Chasing Rings

No, this post isn’t about the practice of athletes joining certain teams that increase their odds of winning championships. Instead, it stems from a C.S. Lewis lecture that has new life thanks to the efforts of a few luminaries in the American semi-conservative intelligentsia. David Brooks writes about it here, and Rod Dreher has a couple of blog posts on it; both drew their thoughts from Alan Jacobs’ modestly titled new bookHow to Think.

Lewis’s lecture to some Cambridge students in 1944 (read the whole thing) was an education on the banality of evil long before Hannah Arendt minted the phrase. His point was that most of the bad decisions made by the talented, well-reared Cambridge students before him would not be out of sheer malice or evil. Instead, it would come out of an earnest desire to prove oneself in certain circles, to move ever upward into vaunted inner rings. Whether those rings involve high school cliques or local political factions or artist collectives or something akin to high society, they are the unofficial circles that people use to measure their status. Exclusion from inner rings leads to alienation; entering them leads only to momentary satisfaction. Per Lewis, it’s impossible to make it.

The hunger for the inner ring, for acceptance and the comfort of doing the same things as others, drives so many decisions in life. This is especially pervasive in a society that likes to think it is a meritocracy: all people who prove their worth in some form or another are worthy of admission into inner rings, with no inherent barriers based on birth or status. When anything is (allegedly) possible, there are rings galore that we might want to enter. It is also probably more likely to afflict people who spend much of their time on quests for knowledge, and who might like that other people will pay attention to the things they say or write.

Lewis has some ideas for how to resist the siren call of the inner ring. He tells the Cambridge students that they should aim to be “sound craftsmen” who do what they need to do in their work not to climb the ladder, but to be excellent in the task before them, and so earn the respect of other craftspeople who do things right. He counsels them to spend time with people one likes so that rings emerge naturally, without any of the self-conscious exclusion of the inner ring. The guilty truth is that, for many of these Cambridge students, those people are generally going to be people who are fairly intelligent and ambitious themselves. But those traits are not prerequisites, but instead byproducts that lead us to take certain leaps and be in the same place at the same time. And rather than pulling up the ladder to anyone else who might join, this sort of circle is always open to new entrants.

Another trait that will keep a circle open is the ability to level of its members to level with themselves, both individually and with regard to the group as a whole. Dreher is at his best in posts such as this one on the inner ring, in which his writing unfolds in a sprawling fit of self-reflection that exactingly examines his own participation in certain rings. I find that I’m willing to forgive a lot of disagreements with, or errors in the lives of, certain people if they are able to articulate a level of honest, raw self-reflection and criticism. That sincerity speaks more volumes about their character as political actors (using that term broadly) than the stances they take. I want the people in my own closest circles to be capable of that sort of reflection, so that we all thereby do all we can to avoid the risk of falling into closed inner rings.

While I’d like to think I’ve generally resisted the need to belong to certain circles in the way Dreher had it, I do certainly recognize that desire in many phases of my life. Lewis also correctly notes that such resistance can be the source of its own form of conceit, and here I try to stay especially aware of any self-righteousness over my decision not to pursue certain career choices, many of which stemmed from an evolving but meticulous view on how to live a good life. Inner rings can be just as restricting in a corner of northern Minnesota, too, and while I haven’t found any that are too frustrating in one year back here, I also have a sense for how easily they could appear or throw things off. Roots are important, but for a tree to grow upward, it must grow outward, adding a new ring each year. It may not always be a speedy growth, but it can’t ever stop.

My Life Over the Past Year in Two Articles

Two articles for a rainy Wednesday in Duluth:

First, a reflection on the experience of being a writer from Rod Dreher at The American Conservative. (Liberal readers, don’t be turned off by the name of that publication: TAC is the anti-Fox News, founded in opposition to the Iraq War, and has an eclectic bunch of writers who are willing to challenge just about any presupposition, conservative or liberal.) It sums up a lot of the things I have learned in my faltering efforts to write novels over the past few years, though I believe I’ve always been detached enough to avoid falling into the worst traps that can ensnare wannabe writers. (I’m careful not to make excessive drinking a crutch for my writing, and I’m readily aware, and more or less at peace knowing, that my odds of making a living off of writing are incredibly low.) But if you want to know why people write, and why those writers often act the way they do, this is an excellent piece.

