Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Excellent Sheep

The great teachers

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In his recent New Yorker review of William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep, Nathan Heller offers up a piece of wisdom that I wish someone had shared with me fifteen years ago:

The best advice I ever got in college came from the freshman-year adviser to whom I had been assigned…I had come into her office with a dog-eared copy of the catalogue. I thought that maybe I would take a class on Keats? And physics? My adviser, who taught history, shook her head. “The topics aren’t important,” she said. “What you want to do is find the people who are the best teachers and the best writers and take whatever they teach.”

I’m not sure if I ever articulated this principle to myself as clearly as it’s stated here, but a fumbling version of it guided many—though not most—of my choices in college. I was able to audit courses from the likes of Cornel West and Stephen Jay Gould, and when it came time to select a major, I was guided primarily by the idea that I should spend my time in a department that was ranked among the best of its kind, which is how I ended up in classics. But if I have one regret about how I spent those four years, it’s that I didn’t follow this tip more systematically. There were a lot of great classes that I could have attended but didn’t, and I won’t have a chance again.

Fortunately, though, the scope of this advice isn’t confined to college. When I look at my own bookshelves, I get the sense that I’ve been unconsciously following this model all along, at least when it comes to the authors I read. There’s a wild array of titles and subjects here, and I picked up many of these books on little more than a lucky hunch. What unifies most of them, though, is the aura they radiate of lives spent in pursuit of difficult intellectual goals, and the ability to convey them in ways that shed light onto unexpected corners. It’s why Edward O. Wilson’s books on ants share space with the work of statistician and graphic designer Edward Tufte, and why I keep The Plan of St. Gall a few shelves away from books by or about Colin Fletcher, George Saintsbury, Pauline Kael, Roger Penrose, Kimon Nicolaides, and Saul Bass, along with such otherwise inexplicable titles as Chinese Calligraphy and Ship Models: How to Build Them. These books don’t have a lot in common except for the fact that they’re all the work of great teachers, and I’ve found that it’s best to follow them wherever they decide to go, without worrying too much about the subject.

Edward O. Wilson

Recently, for instance, I’ve become interested in the work of Ernest Schwiebert, a legendary author among fly fishermen who remains relatively unknown to the rest of the world. I’ve never been fishing in my life, but after encountering Schwiebert—thanks, as with so many other books that have changed my life, to a glowing mention in The Whole Earth Catalog—I’ve started to think of him as a mentor and kindred spirit. Angling is an appealing sport, even from the confines of an armchair, because of the multitude of skills and states of mind it requires, and there are times when I feel that Schwiebert, who was a Princeton-trained architect and author by trade, is really talking about something else:

Its skills are a perfect equilibrium between tradition, physical dexterity and grace, strength, logic, esthetics, our powers of observation, problem solving, perception, and the character of our experience and knowledge. It also combines the primordial rhythms of the stalk with the chesslike puzzles of fly-hatches and fishing, echoing the blood rituals of the hunt without demanding the kill.

Take out the reference to physical dexterity and grace, and you have a pretty good description of how it feels to write a novel, which requires a constantly shifting balance between intellectual precision, brute force, intuition, and luck. And this is ultimately true of any craft, which goes a long way toward explaining why I find myself reading books on urban planning, coding, theater, animation, and other subjects that have only a tangential connection to what I do for a living. At one time, I thought I was looking for particular insights from other fields that would turn me into a better writer, but that isn’t necessarily true; the challenges that writing presents are so specific that approaches from other disciplines are useful primarily as metaphors. What really matters, I’ve found, is spending time in the company of great teachers and craftsmen. Those qualities of temperament—curiosity, diligence, an embrace of serendipity combined with ruthless pragmatism—remain constant across all forms of workmanship or expression. And even after college, we can find role models and examples in all the best teachers, regardless of their areas of expertise, as long as we’re willing to seek them out.

