The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Ask yourself whether you are happy and you cease to be so."...  ...John Stuart Mill.

Commentary of the Day - June 8, 2009:  A Fortunate Age - My Commencement Season Reading.  Guest commentary by Sanford Pinsker.

I'm not sorry that I missed this year's commencement day festivities at the college, Franklin & Marshal, where I worked for more years than I care to say.  I've been an emeritus professor for long enough that I wouldn't recognize a single graduating student's name or the face who belongs to it.  I am sorry that I missed Colin Powell's address to the graduates because I think of him as a classy fellow who deserved better than he got from the last administration.  But I'll live on, and if I really get curious, I can get a transcript of what he said.

I did manage to catch a good bit of what President Obama said at Notre Dame and felt that he turned a tough venue into an occasion to acknowledge deep cultural divides.  About the vexing mater of abortion, he was right to urge common cause where possible and to insist on civility even (especially?) when positions are intractable.  Curiously enough, I kept thinking about how one could substitute all manner of academic squabbles for the abortion issue and how President Obama's sage counsel would still hold true.

I even caught Bill Maher's mean-spirited remarks to the graduates on his HBO show "Real Time With Bill Maher."  Given the downturns in the economy, it didn't require a rocket scientist to know that telling students that the  mantra of the last few years -- "Want fries with that?" --no longer applies.  Why so?  Because McDonald's isn't hiring, nor is anybody else.  So, take hold of your diplomas and head to your parents' couch.  After all, the NBA finals are just around the corner.

What I did do, however, was spend a good many hours making my way through Joanna Smith Rakoff's 399 page debut novel, A Fortunate Age (Scribner's, 2009).  As the ancient Chinese curse would have it, "May you live in interesting times."  A Fortunate Age is set in the years between l999 and 2004, a perfect time to explore America in great cultural upheaval.  By focusing on a small group of Oberlin alumni, Rakoff means to write an ambitious work that combines social satire with social realism [using much the same format that Mary McCarthy did in her novel The Group about eight friends who graduated from Vassar in 1933.]

Most of Rakoff's characters are former English majors and as a former English professor, I can only take so much from characters who rail against cultural hegemony and who take an inordinate pleasure in "deconstructing" everything within eyeshot.  As Oberlin undergraduates, those elitist postures came with the territory, but six years after graduation, they fall flat.  The point is that nobody in Rakoff's "group" (meant as a echo to the group Mary McCarthy assembled in her 1963 novel) has  a clue, or the slightest hint of an intellectual or religious scaffold.

Granted, Oberlin is a first-rate liberal arts college, and it is hardly to blame for the spin Rakoff gives to her characters.  They are, after all, fictional; but, Rakoff did not invent them from wholly imagined cloth.  In much the same way that she is a meticulous chronicler of the chi-chi bars and high-end restaurants and a writer with an eye to what trend-setting people are wearing, Rakoff also has an ear for how certain people of her generation speak.  They love, absolutely love, the emphasis that italics add.  And she knows how to drop names (celebrities, television programs, cutting edge magazines) as a way of letting us know that these Oberlin grads are not about to reduplicate the dull, all too predictable lives of their parents.  Rather than settle in New Rochelle, they pony up their  trust funds and buy large, expensive lofts in Williamsburg.  These overly privileged Oberlin grads pretend to be poor but they don't fool those who find themselves priced out of the neighborhood -- and they don't fool us.

A Fortunate Age is a tough read, because so much that is wrong with higher education is starkly revealed in her indulgent characters.  True, there is enough evidence to know that they have taken courses in 19th and 20th century literature, and probably a few wide-ranging survey courses as well.  But one also suspects that all of these were filtered through the lens of ideology: feminism, Marxism, and deconstruction.  They know how to throw around the prefix "post" and how to have it make do as a weapon or sometimes as a shield.  Here, for example, is Emily Kaplan, an out-of-work actress who has heard every promise, suffered every disappointment, that the world of professional theater can dish out:

...she hadn't worried about it [getting turned down for role after role] at the time, because she had her play [her one success and last big hope] and soon enough she'd sign on with someone great, someone at ICM [talent agency] or whatever.  But, no, Sadie had been right.  Lil had been right.  Everyone had been right.  And now it was over. ...She had nothing.  She had never, not ever in the entirety of her life, wanted anything other than the theater.  Broadway.  The whole sad cliché of it.  But still, she wanted it, wanted it badly enough to waste her days, her expensive degree, her everything, answering phones for a soulless banker.

And here is Caitlin Green-Gold pushing back against the arguments in favor of breast feeding:

Actually, there's a lot of contention over that [i.e. the health benefits of breast feeding].  ...Because of toxins in breast milk, from plastics and pesticides and all that.  We have all these toxins stored up in our fat cells -- just sitting there, like forever -- and they’re released into out breast milk.  So, some people are saying that formula is actually better, in certain ways. . .

No doubt such a controversy exists outside the borders of Rakoff’s novel, but Caitlin betrays herself when she later calls NPR's position on the issue part of the "pseudo-liberal hegemony" and goes on to excoriate that "upper-middle-class post-feminist baby-worship" -- where’s like if we don’t spend every minute with our kids, if they're not attached to our tits twenty-four hours a day, we’re guilty of child abuse.  I mean, I totally get the cultural imperative behind it, but I just think it's bullshit.

Caitlin, I should point out, was apparently much the same way at Oberlin, where she made sure everybody in her English classes had the benefit of her strong opinions, and where she learned to see hegemonic conspiracies lurking behind every manicured bush.

My hunch is that readers over 40 will find this endless whining hard to take, and things only get worse as this bright group of (over) privileged Oberlin grads moves from unlikely marriages and fleeting affairs to predictable divorces.  They may know how to navigate their way to the chic spots in now-trendy Williamsburg, but not, I'm afraid, how to navigate their way through adult life.

A liberal education worth its salt ought to be made of sterner stuff.  But this is not the world Rakoff details.  Her characters are at once spoiled and shallow.  That most of them are former English majors is not the upbeat note I hoped to hear during this commencement season.  I always knew that reading great novels -- and even reading them deeply -- is not an ironclad guarantee that the result will be good persons.   My hunch, one that A Fortunate Age confirms, is that mis-education made the problem worse rather than better, and that the old saw about bad money driving out good remains, alas, all too true.

© 2009, Sanford Pinsker.
Sanford Pinsker is an emeritus professor at Franklin and Marshall College. He now lives in south Florida where he thinks about weighty issues on cloudy days.

The Irascible Professor comments: The IP hasn't read A Fortunate Age (though he did read the New York Times review of the book, which is almost as good as reading the Cliffs Notes), so he can't comment in detail on Rakoff's book.  However, he does have a question for Sanford.  Were the characters in Mary McCarthy's novel any less influenced by the politics of the day (which, in the depths of the Great Depression, were at least as intense as more recent ideological trends) than the characters in Rakoff's novel.  Was the education of those Vassar women really that much better than the education of the Oberlin graduates?  Or, is it just the case that the passage of time makes it seem so?


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© 2009 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.
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