This Weekend Read is Part Two in “The “E” Word,” a continuing series on “elitism” in the United States educational system. Read Part One here.
Peter Thiel has made headlines offering fellowships to college students who drop out to start a business. One of those Thiel fellows is Dale Stephens, founder of Uncollege. Uncollege advertises itself as radical. At the top of their website, Uncollege cites a line from the movie "Good Will Hunting":
You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for a buck fifty in late charges at the public library.
The Uncollege website is filled with one-liners extolling life without college. It can be and often is sophomoric. And yet, there is something deeply important about what Uncollege is saying. And its message is resonating. Uncollege has been getting quite a bit of attention lately, part of a culture of obsession with college dropouts that is increasingly skeptical of the value of college.
At its best, Uncollege does not simply dismiss college as an overpriced institution seeking to preserve worthless knowledge. Rather, Uncollege claims that college has become too anti-intellectual. College, as Uncollege sees it, has become conventional, bureaucratic, and not really dedicated to learning. In short, Uncollege criticizes college for not being enough like college should be. Hardly radical, Uncollege trades rather in revolutionary rhetoric in the sense that Hannah Arendt means the word revolution: a return to basic values. In this case, Uncollege is of course right that colleges have lost their way.
Or that is what I find interesting about Uncollege.
To actually read their website and the recent Uncollege Manifesto by Dale Stephens, is to encounter something different. The first proposition Uncollege highlights has little to do with education and everything to do with economics. It is the decreasing value of a college education.
The argument that college has ever less value will seem counter intuitive to those captivated by all the paeans to the value of college and increased earning potential of college graduates. But Uncollege certainly has a point. Currently about 30% of the U.S. adult population has a degree. But among 20-24 year olds, nearly 40% have a college degree. And The Obama administration aims to raise that number to 60% by 2020. Uncollege calls this Academic Inflation. As more and more people have a college degree, the value of that degree will decrease. It is already the case that many good jobs require a Masters or a Ph.D. In short, the monetary value of the college degree is diminished and diminishing. This gives us a hint of where Uncollege is coming from.
The Uncollege response to the mainstreaming of college goes by a number of names. At times it is called unschooling. Unschooling is actually a movement began by the legendary educator John Holt. I recall reading John Holt’s How Children Learn while I was in High School—a teacher gave it to me. I was captivated by Holt’s claim that school can destroy the innate curiosity of children. I actually wrote my college application essay on Holt’s educational philosophy and announced to my future college that my motto was Mark Twain’s quip, “I never let school interfere with my education”—which is also a quotation prominently featured in the Uncollege Manifesto.
Unschooling—as opposed to Uncollege—calls for students to make the most of their courses, coupling those courses with independent studies, reading groups, and internships. I regularly advise my students to take fewer not more courses. I tell them to pick one course each semester that most interests them and pursue it intently. Ask the professor for extra reading. Do extra writing. Organize discussion groups about the class with other students. Go to the professor’s office hours weekly and talk about the ideas of the course. Learners must become drivers of their education, not passive consumers. Students should take their pursuit of knowledge out of the classroom, into the dining halls, and into their dorms.
Uncollege ads that unschooling or “hacking your education” can be done outside of schools and universities. With Google, public libraries, and free courses from Stanford, MIT and Harvard professors proliferating on the web, an enterprising student of any age can compose an educational path today that is more rigorous than anything offered “off-the-shelf” at a college or university. I have no problem with online courses. I hope to take a few. But it is a mistake to think that systems of massive information delivery are the same thing as education.
What Uncollege offers is something more and something less wholesome than simply a call for educational seriousness. It packages that call with the message that college has become boring, conventional, expensive, and unnecessary. In the Uncollege world, only suckers pay for college. The Uncollege Manifesto promotes “Standing out from the other 6.7 billion”; it derides traditional paths pointing out that “5,000 janitors in the United States have Ph.Ds.”; and cautions, “If you are content with life and education you should probably stop reading… You shall fit in just fine with society and no one will ever require you to be different. Conforming to societal standards is the easy and expected path. You are not alone!”
At the core of the Uncollege message is that dirty and yet all-so-powerful little word again: “elitism.” Later in the Uncollege Manifesto we are told that young people have a choice between “real accomplishments” and the “easy path to mediocrity”:
To succeed without a college degree you will have to build your competency and reputation through real world accomplishments. I am warning now: this is not going to be easy. If you want to take the easy path to mediocrity, I encourage you to go to college and join the masses. If you want to stand out from the crowd and change the world, Uncollege is for you!
