Real College Matters

Achievers, artists, and elites: a conversation with Bill Deresiewicz

December 07, 2020 Leigh Moore and Bill Deresiewicz Season 1 Episode 14
Real College Matters
Achievers, artists, and elites: a conversation with Bill Deresiewicz
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Episode #14 of the Real College Matters podcast Is heavy on the "real" and a little lighter on the "podcast"--an uncut, unfiltered conversation between Leigh and Bill Deresiewicz, the writer who has most influenced her college advising practice.

In a departure from Bill's usual speaking venues--his most recent being with New York University--Bill gives generously of his time to talk with Leigh not only about his latest publication but also about the provocative essays and books which call into question our culture's troubling assumptions about higher education.

A transcript Is provided but has not been edited for accuracy.

 (Link to new book) The Death of the Artist:  How Creators Are Struggling to Survive In the Age of Billionaires and Big Tech

(Bill's website)

Selected writings:

Other books:
 A Jane Austen Education:  How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter

Excellent Sheep:  The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life


Leigh Moore:

Hey friends, this is the real college matters podcast. I'm Leigh Moore, a college advisor in Louisville, Kentucky. And this is our 14th episode. It is a conversation with Bill Deresiewicz. You know, not many people get to interview their favorite writer. But this is a privilege enjoyed a couple of weeks ago. And so I kind of wanted to intro the episode with a little bit more information about Bill than our coverage during the actual interview. Bill is influenced, I believe, my college advising approach more than any other person apart from my family. I'm going to link to his website in the show notes so that you can read the full biography which does some justice. For the purpose of this episode, though. I will tell you that bill was raised in the northeast, he completed his education at Columbia University, where he earned undergraduate and master's degrees alike. Following his graduate work bill took a position at Yale University where he taught until 2008. After that, he became a full time writer and speaker. In addition to over 250 essays and speeches which have been published, Bill's written a number of books. His I think his first book, beyond scholarly writing was a Jane Austen education, which is outstanding. He wrote a book in 2015 called excellent sheep, the MIS education of the American elite and the way to a meaningful life. Excellent sheep has been widely read and is, in my opinion, the best of what I call the college gone crazy genre. Meaning the books which call into question a lot of our beliefs about college and the admissions process. Bill's newest book was released this summer, it's called Death of the artist, how creators are struggling to survive in the age of billionaires and big tech. So a little bit about this episode, I was on my own to tape it. And as a result, you'll be treated to some barking dogs in one or two spots. Also, I thought about editing the interview a bit, our language is not necessarily g rated throughout. And I get a little more outspoken than I should be about the business of college and admissions. But I think everything bill says is valuable. So I'm going to run this uncut, and hope it's not too offensive to anybody out there. I appreciate bill being on the show. I'm going to go ahead and we cover a lot of material, I'm going to go ahead and cover, excuse me provide links to different cues or chapters within the episode and that way, those of you who are most interested in one topic or another should have an easy way to find what you're looking for. So here we go.

Unknown:

Hey, Bill. Hey. Thanks for having me on Lee. I'm glad we're doing this.

Leigh Moore:

Oh, me too. Thank you so much for being with us. Are you in Portland right now?

Unknown:

I am in Portland. It's raining hard.

Leigh Moore:

I've never been to Portland. But I guess that's but that's the joke, right? I mean, isn't it? No,

Unknown:

it's no joke, believe me?

Leigh Moore:

How long have you been in Portland?

Unknown:

12 years already? Ever since I left Yale ever since I left academia.

Leigh Moore:

Yeah. Had Portland been a destination for you. I mean, had you picked it out a long time ago.

Unknown:

We we have friends who live here. And we spent a sabbatical year here in 2004. And Portland is an easy place to fall in love with. So when I left academia are the two choices we were considering where New York City where we had been living before Yale, and Portland. And New York is just it's too expensive. I mean, you can stand it when you're young, or if you're rich, but we went to Portland, which is it's a very nice place to live.

Leigh Moore:

Super. Well, you know, I've given the listeners a little bit about your background. Mainly the formal things, the the kudos or the Shirky. But I'd really appreciate it if you just sort of take us all the way back. Obviously, this is a college admission show. So we're gonna talk about college. And I'd like to kind of hear about your whole educational trajectory for

Unknown:

