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.