Ah, Punditry

I know, I know. This blog is a form of punditry, and here I am, getting ready to be super-critical of what passes for analysis by those in what Molly Ivins called “the chattering classes.” So before I “self-own,” let me begin with a caveat: much opinion writing is thoughtful. Many of the people who opine about the current state of society, politics and world affairs are being intellectually honest even when they miss the mark. Their efforts do help us navigate today’s depressing world.

But. (You knew there was a but…) There are others. A lot of them.

A reader recently sent me a Substack article that displayed several of what I consider the more problematic elements of contemporary argumentation. The article was written by one William Deresiewicz, with an introduction by Bari Weiss. Deresiewicz was a professor at Yale who, Weiss tells us, “separated himself from that herd (“those people”?) when he wrote the book “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.”

Here is how he begins.

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.

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.

This lead-in has two elements of intellectual laziness that drive me bonkers: generalization from anecdote, and the (mis)use of language to label rather than define.

What do I mean by generalization from anecdote? There’s an old saying in academia to the effect that anecdotes are not data. (Just because I saw a guy in a red sports car speeding doesn’t mean that all men who own red sports cars speed.) There is also a significant amount of emerging research on confirmation bias–the very human tendency to search for and find evidence supporting one’s previous opinions and beliefs, while ignoring evidence to the contrary. Did the author have students who exhibited the characteristics he deplores? Undoubtedly. Were those students representative of the majority of Yale students? Unlikely.

I taught college students for 21 years (at a less prestigious university than Yale, granted), but I can attest to the fact that the student body was far more intellectually and personally diverse–and considerably less “sheep-like”– than the students the professor describes. His description was especially inapt when applied to my brightest students. I find it highly unlikely that the academically-talented students admitted to highly competitive institutions of higher education (where admission committees give points for evidence of leadership skills and intellectual originality) are students with no “sense of purpose” who “wait meekly for direction.”

I guess we see what we think we’ll see…..

Worse still, in my opinion, is the professor’s willingness to join those who want to turn the word “woke” into some sort of epithet. Woke was a slang term initially coined to describe people who had become aware of–awakened to– America’s structural flaws, become aware of systemic racism, injustice, and prejudice. It  is certainly fair to debate the elements of “wokeness,” or to point to the demonstrable excesses that do emerge, especially among young people, but now the term has taken the place of other perfectly good words appropriated and misused over the years by Republican activists under the tutelage of Frank Luntz. As the Right’s scornful use of older terms like liberal and socialist have gradually lost their power to label folks as unAmerican, accusations of “wokeness” are being used to fill the gap.

I am so tired of labels supplanting genuine argumentation. I am so tired of the sneering punditry that substitutes vitriol for analysis and over-simplification for discernment. Do we have problems in higher education? You bet. Are some students over-reacting to perceived slights? Absolutely. Could we use more appreciation of nuance and shades of grey, and less hysteria over legitimate differences of opinion? We sure could.

But that discernment and tolerance needs to come from both sides of the “wokeness” aisle–including the side populated by intellectually arrogant professors and self-satisfied pundits.


  1. Woke, Wokeness, Leaning IN, Gas Lighting… so much Gibber Jabber in use today that means nothing to me. I sure wish we could communicate with real English words that have real definitions. That might help.

  2. I guess the first question that came to me after reading this article and the one in Wikipedia is “How did this guy get so far up the ladder? e.g. Why is he so highly regarded as to merit a Wikipedia article? Does Yale explain it all? And if so, then are our elite schools simply resting on their laurels?

  3. RINO, red, Socialist, commie, fellow traveler, peaceniks, egghead, takers, thugs, libs, welfare queen…need I continue? Republicans have a long history of name-calling simply because, as William F. Buckley told them, facts tend to expose the bankruptcy of their positions. Move along. Nothing new here.

  4. Point taken.

    However, this: “confirmation bias–the very human tendency to search for and find evidence supporting one’s previous opinions and beliefs, while ignoring evidence to the contrary.” We all do it. But I wonder what to call it when they “ don’t want to hear that” or actively oppose all evidence to the contrary: oppositional? That may be a mental health diagnosis.