sure. I mean, and the truth is that to tell the story, I do need to go all the way back, because it it was it was really shaped by my father. He was a college professor. He was a professor of engineering at Columbia. And that meant two things. It meant that we were me and my older siblings, were always going to go to Columbia because of the tuition exemption. The financial advantage of doing that. And we were always going to study science, because that's what he told us you have to do. I mean, he didn't even have to say it. I grew up in an environment where it was unthinkable to study anything else. And my older older siblings followed that path. And when became a physical therapist, and when became a doctor, not not always knowing what I was supposed to study, and especially always knowing where I was supposed to go, meant that I never had to think about either one of those things. I never, because I never had to think about where I was going to go to college, assuming I was able to get in, I never had to think about why I wanted to go to college. And that ended up being a huge liability for me, I got to college. I think I was also when I grew up in a family, I think the whole attitude was, you plan your life very carefully, because that leads to the kind of the safest life. My parents were also immigrants. I mean, there was something understandable about this. So I got to college. And instead of giving myself the chance to explore, and take a year or two to decide what to study, literally, before classes, even started freshman year, I spotted this major in the catalog that was a joint major, between biology and psychology to things that I was very interested in. And I just decided on the spot that that's what I was going to major in, because it relieved, I mean, in retrospect, I realized it was because it relieves the anxiety of not knowing what to do. And it was it was a big major, it wasn't a double major, but it was like a major and a half. And Columbia has a lot of requirements also. So I really had wiped out like I had accounted for at least two thirds of my college experience right there before college even started. And by the time I was halfway through college, I knew that this was a big mistake, that I wasn't inspired, I wasn't being inspired by my science classes. That's what I mean, you know, I was really into science when I was in high school. But I was also really into literature, I was also really into words. And I never gave myself the chance to, to, to sort of let myself run with that in college, I ended up taking as many electives in literature and writing as I could, but I had a deep sense of loss, you're really you're making me get back in touch with this, I haven't felt this in a long time, I had a really deep sense of loss about college. And I was still only halfway through college. And I already had this really profound sense of loss. And you know, I had friends who were studying things that just sounded much more interesting. And I just was so checked out of my classes I didn't do particularly well, in my science major, I did much better in my humanities classes. So I got out of college without really having much of an idea what to do. Actually, the truth is that this was the 80s. And if you didn't have much of an idea what to do. You apply to law school. It was just, it was just before the whole banking and consulting thing got got going. So I applied to law school. But I realized after I'd gotten into a few schools, and I was it was time to make the decision that you know, I didn't want I didn't actually want to go to law school or be a lawyer. So I kind of drifted for a few years. You know, I mean, you know, frankly, I'd always gotten really good grades, I was always supposedly the smart one. In in class. And and here I was after college. kind of feeling dead in the water. Mm hmm. I didn't know what to do with my life. I didn't know how to go about figuring it out. I didn't feel smart anymore. I hadn't done that well in college. It was bad. And then I know this sort of this sounds may be too cinematic. But this is actually how it happened. I was visiting a friend who was in graduate school in architecture, not something I wanted to study. But she was talking about graduate school. And like, I remember like the moment it hit me like a lightning bolt that I had to go I had to try to go and study English Lit I had to try to study the thing that I always wanted to study that I had this profound sense of loss that I had never studied. And I was going to try to get into graduate school somehow, which was not easy without having been an English major. I'm not even sure would have been possible now. But there were different sort of differences then and I applied to a lot of schools and I got rejected for most of them, but find one of one or two of them accepted me. So four years after college. I really I say I would say that four years after college. I finally started my education.

Leigh Moore:

So like, in that grad degree was a big safety school, right Columbia.

Unknown:

Yeah, it also happened to be at Columbia. You know what, though? The reason I could get in is because Columbia had this insane sadistic system. Normally graduate programs will take like 20 people We'll accept 20 people and maybe enroll a dozen, they were accepting 70 people, and throwing out half of them throwing out half of them after the first year. Wow. That's why I was able to get admitted with a bunch of actually some interesting people who wouldn't have been accepted to another school, some of whom got cut after the first year. But I was lucky. I was lucky that that existed then even though it was a terrible system that they discontinued shortly thereafter. But the point is, like, really, for the first time in my life, I mean, I had gone through 16 plus years of school, and had never liked school. I mean, I had, like, certain professors in classes, mostly English ones. But for the first time at age 25, I really loved school. And I threw myself into it because I was finally doing something that I really loved and cared about.

Leigh Moore:

Well, you know, um, talk a little bit about your, I guess it was your first book, A Jane Austen education.

Unknown:

Other than my academic book, which we don't have to talk counter. Okay. My first post academic book was Jane Austen education.

Leigh Moore:

Yeah. So talk about that. Because I mean, I've read it. I loved it in. Well, you talk about it first.

Unknown:

Oh, sure. Well, Jane Austen was one of the authors that I studied as an academic. My academic book was also about Jane Austen. And here I was trying to make a living establish a career as a freelance writer starting at age 44. And I'd had for a few years, this idea that, like reading Jane Austen, when I was in graduate school in my late 20s, early 30s, was a profound experience for me wasn't just a literary experience, it really was an experience that helped me grow up. I mean, I feel like what, to me what the reason that the humanities are important that English Lit in particular lit in particular, is that it helps you become a person. I'm not saying a better person, I'm saying a person. It helps you become an adult, it helps you to not even sure it makes you a better person necessarily. It makes you more aware person, more self aware person. And a lot of books had that effect on me. But Jane Austen plays a special role, which is why she ended up being the person I studied. So Jane Austen education was it's a book about Jane Austen that's framed as a memoir, or it's a memoir about being educated, being matured, becoming an adult by reading this author, who I never thought I wanted to read, you know, I had I had absorbed all of the stereotypes, I think, stereotypes about Jane Austen and the other JT yell writers, you know, the brand days and George Eliot. And, but I accidentally read one of her novels in a class that I was taking for other reasons. And I, I found that, um, I could identify with female characters, and that they had a lot to say to me.

Leigh Moore:

I remember from the book that you felt like that Well, I guess, definitely made you more personable or interactive or compassionate. I can't remember what it was. But you basically were painting a picture of a jerk. Yes, yes. Read. Read Jane Austen.