Written by nevalalee

September 17, 2014 at 9:40 am

Thoughts from an excellent sheep

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Widener Library

I spent this past weekend with a handful of my closest friends from college, in an apartment in Chicago’s Lincoln Square that we’d rented for an informal reunion. We’ve been getting together every few years since graduation, and although the makeup of the group has remained largely the same, shaped mostly by marriages and availability to travel, there have been some big changes along the way: this time around, there were no fewer than three kids in the house, and I expect the number to grow. We’re at a point in our lives when these gatherings start to feel uncomfortably like The Big Chill, and we spent about as much time sharing toilet-training tips as we did playing Cards Against Humanity. Looking around the room, though, I felt curiously proud of where we’d been and what we’d accomplished. My friends and their spouses have carved out meaningful careers in public service, academia, technology, and whatever it is you want to call what I’m doing these days. And while I think these people would have done remarkable things no matter where they went to college, I’d like to believe that our experiences as undergraduates had at least a tiny bit to do with it.

As it happens, New York Magazine published an item yesterday saying that Harvard ought to be stripped of its nonprofit status, on account of both its massive endowment and the fact that “it charges its rich students—and they are mostly from rich families, with many destined to be rich themselves—hundreds of millions of dollars in tuition and fees.” It’s an odd argument, especially because it appeared on the same day as a New York Times piece noting that Harvard is among the most economically diverse of top universities in the country, and it charges less for tuition for lower- and middle-class families than any other college on the list. But it’s also part of a larger conversation, which comes around every decade or so, about the role of elite universities and what they owe their students. Last month, Yale professor William Deresiewicz published the book Excellent Sheep, which warns that top colleges are producing a generation of risk-averse overachievers who excel at working within a system of incentives but find themselves helpless beyond it. If this sounds a little familiar, it’s because I devoured similar books fifteen years ago, from Who Killed Homer? to The Closing of the American Mind, and they shaped my own decisions as much as Deresiewicz is likely to do for a few members of this year’s class.

William Deresiewicz

But as I soon discovered, this kind of argument only reflects part of the story. In an insightful, if skeptical, review in The New Yorker, Nathan Heller lays out the core of Deresiewicz’s case:

Even after graduation, elite students show a taste for track-based, well-paid industries like finance and consulting (which in 2010 together claimed more than a third of the jobs taken by the graduates of Harvard, Cornell, and Princeton). And no wonder. A striver can “get into” Goldman Sachs the way that she got into Harvard. There is no résumé submission or recruiting booth if you want to make a career as a novelist.

I’d like to think that I know a little about this, because I’ve been on both sides of the equation. Shortly after graduation, I went to New York without much else in mind except the ambition to become a writer, and within a few months, I’d fallen into exactly the kind of job that Deresiewicz decries: I ended up at a hedge fund mostly because it was willing to hire me, and I spent close to four years in finance. For a while, I tried to have it both ways, working by day and writing by night, but I ultimately had to choose. And the fact that I decided to leave and try my luck as a novelist doesn’t mean that I think any less of those who stayed. Heller says it well: “When an impoverished student at Stanford, the first in his family to go to college, opts for a six-figure salary in finance after graduation, a very different but equally compelling kind of ‘moral imagination’ may be at play.”

In other words, a university education can be either a launching pad into the upper classes or a means of channeling smart kids into odd, challenging fields and ideas. The glorious thing about a place like Harvard, Yale, or any number of other colleges is that it can be both simultaneously, sometimes to the very same student. Still, I may not agree with everything that Deresiewicz says, but his voice deserves to be part of the conversation, in opposition to the forces that would rather push graduates into comfortable lives and careers. As with so much else in life, you only achieve a sensible mean by allowing passionate viewpoints on all sides, and a book like Excellent Sheep serves as a necessary counterbalance to the arguments that speak louder with money than with words. What we all need, in the end, is a college that serves as a machine for enabling such choices. And even as a student, I knew that the potential writers and artists in my class were the outliers, and that life itself had some surprises in store even for the conventional superstars, often from seeds that their educations had planted in secret. As Heller concludes: “College seniors leave with plans for law careers and then, a J.D. later, find their bliss as graphic artists. Financiers emerge as novelists.”

Written by nevalalee

September 10, 2014 at 9:04 am

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