  5. Nothing sets them off like seeing pronoun preferences such as he/him or they/them in a social media profile. And one of their favorite labels “woke-mob” is used to refer to anyone not in agreement with their strict and herd-like rules of conformity (the irony is completely lost on them). As for me, I’m trying to use fewer buzz-words and phrases to label their tribe – although MAGA-fascist is my favorite among them. These days I think just calling them “Republicans” tells us everything we need to understand.

  6. Yes, Christopher, that is very wise. Unfortunately, many like-minded people have chosen to disregard my posts because they are “non-relevant rants.” I believe the advice by Ms. Kennedy herself was “skip over them.”

    Mainly because they challenge their beliefs; you see, if your targets are Republican-thinkers, you’ve already narrowed the field just like the Republican-thinkers. So you suffer from the same cognitive dissonance you are accusing others of having.

    Once you understand that both MSNBC and Fox News are propaganda for their favored political party, it’s simple logic to deduce that neither is preferred.

    The issue ultimately comes down to what the Ego identifies with, right John? Religion and philosophy have some ideas on this. So does psychology or the study of the psyche.

    Good morning, John!

  7. So, did you read Mitch Daniel’s Washington Post piece on Mother’s Day weekend?

  8. Richard Allen,

    Perfect analysis of the Republican “mind”-set. George Lakoff and Rick Wilson have written books about the “branding”, labeling and defamation of the “enemy” by Republican strategists. Karl Rove, Lee Atwater, Newt Gingrich, et. al., define – in persona – what Buckley said. They have NO other purpose than to serve their corporate masters. The Republican party is committed forever more to greed, grift, hustle and hate. It’s what unregulated capitalists do.

    No, the above was not an un-researched rant. It is a rant based on 15 years of research, observation and dealing with the purveyors and practitioners of confirmation bias. I think it should be a clinical condition requiring serious therapy.

  9. “Worse still, in my opinion, is the professor’s willingness to join those who want to turn the word “woke” into some sort of epithet. Woke was a slang term initially coined to describe people who had become aware of–awakened to–…”

    I immediately saw the term “woke” no different than Charles Manson’s use of the word “now”; his philosophy to his “family” was to “come to now”. He of course meant his personal “now” and they “woke” to it so totally that they went on a crime spree and murder rampage of innocent people such as this nation had never before seen. Are we really “woke” to the fact that this nation’s “now” has accepted mass murder as the norm; I see the same “woke” coming regarding the Uvalde, Texas mass murder of 19 little children and 2 brave teachers once the hullabaloo dies down…as it always does. The NRA lost no followers and Trump and Cruz probably gained some as they renewed their battle cry that “more guns will save lives”. The Republicans have more sheep in their herd because they are following a wealthier, louder Judas goat leading them and keeping them “woke”.

    All of us here on this blog speak as pundits from time to time; and from time to time we are wrong, other times we are right (correct). Betty is an example of “Punditry” as she feels the deep need to edit those of us on the blog who occasionally do make a grammatical, spelling or punctuation error; which most of us post our own “mea culpa” when we catch it. Yesterday she managed to edit all commenters on the blog using only 4 brief sentences on 2 lines. She has the right to her opinion and the freedom of speech to express it; which is what I am doing at this time. Thank you for allowing me to vent.

  10. To be fair, there might be a class of students at Yale who seem sheep like at times. Those would be the “Legacy” admissions, who are there because all of their male antecedents have attended Yale since the 18th century.

    Are we “woke” enough to understand that things change and people change? We can criticize past generations as much as we like, but do we know that we would do anything differently? Are we “woke” today because it’s cool to be woke? How will we be thought of in a hundred years or more?

  11. Vernon writes, “The Republican party is committed forever more to greed, grift, hustle and hate.”

    That’s true, but so is the Democratic Party. It’s why they are going to lose big in November. Once again, they made lots of promises and failed to deliver. Why do they continue to screw over their voters?