Second, also via Dreher, is an article that sums up a lot of the things I’ve been trying to say in recent posts about the “art of community.” The author emphasizes the need to ground oneself, narrow in, and choose something instead of an eternal life in the fascinating but rootless realm of diversity and “keeping options open.” We need both for a balanced life, but too often, people my age (especially college-educated and ambitious ones) seem to fear making commitments, lest doing so cut them off from some unseen future opportunity. I’m well-aware of the importance of living in community, yet I still have an awful lot of work to do on this front. At times, I’ve been an “in-betweener” par excellence, and in a certain way I’m proud of that. That is a fairly lonely existence, however, and my desire for this sort of community is the reason I want to make Duluth work for me, and even if I end up somewhere else, I’ll try to do many of the same things. Recognizing that is certainly one reason why writing hasn’t consumed me.

If you would have told me five years ago that I’d be finding quality articles that spoke to me on something named “The American Conservative,” I would have wondered what you were smoking, or what my future self would be smoking. The world is a strange place.

Publick Skoolz Rule

The juiciest piece in political blog-land today was an article with the delicious title “If You Send Your Kid to a Private School, You Are a Bad Person” by Allison Benedikt on Slate. I am not a regular reader of Slate, but the provocative piece set off any number of Facebook friends and many conservative commentators, who responded with equally delicious titles of their own, such as “Liberal Cites Virtues of Crappy Education.” So, the article was a smashing success: it got a lot of people to read it and comment on it, and the good folks at Slate are probably thrilled, no matter what they think of the argument. But sometimes it takes a healthy dose of hyperbole to get a good debate going, so here we go.

First off, it’s worth noting that the author’s intended audience is probably very liberal: she probably knows she’s only going to rile conservatives. Her true targets here are the liberals who extol the virtues of funding public education but bundle their own children off to private or otherwise exclusive schools that isolate said children from the “regular” people whom they claim to want to help. There is a certain amount of hypocrisy in that stance, though it’s all relative: I may be all for public schools, but after a college course that had me doing work in a Washington, D.C. public high school, I now know there are schools that I could never send my children to in good conscience. Sorry, America: my loyalty to people I love will forever trump any cause of national greatness or abstract devotion to the human race. Judging by the response of even many ardent liberals to the column, most people out there agree, even if they don’t realize it.

And, of course, there are plenty of valid reasons to choose private schools that this article casually tosses aside. A religious bent is an obvious one, and people who respect for the freedom of worship shouldn’t have any qualms with religious schools. Some private schools offer programs or activities that just don’t exist in the local public schools, or are absurdly hard to get into—for example, a varsity basketball roster at a 3,000-student high school—and it makes complete sense for families to seek out such schools. (Unless, of course, the private schools start “stealing” the top-end athletes: then they’re the root of all evil.) I could trail on here, but the reasons are clear enough. I also admire the commitment of many people who choose to homeschool; naturally, there will be some parents who teach their kids kooky things or try to isolate them so much that they fail to socialize with their peers when eventually released out into the world, but the horror stories are overblown. Most of these people belong to cultures that are not entirely comfortable with mainstream American culture, and in most cases, I respect that diversity.

A large number of families, however, will simply say they want “what’s best” for their kids, and choose private schools for perceived academic advantages. To some extent these advantages are due to self-selection, but there are a number of private schools out there with more demanding academic programs, especially when measured against the weaker public schools out there. Somewhere, though, there is a point of diminishing returns. For example, the other night, I was eavesdropping on a conversation between two fathers of middle school kids. One of them said he had “heard nothing but good things” about the local public high school, but if a proposed charter school opens, that will immediately become his first choice for his daughter. Um, okay. This gets even more head-scratching when the discussion switches over to private schools, where tuition costs can go exorbitantly high. It’s not something I resent, but it does make me stop and wonder what exactly these parents are chasing. Having been through the whole rat race fairly recently, I’d counsel a series of deep breaths. A few more AP classes or even a slightly more prestigious college aren’t going to change one’s life prospects. Instead, it’s a matter of making the most of where one finds oneself, instead of subjecting oneself to the constant anxiety of needing to be the absolute best. There is such a thing as “good enough,” and so long as the kid in question has involved parents and is otherwise well-adjusted, most public schools not in economically destitute areas do the job.