At one point, the Uncollege Manifesto lauds NPR’s “This I Believe” series and commends these short 500 word essays on personal credos. But Uncollege adds a twist: instead of writing what one believes, it advises its devotees to write an essay answering the question: “What do you believe about the world that most others reject?” It is not enough simply to believe in something. You must believe in something that sets you apart and makes you different.
Uncollege is at least suggesting that it might be cool to want, as it has not been for 50 years, to aim for excellence and to yearn to be different. In short, Uncollege is calling up students at elite institutions to boldly grab the ring of elitism and actively seek to stand outside and above the norm. And it is saying that education is no longer elite, but conventional.
It is hard not to see this embrace of elitism as refreshing although no doubt many will scream the “e” word. I have often lectured to students at elite institutions and confronted them with their fear of elitism. They or someone spends upwards of $200,000 on an education not to mention four years of their lives, and then they reject the entire premise of elitism: that they are different or special. By refusing to see themselves as members of an elite, these students too often refuse to accept the responsibility of elites, to mold and preserve societal values and to assume leadership roles in society.
Leading takes courage. In Arendtian terms, it requires living a public life where one takes risks, acts in surprising ways, and subjects oneself to public judgment. Leading can be uncomfortable and dangerous, and it is often more comfortable and fun to pursue one’s private economic, familial, and personal dreams. Our elite colleges have become too much about preparing students for private success rather than launching young people into lives of public engagement. And part of that failure is a result of a retreat from elitism and a false humility that includes an easy embrace of equality.
That Uncollege is selling its message of excellence and elitism to students at elite institutions of higher learning is simply one sign of how mainstream and conformist many of these elite institutions have become. But what is it that Uncollege offers these elite students who drop out and join Uncollege?
According to its website, Uncollege is selling “hackademic camps” and a “gap year program” that are designed to teach young people how to create their own learning plans. The programs come with living abroad programs and internships. Interestingly, these are all programs offered by most major universities and colleges. The difference is money and time. For $10,000 in just one year, you get access to mentors and pushed to write op-eds, and the “opportunity to work at hot Silicon Valley startups, some of them paid positions.” In the gap year program, participants will also “build your personal brand. Speak at a conference, Write an op-ed for a major news outlet. Build a personal website.”
None of this sounds radical, intellectual, or all-that elitist. On the contrary, it claims that young people have little to learn from educators. Teachers are unimportant, to be replaced by mentors in the world. The claim is that young people lack nothing but information and access in order to compete in the world.
What Uncollege preaches often has little to do with elitism or intellectual growth. It is a deeply practical product being sold as an alternative to the cost of college. In one year and for one-twentieth of what a four-year elite college education costs, a young person can get launched into the practical world of knowledge workers, hooked up with mentors, and set into the world of business, technology, and media. It is a vocational training program for wannabe elites, training people to leap into the creative and technology fields and compete with recent college graduates but without the four years of studying the classics, the debt, and the degree. The elitism that Uncollege is selling is an entrepreneurial elitism measurable by money. By appealing to young students’ sense of superiority, ambition, and risk-taking, Uncollege stands a real chance of attracting ambitious young people more interested in a good job and a hot career than in reading the classics or studying abstract math.
Let’s stipulate this is a good thing. Not everybody should be going to liberal arts colleges. People unmoved by Nietzsche, Einstein, or Titian who are then forced to sit through lectures, cram for exams, and pull all-nighters writing papers cribbed from the internet are wasting their time and money on an elite liberal arts education. What is more, they bring cynicism into an environment that should be fired by idealism and electrified by passion. For those who truly believe that it is important in the world to have people who are enraptured by Sebald and transformed by Arendt, it is deeply important that the liberal arts college remain a bastion apart, a place where youthful exuberance for the beautiful and the true can shine clearly.
We should remember, as well, that reading great books and studying Stravinsky is not an activity limited to the academy. We should welcome a movement like Uncollege that frees people from unwanted courses but nevertheless encourages them to pursue their education on their own. Yes, many of these self-educated strivers will acquire idiosyncratic readings of Heidegger or strange views about patriotism. But even when different, opinions are the essence of a human political system.
One question we desperately need to ask is whether having a self-chosen minority of people trained in the liberal arts is important in modern society. I teach in an avowedly liberal arts institution precisely because I fervently believe that such ideas matter and that having a class of intellectuals whose minds are fired by ideas is essential to any society, especially a democracy.
