Tag Archives: meritocracy

More than Civility

9 Aug

Duluth was in the national news again this past week, and this time in a much more flattering piece than the dreck that appeared in Rolling Stone last month. This time, Gerald Seib at the Wall Street Journal lauds the Civility Project, an effort to establish norms for polite public discourse that he claims has made Duluth politics a bit more pleasant. (I’m linking to a Tweet that has the link because that is the WSJ’s bizarre method of allowing people around their paywall.)

It’s not quite that easy. It’s true that, for much of the past decade, Duluth city-level politics did coalesce around a broad, quiet, and largely civil consensus. I think that probably had more to do with the good vibes of the Don Ness era and his unique talent for making politics boring than the norms listed on a poster, but they certainly didn’t hurt. While still largely following in that same vein, it’s not hard to sense a few more cracks  in the Duluth consensus these days as both regional and national political forces have activated more people to express strong opinions.

It’s also not a universal experience. Critics of the school board will argue that the norms of civility have been used as a bludgeon to silence opposition, as honest and well-meant critiques are called uncivil; that point has had real merit at times over the years. Duluth also is a relatively homogeneous city, and there is pretty good evidence from social science that this makes political debate much easier given the shared culture; I’m not sure how applicable its lessons can be to a nation more starkly riven by questions of racial and cultural identity. (This is not to downplay the divides that do exist in Duluth, but more of an empirical observation on their centrality to day-to-day discourse.) It’s easy to look good when a large majority of people share a common culture agree on many things.

Even with those caveats, the Rules of Civility seem almost quaint now, as if they were a throwback to a more innocent era. Still, they exert a certain power. I would like to think that a bunch of well-meaning people can get together at the local level and build a healthier culture by bringing people together to talk in rational ways. There are, and likely always will be, scenarios where that can happen, and when they happen, that is only a good thing.

One of the more fascinating aspects of our current political moment, however, is how it has made cynics of us all. I try to be wary of narratives that pretend as if the loss of civility or decency is something recent. (Remember: if you want to understand a person’s worldview, figure out what the world looked like when that person was 20, or some comparable early formative age. It’s easy to imagine the decline and fall of political discourse is a new thing, when instead it just stems from the point at which the people in question gained a new level of political or social consciousness.) But I do think there is something particular about the milieu from which those norms of civility emerged from, one that has left us behind for something more complicated.

The Rules of Civility emerged in a time and a place when it seemed like a broadly liberal consensus was destiny. They are the guiding principles of a culture confident that it can bring people together under a common cause and include everyone in the push toward a better tomorrow. They are the rules of a world ruled by a meritocracy, where careful arguments win out and rewards flow to the people who have earned them through reason in the public square. This culture has always had some place in American political culture, but it reached its zenith after the fall of the Berlin Wall, when this worldview came to seem completely triumphant. There is still no clear alternative, but it has undergone a steady erosion amid endless low-grade war, the late 00s financial crisis, and now a wave of political backlash to the whole notion.

As a child of the 90s, I was a product of this largely unquestioned culture. I thrived in its environment, climbed the ladder of test scores and college admissions exactly as I was supposed to. It was a source of anxiety at times, yes, but on the whole I rather enjoyed it. The path was clear, as were the rewards, and I grew up in a community where playing by those very civil rules earned respect. No one ever really questioned whether or not I’d earned what I got, and those of us caught up within it learned not to question the rules of the game.

Now, however, the critiques of the system have emerged in force. The first is the internal one, common among liberals: the idea is right, but in practice our meritocracy has been far too exclusionary. Many people of color (and a chunk of mostly rural white people, for that matter) face such large systemic barriers that they cannot break through; women thrive in certain areas of the ladder but often hit glass ceilings when it comes to leadership positions. The answer, then, is to level playing fields, perhaps through affirmative action if need be, and ensure that social mobility becomes a possibility. If we all just follow the code of civility to its fullest extent, we’ll get there in the end.

A second critique attacks whole logic that the meritocratic winners who have been groomed to rule actually deserve to do so. The best and brightest who went to Wall Street ran the economy into the ground in the late 00s, and even the scholars and pundits who saw warning signs have been unable to devise a humane economy that gives the losers of the macroeconomic shifts of the past decade any level of dignity. The foreign policy consensus bungled its Middle Eastern adventures that decade, leaving thousands dead and no discernable achievement of non-military goals. Over in Europe, the European Union, instead of being some enlightened post-nation-state government, is instead a creaking and unaccountable machine with an egregious mismatch of fiscal and monetary policy that should have been obvious to anyone who’d taken Econ 101, but somehow got pushed through anyway.