Unknown:

Yeah, I was gonna say as tall. I don't know if you don't like that word on your podcast. No, I was in SL I was a typical arrogant, thin skinned, totally not self aware, totally not aware of others kind of young man. And, I mean, this wasn't the only thing that helped me get out of that. But I but I feel like if it hadn't been for this, and for some other things, I would still be that person. I mean, I know lots of people who are still that person throughout their lives. So yeah,

Leigh Moore:

yeah, that's really interesting. And, you know, Bill, um, one of the things that sticks with me from that book, you were talking about how mundane life see are when you're first starting to read Pride and Prejudice or whatever, it's about people needle pointing, and, you know, the, the grass is blowing in the wind and whatever. And I don't, for whatever reason, at this point, in our country and our world, it's a pretty profound statement, what you said, which is, I think you said that, like, you were kind of struck one day and said, yeah, it's all about the details. It's about the small things. Yeah,

Unknown:

I mean, that's what life really is. You know, here like I said, young man having big philosophical or abstract arguments, and not that those aren't important but but the actual texture of life of the you know, we go through the world day to day, it's those little things and, and the relationships that we have with other people, which are knitted in those little things. And those little moments, the conversations we have and the things we do when we're not doing something that's quote unquote, important. And Austin's genius is not only that, she calls our attention to those things, but she makes them compelling. She makes them seem as important as they actually are.

Leigh Moore:

One of my students recently quoted a coach. And maybe this is a well known expression, but she said, how you do anything is how you do everything. Or, you know, whatever it is you're going to do, that's all you're going to do, you know, in other words, pay attention to the details, and which I thought was pretty good. And I think that, that gets the point I was making about our nature nation and our world is that pay attention to the person in front of you. And sometimes that's the most we can do, you know, on a given day. Well, interesting. So. Okay, so you had got your graduate degree, right? went into teaching, right. Columbia, taught at Yale,

Unknown:

Columbia as a graduate student. And then when I finished my degree, I got a job at Yale. Yeah.

Leigh Moore:

Got a job at Yale and you're teaching. Okay, so we're going to talk about your new book, the death of the artist.

Unknown:

Okay.

Leigh Moore:

What point I mean, clearly, writing is an art an art of a part of the liberal arts. I think your book is more about fine arts or performing arts or both. Were in your, in this arc of your life? Did the arts become important to you?

Unknown:

Yeah. And if I could just be pedantic because I was able to teach it. I mean, the liberal arts are not Arts in the sense that we talk about them. I mean, the fact that they're called liberal arts is just an accident of etymology. So and I say that partly to emphasize that I don't consider myself an artist. I say that right at the beginning of the book. And we can talk about why I think it's important to say that, but I'm not talking about the kind of work that I do. It is true that the liberal arts, some of them, study the arts. That's mainly what the humanities are, it's English Lit, and French lit, and art history and, and so forth. So I've always been, I mean, ever since I realized that the thing that I cared about most in the world was literature and studying it and teaching it and reading it. I've always been passionate about the arts, because literature's and art, and other arts have been very important to me as well in my life. So this is something I always cared about. But it was only a few years ago that I really started to look at it from the perspective that I look at it from in the book, the death of the artist, the subtitle is how creators are struggling to survive in the age of billionaires and big tech. This is a book about what's happened to the arts economy in the last 20 years. And, and the kind of economic pressure it's put artists under writers, musicians, visual artists, people who make film and television, it's got it's always been hard. It's gotten much, much harder. And it's gotten harder because of the internet and because of inequality. I mean, those are the two big reasons.

Leigh Moore:

What stuck with me from your book, Bill? Well, and I was going to ask you, would you say that you have written this book more to affect change, or to increase awareness?

Unknown:

I think both, I think, above all to increase awareness for everybody, but especially for artists themselves, who often feel really beset they're struggling financially, and probably blame themselves. I mean, I know this to be the case, they feel like maybe they're the only ones they feel alone with it. And raising that consciousness like this, isn't you This isn't your fault. This is everybody, I think can be cathartic, and empowering. I wrote it for young people who may be interested in the arts. And I'm wholeheartedly wholeheartedly endorse, the young person thinks they have a calling for the arts, I think they should pursue it with an asterisk that we can get to. And I wrote it for everybody because I think Listen, this may sound like not esoteric, but kind of a minority interest here like okay, artists, they're not that, you know, artists can care about this, why should the rest of us care? Um, we all love the arts. As long as I you understand what I mean by the arts, I don't just mean the rarefied arts that gets supported by the National Endowment, not just Symphony or opera, ballet, all the arts, like any kind of music, you listen to pop music, bluegrass, whatever. narratives on film and television, novels. That's all art. Many other things. I think the average person spends probably several hours a day engaging these things. I think if you ask them to say, what's the most what are the most important things in their lives? After they talked about their family? And maybe one or two other things? They would say the arts, if you said, What would you do if you couldn't have access to any of this stuff? I think people would be bereft. I mean, we went into lockdown in March, what did people turn to, they turn to the things that I'm talking about. So I think this is really important for everybody, and everybody needs to know this. And raising awareness can hopefully lead to some kind of change. It can help artists to get themselves together to organize. And maybe it can make the audience sympathetic to what needs to happen, which is important, because part of what needs to happen is that we need to realize that getting all this free stuff that we're getting over the internet is not good. It may feel good. But if you're getting something valuable for free, that's there's a problem with that, you should know that there's that there's got to be something wrong there.