Perhaps the most compelling arguments for alternative paths are the kids on both extremes of the academic achievement ladder. Special needs kids by definition need extra attention, and if the public schools can’t give that, those kids need to get out. (A huge part of Washington, D.C.’s education budget goes to paying private school tuition for such students who find woefully inadequate facilities in DCPS.) There are also some students who struggle in public schools for whatever reason and need a change in scenery or a new group of friends, though private schools are no guaranteed fix. (I am always amused by people who rant about the alleged depravity of public schools, as if one would not find sex, drugs, or alcohol at private schools. For that matter, it’s also interesting that both Benedikt and the Rod Dreher rebuttal seem to assume that deeply intellectual learning and less refined “educational experiences” are somehow mutually exclusive; while this may be true for some, it is certainly not true for all.)

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the highest achievers. These are the kids who are not always challenged by normal public school pedagogy, and this bit of art from the Walker Art Center pithily sums up the dangers if they aren’t given an alternative. If you can forgive my lack of modesty, allow me to attest to this; there were certainly some moments in my public school education (mostly in the earliest grades) when I was bored and/or isolated because I learned things faster than my peers. This wasn’t at all damaging in the long run; I never got any crap from my classmates for it, and young me was all too proud of myself. But I can easily see how a little bit more of that sensation, or a somewhat less accommodating group of peers, could quickly lead smart students to want out. To that end, I’m a big proponent of tracking in public schools, as it groups kids in with peers of similar ability, sparing teachers the headaches of dealing with students of wildly different aptitudes for a particular subject.

Still, if possible, I think it’s good to keep these students in the same building as those for whom things don’t come so easily. Public schools at their best really can build community in a way that exclusive schools cannot, and lead to greater understanding of those people with whom we must share the planet. For example, due to a series of scheduling conflicts, I was forced to take “regular” government as a senior in high school, instead of the high-end version. I learned very little that I didn’t already know in that class, but I did get quite the civics lesson, as I found myself serving as a de facto T.A. to some of my classmates, trying to find ways to explain Constitution to them, and present my political views in a way that wasn’t over-intellectualized. I got to work with a class of kids I wouldn’t have seen at a private school, and the things I learned about them were probably more valuable than cramming the details of a few more Supreme Court cases into my head.

This, in far less provocative language, is the a valuable point that can be rescued from the Benedikt essay: there can be real upsides to going to school with people from different backgrounds. However, one really has to be open to those upsides going in: I remember a few other peers left in the same scheduling conundrum who were just bitter about the whole experience from start to finish. Throwing a bunch of people in a room together will not make them understand each other. It takes a little more work than that, and shutting down private schools isn’t going to do that work. Looking back on those culture shock experiences later in life, perhaps laughing at them, and admitting they were educational in some respect—that’s one thing. Telling an unwilling kid that “this will be good for you!” is quite another. One-size-fits-all approaches to education don’t work. Instead, I’d simply counsel a little less panic when it comes to question of school choice, and the flexibility and wherewithal to take something away from it all when it doesn’t live up to the ideal. With a few obvious exceptions, things will probably turn out alright anyway. And for people who can’t quite accept that, or have particular needs, there are, thankfully, other options.

In Praise of Hypocrisy

Earlier this week, I read (via Rod Dreher at TAC) a sprawling, absorbing piece entitled “No Self-Mockery, Please, We’re American” by British professor Terry Eagleton. Eagleton is an interesting figure; he is generally known as a Marxist, but has also garnered attention for trashing Richard Dawkins, and in this piece he speaks highly of a rather aristocratic mindset. He isn’t easy to pin down, and to the casual observer, he may seem like a walking contradiction. As the essay shows, Eagleton is undoubtedly proud of this fact.

