Letters - Autumn 2008

Response to Our Summer Issue

By Our Readers | September 1, 2008


William Deresiewicz, in his essay “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” (Summer 2008), says that his prestigious education kept him from being able to communicate with people who aren’t just like him. My prestigious education, at Yale, taught me how to communicate.

Along with some of the amazing people I met in my theater group at Yale, I am starting a nonprofit, arts-education program. We are going to run after-school theater and creative-writing courses in low-income communities in Savannah, Georgia. It’s risky, it’s difficult, and I’m doing it only because I know I’ll love the work. I won’t get paid much, but I won’t feel like I’m “wasting” my expensive education, either. Despite all its problems with elitism, Yale encouraged me to get out into the world, mess up, try again, work hard, and do everything I can to be useful in the process. I’m grateful for that. And guess who contributed $10,000 to encourage us to go for this wacky endeavor? That’s right: Yale.

Catherine Killingsworth
Savannah, Georgia

The assertion that education at an elite uni­versity is to blame for Deresiewicz’s inability to converse with his plumber is preposterous! I was fortunate enough to attend an elite university (Stanford), and I take issue with a number of his statements. In particular, I deny that I was taught to think I am superior. What I did gain was a real self-confidence and a belief that I could accom­plish anything.

However, when not busy biting the hand that feeds him, the author showed some real aptitude for identifying societal trends, just as he did in his earlier article, “Love on Campus.” His observations on the changing role of friendship, and on the value of solitude, are very astute.

Kay Nawlicki
North Dighton, Massachusetts

Oh how true, William Deresiewicz! I taught a core collegiate liberal arts curriculum for 32 years for students who, by and large, should have been in trade schools. They were interested only in how quickly they could turn the skills and materials I taught them into cash. It was obvious there was no cash value in reading the Iliad or comparing architectural styles, so such courses were regarded as useless impositions to be gotten out of the way as soon in the college career as possible. Most of my students had to work to afford a university education, so they had plenty of contact with varied classes of people. But paying for some of their education led to a different kind of entitlement; they believed themselves to be entitled only to those studies that were on their career track. We had the same problem with prohibition of failure because we existed on student tuition. We admitted students who had no study skills or scholastic ambitions and then had to coddle them and graduate semiliterates who expected top jobs. I taught the “big questions”—how to live with integrity, how to die well. I could lure some of them into matters that touched their lives. When I created a course especially for business majors about how business has created much of American culture, it too was worth a couple of yawns. So even in the non-elite universities, the same characteristics apply. However, there is hope: I am teaching in a Lifelong Learning program where people are hungry for the very studies they dismissed as younger students. I have a packed house in a class about existentialism. Go figure!

Sharon Scholl
Atlantic Beach, Florida

As a Yale graduate who loves being a high school teacher, I find the assertions in Deresiewicz’s essay surprising and elitist. He writes about how his education made him incapable of communication with the common folk, how his education gave him a false sense of self-worth, how his education failed him—he writes as though he were a passive receptacle rather than a learning human being. Part of what a man is capable of learning hinges upon what he brings with him into the classroom. Attend­ing public high school exposed me to a variety of people and personalities, but so did volunteering at a local hospital and later at a soup kitchen in New Haven. Of my friends from Yale, one is pursuing a career as a social worker in New York City public schools, one is working for a textbook company, one is a (gasp) stay-at-home mother, one works for a judge. None of us would have trouble talking with a plumber. All of us were passionate about ideas and life; we sought meaning rather than money. The money has sufficed, and our lives are rich in other ways. Most of us left Yale and pursued our separate visions of “the good life.”

Cynthia S. Yanik
Tulsa, Oklahoma

Throughout his essay, Deresiewicz bemoans what Yale has to offer, but offers no real constructive criticism, even after teaching there for a decade. The closest he comes is vaguely calling upon Yale to “ask the big ques­tions.” Since it is absolutely not the university’s place to answer those big questions but to provide the atmosphere for students to explore them, it is hard to find real value in that suggestion.

There is an undercurrent in his article that suggests this piece is not really about the “elite” American higher education system, but rather about American society itself—a society it seems that Deresiewicz believes to be inherently unjust and bereft of meaning, or at least of people who are capable of finding real meaning. It is hard to imagine a more elitist stance than that.

Max Eden
New Haven, Connecticut

Deresiewicz’s essay argues that elite univer­sities have lost their way and now contentedly train leaders rather than thinkers. But universities, even elite ones, merely reflect the values of our society. As financial support for higher education declines and costs increase, families become consumers who see education as a personal investment. Add to this the way that helicopter parenting extends adolescence, and it is no surprise that universities struggle to engage students with ideas that have no immediate return. If we are going to change the way that education is viewed, it is necessary to once again understand that an educated citizenry is a long-term public good.