Leigh Moore:

Just say that, and yeah, so my awakening in your book, I realized how many times I screenshot things, you know, and I'm, Well, I certainly hope I'm not making any money, you know, off off of that stuff anyway. But, um, whether it's posting something to a website or whatever, you know, I certainly hope I would never try to profit off of somebody else's work. But just the ability, you know, you do realize the ability, technology makes it very easy to abuse the stuff, right and technology, which should be I feel like the democratization, so many things are meant to democratize, and instead, kind of have the opposite effect. And if you don't mind talk through the, there was a film an example of a filmmaker who spent several years with a partner putting a film together.

Unknown:

And you know which one I'm talking about documentarians who made indie game?

Leigh Moore:

Yes, yes, yes. Yeah. Yeah, if you don't mind, just to give us a minute or two sketch of that. I just thought that was both disturbing and interesting.

Unknown:

Oh, sure. Um, right. So in the book, I talk about a lot of things. And I focus on these four arts that I mentioned, and one of them is film and television. And I have a chapter on each. And in each chapter, I also have six profiles of individuals or partners, partnerships, because I want to get really granular and because there is no one path, right, every artist has a different path. So these husband and wife live in Winnipeg had been sort of working commercially in video, you know, like shooting industrial stuff for a long time. And then, you know, we're sort of very up on the new technology. And then these great cameras, the sort of digital High Definition digital video cameras came out in 2008. And they, and they, you know, realize that was gonna enable them to do something that nobody had done before, although it's become much more common now, which is to, you know, make a documentary, just the two of them. I mean, these cameras enabled them to do it, because before you needed tons of equipment, you needed a crew. And the husband had worked in, he had been a Video Game Tester in Vancouver, Canada, which, which apparently is a horrible job, you're just testing terrible video games, or just so he knew that world. And he knew that interesting things were happening in that world. And that in the video game world, also, one in two person shops, one and two person operations were were getting set up or setting themselves up, not just the giant companies like Sony or Nintendo. And people try we're trying to elevate video games to the status of art. This is all completely alien to me. I don't play video games. But in that world, it was really important. So they set out to make this documentary, what they realized they needed to do, and this is why they're in the book and why they were successful. They needed to build their audience while they were making their movie. I mean, the biggest principle about how to artists make it manage to sustain themselves in the internet age is about building an audience. An audience that you have direct contact with, you're not going through a publisher or label and whom you can, quite frankly sell things to like copies of your movie or tickets to a screening to your movie. So they were extremely open about the process. As they were shooting, which involved an enormous amount of work, I mean, not only were they two people shooting a documentary in a couple of years, or three years, which is enough, but they were posting footage, and they were reply, they were tweeting and replying to every message they got in every tweet they got, and just constant engagement. So by the time the movie came out, they had an audience base. And they were able to do quite well from it, and have been, you know, sort of it sort of it sort of innate, they it sort of set them up to be able to sustain what's usually a very difficult career. So I'm not sure what you found disturbing about that.

Leigh Moore:

That's, that's what I was getting ready to say. So that's not I do remember that one now. Yeah. On the other hand, though, there was another example. It was. Gosh, I think it was a movie that was, and I'm not sure if looked it up. But it was shown at a lot of LGBT festival. Yeah, that one, okay. Yeah. And so that what I remember about that, that filmmaker was they were really trying to do everything right, and legit, on the up and up and spent years of their lives, putting together a film. And I was just pretty ignorant about how quickly it can get taken. And I mean, it was three or four years of their lives. And so yeah, that was the one that was more disturbing, right, sorry,

Unknown:

I should have clarified which one you were talking about. Because I focus that that was also a movie made by two people, but I really focused on one of them. This is okay, this is the story that I tell at the beginning of my chapter on piracy and copyright. And the big tech companies split their relations to those things. Here's a woman in San Francisco who was approached by another by a filmmaker, let's make this lesbian themed, sort of like sort of drama. This was a few years ago, they they knew what they were doing, like you said they did everything right, sag, you know, Union agreement, taking out location licenses in San Francisco, they were professional filmmakers, they spent a lot of their own money, ended up costing him a quarter million dollars, which is still very low budget. And as soon as the movie came out, she starts to see pirated copies, like as soon as like the day the movie comes out. How is this even possible? Yeah. And well, and then and she became, she found out how it's possible. And she did a very deep dive. And she found out that piracy is not, hey, let me tell you one friend saying to another, hey, let me tell you about this great movie I just saw. It's a wholesale operation, designed to harvest money from the internet. So people are basically pirating every movie in existence as soon as it comes out. And they're making money by putting it putting them up and doing what everyone else on the internet does, which is selling ads against the you know, the downloads are free. It's piracy, but they're selling ads, which me and and who's who's serving those ads to the websites? Well, it's the one it's the company that serves all the ads. It's Google. So Google's making a fortune. The companies they're advertising are making money? Well, they're spending money, but Visa and MasterCard are making money because it's you know, it's a financial transaction. So and, and, and, and then she realized that the laws, the law, called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, that's supposed to protect creators from this kind of piracy is completely inadequate. It came out in 98 when Google was just getting started.

