Pile Surprise – A lousy summer magazine with one exception

I have been particularly relapse on tackling my pile of unread New Yorkers this year: a semester or more of magazines to be opened while I enjoyed my combo of retina+kindle+pocket+reeder.

Today was different, and I was stuck with a single New Yorker to read, the one published September 1, 2014. Browsing it was a curious experience. The features were particularly uninteresting, apparently all of them. It was really unusual. Did the magazine change so much this year? Did I change? Had I been spoiled by the wealth of choices within my Pocket list and recommendation sources?

Just to recap how dreary it seemed, these were the features of the edition: “Difficult girl – confessions from a worried childhood” (by Lena Dunham!); “The Troll Slayer – A classics professor fights misogyny online”; “The Man Without a Mask – A drag queen stars in Mexican wrestling” and “Friends of Israel – Is AIPAC losing influence?”. The Critic At Large piece, “Why We Walk” was also particularly self-indulgent and unfocused. Even the cinema review was weird, hyping the inessential sequel for “The Trip”, where Steve Coogan and the other guy eat, drive and imitate Michael Caine again.

WTF? Or is this just the malaise of the end of summer?

Anyway, the real irony was that there was one more review/essay, in the books section, by Nathan Heller about William Deresiewicz’s “Excellent Sheep”, and it was just remarkable. Suddenly this edition was far from useless.

It is not worth summarizing the article here. It so well written that it is best read in its entirety. The relevant point is how a review of a well-meaning but flawed book can become a transcendent journey through important ideas.

(Actually is quite often that a review of book(s) is the ideal starting point for a deep New Yorker essay)

A quote without context:

The groovy lore of college—the notion that it is a place to find yourself, follow your passions, learn to think in ways that benefit the world—dates to this era, too. Nisbet thought that these ideals were mostly feel-good bunk. Since when was it the university’s responsibility to solve all of society’s problems? he asked. And why should a professor rich in knowledge have to teach things that a callow nineteen-year-old considered “relevant” and “meaningful”? Academe ought to focus on the one thing that it actually did well: letting scholars teach what they knew. That teaching might nurture intellectual skills that the students could use in the real world, but how it did so was mysterious and, anyway, beside the point. People had a tendency to want too much from a college degree, Nisbet warned:(…)


The collision of old and new ideals is clearest when it comes to the gnarly socioeconomics of collegiate education. The professors at the old university were, with few exceptions, white, male, trained through direct lineage, and self-selected for an interest in the Western canon. The students at the élite schools were mostly patrician, also white and male, and, owing to these and other factors, not terribly anxious about their post-graduation circumstances. Deresiewicz is right that today’s college students are more risk-averse. That’s partly because there’s much more risk to be averse to. A Yalie of the Nick Carraway generation could afford to “stand outside the world for a few years,” as Deresiewicz puts it. It cost nothing: a Wall Street job awaited.

Yet one more, really:

Nor are its tensions new. Edward III, lauding the University of Oxford in 1355, singled out not only its scholarship but the way that it funnelled smart people into statecraft. Harvard’s foundational charter, from 1650, is largely a document about who is allowed to elicit “sundry gifts, legacies, lands, and revenues for the advancement of all good literature, arts, and sciences” from the pocketbooks of people around town—a project to which the university remains impressively committed. The awkward balance between mind and matter, academics and ambition, doesn’t pervert college’s native mission. From the earliest days of the institution, it has been the fragile nature of the thing itself.

And these are just samples, really. The concluding section is just masterful too.

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