Gotham Diary:
The Problem is Z
24 December 2013

Encouraged by the dry sunlight, I went out this morning to get a trim. The barber is off to Tampa for a week, and if I waited for his return my beard would become an ill-tended hedge. It was good walking weather. The temperature had dropped back somewhere closer to normal, but it wasn’t too cold. I’m almost looking forward to going out again! We’re due at Ray Soleil’s at six, after which we’ll head over to the Knickerbocker dinner. The original plan called for a traditional Christmas Eve here, but that was scratched over the weekend, and I’m sure that I’m feeling better because I haven’t been messing about in the kitchen. I’m still sniffling, but I’m clearly on the mend, and all I have to do is to take it easy.

It is the invisible Christmas. Christmas is going on elsewhere. Every now and then, Kathleen and I walk into it, smile, shake hands, and chat. But we haven’t caught the spirit of the season at all, which is what happens when one of us is ill or both of us are tired. Kathleen has certainly been tired, and with good reason. I’ve had this cold, but I’ve been tired, too, and I ought to wonder what I’ve got to be tired about, but I don’t, because I’m managing everyday life well enough. In other words, being tired might have nothing to do with it; I may simply have lost interest in things that matter to me a lot less than others. And one thing that matters to me more than almost anything else is leisure.

The foregoing paragraphs were followed by several more, but when it was time to get dressed for dinner I realized that I wasn’t even halfway through what I’d need to say about the topic raised by that last word, leisure. It’s a much bigger topic than I thought it was; all I can think right now is how queer it was of me not to see how big it was. In any case, I’ve just had a nice, big dinner at the Knickerbocker — the place was packed, and the oysters were tremendous! — and my capacity for ratiocination has dipped below the horizon. I’ve saved those extra paragraphs for later. And that is how I rather thought this entry would end: it’s Christmas Eve; you understand; sorry not to be able to say more.


But I’m that rarest of birds, capable of speaking long past the exhaustion of the ability to think. As I was getting into my nightclothes, I dwelt upon a conversational matter that recurred throughout the evening. A family friend, X, has a child, Y, who is not doing well in college. Y does not see the point of it, and in fact has spent two semesters, paid for by a generous but understandably knit-browed uncle, not going to classes at all (unbeknownst to X), and eventually failing in everything. The worst of it is that Y appears to be unrepentant — another way of saying that nothing whatsoever has been learned. A terrible situation, one that we should all hate to have any closer in our lives than this one already is. Needless to say, I exploded with comments and suggestions, but at every turn I felt obliged to add, as indeed I quite sincerely did, that I did not hold X at fault for any of it. X had been, it was clear, an exemplary parent. But the discussion teetered back and forth, in implication, between blaming Y and not-blaming X. As if it were somehow a problem that the two of them could be expected to solve. I did say that I thought that the whole system of higher education — Z — was screwed up. I say it all the time. But I didn’t feel it until I got home and was getting ready for bed, and thought about X and Y and the sorrow that made so little sense. What had been an objective observation at dinner became an outrage.

The problem is Z. The American model of higher education is a CROCK. Indulge me by regarding the word in caps as an emoticon spewing Krakatoan havoc.

Can we just admit that? Can we admit that American higher education works well only for those probably natural scholarly students who understand what “learning” is all about long before they get to college — long before they actually understand why it’s important? (And also for the ghastly race of parasites who “test well,” or are gifted at “psyching out” their professors.)  Can we? Because these kids are not models for all the others, all the ordinarily-endowed students who have been told that they need a degree to get a job. When, in fact, all they need is not not to have a degree. The degree itself is meaningless, the learning behind it meaningless — and the smarter (though still not scholarly) students among them understand this. It’s like a test for waiters: can you get this martini to the patron’s table without spilling a drop? (You’re not going to be the one drinking it!) Something altogether different is required — required!

X and Y are not the people responsible for curing the systemic mendacity of Z — which seems to exist today, like so many of our enterprises, only to rake in revenues. The rest of us can help them out by demanding something honest.

Make my Christmas bright. Think about it, please.