Sunday, August 15, 2010

Excellent sheep

“So are you saying that we’re all just, like, really excellent sheep?”
- a student quoted by William Deresiewicz in his The Disadvantages of an Elite Education

It's funny that I just read Deresiewicz's article (following a link from eekim) after reading the novel The Good Son by Michael Gruber, and seeing the movie Inception last week, all while visiting a bunch of colleges and thinking and talking about college with family, friends, and old professors.

The common thread in the article, book, and film is the idea of false consciousness -- we think we're living out an authentic and coherent experience, with autonomy and clear knowledge of what we're up to, but in fact (at least in part) we're inside a hall of mirrors and enforced system of ideas, that has a huge mechanism in place for keeping you thinking you know what you're doing, when you are playing a part written by others, keeping you from seeing the limitations and blinders.

Now that I think of it, this was also the theme of another recent read -- The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. (Spoiler alert -- read no farther if you are going to read the book). I am sure I am far from the only reader who believed through much of the book that the title referred to Islamic fundamentalism and that the narrator -- telling his tale to a mysterious American in a Pakistani cafe -- was going to become a terrorist or the like. However, it actually refers to the narrator's realizations about his job as a management consultant in an elite New York valuation firm, which praised its ability to focus on the "fundamentals" in the businesses it examined (or helped destroy) for its clients. This book, too, talked about the blinders and self-enforced sense of privilege instilled by an elite education (in this case from Princeton, which is one of the colleges we just visited).

In The Good Son, a number of the characters, particularly an NSA language analyst, realize that their successes and ambitions were, similarly, self-reinforcing products of the system that they lived within without realizing (or, more accurately, questioning) it, which fall apart disastrously when push comes to shove.

We visited the University of Michigan, my alma mater, on this college trip. I found myself getting choked up during the information session, especially when they showed a (kind of corny) video, all on the theme of the wonderful and diverse opportunities available to the students. It occurred to me that this was because my years in Ann Arbor were all about becoming -- moving from the person I was before I got there to the (still limited, but far less so) person I was afterward.

Does/did the U of M foster the same kind of entitled blinderedness that the works above talk about? It's not a purely elite institution by any means, but some of that is undoubtedly there. I woke up (in some ways) while there, learned to see many things about our culture more clearly, but -- as with any education or acculturation -- I also have to wonder about what I'm not seeing.

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