A bunch of academic bloggers have been talking about the American Scholar essay by William Deresiewicz. The always-perceptive Timothy Burke offers some insightful comments about the general problems of elite education.
Burke is also a lot kinder to Deresiewicz than I’m inclined to be. Because, frankly, the piece pisses me off, from the very first paragraph:
It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League dees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. “Ivy retardation,” a friend of mine calls this. I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn’t talk to the man who was standing in my own house.
He goes on from there about how elite colleges and universities unceasingly reinforce their elite status, and flatter their overly-entitled students. I’m not going to claim that this doesn’t happen– Lord knows, I went to college with some people who sport an impressive sense of entitlement, and I’ve taught more than a few since becoming faculty.
But really, talking to plumbers has nothing whatsoever to do with education, elite or otherwise. It’s entirely a matter of personal choices– if you find yourself unable to make small talk with someone in a blue-collar job, it’s because you have chosen to be the sort of person who is incapable of talking to people in blue-collar jobs.
I mean, as Scott notes in Tim Burke’s comments, if nothing else, baseball would seem to be a pretty obvious place to start, assuming you’ve already exhausted the topic of all this weather we’ve been having. And really, it takes a significant effort to live in Massachusetts and not pick up enough about the Red Sox to be able to fake your way through the obligatory five minutes of idle chatter with your plumber.
You’re not expected to be able to carry on detailed conversations about the merits of copper pipes vs. PVC, or different brands of tools. Small talk is just that– small. It’s idle chatter about topics of general interest, and it takes work to put yourself in enough of a bubble to have absolutely no common cultural reference points.
Deresiewicz’s anecdote isn’t representative of any general trend in academia, elite or otherwise, save for the tiny subset of people who make a virtue of their isolation. Sadly, the professoriate is absolutely crawling with them. You know the type, the ones who manage to smugly work the fact that they don’t own a television, let alone watch television, into any conversation, who won’t cop to watching a movie that doesn’t come with subtitles, and who profess absolute ignorance of popular music after about 1920.
These people are also depressingly prone to long laments about the shallowness and lack of character of kids these days (though they would never be so declasse as to use the phrase “kids these days”). And they annoy me to no end.
They annoy me in much the same way that self-justifying nerds do (see also the Making Light discussion): because I used to be one of them, and now I see how wrong I was. People at elite schools aren’t incapable of interacting with hoi pollloi because of their excessively elite education, any more than nerds are unpopular because the other kids are envious of their brains. In both cases, their social failings have the same source: either by choice or through inexperience, they are unable to see that the things they are interested in are not the only things worth being interested in.
When you get right down to it, that’s the one and only secret of making small talk with people from other classes or other backgrounds. It helps if you actively share some interests, but that’s not a necessary condition. All you really need to be able to carry on a conversation with another person is a willingness to accept that their interests are worthy of discussion.
You don’t have to be a big sports fan to talk to someone who is a sports fan– you just need to accept that sports are a reasonable topic of conversation, and refrain from changing the channel when the sports news comes on. You don’t have to like baseball, you just need to have enough of a connection with mass culture to know whether the local team has been winning or losing recently.
This applies to all sorts of areas– you don’t need to watch “American Idol,” but you should have the minimal pop-culture awareness to know roughly what it is. You don’t need to listen to rap or hip-hop, but you should at least be able to recognize the bigger names. You don’t have to go to the latest Will Ferrell movie, but you should at least be aware that there’s a guy named Will Ferrell, who makes movies that are allegedly funny.
And if all else fails, you can even turn ignorance to your advantage, provided you’re willing to listen to a lecture about the virtues of whatever the person you’re talking to is into. “You know, I’ve never understood how this points business works in NASCAR…” is a perfectly good conversational sentence, provided you can smile politely while the other person explains the scoring.
This may sound like a low-class version of “How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read,” but ultimately, that’s what incidental social interactions are about. You’re not expected to have a deep, searching conversation with your plumber, you’re just supposed to chat for a few minutes to indicate that you see them as more than just a robot who snakes out your drains on command.
The only way to make yourself completely incapable of talking to your plumber is by both deliberately cutting yourself off from mass culture and being unable or unwilling to even feign interest in what they are interested in. That’s a conversation-stopper all right, because it sends a very clear message: “You are so far beneath me that I won’t even pretend that you’re worth talking to.”
As I’ve said in the past, when I read that “Nerds” piece, what I hear is myself at age 13, trying to justify to myself the fact that nobody in my junior high class liked me. The problem wasn’t with them, though– they weren’t jealous of my brains– and it wasn’t my innate superiority– my interests were not so deep and mature as to be beyond their comprehension. The problem was that I hadn’t learned to play the game of social interaction– I took a perverse sort of pride in not being interested in cars, or sports, or much of popular music, and didn’t hesitate to let my classmates know that.
My social life improved dramatically when I learned that many of those topics are perfectly valid topics of conversation. I developed an interest in sports and pop music, and while I never got into cars, I at least learned to keep my mouth shut when other people were talking about them, rather than saying “Cars are stupid,” and earning myself another verbal beat-down.
Deresiewicz is at least putting a different spin on the tired old “fans are slans” line of argument, recognizing that the problem is with him, not with the rest of society. He’s still engaged in annoying self-justification, though, by trying to pass the blame for his behavior (and that of many of his students) off onto the elite educational system.
What I hear when I read that opening paragraph, and the rest of the piece, is not a genuine expression of concern over a real problem with the university system. What I hear is someone who was forced to confront the fact that he’s an asshole, and is trying to find someone else to blame for his asshole behavior.