Leigh Moore:

Wow. That Yeah, and that's what you know, that's what got my attention. I didn't realize Avia. Well, I had no way of realizing before, you know, how all of that is looped in work? Yes. Either, you know. So, I could talk about this all day and go deeper. I'm gonna just

Unknown:

make one more just just to make sure. You're the point is really clear. The big tech companies are making a fortune off of piracy. That's the issue, this all this. And they're making a fortune off of free content in general, but especially off of piracy. If you look at how much how much music is listened to through YouTube, it's like half of all music streaming. A lot of that content is pirated. YouTube pays an absurdly small amount of money to musicians when they pay anything at all. So the point is that free content actually generates an enormous of 1010s of billions of dollars a year. But it generates it for Google, Facebook, Amazon, and not for the artists who should be getting it.

Leigh Moore:

Yeah, and The aside, I guess, or in parallel, maybe one of the things that I find so disturbing is I look at the universities in marketplace in which they operate is a huge marketplace. Right. Is that it's a lot of it is is, I think fair to say it's a bad system. Yeah, well, good people. And it's very hard. I mean, not all good people. Right. But it's really hard to find a Boogeyman out there. It You know, one person to blame for the fact that it's the most regressive thing I've ever seen. You know, I mean, my, I think I'm gonna get t shirts made this year that save about 30, or full pay is the new 36. You know, it's, it's going to take money to keep that, you know, colleges afloat. And that's what's going to happen. I you know, I don't like it at all. But that's, I think the public is better to be informed about it than not, you know, I think it's the ability to pay is just going to kind of take the day. And anyway, that probably won't end up on the podcast. I'm going to take, take a second here. Let me ask you something about, um, let me just take a sec.

Unknown:

And we can I mean, we can talk about the excellent cheap stuff as much as you want.

Leigh Moore:

That's fine. Okay, I'm not going to, but I'm okay. But let me ask you one more thing about before we talk about another topic. What How would you advise you said, you mentioned an asterisk for us.

Unknown:

I'm so glad you got back to that.

Leigh Moore:

Yeah. So how, how would you advise, I have noticed, excuse me that art schools are pretty expensive. And, you know, which I suspect means that it's only the wealthy typically can attend? No,

Unknown:

yes. Yeah, no, I think that's true.

Leigh Moore:

So how would you what is the asterisk? How would you advise a student who wants to study the arts in college?

Unknown:

Well, yeah, let's leave art school aside for a second. Okay. Um, just in general, one of the things that I found most consistently in the interviews that I did, and the book is based on about 140 interviews with artists and other people involved in the arts. One of the things I found most consistently, was that the artists told me that, first of all, they knew they wanted to be artists, they knew they were artists from very early in life. This is not typical. I mean, people don't generally know that they're going to be a college professor, when they're five, or 10, or 12. But that's what these people were telling me, I always knew that I was a writer, I always knew that I wanted to make film. Second of all, that with few exceptions, they got nothing but discouragement. from their parents, from their schools, from their peers, from their environment, schools don't know what to do with creative kids, because they don't fit the model, the teach to the test, math and reading, fill out the boxes model of education. They're often stigmatized as lazy or dumb, or, or a DD. And we're wasting an enormous amount of talent. But more importantly, we're discouraging people. And we're making them feel bad about themselves. There are artists I talked to that persevered anyway, that's why they were still artists. But I think it's I think we really need to change our attitude about creative children and creative adolescence, the school system needs to change, and parents need to change. So what I would say to a young artist is give yourself that shot. Don't worry about you know, forget what everybody else thinks about you. And the messages, they're telling you. You owe it to yourself, if you feel that you have a calling to do this, to give it a shot, but you need to go in with your eyes open. So in the book, I talk about how hard it is, you need to know that. And I also talked about the fact that a lot of artists get to some point, typically in their 30s where they realize that it's not going as well as it needs to go for them to be able to sustain it. And they get off that path and take an exit to a different path. And there's nothing wrong with doing that. But some people who should do it don't. Because there can be a lot of shame and a lot of disappointment about it. So, you know, go in, do it. Go into the eyes open, know how hard it's going to be and know that you might need to end up doing something else at a certain point. But if you don't give it that shot, you're going to be angry, I think you're going to be bitter, you're going to be disappointed in life. Now art school is a separate question. I mean, yes, these days for many forms of art. It's kind of Important to go to school, but I would say a couple things. First of all, it's probably not the best idea to to get a BFA. I mean, a lot of people do. But I've heard not such great things about BFA programs, a lot of them. What somebody said to me who's taught him a lot of art schools is that they, they have poor quality control. Some of them are very good, and some of them are very bad. And good, and a program that's good this year might be bad in five years, because there can be a lot there's a lot of turnover in faculty in art schools, because there isn't tenure, generally. She had studied, she had been a liberal arts major, I forgot her major, exact major something in the humanities. And she said that she recommends that artists as undergraduates, major in the liberal arts, something in the humanities, or social sciences, or whatever. Because first of all it's going to make it's going to give them more options when they graduate, it's going to make it easier for them to have a career alongside their art or eventually, if necessary, instead of their art. And even as an artist, it's going to give them important skills that they're not going to get an art school. Like how to communicate how to think. All very important. Sure, yes, yeah, master's degree is a separate issue. And we can talk about that. Um, yes, it does often involve a lot of debt, I would say, in balancing the prestige of the school with the amount of debt that you have to take on, you really need to take the debt seriously, and maybe go to a less expensive school. And I think you also need to have an honest conversation with yourself the same person I was talking about, very compassionate person, very wise person said that a lot of students she's taught in art school don't belong there. They're there for the wrong reasons. They're there, because they're marking time. Don't know what else to do. They're there because they kind of want to change the world. A lot of art now has a lot of political energy. But really, they should be doing like journalism or law, if that's what they care about. She She said, for a talent for talented students. It's incredibly valuable and worth it, even if you have to borrow some amount of money. But the real problem is that a lot of people in art schools now don't belong there. Admissions rates in art schools are incredibly high, except for the most prestigious schools they let in almost anybody. It's a scandal. So you need to be careful about that.