While in college at the tail end of this era of good feelings, I read and listened to a lot of triumphal bloviating about the march of democracy and rights and so on that in retrospect seems wishful, if not naïve. And yet there has been little to no reckoning for these failures, and critiques of the elite consensus have often been left outside the bounds of serious political debate. Anyone who suggests otherwise is uncivil. Why should we trust the people who gave us all of these things, or the institutions that produced them, if they can’t get anything right? Our supposedly meritorious ruling class has much to answer for, and precious few of its members have attempted anything resembling an examination of conscience for their failures. Instead, they just drift into cushy lobbying jobs when they get voted out of office. The swamp, according to this take, is very, very real.

Both of these critiques capture some of the truth, but are inadequate on their own. The liberal critique is dead accurate, but fails to step out of the cave and consider whether this way of doing things is the best we can do. The new critique, which can come from either the left or the Trumpist right, raises that issue, but largely fails to present an alternative that doesn’t sound hopelessly idealistic or retrograde. Simply suggesting an alternative seems ridiculous: how does it make sense to run anything without a civil debate of the merits, or without the most qualified people? They may not know everything, or their expertise may come in unconventional ways, but there has to be a way to agree to a basis and sort and choose from there. We’re still a long way from mob rule or authoritarian whim becoming the law of the land.

Civility is great, but trying to cure the nation’s ills with a civility project goes nowhere near to the source of the malaise. Civil discourse can also only emerge at any scale from a common culture that agrees on at least some basic foundation of how to order a society. Without some underlying vision we are left only with critique for critique’s sake, an endless argument that aspires to nothing more than disruption, to use that useless, canned Silicon Valley word that dresses up chaos in the garb of progress.

On a national level, it’s easy to despair about the possibility of the common cause from which a civil governing consensus can emerge. Perhaps, then, the answer must be local. If Duluth’s history over the past ten-plus years is a model of anything, as I’ve argued (with much nuance) that it can be, it starts first with a common vision, and a common narrative that acknowledges but then breaks from a past. Civility is as much a product of such a vision as it is a precondition of it, moving in virtuous feedback loops as eclectic groups come together to advance some common goal. Building and sustaining such cultures won’t be easy; they all have flaws and require serious interrogation at every step, and even with the best of intentions, they will struggle to accommodate everyone in a community of any size.

We live in a world in which the underlying truths that sustain nations and foundations of faith have crumbled. In many, if not all, cases, there is good reason for the critiques. But the project of this century won’t come through continued disruption of already tattered truths, or context-free attempts to make politics nice again. It will come from a concerted effort to build a common future in spite of the myriad obstacles before us. We must imagine Sisyphus happy.

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Utraque Unum

28 Aug

To date, I’ve avoided discussing my alma mater, Georgetown University, in much detail on this blog. My thoughts are convoluted, and I wanted to gain a little more distance from those four years before doing so. I think I’m finally there, and a new book provides a great vehicle for writing about my time as a Hoya. This summer, former Yale professor William Deresiewicz penned a book entitled Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. It’s a variation on an old theme, one confronted by Allan Bloom’s closing American mind, David Brooks’s Organization Kid, and any number of cultural critics over the past few decades. The premise is simple: so-called ‘elite’ universities are failing students, turning intellectually sharp kids into corporate drones who ask no great questions who are just obsessed with climbing the ladder of wealth and power.

The vast majority of these essays are incredibly personal in nature; the main piece will describe the author’s time at University X and the troubles he or she has seen, and everyone else associated with any school that is vaguely comparable to University X is then obligated to opine. (Opining is, after all, what academics are good at.) I now present my offering in that noble tradition, though I hope this meta-awareness keeps me from falling into some of the more familiar traps.

I didn’t go to an Ivy League school, of course, but my alma mater isn’t far off. Particularly for the politically inclined, Georgetown is that shining city on a hill above the Potomac, its allure sometimes surpassing that of the Ivies. It has the admissions rate to match, even if the endowment lags; relying on the Catholic Church to fund one’s first few centuries kept the school from seeking donations as aggressively as its Ivy friends, leading Georgetown to expend a lot of effort in recent capital campaigns. It qualifies as an “elite school,” whatever that exactly means.

There was a time when I was rather critical of my alma mater, and I agree with a number of Deresiewicz’s critiques. In my senior year, I actually discouraged a high school friend from applying, and I stand by that call. The most surprising thing to me was what I perceived as a general lack of intellectual curiosity on display. I went in thinking Georgetown students were in some higher class of brilliance than my high school peers; some certainly were, but many were not. They’d just been raised in families with higher expectations, and come out of private high schools and SAT tutoring programs that specialize in funneling kids into elite colleges. They knew the landscape better, but their minds didn’t appear any sharper for it.