This piece, as any reader will notice, uses some broad-brush generalizations—the sort of thing that often gets called “pseudo social science,” and not without reason. The article speaks to general senses, not to anything with much empirical backing, and it’s very easy to find counterexamples or debate its points in some absurdly intellectual cloud. In fact, I think the generalizations about Americans and British and Europeans can distract from the more profound message here, even though I sense that many of his insights have some grounding in truth. (The bits about American students compared to those of other countries in particular seem to line up exactly with my observations during a semester abroad.) Some readers will doubtless be offended by the generalizations in this piece, and will ignore the author’s witticisms as they harp on his bias against or ignorance of certain groups or people. Eagleton would most likely laugh at these people and say they prove his point, and I appreciate his plug for irony in the piece. But irony certainly has its limits; when writers go too far down into that realm, they risk burying the actual value of their argument.

Moreover, Eagleton’s observations are not entirely new; he cites Henry James extensively, and Octavio Paz nails the same points on Puritanism’s effects on WASP/American “elite” culture in the 1992 interview with Sergio Marras that I referenced on here a few weeks ago. But that isn’t really the point here. As with Paz, Hannah Arendt, and some of the other brilliant minds whom I think are often misunderstood or marginalized, the greatest value in Eagleton’s piece is not in its attempt to define things such as an “American” mindset. It is, instead, the keenness of insight that leads to the conclusion. There can be glimmers of wisdom everywhere, even if the ultimate point isn’t entirely convincing.

So, with that mindset, here are some of my favorite nuggets from the essay:

[T]he familiar American insistence [is] that what matters about a person is what is inside. It is a claim that sits oddly with a society obsessed with self-presentation. There is no room here for what Lenin called the reality of appearances, no appreciation of just how profound surfaces can be, no rejoicing in forms, masks, and signifiers for their own sake.

In The American Scene, James writes of the country’s disastrous disregard for appearances. For the Calvinist, a delight in anything for its own sake is sinful. Pleasure must be instrumental to some more worthy goal, such as procreation, rather as play on children’s television in America must be tied to some grimly didactic purpose. It can rarely be an end in itself. The fact that there is no social reality without its admixture of artifice, that truth works in terms of masks and conventions, is fatally overlooked.

Throughout my childhood, it was beaten into my brain (not by any one person or group of people in particular, and mostly just within my own mind) that what was inside was all that mattered. And, to be sure, there are a lot of people who take presentation too far and fixate only on the superficial. But presentation does matter, and trying to pretend that it didn’t led to feelings of guilt and shame that probably didn’t do me any good. This so-called puritan mindset can be draining, even when it does have a sensible point behind it. Perhaps even more importantly, there is an interplay between what is on the surface and what lies beneath, and neither one quite makes sense without the other. Puritanism, while admirable in its clarity, oversimplifies.

Now, contrast that puritan mindset with the vision of the English gentleman here:

For a certain kind of English patrician, by contrast, irony is less a figure of speech than a way of life. As a highly Europeanized American observes in James’s The Europeans, “I don’t think it’s what one does or doesn’t do that promotes enjoyment. … It is the general way of looking at life.” The gentleman’s amused, ironic outlook on human existence is a way of engaging with the world while also keeping it languidly at arm’s length. It suggests an awareness of different possibilities, one beyond the reach of those who must immerse themselves in the actual in order to survive.

The aristocrat can savor a variety of viewpoints because none of them is likely to undermine his own. This is because he has no viewpoint of his own. Opinions are for the plebes. To have a point of view is to be as uncouth and one-sided as a militant trade unionist. It would be a threat to one’s sang-froid and thus to one’s sovereignty. To find the cosmos mildly entertaining has always been a sign of power in Britain. It is the political reality behind Oxford and Cambridge wit. Seriousness is for scientists and shopkeepers.