Leigh Moore:

Very interesting. Well, I am going to pivot a little bit and talk to you about some of my favorite essays that you've written. I think I read that you've over 250 essays, I think have been published. And yeah,

Unknown:

some of them are short ones do and doing this for a long time. Okay.

Leigh Moore:

So you have to humor those of us who have not ever had anything go viral, even though we think our ideas are important. You know, I'm Ted disadvantages of an elite education. Just when did you? When did that idea terminate? Where did you was at first in the American scholar,

Unknown:

it was first the American scholar, yes, this was the big one of the big plot points in my life. The whole time I had been teaching at Yale, especially when I, when I became a professor and went from Columbia, Yale. I it's I had been accumulating observations, critiques of what I was seeing, sometimes talking about them with colleagues, I loved my students, they certainly were very smart, they certainly worked very hard. So many of them didn't seem to know why they were there, other than to just get the next gold star. So many of them and I was the kind of professor and unfortunately, there aren't a lot of these, who really like to talk to students, and spend time in office hours. And often, you know, students would have me as a freshman, and I would continue, they would continue to drop by the rest of the time they were in college, often sometimes even write to me once they were finished with college. I'm still in touch many years later with a lot of students. And what I heard from so many of them was a sense of kind of drift in their education. Like, you know, why, what, why why did what what should I study? I don't know, why am I here, and then also a sense of loss about what to do after college because it always just been gold stars, and it always just been jumping through hoops. And college. The end of college is the last moment where the next hoop is really clear. After that, no one's telling you what to do anymore. So sometimes you just find another set of hoops to jump through and you go through you go to law school or medical school, or you find an employer that offers the same kind of prestige structure. So that's finance and consulting, or now tech. Also, all of these things law, medicine, finance, consulting, and tech, the work you do, especially when you're first out of school is a lot like homework. It's just more homework, you read a brief, or you code something or you know, you fill out a spreadsheet for McKinsey. So, coincidentally, as at the same time that I left academia, I wrote this essay that I called the disadvantages of an elite education. It wasn't a very poetic or clever title, but it pretty much said it. And I put all I, you know, I sort of said, what I was telling you like, what the issue is? The issue is really, what does the system do to you, by the time you get to college, it's not even so much what the colleges are doing. It's what the admissions process is doing? And how that shadows your whole life before and after. And, yeah, that really went viral in a big way. And it wasn't even so much that in which was really cool and unexpected. 2008, you know, the internet was still young enough that I didn't get that this could happen. But it went viral in an interesting way. I mean, yeah, it was read probably 100,000 times within the first two or three months. And I thought it would go away. But year after year, it kept getting read. I forget how many in the end, it was well over a million, maybe 2 million. Um, and I knew who's reading it, because like, probably a week after it came out, I started to get emails. This was really cool, and really moving and really profound for me. And the emails I was getting. It was not from parents. They hadn't seen it yet. It wasn't from professors who really don't think about this stuff. It was from students, students were passing it around. And they continue to pass it around kind of underground lit in the Ivy League, Stanford, the fancy liberal arts colleges. And I started getting invited to talk at those schools, sometimes by students, sometimes by professors. So I really got to understand what was going on.

Leigh Moore:

I think you're absolutely right. About a month ago, one of my students shot me a text. And I looked at it and it was she sent me a link to the disadvantages of an elite education. And she is applying to an Ivy League Ivy League institution in her her message was this is great. So should I not do any of this? And I said, You know, I said, Well, I happen to have spoken with the author before. And I said, I will say he's not anti any of these institutions. He will tell you there are great experiences to be had. But they're not an end unto themselves. It's not a destination, you know. And she did some soul searching and decided that she would indeed continue to apply and she has a great deal of intellectual curiosity. We'll see what happens. But I just thought it was interesting that that came from her, you know, not me. Yeah. Um, you know, another essay. Well, this was a speech. Can we talk about solitude and leadership? You can we can, yes. Tell me about about solitude and leadership?