I sincerely hope that the liberal arts and the humanities persist. As I have written,
The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us whom we are today. The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities.
Our problem, today, is that college is caught between incompatible demands, to spark imaginations and idealism and to prepare young people for employment and success. For a long while now colleges have been doing neither of these things well. Currently, the political pressure on colleges is to cut costs and become more efficient. The unspoken assumption is that colleges must more cheaply and more quickly prepare students for employment. For those of us who care about college as an intellectual endeavor, we should welcome new alternatives to college like internet courses, vocational education, and Uncollege that will pull away young people for whom college would have been the wrong choice. Maybe, under the pressure of Uncollege, colleges will return to their core mission of passionately educating young people and preparing them for lives of civic engagement.
I encourage you this weekend to read the Uncollege Manifesto. Let me know what you think.
“I’ve begun so late, really only in recent years, truly to love the world ... Out of gratitude, I want to call my book on political theories [the book that would become The Human Condition] Amor Mundi’”—Hannah Arendt
I am writing this in a tiny room in Brooklyn, sitting on a red leather chair at my desk next to a window which looks onto a garden. Above me, and across the entire wall I am facing, are shelves of books: each section of which I’ve assembled in accordance with a theme. Part of one shelf contains a history of the battle at Stalingrad, translations of Rilke, Cavafy and Rene Char, RB Onans’s The Origins of European Thought, Said’s Orientalism, and The Radicalism of the American Revolution each of which is relevant to, or footnoted by, Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition, which I read during a business trip in Europe. In this room I do not allow food, television, music or clocks—anything that might divert my attention from writing—but I inadvertently had my phone in my pocket yesterday, and so the news reached me about the death of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl.
We called each other Elisabeth and Steven whenever we met, but in my head and in conversation, first with fellow students of hers and later with professors and scholars, she was never Elisabeth or Young-Bruehl, but always the entire name Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, in keeping with a certain gravitas, which surrounded her like an invisible fence. You could not cross that barrier without a special permit, a permit that, despite my many efforts, I was never able to obtain.
The grief I feel at Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s death is clearer because we were not friends, though, especially recently, we did travel in some of the same circles. We first met 29 years ago at Wesleyan University, at the College of Letters, where I was her student in a course on technology and philosophy. Her lectures displayed a penetrating understanding of what we might today call the Net Delusion: the dark side of freedom unleashed by technology. She was certainly the first person I ever heard speak about thinking global (she always pronounced the word with the stress on the second syllable to emphasize its importance); yet she was constantly flummoxed by the operation of her tape recorder. I once pointed what I thought was the humor in this situation, but Elisabeth Young-Bruehl did not find it even remotely funny. She was a formidable professor, projecting both a coldness (especially towards men) and a muscular intellectualism. It would not have been safe to “think aloud” or “free associate around an idea” in her class for she would cross-examine you without mercy. On the other hand, if you were prepared with notes and quoted sources precisely, she would suddenly remember your name and thank you for your contribution.
It was in her classes that I first read (first heard of) Martin Heidegger, Herbert Marcuse, Karl Jaspers and Hannah Arendt, whose work arrested my respect as no author had before or has done since. My admiration grew into awe as I read her works and as Elisabeth Young-Bruehl told us about Arendt’s life: her principled stance against Jewish fascism (in a letter she co-signed with Albert Einstein); her affair as a student with her married professor, and despite the fact that her husband was a communist, her love of fine dining.
It was about this time that Elisabeth Young-Bruehl became famous. Her biography of Hannah Arendt was published to near-universal acclaim, and I can still remember Peter Berger’s cover review in the New York Times Book Review featuring Hannah Arendt: For Love of the World proudly displayed in the entryway to the College of Letters.
Often when EYB walked on campus, she was surrounded (guarded?) by five or six women whose appearance and decibel levels of Sprechstimme I can only describe as “fierce.” But my desire to know more about Arendt was strong, and when EYB lectured on Hannah Arendt at Yale and NYC, I travelled to hear her. I went, in part, to slake my thirst for more information on Arendt but also to tell EYB how much her biography meant to me and how immersed I had become in her subject. But despite the fact that I was the only one of her students who attended the lectures away from Wesleyan, she rebuffed me and I retreated. One day, however, in New Haven, I’d forgotten to put gas in the car and was forced to ask her to lend me $10 so I could get back to school. I returned the money to her the next day with a thank you note and a pack of LifeSavers. She smiled, said nothing. My friends said she really didn’t like men, though I saw she made room for a few. I became a model student of hers, reading assigned books and even commentaries on them; I wrote tough, straightforward papers, in dense academic prose, with footnotes and translations; and I received high marks, but the admittance to her circle that I craved never arrived.