I like this passage because it sums up much about my way of looking at the world. Obviously, I do have opinions, just as the British aristocrats did and do. But, largely because I know there’s a lot that I don’t know, I don’t like to put those opinions front and center, unless they come after a lot of careful thinking—and even then, they’ll probably be qualified with any number of asterisks. I’d rather just observe it all, be amused by it, and offer the occasional sage point where I can.

The problem here is that there is an inherent, unapologetic elitism in that attitude. Still, I think this mindset can be rescued from its aristocratic trappings and have plenty of use for us moderns. Sure, there is a conscious rejection of militant opinions, but it isn’t something haughty or based off of resentment for those people—on the contrary, it merely involves having the self-assurance to be able to laugh at them (and oneself, too!) because it recognizes that life can’t be distilled down to a narrow political screed. It is also actually quite tolerant, because the gut reaction is never “you’re wrong,” but instead “maybe, but it’s probably more complicated; let’s dig a little deeper.” And unlike some theories that recognize the world’s complexity, it doesn’t run away from that, or despair; it laughs at everything and finds a way to enjoy itself.

It’s not flawless, certainly—being able to enjoy things from this distance is something of a luxury, and there are almost certainly some things that do deserve an immediate, serious response. It also poses some obstacles for people who, in addition to musing ironically about world affairs, also need to make themselves a living—quite possibly in one of those frowned-upon “professional” fields. But I think the two can be reconciled reasonably well, and that this worldview could use a lot more adherents.

Now, to the crux of the piece:

The problem is that consumer values in the States have not simply taken over from productive ones. For one thing, the consumer industry itself needs to be produced. For another thing, puritan values are far too robust to yield to strip joints without a struggle. They continue to flourish side by side with liberal and consumerist ones, which is what makes the United States such a chronically schizoid culture…

The centered, repressive, self-disciplined ego of production and puritan values is at war with the decentered, liberated, consumerist self. The two cultures can negotiate compromises from time to time, but there is no possibility of a perpetual peace between them. In some ways, their respective inhabitants are as alien to each other as Borneans and Berliners. No wonder the politicians keep loudly proclaiming that there is only one America.

These two mindsets may be at war, but I think they are more interrelated than Eagleton suggests here; they share a common ancestry that Borneans and Berliners do not. A better comparison might be the Civil War era American North and South, which were bitterly opposed and often unable to communicate to the point that they nearly tore apart, but still were faces of one nation. After a lot of bloodshed they stuck together, but that doesn’t erase all that old enmity, and I suspect that being torn between a rigid “productive” morality and liberal consumerism is at the root of many a person’s malaise. To some extent that is probably just human nature, and we have to live with it. Human nature is contradictory; “hypocritical,” according to Paz, and it only makes sense that the earnestness Eagleton associates with Americans would bring out that hypocrisy. We are simply honest about our competing desires, even if we don’t recognize it.

Now that the hypocrisy is out in the open, I doubt it’s going anywhere—much as it may pain our puritan moralists, consumerism taps into a long-repressed part of the human psyche that would be near impossible to shove back into a box, yet I also don’t think it is strong enough (yet) to alter human nature and take down our desire to live by a moral code. The hypocrisy is not necessarily a bad thing, so long as we recognize it for what it is. Recognizing the contradictory forces at play opens us up to the value of looking at things through different lenses. As exhausting or repressive as puritanism may be, Paz points out that the examinations of conscience that come out of it can be superb. While it might not have the most robust philosophical arguments behind it, I do enjoy a good dose of hedonism from time to time, and am skeptical of the incessant moral jeremiads we hear every day. The more reflective, ironic stance praised by Eagleton is a much-needed antidote to the more prevalent puritan and consumerist alternatives, and is well-positioned to embrace and work with our hypocrisy. None of these views alone can guide a person to a good life, but holding them (and others not mentioned here) in mind can contribute to a much richer understanding. And, given its smaller profile when compared to the other two lenses, Eagleton is quite right to plug the ironic mood.