Hucksters and Con Men: The NYT Goes to School

Peter Wood

Several times a year the Sunday New York Times runs a supplement called Education Life. It has large, colorful advertisements, big headlines, bland advice, a multiple choice quiz—this time on economic theory—and a column or two worth reading. On the whole, it seems like a ploy to pull dollars from between the fingers of increasingly tight-fisted advertisers. 

Paging through Education Life is a bit like a stroll down the midway, with brazen hucksters calling out at you from all sides. The pitches aren’t all that different either. “Step right up! Everybody is a winner!” is the basic translation.

Discovery. Access. InspirationIsn’t that why you’re here in New York?” asks the full page ad for New York University’s School of Continuing & Professional studies. 

Turn the page and New York University takes a second bite of the apple with another full-page ad advising: “In good times or bad, a master’s degree is always a smart choice.”

Turn the page and a comely, blue-jeaned coed hugging a laptop declares “Fordham is my school.”  

Turn the page and Hofstra University declares, “vision. energy. momentum. and an edge.” All this without capital letters or verbs. 

On the facing page, New York University again. (How much did they lay out for this newspaper supplement?) Here stands a woman in blue jeans, her back to us, contemplating a fuel terminal somewhere in New York harbor. “I will rethink how the world refuels. I am a PolyThinker.”

Turn the page again, to one of my favorites. Manhattan College shows a man wearing a batter’s helmet his face painted black from mid-nostril to chin, declaring, “At Manhattan, we play to win. We also plan to learn.”  Someday. Maybe when the season is over. 

Overleaf we learn that Adelphi University is “Where Sparks Fly in the Classroom.” This, of course, also happens at welding schools

            Other parts of Education Life also seemed pitched at prospective college students. One article, They’ll Work for Education,” explains the concept of work-study. We learn that Anna Rice at Northeastern University gets paid $10 an hour to sit at a desk and read, and occasionally ask for an ID from a student who wants to borrow the vacuum cleaner or a pool cue. Another article, “The Office,” explains the mysterious doings of financial aid administrators. Yet another, “Stepping Up to the Challenge,” lays out the hurdles facing students who have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It concludes with a sales pitch. You may have reached college without knowing you are A.D.H.D., but if college seems like, you know, hard, you can get yourself tested. If you score a diagnosis you may get to win all sorts of enticing “accommodations,” such as “note-taking help or extra time with a tutor,” or extra time on exams, weekly sessions with learning specialists, and so on.  

            Education Life is not wholly for high school students weighing their options.  It includes a chart showing what happened to the class of 2008 MBAs and lawyers. Of the MBAs who graduated from the University of Buffalo, 53 percent had a job offer at graduation, with a median base salary of $55,000, a median signing bonus of $3,000 and a total degree cost of $17,000. Would-be MBAs might want to calculate the relative advantages of taking an MBA degree from the Drucker School at Claremont instead, where 76 percent had a job offer at graduation, with a median base salary of $80,000, a median signing bonus of $3,000 and a total degree cost of $83,000. 

            Fuel for the dreams of avarice.

            Education Life also includes advice for new parents, “18 Years in the Making,” on how to prepare for the $500,000 in costs their Harvard-bound child might need in 2027. “It’s all doable with several very small sacrifices.” To whom? Baal? 

            The section of Education Life that really riveted my attention, however, was a pair of confessional statements grouped under the title “Undergraduate Epiphanies,” by Walter Kirn and Joe Queenan. Queenan describes his summer job in the late 1960s working the night shift in a Fleer’s bubble-gum factory in North Philadelphia. He is offered the chance to go into the management trainee program and turns it down—laughing at the mere idea. Queenan’s contempt for the idea shocks his father, and all these years later, Queenan condescends to the old man’s disapproval at his sneering attitude. Dad, it seemed “clawed his way up to the periphery of the white-collar world” only to be “purged and cast back down into the proletarian darkness” and thus had exaggerated respect for “the chance to wear a tie.”

            Queenan of course went on to make a success of himself as a humorist and critic, but judging from this article, he didn’t learn much. 

            Queenan is a mere amateur at sneering, however, compared to the novelist Walter Kirn, who regales us here with his days as an English major at Princeton in the early 80s.   This starts out well with Kirn arriving at Princeton boyishly ignorant. His knowledge of literature extends as far as The Day of the Jackal and The Exorcist (“I’d read them for their sex scenes and air of general perversity”) and a few force-fed high school staples, such as The Great Gatsby and Frankenstein. He thinks at Princeton he is going to be reading and analyzing more high-brow stuff, but no, he is suddenly in the world of “theory.”  

            Kirn is no rebel. He wants to succeed and he sees himself as having a gift for mimicry. So he thrives at his “private Princeton honors program” by learning to say the proper words in the properly casual way. “’Liminal,’ spoken breezily enough, and ‘valuational,’ served up with verve, could make a professor shiver and drop his chalk.” Now looking back on those days, Kirn sees that all was not well. “Such trickery left me feeling hollow and vaguely haunted.” 

            Kirn sees through the “theory” con—the heady illusion of freedom that comes from debunking civilization—civilization being merely a ruse perpetrated by “members of certain favored race, males, property-owners,” etc.  He finds refuge in cynicism. “I was a confused young opportunist trying to turn confusion to his advantage by sucking up to scholars of confusion.”  He gets good grades precisely because he knows not to take anything too seriously. He is “a born con man” who gets on with his professors because he knows they too are fake. And this proves to be a recipe for thriving socially as well as academically at Princeton. He gets on with “the crowd of moody avant-gardists.”

            Could he have been such a hardened hypocrite at age 19 or 20? Or is the Kirn of 2009 making an artful excuse for the theory-besotted deconstructionist Kirn of yesteryear? Perhaps even he doesn’t know. The Kirn of his Princeton days reached a clarifying moment when he and his avant-gardist pals staged a play titled “Plants and Waiters,” which is just a grand joke on the audience. The stage opens to a collection of potted plants.   Nothing happens. The “waiters” are the audience. “They fidgeted but they didn’t flee.”

            This Marcel Duchamp moment conforms something in Kirn. It is “profoundly enlightening.” The lesson is that “the essence of high culture” is “teasing the poor saps who still believed in it.” He is troubled only by the thought that he would not have discovered this deep insight “had I not reached Princeton.” 

            Kirn’s postmodern epiphany is, of course, wrapped in the deeper irony that he is now writing about it as almost a youthful indiscretion. His sneering goes full circle: he sneers at the pompous theorists, sneers at the high culture they sneer at, sneers at the audience waiting for nothing, sneers at his opportunist self, and sneers at his postmodern self sneering at his opportunist self. 

            Kirn’s portrait of the artist as a young fake is lightly amusing on a quick read but painful to dwell on. Should we blame Princeton for giving him a truly rotten education? For cultivating and reinforcing his characteristic weaknesses? Behind the amused surface of his essay is a tone of profound self-pity. The “hollowness” he confesses to having once felt seems still there—his essay merely the skin on the drum. 

            So, planted in the New York Times Education Life supplement, we find two brief confessions of higher education as the path to ripened and mature forms of contempt.  Queenan disdains his father for valuing present security over a future of unimagined possibility. Kirn disdains everything: civilization, education, and himself. 

"Discovery. Access. Inspiration."   

"In good times or bad, a master’s degree is always a smart choice."

"vision. energy. momentum. and an edge." 

"Where Sparks Fly in the Classroom." 

“We play to win. We also plan to learn."

Let’s hope prospective students read beyond the ads. 

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