    Because they can…as Pelosi, Schumer, and Biden all say, “We need a strong Republican Party.”


    So, they can blame their failures on the Republican Party. It’s why the Democrat-controlled 1/6 Committee has failed to prosecute a single Republican or Republican donor for insurrection. The committee is a media farce.

    Read Chris Hedge’s latest article on Substack about defeating the billionaire class where he interviews Kshama Sawant from the Socialist Alternative (SA) party in Seattle. She took on Jeff Bezos and Amazon on their home turf and won. Listen to what she says about the Democrats who serve on the Council with her.

    You can research what she is saying and it’s correct. From your local Democratic Party all the way to Washington, including the media and unions.

    She’s what I call, “Woke!”


  12. Today’s column and comments often demonstrate the same lack of nuance we complain about. Like Patrick, throwing MTG in with Liz Cheney as all the same enemy.

    And, excuse me, when much of the output of elite schools goes into hedge funds, big consulting firms, mega-banks and private equity without so much as a quick “baa” about our deteriorating democracy…doesn’t it suggest waving a herder stick at them? On the other hand, as 20th Century techies used to say, GIGO…

  13. Over used words for me are pronouns with ambiguous antecedents. I have come to the conclusion I may have been born (he, she, it III). Say it slowly … please. 🤔

  14. Maybe he was just a really crappy professor who failed to ignite, or even give the opportunity for, anything in his students other than grinding out their assignments, while they offered their creativity to professors who knew how to encourage and reward it.

  15. As a generalization, I see each of us as primarily collections of memories of input through our five senses that from the moment of our birth to our death accumulate and are used by our brains to define what has been real for each of us. Some of them are experiences (those reinforced by emotions count the most)(these collectively can be defined as our individual cultures which can be averaged with those around us into collective cultures all the way from families to nations to humans in general) and some are from educational settings like classrooms and books and people who seem to us either better informed or superior in having thought things through. It is compared to that, that is reality to us, that we think things through. It comes as no surprise that each of us see reality as different.

    What we regard as new knowledge compares well with all of our memories and seems to add to them as useful knowledge and become from then on a new memory. We also reject cluttering our memory with input that doesn’t reinforce our previous experience or knowledge not consistent with our reality. This leads to the reality that sequence counts quite a bit. What we are willing to consider later in life may have been easily rejected earlier.

    In those regards we are all excellent sheep.

    To me, also, we are all “woke” but to different realities.

    Advertising and propaganda are bits of additional knowledge we allow ourselves exposure to that seem to add knowledge that is consistent with a group culture we are part of and they make us want some good or service or person to add towards completing the picture that our previous memories have built up to that moment.

    In that way we are all the same. What are differences are the cultures that organize us into groups with similar memories of our lives.

    What creates humanity as either progressing or regressing are the culture competitions. When more of us have lived lives of progress, positive change that we have collectively created, the larger collection we call human culture progresses (which really means harmoniously with the reality that we are part of not just what we sense). When more of us have lived lives exposed to tearing down rather than building up, we collective regress dis-harmoniously with real rather than sensed reality .

    We seem to be transitioning from progress to regression. We’re all along for the ride.

  16. Good morning Todd!

    Good morning Vern!

    Good morning Lester!

    See? Absolutely, we all see.

    Many of us who have opinions or insight we might call it, are the sum of our experiences. Those experiences could be good or bad, undoubtedly they shape our Outlook!

    Of course I can only speak for myself, but, as a kid, not being able to eat every single day, that shaped part of my worldview, knowing my family history and those of my great uncles who were murdered by bigots, shaped some of my views, being the oldest of my siblings, shaped My views, my father dying When We were Young shaped my views, my brothers one murdered and one who worked himself to death both before 40, shaped my views. So, I’m the sum of my experiences, including being bullied when I was young.

    Of course, being an imperfect human, I met my beautiful wife, and put her through holy hell! All I felt was misery and hatred. But, for 43 years, she has been my sarah. She saved my life numerous times. Her compassion and empathy changed me. It’s hard to purge hatred! Hatred is a very powerful emotion.