Unknown:

Oh, you know, it's interesting in the disadvantages article I mentioned in passing that might, I had this conversation about solitude with my students, and they told me that they don't have any solitude. And a smart editor from another publication said, Hey, do you want to write a, an essay about the loss of solitude? So I did, and that was that one is called the end of solitude. And it's, it was my reaction to the early social media, right? To what what Facebook, at that point, it was, especially Facebook was doing to all of us and our loss of solitude, meaning not, whether we're alone in a room, which many of us are, but whether we're alone with our thoughts. That's what solitude is. So then, some people at West Point, one of whom was a friend of mine, some people in the English Department said, Come to West Point and talk to our plebes our first years about solitude because it's so important for them to understand this. And it's so hard for them to even have an opportunity for it in a place that keeps them so busy. So I thought, you know, I'm used to talking to Ivy League students. I know those people are there like me, I understand what motivates them. I don't know who goes to the service academies. That's not my world. I've never met anyone, literally had never met anyone who'd ever been or even wanted to go. So I did some snooping around. And I realized that what the whole sort of the sacred word there. And maybe at the other service academies is leadership. They're constantly talking about leadership. And I should say that unlike, I realized, I've realized since then the leadership is one of these words that's thrown around all the time on campus, especially, and usually doesn't mean anything at all. But at West Point, and I guess, at the Naval Academy, it actually means something real. So I thought, Okay, I'm going to talk to them about leadership, and solitude, and what they have to do with each other. And that's going to be like, you know, the, the meat that you give the guard dog is going to be leadership to get me in the gate. And I'm going to talk about solitude, solitude and leadership. And I thought about it and I thought about, you know, how you can't be a leader. Unless you kind of unless you have a strong sense of self, a strong sense of sort of inner compass. I mean, you may occupy a leadership position. But a lot of leaders are just kind of keeping the system going. They're bureaucrats. And they've gotten to their positions by being by going along. I mean, bureaucracies tend not to like independent thinkers. My example in the essay is David Petraeus, who had become famous for his brilliant leadership in Iraq, but whose career had suffered for a fairly long time because he was iconoclastic. So that's what I said to them, You need to be able to think for yourself, to be a good leader. And in order to be able to think for yourself, you have to be able to be alone, to be alone with your thoughts. And think yourself away from the group think from the herd mentality? Question, the the the, the assumptions that have been instilled in you.

Leigh Moore:

You know, I was on a podcast earlier this year with an independent school group. And they ask what questions I advise parents and not a school's consultant, but what questions I tell parents to ask if they're visiting a school or an independent school. And one of my suggestions is to ask, convince me that the bottom half of the class gets the same level of the same resources as the top half of the class. And that was kind of born of my husband saying at some point, you know, when I was in high school, I was like, he had a pretty big leadership position in high school, he was not at the top of the class academically. And I think at some point, we've started to conflate achievement and leadership. And you don't see many student body presidents anymore who don't have for us, you know, and I mean, that's a terrible overgeneralization. But, um,

Unknown:

I don't know, I think,

Leigh Moore:

I think we can kind of get lazy as we define leadership.

Unknown:

This is this is I'm sorry, Did I interrupt you? No, no, no, no, this is quite to the point. I'd never made that observation. But I think you're absolutely right. And it shows that that leadership, like being class president is now just a resume item. So yes, maybe two generations ago, you had the brains, who were getting the top scores, who were the valedictorian. And then you had the leaders who had a different, you know, there may be charismatic, they were good with people. They were people you wanted to follow, right? I mean, people have kind of that natural gift. Now, it's all just a goddamn set of count. You know, just and so you, you know, the resume is the four oh, and the leadership positions, and the musical instrument and the service work. And none of that means anything. None of it means anything. The classes aren't real classes. The leadership isn't real leadership, the service isn't real service. This is the problem. And one of the one of the other buzzwords that comes along with this is excellence. I mean, my book is called excellent, cheap. I mean, excellence, like leadership has a real meaning. And then it has a meaning within the context of high schools and colleges. And it kind of they kind of both mean the same thing, excellence and leadership, they mean that you've gotten all the gold stars. Excellence doesn't mean that you're necessarily really good at anything. And leadership doesn't necessarily mean that you're a leader. They both mean that you've become a superb adult pleaser. You've learned to give the grownups what they want. You've learned to give the appear give the grownups the appearance of what they want, even if it isn't the substance. You might have 12 things on your resume. And nine of those things might not be things that you actually really do. I mean, high school teachers have said this to me, you know, they all they need to run a club or something and they'll you know, lots of students who just want to sort of be on the list without actually doing it without actually showing up Or you take classes, including maybe AP classes. I've heard dreadful things about AP classes. You know, they just they're just they just gorge on information and and regurgitate it very quickly. So now students take an unthinkably large number of AP classes. I mean, when I graduated in 81, the ivy bound kids had maybe taken three AP classes. Now maybe they've taken 13. Are they smarter? No. Are they better educated? No. Are they more curious and intellectual? I think they're a lot less curious and intellectual? Because who has the time? To be curious or intellectual? or interesting or creative? With all of this?