A few months later, I went to her office to discuss a paper, but she did not wish to discuss papers. Some elitist in the Academy had rejected an essay or book proposal she had proposed. “I don’t send them out if they’re not good anymore,” she said and then told me how she had toiled for five years writing Arendt’s biography and about the file cabinets of correspondence she had sorted through in doing so. The irony that she was complaining to me that she was not getting the recognition she deserved was not lost on me. Feeling she had opened the door onto exchanging confidences, I shared with her my recent decision to come out of the closet. She withdrew instantly, and said only, “Honey, it’s 1983, where have you been?” Another student was waiting to speak with her and I swallowed my feelings and left.
The intense pleasure I felt at being her student, at having studied philosophy at the hem of the garment of Arendt’s student, who was Heidegger’s student, who was Husserl’s student, was forever undercut by the frustration I felt whenever I actually found myself in the same room with her, and had to confront my inability to make friends with her. Not only were we not friends, but also I came to dislike her for the principal reason that I felt she did not like me. How petty and utterly formal that dislike was, I always knew. I thought my devotion would eventually win her over; I was wrong.
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl was an exceptional professor and I was not surprised when she became famous, though I was shocked by those who ascribed her fame to her exclusive access to Hannah Arendt’s archives, rather than the magisterial display of intelligence, sensitivity and restraint she brought to bear on her topic. Those of us familiar with Arendt’s life knew Elisabeth Young-Bruehl was much smarter than she was lucky: she was chosen by Hannah Arendt herself as her research assistant. EYB was the only one of Hannah Arendt’s students to complete a Ph.D. in philosophy under her tutelage, and had to write two theses because Arendt rejected her first work (on Heraclitus) and ‘suggested’ she write a second one (on Jaspers.) And at the time of Arendt’s death, Mary McCarthy-- the best friend, famous author and Arendt’s literary executrix—could easily have taken on the biography project, or given it to an experienced biographer, but she did not. As Elisabeth Young-Bruehl once told me, she had three strikes going in against her candidacy: unlike Arendt, she wasn’t Jewish, German was not her Muttersprach and she was not one of Hannah’s intimate friends. Elisabeth Young-Bruehl was chosen for the promise of her brilliance, a promise she fulfilled magnificently.
When Hannah Arendt died, EYB was in her mid-thirties, and she wrote a biography that not only illuminated many of the most important ideas behind Arendt’s books, but one in which the intensely private Hannah Arendt seemed to leap from the pages: sending her housekeeper’s son to college with the proceeds of one of her books, debating with Hans Morgenthau on the editorial pages of the New York Times, and refusing Auden’s marriage proposal after a visit to his apartment during which Arendt blanched when witnessing a group of Auden’s friends share a single spoon while tasting and stirring their cups of coffee. But what I also admired most about Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s book was the way she remained quietly in the background, so as not to distract her readers. EYB never names herself in the biography, though those of us who were her students discerned that many of the anecdotes illustrating Arendt’s intensely nurturing relationships with her students were, in fact, about the two of them.
It has been faithfully reported to me by the son of the former concertmaster of Toscanini’s NBC Symphony Orchestra, that during rehearsals the great maestro would wave his arms and gesticulate emphatically, often pantomiming his musical ideas, the better to illustrate them to his musicians. But during performances, Toscanini was entirely restrained, used miniscule gestures, and quipped that audiences should sweat, not conductors.
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl was the Toscanini of biographers, whose mastery of her subject included privileging graciousness over self-promotion, and she turned out a bravura performance. Such was the demand for her writing afterwards, Louisiana State University Press republished her novel Vigil later that same year.
