Posts Tagged ‘Chris Hughes’

Higher ed: “we’ve reduced what it means to be human to market terms, to getting and spending.”

Thursday, January 8th, 2015

sheepI wrote some weeks ago about the demise of The New Republic, our culture of “juvenescence,” and the difficulty of faking cultural heft. At least William Deresiewicz is on the same wave-length. Kind of. In case you missed it, the aptly named Michael Schulson has recently published a Salon Q&A with Deresiewicz – he indirectly called Chris Hughes, the youngster whose mismanagement trashed the century-old institution, an “entitled little shit,” so naturally that phrase made it into the headline. Deresiewicz was a contributing editor to the ill-fated magazine, and says that Hughes missed the point: that The New Republic has never made money. “The Nation loses money now, Harper’s loses money now, and they’ve been reliant on benevolent plutocrats who recognize that there are more important things than the market and are willing to run them not as profit-making institutions but as institutions that have value for other reasons.”

But the real subject of the interview is his new book called Excellent Sheep, which discusses how our best universities have succumbed to the marketplace, and what it’s done to kids. (He wrote a controversial article about the topic, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” in the July issue of The New Republic here.) A couple excerpts from the interview:

It’s been a rough year for higher education, with athletic and sexual assault scandals at UNC, Florida State, and, of course, the University of Virginia. Does your takedown of elite colleges apply, more broadly, to the culture of higher education in the United States?

Yes and no. I certainly think a lot of what I’m saying applies beyond selective colleges. This is a more general trend in the way we understand education around the world, which is that we understand it in purely practical market-oriented terms. My feeling is that this reflects a wider understanding of what life and society are for. We’ve basically reduced what it means to be human to market terms, to getting and spending. So education, which is about preparing you to be human, has also been reduced to those terms.

The specific things you’re talking about, I don’t know that they’re really directly connected to what I’m talking about. They are connected in this sense: because colleges for several decades have been forced by specific changes in government policy to treat their students as customers, schools have focused on everything except instruction in core liberal arts fields. That also includes a lot of spending on athletics, and on the kind of culture that athletics and fraternity life create. …


Can’t buy heft.

I’m thinking of Joshua Rothman’s response to your book, over at The New Yorker. He argues that the problem isn’t with higher education, but with a contemporary world that pushes us to live accelerated, anxious, market-oriented lives. In Rothman’s view, there’s a nostalgia for the premodern in “Excellent Sheep.”

If you can point to a single passage in the book that expresses that kind of nostalgia I’d be very interested to see it. I don’t feel it and I don’t say it.

The notion of higher education as involving not only vocational preparation and intellectual development, but something that used to be called character or moral development, has been foundational to American higher education from the beginning. I’m not looking back nostalgically at some golden age; what I’m pointing out is that there has always been this higher idea in higher education, and it’s only in the last 40 years that we’ve lost it.

Modernity created a new idea about what it means to be young. To be young [in modernity] is to step outside of your own life. It’s a phase between childhood and adult life where you get to look at the world and think about it and question it and decide what you want the world to look like. This was, in many ways, the engine of revolutionary energy during modernity for about 200 years. When college became the norm, at in least certain circles, that notion of youth as the time where you step outside of the world and you become a little rebellious and critical and you think about what you want the world to look like, that was also central to college. Rothman wants to talk about modernity, but he really didn’t talk about the modern idea of youth, which is not about acceleration. It’s about dissent.

I’m talking about the switch from modernity to postmodernity. Postmodernity, as I’m understanding it, is the time of neoliberalism or Reaganomics or market fundamentalism, where the only thing that matters about you is your function in the marketplace, your ability to make money and spend it. It’s postmodernity that is destroying the modern concept of youth, and creating a new concept of youth where you go to college not to step outside the world and question it but simply to prepare yourself for the kinds of acceleration that Rothman talks about as belonging to adult life. …


You don’t feel like MOOCs can feed thinkers and intellectual culture?

I think they have a role to play, but at a very much lower intellectual level. Listen, real learning happens dialectically, right? Where did you go to college?


You went to Yale, and you probably took lots of seminars where you had really great discussions and lots of interactions with fellow students and teachers. That’s where education happens; it doesn’t happen by learning how to program computer code online. It’s great that people can do that, but that’s not the same thing. That’s a technical education.

Read the whole thing here.

He broke shit.

Saturday, December 6th, 2014

The 31-year-old owner of TNR

He wanted to “break shit.”