Leigh Moore:

You know, Wendell, Berry, the writer Wendell Berry,

Unknown:

I love him. Um,

Leigh Moore:

it has been attributed to him. I don't, I've never read it. And I've heard in the speech that he says every university should ask itself two questions on a regular basis. What are we building? And is it good? And I kind of feel that way about families, about marriages, about schools, but you know, and I kind of think that's what you're saying, because, at least with, or at least, I hope, in my practice, I, you know, I try to give families the freedom to do what they want, you know, I mean, to, you know, you only get one chance to raise the kid. And, you know, if they're on a hamster wheel the whole time. You know, I think that just that the ability to step back, and just, you know, I want to give parents the ability to, especially parents, who, you know, often have the maturity that maybe the student doesn't get to just step back and go, wow, you know, is this a thriving human being? And if they are great, and if not, you know, I wanted to have the chance to make a course correction. So I'm going to ask you one more thing, we're about out of time. Fall 2020, you're speaking with the mother card carrying mother of a high school senior. And I'm struggling. I, he is a our student is, uh, you know, he's a great kid, he doesn't know what he wants to do yet. He's a goodwill student, you know, we've gone to visit, I'm sorry, I'm hearing my dogs in the background. And I don't know what to do about it. But anyway, we've gone to visit a few schools recently, since the pandemic. You can't. Yeah, they're all perfectly lovely in nice to you. But you cannot tell what the academic ideally of the academic environment or any environment is going to be like, and it feels very, you know, we're called real college matters. And I'm like, but what about surreal, surreal college, it feels real. I mean, we don't know exactly where the colleges are going to be this time next year, I'm basically basically going to go on my podcast and say, you know, and admit the extent of my ignorance about what lies ahead.

Unknown:

Right. But

Leigh Moore:

if you had a senior in high school, I mean, how would you be evaluating this? It's tough.

Unknown:

I mean, it does. I mean, let's not count our chickens. It does seem like maybe things will be normal. Come September. That's what the doctors are promising us. You make a good point, though, that okay, but I haven't had a chance to evaluate colleges. How do I know where to go? That's tough. I listen. I'm, I'm a big, big, big believer in gap years. Anyway. I think every kid should take a gap year unless they have a really compelling reason not to. Because it's so important to get that maturity to get that self awareness. It makes a huge difference. I mean, I knew people who've taken gap years, or even students of mine at Yale, who just had to take a leave, not because of any kind of breakdown, but just like, they needed some perspective. They went away for a year or a semester, not abroad, not study abroad, but just took just hit the pause button. And they came back and they were adults. They were on a different level than their friends and they knew it. Um, so I would say, I think I mean, listen, every family is different. Every kid is different. I think my generic advice is prepare to go to college and next fall, you know, go through the application process and everything admissions process, make your best guess about the best school to go to, but have contingency plans. Get very serious about researching gap years, because I think you should do it anyway. And that way, if necessary, you'll be prepared to do one. If you feel like college isn't able to come back in a real way or you will aren't able to make a proper choice about where to go.

Leigh Moore:

I am trying to guess I use the word permission a lot. I'm trying to give the students permission to not know exactly where they want to go, because that's really an unrealistic expectation. At this point, if they haven't been able to even visit campuses, you know, like, why do you put pressure on yourself to make a perfect decision? I, nobody wants to go into college and purposely to transfer later. But

Unknown:

if it happens, it happens. It happens. It's not the end of the world. And you know what, one of the one of the things that I've changed about my messaging so to speak since excellent, cheap came out six years ago, the book that disadvantages ended up turning into is, um, I think I say in that book, you know, there's no best school, there's just the best school for you. I don't even say that anymore. Because that kind of puts pressure on you. It's like finding your soulmate. There's one person out there for you. There isn't one best school for you. There are lots of schools that will be good for you. And certainly some that won't be good for you, but plenty that will be so I don't think people should put pressure on themselves. It's got to be this school, or I've got to figure out the school that I want to go to. I think you should think about it, like half a dozen schools, any of which would be a good school for me to go to. And then you know, you apply and hopefully get into one. Absolutely.

Leigh Moore:

Well, Bill, thank you so much. This has been really interesting and fun. What's next?

Unknown:

Oh, I'm not sure I'm the book just came out death of the artist a few months ago, I'm still doing a lot of publicity for it. So I'm giving myself permission to to think more slowly about what comes next.

Leigh Moore:

I that's very good. I have to ask you. I'm a Vanderbilt alumna, and I see that you're going to speak at Vanderbilt. Are you speaking at the Blair school music? Or do you do you know, off the top of your head? What you're what you're doing there? If not,

Unknown:

I don't remember the name of the program that I'm speaking. But, but it's we're gonna try to publicize it as widely as possible, certainly to all the arts students. Unfortunately, it's going to be a virtual event. Because it's I think next February. I hope someday to get to Vanderbilt in person and to get to Kentucky in person.

Leigh Moore:

We'll get you to the south. Yeah, even if we go. Yeah, we may need to get you to the derby. Bill, thank you so much.

Unknown:

Thank you. Okay.

Leigh Moore:

That's it for now. And thank you for listening to the real college matters podcast. As always, if you have any questions or concerns or ideas that come from an episode, please drop us a line. info at real college matters.com is where you do that. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast if you've not done that already. And we look forward to connecting with you next time. Thanks a lot.

Intro of episode and guest
Beginning of interview
Bill's perspective on his own academic background
A Jane Austen Education; Bill's first book
Death of the Artist; published earlier this year
The Disadvantages of an Elite Education; an essay that went viral
Solitude and Leadership; speech to West Point cadets
Conflating achievement with leadership and excellence
Advice for current seniors and their families