    It’s hard work to change your personality. I despised the money flashers and the clickish intellectuals, those who walked around with their nose in the air, and those who used to frequent the nightclubs and venues I would work security in. My day job which due to affirmative action I had gotten, an extremely well-paying job, and my night job which was security in the clubs. And this gave me an avenue to be the authority towards those who would look down their nose at me before.

    I was a small kid, who fought for my brothers and sisters. Because I was the oldest! But, it changed me from being a quiet kid to an angry adult.

    My father was a proud military veteran who did not like to accept help, proud never fed anyone. When he died from drinking and smoking, there was no one else! So, things were difficult. As an adult, I grew to be 6 ft 2, 245 lb, I took martial arts and boxed I always carried my 357 Magnum in a shoulder holster. On Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights, I took out my aggression on those who would have too much to drink or we’re just obnoxious. I also would watch a couple of gambling rooms and collect gambling debts which I figured if people could Gamble fortunes, they could afford to pay their debts as such. Like I mentioned above, hate is a very powerful emotion. And, as we can see, this world runs, not on Dunkin’ donuts, but on Hate!

    I was always fascinated with religion, because so many of the experiences listed within the bible, could line with my own. My wife always, always, encouraged me to be more than what I was. I used to help her study for her college exams, she has six different degrees, and probably is the smartest person I know.

    Eventually, my personality started to change from one of violence and single-minded focus on material things.

    I went from Johnny Redd Dog where people knew me as the Leg Breaker, to the preacher.

    I will say, it’s difficult to keep the hatred at bay, it’s always under the surface. And it does require a great amount of effort and prayerful beseeching to overcome it.

    I’ve seen the very worst in humanity, but, great change will come. In the past 30 years, I’ve thrown myself into studying, history, scripture, not just taking anything on face value! History is cyclical, and, if you tend to be a student of history, you can absolutely see it! I try not to make a round peg fit into a square hole, but, when you see things occurring that have been talked about millennia ago, have been predicted millennia ago, even the cyclical nature of history, it provides introspective analysis. Which leads to circumspection of actions and thoughts.

    And, one more thing, when we criticize religion or God or whatever, we should make sure we actually use circumspection. Just as someone can slander you as an individual, can claim you did all sorts of things, attach your name to some slanderous diatribe, don’t you feel violated? Because you know it wasn’t true or is not true! The slanderer might be crowdsourced with opinions so to speak, they decide to make bold but ignorant statements! So, should those slanders diatribes be believed? Well, on all sides, many do believe the slander! Instead of researching, you take someone’s fairly useless fomented opinion and Prosthelytize it as unadulterated truth.

    My path is not everyone’s path, but, my path was long and arduous, and fraught with misery. I seek out folks who might have a similar story, and by example, change them for the better. Always there for a helping hand, just as Christ commanded his followers to do. A commission that was laid out by Christ himself, and also commanded through the Mosaic Law.

  17. Another habit of pundits that makes me crabby is cynicism masquerading as wisdom. This one has a dose of complaining about ‘kids these days” for good measure.

    His real complaint is that culture is moving in directions that he doesn’t especially like. But he’s trying to put lipstick on that pig because nobody would care if he described his sentiments in those terms.

  18. John P., what a fascinating life! Thanks for sharing it. That act makes it a small part of my life too, not what I have experienced, but what others have, which I now understand with a little more clarity.

    Like myself, you apparently owe a lot of your domestication to your wife and I mean that as a compliment to both of you.

    It’s also clear that what you believe, what you have faith in, what you trust explicitly, adds to your present reality. I’ve always been fascinated by the process that we all go through around such assumptions of truth and our motivations to conclude whatever we do.

    Thanks again for inviting us in.

  19. Because of testing culture, it isn’t difficult to believe that a highly skilled and intelligent group of students who are used to getting A’s would default to doing what has worked for them in the past. Testing culture – instigated in general by Republican state legislatures – teaches in black and white, correct or not, and without shades of gray. It wrings critical thinking out of the educational system. It turns out excellent worker bees, er sheep, though.