Edwin Battistella
Ashland, Oregon

I must take issue with a remark in Deresiewicz’s essay. “As two dozen years at Yale and Columbia have shown me,” the author writes, “elite colleges relentlessly encourage their students to flatter themselves for being there.”

This is a dreadful slander on Columbia, which taught me modesty, perseverance, and good penmanship. What is more, nine years at Columbia, Harvard, and universities in Europe have shown me that the Japanese are right: the crucial development of the mind occurs by the age of three. Those who suffer from “Ivy retardation,” “dumbness,” difficulty interacting with plumbers, or other maladies that Deresiewicz describes, if they wish to assign blame, must look to themselves, their parents, or Yale. I received an expensive education, yes. But the schools I attended have nothing to do with my strengths or weaknesses, the quality of my conversation or table manners, or the fact that I grow handsomer with every year.

Benjamin Letzler
Boston, Massachusetts


I would like to add a few qualifiers to Charles Johnson’s timely essay, “The End of the Black American Narrative,” in the Summer 2008 issue.

Mainstream history professors, students of the civil rights movement, and historians of enslavement shifted decades ago from the “victimization narrative” described by Johnson. In fact, so far is the distance historians have traveled along this line that it calls into question Johnson’s basic premise that it is time for a new black narrative. We’ve had a “new” black narrative for at least 20 years, and this narrative does not have victimization as its climax, at least not the melodramatic victimization that Johnson decries.

One need only pick up Eugene Genovese’s classic work on enslaved African Americans, Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made, to find a historian whose goal is to capture the humanity of the slaves, not to catalog the assaults against them. Roll Jordan Roll, published in 1974, won acclaim from historians across the political spectrum, black and white. Or consider Taylor Branch’s poignant trilogy, America in the King Years, on Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement. Branch displays a great interest in the conditions in which African Americans found themselves in the middle of the 20th century. And certainly victimization is part of that story. But it takes a reader little effort to see that Branch’s great interest is King and the movement’s response to victimization. Branch wants to chronicle the courageous and heartbreaking quest, in many communities, through widely varying means and methods, to challenge this long-standing victimization.

Finally, I think Johnson is simply wrong when he says the new and updated narratives of African Americans have to focus on individuals. Does Johnson believe that the study of Jewish Americans should exclude reference to Jewish history, Jewish culture, assimilation, the backdrop of the shifting politics of gentiles? Does he think narratives about the Civil War can focus only on individuals? This line of reasoning is plainly wrong. It is wrong for collective narratives of peoples and nations. But it is also wrong as it applies to individuals and their stories. Sometimes we can only really “see” the individual when we place him against the backdrop of the forces pressing in on him and defining his moment in history.

Johnson is correct that we need to update the African-American narrative. We can best start with the civil rights movement, a success story in which black people led, marched, challenged, strategized, and displayed enormous courage, determination, grace, firmness, and forgiveness.

What we need is a narrative that ties together these achievements with the challenges of the modern age, such as black academic achievement, the general quest for excellence and joy, family cohesion, wealth creation, violence in inner cities, and yes, the challenge of eradicating the racism, alternately malicious and indifferent, that still poisons our body politic. This racism, perhaps best described as a racism of indifference and neglect, harms individuals as well as communities. Spend only a few minutes in any inner-city African-American community to understand how true this is.

Robert Anthony Watts
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

I enjoyed very much reading Charles Johnson’s perceptive and prescient essay, but I was surprised by his apparent reversal of widely accepted statistics on the mortality of both the human cargo and the miserable sailors who were caught up in the Atlantic slave trade. It was not a survival rate of 20 percent among these unfortunate men and women, but a mortality rate of roughly 20 percent that characterized this awful traffic. This is bad enough, isn’t it?

An 80 percent mortality rate among human cargos and the ships’ crews would likely have been economically, if not psychologically, unsustainable—at least I’d like to think so.

James E. Crisp
Raleigh, North Carolina

In seeking a factual basis for his claim for the persistence of a single “black American narrative of pervasive victimization,” Johnson errs in his telling of the Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins story. Henry Louis Gates Jr. welcomed the discovery of both Holly Jackson’s and Katherine Flynn’s scholarship and called to congratulate them both. Indeed, Gates commissioned the work on Kelley’s racial and biographical identity, was pleased that these scholars had at long last set the record straight, lauded it in the press, and published it in his co-edited volume African American National Biography. While Johnson may be tickled to remove one bit of “rubbish” from 40 volumes of scholarship, Gates, to continue Locke’s metaphor, is the acknowledged “master-builder” in the commonwealth of African-American studies.

Hollis Robbins
Baltimore, Maryland

Note: Hollis Robbins co-edited with Henry Louis Gates Jr. In Search of Hannah Crafts: Essays on the Bondswoman’s Narrative.

