of the United States’ commitment to the region. As a Pacific nation the United States cannot let other countries it believes not to be Pacific states fundamentally destabilise the region. Second, and more broadly, is the way that other nations themselves may use geographic identity descriptors to align themselves more deeply with allies. This is an important lesson for countries like New Zealand, Australia, and even those nations that do not lie in the Pacific but believe their national interests to be fundamentally affected by stability in the region.

What Is Our Time Here For?: The Meaning of Yale-NUS College and the Liberal Arts

 

Note: This is an article I wrote that was originally published on The Octant, Yale-NUS College’s student newspaper. 

This semester at Yale University I’m taking a class called Successful Global Leadership with New York Times columnist and author David Brooks. In class David frequently refers to what he calls “resume virtues” and “eulogy virtues”. As he described them in his most recent book, “The resume virtues are the ones you list on your resume, the skills that you bring to the job market and that contribute to external success. The eulogy virtues are deeper. They’re the virtues that get talked about at your funeral, the ones that exist at the core of your being—whether you are kind, brave, honest or faithful; what kind of relationships you formed”.

It struck me that how we think about these two virtues will to a large extent determine the way we approach our time at college—the major and classes we choose, how we think about grades, and which student organisations we choose to commit to. Not only that: the way that Yale-NUS College, or any institution for that matter, thinks about these two virtues will determine how it views its mission, and how it educates generations of students after us. Daily life, with its classes, meeting and events, loomed over by exams and papers, can make it all too easy to forget why we are here in the first place. I think that is true not only for us students, but also for faculty and college leadership.

The resume virtues are ever-present in discourse, to the extent that it can be hard to realise there is anything else. As David describes, “Many of us are clearer on how to build an external career than on how to build inner character.” Juniors are in the midst of applying for penultimate year internships: the Centre for International and Professional Experience (CIPE) and our advisers are stressing the things we need to do to land our desired internship, to in turn get the job we want after graduation. The major and classes we choose, the student organizations we join, and the amount of effort we decide to put into different aspects of student life—I would be disingenuous not to admit that my decisions are at least in part determined by how these things may appear on my resume. And the resume virtues are inculcated in us from the top, by our CIPE and major advisers, some of our professors, and even by the thought that Yale-NUS’ long-term impact depends on our own post-graduation professional success.

I think that if we fall into the trap of viewing this institution as a unique fast-track to impressive resume virtues then we will have missed an incredible opportunity to shape our own lives, and to “redefine liberal arts and science education for a complex, interconnected world.” The question asked by Yale-NUS’ inaugural curriculum committee was “What must a young person learn in order to lead a responsible life in this century?” It was not, let’s be clear, “What must a young person learn in order to get their desired job?”

The liberal arts and sciences are not a unique selling point for a resume, or a euphemism for an elite college. They are about having freedom—four years of freedom, in our case—to learn about ourselves and our own minds so that we can approach everything else we do in life with solid foundations, with “inner character”. I’ve come to think that college is, at its core, about beginning to build a wide and sturdy foundation of eulogy virtues, upon which we can build our external and professional lives. I learned this the risky way. With just over a year left before graduating from high school, I left to work at a technology company. I returned not long after, once I’d learned what education seemed to really be about. It took leaving school to show me that there was a difference between “an education” and “becoming educated”, to highlight the parts of school that seemed fundamentally meaningful, and to show me why it was worth devoting four years to college. To put it another way, in the words of Bill Deresiewicz, who visited Yale-NUS earlier this semester: “College helps to furnish the tools with which to undertake that work of self-discovery… There’s nothing “academic” about it.”

I am not saying that resume virtues are unimportant; they are. But I believe we are here for something more than that, and that the decisions we make during college should be about those larger ideals first, resumes second. Resumes can be built upon a sturdy understanding of yourself, but I don’t think the reverse is true.

I’m fearful that in the relentless focus on how our time at college will serve our resumes and our careers we will end up wasting the chance to expand our opportunities, and to create the foundations for meaningful lives. Not only that, but I’m fearful that Yale-NUS will forget its mission, falling back on the easy and externally satisfying pursuit of resume virtues for itself as an institution, and for its students. We all play a role in Yale-NUS’ mission, and in setting its tone for decades to come. So, at the very least, let us think about the tone that we want, and whether the decisions we make today are ones we would be proud of when we gather at Yale-NUS in three decades’ time.

Reflection on a Grain of Sand

This was originally a reflection I wrote for a class called “The Search for a Habitable Planet” with Professor Bryan Penprase at Yale-NUS College.

From ages three until six I lived in Rarotonga, the largest island of a disparate group in the middle of the Pacific that make up the Cook Islands. This meant that I grew up during those three formative years with the night sky more clear and visible than I’ve ever seen since. Asking questions about space, and the earth’s place in it, probably came naturally with all those stars and satellites spread above me every single night.

Around age 4 my parents bought me a videotape of Sam Neill’s TV program Space. In my favourite episode Sam Neill stands on a beach and picks up a hand-full of sand. Letting the grains run slowly through his fingertips, he explains the vastness of space by saying that for every grain of sand on every beach in the world there are more than a billion stars, each with their own planets and moons. And so on that small Pacific island surrounded by one endless beach I let the grains of fine white sand run through my own fingertips and thought about the enormity of space. Though it may sound strange or ridiculous, I could comprehend it: that grain-of-sand analogy was the perfect way for my young and malleable brain to understand that this tiny island I lived on, surrounded by vast ocean, was itself the same as the tiny world we live on surrounded by vast space. And with that understanding came the sense that there was no doubt that there were other habitable planets out there: with so much sand on earth pure chance means we will eventually discover another planet like ours (said my young brain).

Space was my childhood fascination, and from ages five until ten I was determined that I would be an astronomer. But somewhere along the way I simply stopped thinking about space and the earth. Perhaps it was when I moved to Manila, a light-filled metropolis, and for a year didn’t see the night sky. Space practically exited my mind, and what filled it was concerns with how islands and continents within this earth can best organise themselves. Global affairs became my fascination: empires and wars, ideologies and negotiations. International Relations takes as its premise that the earth and the resources on it are finite, and therefore conflict is to a degree inevitable. Statesmen concern themselves with working within the confines of this earth to secure the interests of a subset of its people. Planets for me during this decade were the different continents that different ideologies occupied.

And now, reflecting on earth and space in the first year of my third decade on earth, I have a sense of incredulity: did man really go to the moon? Is a man-made object truly in interstellar space and still transmitting to earth? Everything that I have consumed my mind with for a decade has been confined to continents and islands and managing the conflicts that flare up in the world. How could humans have possibly exited this atmosphere and looked at the whole of earth at once? With so much still to do and organise on this earth, how is it possible that humans have left its atmosphere to search for other worlds? In this decade, planets seem almost to be fiction.

But when I think back to those grains of sand on all the beaches on earth I’m left with a sense of ridiculousness. How can people consume themselves with something so small? “Every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant”; “every ‘supreme leader’, every saint and sinner in the history of our species”… has been absorbed in one infinitesimally small grain of sand no different to all the trillions of others. Even the Voyager 2 image of our “pale blue dot” privileges our position in the universe, because we can make it out amidst the darkness. I prefer to conceptualise Earth as a planet as just one of those grands of sand on one of the beaches on earth, indistinguishable from the rest.

The great irony is that humans only started leaving Earth’s atmosphere during a period of intense human competition and rivalry: it was preoccupation with portions of this Earth that led humans closer to discovering other worlds. Are other planets therefore only discoverable and reachable through human rivalry? In these moments of reflection, Earth becomes a symbol of the confines and preoccupations of the human mind.