    It’s every professor’s job to meet their students where they are and adjust their teaching methods to help their students learn. If this professor sees his students as excellent sheep, then it’s his job to turn them into problem solvers. Otherwise, he’s no better than they are.

  20. Patrick, “Oppositional Defiant Disorder” is a formal diagnosis: “ODD and CD (Conduct Disorder) are diagnosed more often in boys than in girls. If not managed promptly, ODD can progress to CD, which can then transition to antisocial personality disorder.”

    Buckley, and Luntz, twist the language to fit their agenda. The former, by his own admission, knew that he was full of hot air. If seeing the world as it really is, structural racism included, is a bad thing, give me more of it.

    I see a direct connection between Buckley’s admission regarding the “bankruptcy of their positions,” and Trump’s need to produce “alternative facts.” By the way, isn’t that what the NRA has been doing,all these years, with their facile, idiotic, rationalizations/excuses for supporting the American Cowboy myth…not to mention the munitions manufacturers?

  21. Wallflower – you are reflecting strongly one of my life guidebooks – “Teaching as a Subversive Activity”. If you haven’t read it, grab it.

  22. Todd: The1/6 committee cannot prosecute anybody due to the Separation of Powers as set forth in the Constitution. The DOJ and AG are in charge of indicting wrongdoers but have no vote on passing legislation, all because of such constitutional provision.

  23. Thanks Pete!

    Yes, we are the sum of our parts, the sum of our experience good or bad. But, we don’t have to feel that our lot in life cannot change. It’s hard, but we don’t have to go with the flow.

    One thing that I’ve always hated was to have a particular preconceived notion attached to anyone. That is a hard thing to overcome by the labelers or the labeled.

    There are so many who feel like minded and they gravitate towards each other, and then, there are those who are just hateful! They have no natural agreement towards anything except their own preconceived notions. They tend to be judgmental without cause nor reason! They will not discuss or debate, because they have no inner reserve of knowledge or wisdom! No thirst for truth, Just hateful! That’s really really sad.

    It’s easy to be lazy, it’s easy to judge, but that usually equates to ignorance, and we see it every single day on all sides! Education doesn’t eradicate ignorance, in many cases, it entrenches it!

    Take care Pete,

    I always had a soft spot for that name, it was my youngest brothers.

  24. Heh-heh-heh! Because this is, after all, Sheila’s blog, it will remain in her capable hands, for which we can all be grateful.

  25. Heh-heh,

    I have nothing against sheila, Sheila is not ignorant! Nor is she a bigot! Nor is she a hanger on! Like some here are🫢

  26. I generally accept Sheila’s take on this, especially when the rant got into “coddling”.

    I am reminded of a cousin of mine – brilliant, accomplished musician with a doctorate in English. She taught at Harvard, and later Northwestern. She complained about the “spoiled” students at Harvard, mainly because she has a passion for literature and they didn’t. Of course, she didn’t get into an anti-woke rant.

    Both of her parents and I agreed that we would never take a class from her. Sometimes, students aren’t passionate. Sometimes, students worry about GPAs because that is the yardstick used for judgement all too often, and sometime (I think these still exist) there are “distribution requirements” and the student is only taking the class out of necessity, with no real interest in the subject matter.

    Oh course, my idea of the way to combat much of this is like the poetry course I took as an undergraduate. Unlike my high school teacher who didn’t “coddle”, criticized my understanding of poems, and created my dislike of poetry, he encouraged students, showed his love of poetry, and taught the course pass/fail, so no one worried about grades. Of course, he was an old beatnik poet, so maybe that shaded his ideas, but it worked.

    I think Doug summed up people like Deresiewicz – “cynicism masquerading as wisdom”

  27. Ah, yes the confirmation bias is a powerful temptation. I know nothing about this fellow Deresiewicz but his arguments not only do not jibe with my experiences as a university student or teacher. What I recall is a constant, sometimes simplistic, argument and exchange of ideas. “Sheep?” Really not been my experience.

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