Careerism pervaded many aspects of university life. Dating, while possible, was rare: few felt it worthwhile to put in the effort, especially with grad school and travel and a decade of way-finding to follow. It was much easier to just find a good weekend hook-up and then get back to our frantic studies once the hangover had worn off. And while there was a small cadre of radicals, political debate was pretty rare, too. Elite American universities are nothing like the politically charged incubators of protest they might have been in past generations, with a vague social liberalism and fiscal moderation just accepted as the general culture. The primary aim of a Georgetown student is to “be productive;” it doesn’t really matter what they think of the things they produce, so long as they are producers.

At one point, I also became aware that a certain professor generally regarded as the don of campus intellectual life had opined that the decline in student interest in certain fellowships and related pursuits was related the increase in middle-class students from the center of the country. These students, lacking the comfort of the old money elites that had traditionally populated schools like Georgetown, were a bit more careerist and didn’t have as much time for intellectual pursuits. At the time this sentiment pissed me off, and I still think our dear professor ought to have descended from his ivory tower and made a better pitch to those of us who didn’t know what sort of path we’d have to take to pursue such things, but I don’t think he was wrong. It is very difficult to be a detached intellectual without a certain degree of material comfort. Still, I think there was an untapped market there for him, and for a somewhat hotheaded college student, those sorts of words are alienating. It’s a shame, because I usually respond well to hard-asses, and could have used him in my life.

This unexpected careerism caused some culture shock, which was heightened by questions of money and hometown. In high school, I’d never found class to be a serious barrier for communing with other people; in college, I was hyper-aware of my status as the kid on heavy financial aid from a small city somewhere in flyover country. (A conversation repeated numerous times: ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Duluth, Minnesota.’ ‘Is that near the Twin Cities?’ ‘No.’ This elicited shock, as the person tried to fathom life beyond the suburban ring.) I’ve playfully mocked the University of Minnesota for having a course in “Understanding Minnesota Nice,” but I could have used a crash course in DC culture before I got there.

In retrospect, I was a bit uncharitable to many of my classmates and the old guard professors, and my Duluth pride may have understandably come off as rather obstinate, or just quirky. I was just someone from somewhere else; an occasional object of curiosity, but most people were too busy to sit about and ponder these things. I don’t blame them; outside of a fairly close circle of friends, I didn’t spend a whole lot of time pondering them, either. I had all the same concerns, and might have looked just as intellectually disinterested as the rest. Most of us were in the same boat.

The reasons for that often had little to do with Georgetown. This is life in America’s quasi-meritocracy, and the school is swept up in that; sure, it can and should do some work around the margins to tone that down, but only so much. (What’s it supposed to do, reject applicants with awesome resumes? Paternalistically crack down on students’ love lives? Good luck with that.) In the grand scheme of things, my struggles were pretty minor, and by graduation I’d more or less found my niche. That’s adolescent life, really. In this, I agree with the Robert Nisbet critique, detailed in Nathan Heller’s New Yorker review of Excellent Sheep: expecting a university to be a place where people focus on shaping their souls inflates its role, and also takes a rather solipsistic view of education. It’s not all about us.

Likewise, some of my frustrations with Georgetown had a lot more to do with me than with Georgetown. My rural Ohio roommate, for example, had a much smoother transition. I went in naïve about certain aspects of college life; throw in some family upheaval, and it wasn’t hard for an already introspective person to tip over into hyper-awareness. Add in a temperament generally skeptical of cliques, one that is equally at ease discussing Aristotle over wine one night and watching football over cheap beer the next, and it’s no surprise that I was adrift by sophomore year. Building community is tough when you don’t always share some of those lowest-common-denominator cultural norms, yet aren’t happy drifting off into a narrower counterculture, either.

Reading all this, you’d probably get the sense that I wasn’t very happy at Georgetown. There were definitely some frustrating moments. But if I could go back and do it again, I’d do it in a heartbeat, and I’d push any kids of mine who share my temperament to do the same. Why? It’s a matter of ambition; for some of us, nothing short of this will ever do. Ambition and anxiety are joined at the hip, and I had to get beyond college to learn how to negotiate that interplay. That drive is too much of who I am to imagine a different life, and I expect it’s the same with many of my peers. It might not make sense to someone from the outside, but some of us are just wired this way, and there is no alternative.