Susan Sontag pointed out that there is a terrible, mean American resentment toward a writer who tries to do many things. I will always wonder if, on some level, her colleagues’ resentment at her learning a second field motivated EYB to leave Wesleyan, where she was a revered and tenured professor. A few years after I graduated; Elisabeth Young-Bruehl took on the project of writing a biography of Anna Freud, and she enrolled at Yale, and became a clinical psychologist. You might not think this was such revolutionary choice for a woman of EYB’s extraordinary intelligence and accomplishments, but it was for Hannah Arendt’s student and biographer. In EYB’s words, Hannah Arendt “rejected psychological categories altogether” which meant that she held psychology with the same degree of barely concealed contempt as she did “the social,” “statistics,” and “economics”; phenomena which Arendt regarded more as symptoms of the breakdown of the polis, and the triumph of charm over greatness. It is widely reported by Hannah Arendt’s students that she “ate talk of psychology for breakfast.” Nevertheless, in the last years, I attended many of EYB’s lectures where she never failed say things like “as a clinician we say…” or “in the field of psychology this is termed…” as though she were still dealing with objections to her succeeding in yet a second career. David Schorr, who did the cover illustration for the Arendt biography, told me EYB was disappointed by what she learned about Anna Freud: hoping to write about a pioneer in the emerging field of psychology who was also a lesbian, EYB discovered that Anna Freud was not and, in fact, was even less tolerant than her father had been about same-sex love. The Anna Freud book, like the Arendt book before it, won awards and Elisabeth Young-Bruehl added psychology to her philosophy, and did it so well that she was recently appointed the editor of Donald Winnicott’s complete papers, a task that will now have to be completed by another.
As a professor, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl had continuously astonished us with her ability to recognize the patterns of thought in the great philosophers. She could instantly identify the author of unattributed passages, and was at her most fascinating when pointing out why a given philosopher was incapable of conceptualizing this or that thought. I can only imagine the power of such a mind attuned to listening to her patients, and the patterns of their thoughts. She must have seemed uncommonly gifted and insightful, because she was uncommonly gifted and insightful.
By 1996, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl had written An Anatomy of Prejudices, a book that, I believe, in time, will be seen as a seminal work, not in the least because of its Arendtian methods of drawing distinctions and bringing literally clinical thinking to the task of classifying prejudices. Prior to her work, all prejudice (singular) was regarded as a uniform mass of unexamined negative emotions as though they were all alike and shared a common point of origin. I can only imagine how furious she must have been when her work was extensively utilized by Andrew Sullivan in a major newspaper article, which sought to justify the removal of some section of the social net from underneath the underprivileged.
All the while, she continued to turn out books of breathtaking originality (Cherishment, Where Do We Fall When We Fall in Love, and Why Arendt Matters among her 11 books) and became increasingly preoccupied with the only topic I sensed was more dear to her than politics: love. I continued to follow her career, read her books, and eventually her blog. From her most recent writings I could tell she was deeply in love with her wife, Christine Dunbar and from our mutual friend Jerome Kohn I learned she was, at last, very happy. At this moment, the thought of her happiness is great solace to me. Once I sent her a letter acknowledging her profound influence, thanking her for teaching me to think, and enumerating all of the many ways I felt, and still feel, indebted to her. She wrote back, pointing out to me that my letter named my dog but not my Better Half, and made clear to me, in terms that were only fair, that I was to remain on the other side of her “gravitas.”
In choosing to become an analyst, and writing psychoanalytic books, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl showed her profound intellectual courage: recently, she even addressed Hannah Arendt’s disdain for her chosen field on her blog , postulating that it was understandable that Arendt, whose father died of syphilis when she was a child, and who famously guarded her private sphere, might have strong resistance to a field which focused so intently on early childhood experiences. And in a conference at Bard College in 2006, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Arendt’s birth, she pointed out that recent historical research had revealed that “Eichmann was even more guilty than Arendt knew” with not-so-subtle reference to Arendt’s half-psychological, half-philosophical characterization of the Nazi logistics expert as “banal.”
Elisabeth Young-Bruehl’s public challenges to her very famous professor at first irked me, then made me think about the patterns of her life and thought and then finally confirmed for me what I had learned from her, first in her lectures and later through her many books: in order to be an Arendtian, she had to face up to and reveal the truth as she knew it, or else she would be sucked into mediocrity. When her truth led her into conflict with a small portion of Hannah Arendt’s thought, she did not run away; she analyzed the facts and stood her ground.
Her mentor often quoted the Ancient Roman saying fiat iusticia et pereat mundi, Let justice be done though the whole world may perish. In time I came to understand how Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, mutatis mutandis, came to embody the very ideals of her beloved and revered teacher, Hannah Arendt.
Even though I grieve that Elisabeth Young-Bruehl has died, she will go on influencing me; here, in this tiny room where I am writing, and through the rest of my life, I will go on grieving that she is no longer with us to write more books, to illuminate the world and share the truth, in her courageous yet understated style. She was a bright and shining example of the life well-examined.
Steven Maslow is the Chairman of the Hannah Arendt Center Board, and a former student of Elisabeth Young-Bruehl.