All Points

Jacob and Esau

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By William Deresiewicz


 

I gave a speech at West Point a couple of years ago, as readers of this magazine may know. Before I got to the place, I expected it to look like an army post: canvas, dust, lots of Quonset huts and olive drab. In fact, it was gorgeous–acres of green on a bluff above the Hudson River, the whole valley a palette of autumn colors that late October week. But what struck me the most were the buildings–square, gray Gothic stone–not just because they looked so attractive, but because they reminded me, quite unexpectedly, of something very familiar.

I had come to West Point with a great deal of trepidation. I had been a Yale professor; how could I make myself understood to kids so very different from the ones I was used to dealing with–from everyone, quite frankly, I was used to dealing with? The two institutions, both highly elite, exist at opposite ends of the American spectrum. Yale is cerebral; West Point is martial. Yale is liberal; West Point is conservative–unofficially in each case, but no less unmistakably. Yale draws a disproportionate number of its students from the upper and upper-middle classes and the two coasts; the kids at West Point, it was safe to assume, come largely from the middle of the country and the income distribution. Yale is bluest blue, to use the language of our current cultural divide, West Point reddest red.

But then there were those buildings: neo-Gothic, just like Yale’s. West Point is fortress Gothic, all battlements and right angles; Yale is monastery Gothic, all courtyards and sinuous arches–two halves of the same idea. The institutions were founded about a hundred years apart, but the campuses, in their current form, were both constructed in the early 20th century. And that’s what made me realize how close the places really are. Today, the two elites they represent, the professional class and the officer class, could hardly see themselves as being farther apart. They don’t know each other; they don’t meet each other; they don’t even like to think about each other. But then–and it wasn’t so very long ago–they were parts of the same elite, the same family. Literally: one son might go to Yale, the other to West Point. It made perfect sense to me, all of a sudden, that the two campuses are secret sharers, separated twins, each implying the existence of the other, each the half the other now denies–the Jacob and Esau of American institutions.

William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.


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