On that front, Georgetown really did get a lot right. It prepped me well and got me to think deeply. The vast majority of the time I had real professors (not grad students), most of them brilliant. Sure, the students were career-focused, but the best of the professors knew how to pull them out of that and tap into some well-hidden intellectual energy. Anyone claiming they weren’t getting that out of their students probably wasn’t trying hard enough, or was failing to communicate or command respect. I also saw that my focus on the superficial was often just as bad as that of others, and that I had to dig deeper to find more.

Georgetown’s emphasis on faith, diversity, and social justice did seem like window dressing at times, but in a world hyper-saturated with opportunity, the school probably had to be a bit repetitive to get its point across. The Office of Mission and Ministry might not have quite satisfied the hardline Catholics, but it did leave a door open for exploration and allow for the creation of healthy minority communities. (In this day in age, any religious group on campus is a minority.) The same could be said for racial or sexual minorities, who had their spaces on campus. The Center for Social Justice likewise was pretty robust, and did a decent job of getting Hoyas out of the Georgetown Bubble to realize there was a wider world out there. Maybe there was no ideal spot for me there since I didn’t quite fit in any of the above, but I refuse to be a whiny victim about that. If Georgetown was indeed supposed to help me find my soul, it really did that. I’m probably in the minority there, but the path was open for anyone willing to take it; I wouldn’t even say it was particularly hard to do so. Even though I’m a Minnesotan at heart, I needed to get out and see Rome, and there were things I learned about myself there (and in that sublime semester in Mexico) that I wouldn’t have gained anywhere else.

I’ll throw in one last cynical twist, though: frankly, I went overboard in finding myself, often to the detriment of my relationships with the people around me. Add in some excessive pride over doing things my own way, and it’s no wonder I came out of there without any sort of career path. The debate between career readiness and soul formation is a false dichotomy. A university can’t do either one alone, but there’s no reason it can’t contribute to some of both. Hence the Georgetown motto, ‘Utraque unum’—‘both one.’ The eagle on the Georgetown seal holds the world in one talon and a cross in the other, uniting faith and reason.

The people who best embodied this were the professors. They imparted wisdom both personal and practical, and also taught us in things that were not relevant to our immediate careers. For some Hoyas that meant courses with people with real-world experience, like Madeleine Albright or Chuck Hagel; for me, it meant finding the university’s best minds. My path involved the Classicist icon Fr. James Schall, rising stars like Fr. Matthew Carnes and Desha Girod, the incredible detachment of Eusebio Mujal-Leٚón, the badass Barbara Mujica, and Patrick Deneen, that old guard conservative who was the great defender of liberal education. They’re the enduring images of my undergraduate academic career. The best of their number were all authorities who commanded respect, even as they invited us to fumble about with our own two cents.

It’s also not coincidental that a couple of them were Jesuits; in fact, I think they were all Catholic. As tiresome as some of the university’s canards on faith became, that unending presence made Georgetown unique. I’m not Catholic, but I’ve directed all of my (puny) donations to date to Georgetown mission and ministry. That unique identity is worth cultivating, and is essential in keeping the university from becoming a factory of careerist automatons. When it comes to reining that in, schools rely on what they know best, and keep with a mission that survives the march of time. If you can’t stand being in the presence of Catholics, don’t go to a Catholic school. There should be diverse options among colleges, and that diversity should mean something, instead of it just being a cheap selling point.

Georgetown and its ilk are not for everyone, nor should they be. We don’t want a world where everyone is a hyper-driven Hoya; we need people with different temperaments. I’m at a big state school now, and while it’s too early for me to say much about it, they certainly have their strengths: size begets diversity and sub-cliques that aren’t possible at smaller schools. Liberal arts colleges have their place as well, for those who really want to go all-in on the soul formation and have the resources to make it work. Vocational training is also essential, and deserves higher repute; perhaps more than anything, higher ed in this country needs to revive traditions such as the apprenticeship, and give kids easier roads from school to career so that they don’t come out panicking about what comes next. Paradoxically, a more direct career focus could free people up to spend more time on those questions of the soul that usually get forgotten when we have to figure out how to put food on the table.

But for those of us who can’t live without that constant pursuit of greatness, whatever that might be, the Ivy League and its ilk are necessary. Somewhere underneath it all, there’s usually a desire for a completed soul, and that too can be the object of our pursuit of excellence—and just like careerism, it can go overboard. There is nowhere better than these schools to find that holistic place where the both become one. Maybe I’m a sellout in my acceptance of all this blind ambition, but if I am, I make no apologies. The trouble is not in the chase; it is in refusing to look back to see where we’ve come from.

A follow-up on my thoughts on Georgetown is available here.