And so he did. Now everyone knows what Guy Vidra meant when he referred to himself as a “wartime CEO” at The New Republic and what, exactly, he wanted to break:  The New Republic is not likely to recover from the sacking of top editor Franklin Foer and literary editor Leon Wiesieltier, followed within hours by the resignations of Ryan Lizza, Adam Kirsch, Julia Ioffe, and six more of the dozen editors, with contributing editors Anne Applebaum, Paul Berman, , Helen Vendler, and others asking to be dropped from the masthead – altogether 55 exoduses, at last count. The debacle was accompanied by lamentations all across the political spectrum, for although the New Republic has a reputation as a “progressive” magazine, it was one of the few that gave a podium to intelligent voices of all ideological ilk, a truly needed service in an increasingly acrimonious and divisive society.

The New Republic is moving to New York, although it will continue to maintain a Washington, D.C., office. It will also cut its publication frequency in half, publishing just 10 print issues a year. Vidra’s announcement of the changes was thick with jargon and clichés: “re-imagining The New Republic as a vertically integrated digital media company,” among them. Vidra, formerly general manager of Yahoo News, has the support of Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, who acquired TNR in 2012 at the age of 28. They both talk about about “content” and “platforms” and “brands,” and have taken the magazine in a more clearly ideological direction, designed to boost page views.


Wieseltier … gone.

“Assuming Chris really does plan to dumb it down in the name of clicks, what’s maddening is the way he has betrayed the premise on which he bought it. It’s like buying a historic Victorian mansion with the promise of preserving it — and then carving it into condos two years later,” one former longtime TNR staffer told Politico. “I hope Chris realizes how much intellectual firepower he’s losing here — and how hard it is to fake intellectual substance,” the former staffer said. “It makes no sense to publish clickbait under the TNR name (again, if that’s really his plan), you might as well just build a new thing from scratch.”

At this point, saving TNR will not be done by will alone. It takes more than ideology and snark to produce something that endures. You cannot buy gravitas, any more than you can buy reputation. What’s missing is what Czesław Miłosz used to call “piety” – a feeling of hierarchy of value in works of art and works of literature – or perhaps what Susan Sontag called “an education of the heart.”

It has less to do with education and more with a certain amount of living, suffering, patience, tenacity, endurance, wisdom, and the willingness to pay, pay, pay (and I don’t mean with cash). My concern is that people such as Hughes and Vidra have no idea what it means to be caretakers of a century-old literary institution. It would take them a good deal of effort to get to the cultural level they already think they inhabit. Meanwhile, people being imitative creatures, the cheesy values spread and will accelerate a rush to the bottom.

Our culture is being taken over by children. While the young have always given the heave-ho to their elders, usually the elders held the purse-strings. The world has never been short of wealthy, arrogant youth, of course, but usually it was inherited, and depended on parental approval and generosity. With our technological era, the checks and balances are gone: an unimaginable wealth has shifted to kids who understand the weight and price of many things, but the value of nothing. A younger generation tests the limits, because historically, the guardrails have held. They don’t always. If you’re old enough, you’ve seen that, too.

juvenescenceRight now I’m reading Robert Pogue Harrison‘s Juvenescence: A Cultural History of Our Age,” but before I began reading, my eye caught this passage in the epilogue:

“This is also why I believe that our juvenescent age is not just another stage of cultural development in the unfolding of modern civilization but represents a momentous, yet chaotic event in the evolution of humanity itself. The future that this event holds in store for us is one that remains incomprehensible from the perspective of the cultural history that precedes it. That future may well be upon us already, for as each day passes our present confounds historical understanding. If wisdom serves to create a living memory by synthesizing past and present with a view to the future, wisdom in our age has been thrown for a loss.”

Some have challenged whether this is a notable juncture in America’s cultural and literary history: Clive Crook over at the Bloomberg View writes in “Without the New Republic, I have No Reason to Live“: “You might say, the New Republic was a great and storied title. Why buy it in order to destroy it? Yes, in its day, it was indeed an indispensable magazine, but that was a long time ago. It’s years since it was required reading, even for people (such as myself) who are paid to take an interest in the things it writes about. Fact is, very little any longer is required reading: Choices have expanded in such a way as to make that idea anachronistic.

“It’s no act of disrespect to the achievements of the past to change – or even to shut down, if it comes to that – a publication that’s lost its way. Even if money doesn’t come into it, titles ought to be living things, not monuments to what they were. The same goes, only more so, for writers and editors.”

And there is a truth in that point of view, too. But I sense many people waiting in the wings to break things. Not so many who know how to put them together again.

Postscript on 12/9: We got a nice mention in Andrew Sullivan’s “The Dish” here.