When I was discussing Johnson’s essay with a 70-year-old friend who grew up white and poor in Tennessee, she said, “No, the black American narrative is not over.” Then she reminded me that during her childhood her blue-collar father had been able to get a job in a union shop. No African-American blue-collar father could get into a union shop in those days. Because of those union wages, my friend’s father could send his children to college, and consequently his white family was able to move out of poverty in one generation while African-American families remained a minimum of one generation behind. This aspect of the black American narrative needs to remain in the story until better economic equality has been achieved.

Carol Hoge
Lincoln, California

Johnson’s essay questioning the victimization story of African Americans was provocative and timely. On the one hand, African Americans have been oppressed through enslavement, segregation, and discrimination. On the other hand, with the end of enslavement and segregation has come opportunity to lead major corporations, or to become a billionaire, or possibly to become president of the United States. The ratio of oppression to opportunity has shifted toward opportunity, although the inner-city traps of inferior education, incarceration, and housing discrimination are systemic.

When I shared the article with a former student, she pointed out that white America also needs a new story that permits the full presence of the African-American story. Let’s not forget that the economic freedom from Britain in 1776 was largely made possible by the enslavement of African Americans, that the compromises that created the U.S. Constitution protected enslavement, and that the U.S. Capitol was built by slaves.

Art Haywood
Wyncote, Pennsylvania

The new story that Johnson would like to see should stress the often overlooked fact that all of us soi-disant Homo sapiens are differentially mutated descendants of primitive African hominids. Accordingly, there is no basic genetic difference between the pale-skinned Harvard professor and the Aleut capable of subsisting on a diet of animal blubber and the few berries and fruits he or she can find during the short subarctic growing season.

Horace Gaims
Los Angeles, California

I was completely engaged by Johnson’s essay and reminded of a moment in Detroit in the early 1970s. Coleman Young, Detroit’s first black mayor, was showing his city to a group of white, senior executives who were about to join Detroit-based corporations. As part of their tour, the white managers traveled to an inner-city school and heard Young recite for the children “the black American group narrative” that Johnson discusses. At the end, the white execs expressed distress and wondered why a black leader would engender hatred in young people by retelling the story of slavery and of whites’ inhumanity to nonwhites. “Slavery is over,” they said.

Aides to the mayor asked if I, as a white reporter familiar with the mayor’s beliefs and record, would put Young’s narrative in context. I found myself telling the visitors about Mayor Young’s demonstrated devotion to a multiracial society where whites and blacks would share power. Then, since I am a Jew, I also told the classic Jewish narrative—the story of Passover. I explained that all Jews are commanded by God to tell the story of our slavery in Egypt, even though our enslavement ended more than 3,000 years ago and not a mere century and a half.

“We tell the story,” I explained, “not to engender hatred of non-Jews, but to make certain we never stand by silently and allow anyone, including ourselves, to be enslaved as we were.”

Some narratives should never end. But they also should never be allowed to stand unedited and unaugmented for too long. All vivid nonfiction needs the immediacy of present truth to keep it alive. The classic black American narrative is one story that has eternal value, because the past is necessary to make sense of the present and the future. We continue to need the old narrative as context for the current, complex, and ever-changing story of African Americans.

Kirk Cheyfitz
New York, New York

Johnson’s argument indeed gives us reason to rethink how we construct narratives of identity in the 21st century. Nevertheless, the essay contains an epistemological trap that creators of nonfiction narratives ought to avoid: “leaving behind the painful history of slavery and its consequences” would be tantamount to replacing one kind of myopia with another. A person who remembers only the future is doomed.

Jerry W. Ward Jr.
New Orleans, Louisiana

Charles Johnson replies: As a writer who has published a great deal of material about the history of slavery and segregation, I obviously believe deeply in knowing the black Ameri­can past. My position is that it is essential for us to know the past; we must not be blind to the history of victimization, but neither should we be bound by it.


It was great fun reading Richard Locke’s “Grand Horse Opera” in the Summer issue and remembering each movie, larger than life, when it came out. He may be right that Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven is still the most recent great Western, but I wish he could have written about Lonesome Dove, according to my lights, the best thing ever put on film. Yes, I realize that it’s not a movie, but a six-hour-long television mini-series. How would he have explained Larry McMurtry’s miraculous writing, or the even more miraculous acting of Robert Duvall, Tommy Lee Jones, Diane Lane, Angelica Huston, and everyone else? It will be a very long time before anyone equals that Western.

Egon H. E. Lass
Milwaukee, Wisconsin


We regret an editing error in Willard Spiegelman’s essay “Buoyancy” (Summer 2008). In the first complete sentence on page 100, the sentence should have read: “But there aren’t many of them before Byron, aside from Marlowe, who described Leander being tickled and fondled lubriciously by Neptune, who swims underneath him in the sea.”


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