Should You Go To Graduate School? Well, Consider the Advantages

Good day, readers!

Today’s text is a recent interview in the New Yorker with the Canadian author Sheila Heti. It is excerpted from a recent book, Should I Go To Graduate School: 41 Answers to An Impossible Question.

Admirable book. These are weighty questions, and it’s nice to know there’s an anthology asking a bunch of writers, artists, and professors what they did.

But, see, the interview gave me pause. And here’s why.

Heti’s answer is, basically, no. She says she never considered graduate school, that her life as a writer is structured around the kind of interesting and intelligent questions that one finds in graduate school, and thus she felt no need of official advanced study.

Except. In mid-interview, in response to a question along the lines of “isn’t graduate school valuable for the socialization process” she suddenly says that she attended theater school and learned playwriting. Now, this was apparently prior to gaining an undergraduate degree. Still…isn’t studying playwriting exactly the kind of professionalized training in the arts and humanities that graduate school provides? (In those disciplines—and the book, interestingly, is only on those disciplines.)

So…isn’t it a bit disingenuous to say she never felt the need? It seems she did feel the need. And got it fulfilled, through a program–she just didn’t do it post undergrad. The interview is carefully structured so that a summary answer might read “no, you don’t need graduate school; your intellectual interchange can come through writing and socializing with writers and other artists.” But the data provided indicate a slightly different path.

Why do I care? I think my concerns tie into the kind of social capital issues I’ve discussed in earlier posts (of April 30 and April 22, 2014, to be specific). Heti portrays a world in which giving parties for artists leads to socialization, networks, and interesting conversations. Implicitly, she is talking about sharing a world with social and cultural, if not monetary, wealth. To quote: “I remember telling my grandmother about [artist and writer] isolation, and she said, ‘Have regular parties at your house.’ I think that’s how she and her mostly Jewish, communist, artist friends socialized back in Budapest.” But it sounds as if she wouldn’t have had the initial nucleus without the play-writing program. (Or her grandmother’s advice.)

In my own experience, graduate school not only provides a valuable structure and socialization, it simply provides many more forms of knowledge and contacts than one has without it. Moreover—and maybe even more importantly–it also provides a kind of badge of intellectual proficiency; an intangible proof of capacity and interest that is increasingly needed because, sadly, our society is not only increasingly separating into the economic haves and the economic have-nots…it is also increasingly separating into those with higher degrees and those without. (My calling this does not mean I approve of this development. It’s injurious to democracy, even. But do increasing degrees of separation exist? Oh, yes.)

I’m also concerned because I think telling such a narrative to young people might lead them to a naïve decision. Yes, graduate school is expensive and the financial investment may not pay off. But the forms of intellectual and social capital it provides, while intangible, are real.

The interviewer, Jessica Loudis, gives voice to, I think, a common feeling on the part of those considering graduate school: “people regard doctoral programs as a kind of insurance policy; a way of guaranteeing that they will be able to read and think about the things they care about, at least for a few years…. people project these sorts of fantasies onto grad school.” Crucially, this is said apologetically, as if the people having these fantasies are, maybe, wrong.

I don’t think they are, frankly. It is a kind of insurance policy, and it does function as a haven for thinking about what you care about. At least in my book. Now, the world is full of interesting things to cogitate about postgrad too. (That’s what Retaining the Meta is all about!) But don’t knock having an outward symbol as a marker of an inward reality.

East Regards West: The Art of Leonid Sokov

I’m going to talk today about the artist Leonid Sokov. Not a household name, you say? In my world, his work was displayed nearly all last year in the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers. It was the first major show devoted to Sokov, who was born in 1941 in the former USSR and emigrated to New York in the 1980s.

Sokov is most famous for juxtaposing iconic figures from the former USSR with iconic figures from the West. hammer and dollar signSculptures of Western art, for example, approach iconic sculptures of Soviet leaders. Lenin and western scruptureMarilyn Monroe disports with Stalin. (Some of these images are also on his Web site.)  To quote the Zimmerli’s Web site: “Soviet nonconformist artists deviated from the officially prescribed patriotic style of Socialist, creating their ‘unofficial art’ following Stalin’s death in 1953 until Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika in the late 1980s. Sokov is associated with Sots Art, one of the most influential developments within Soviet nonconformist culture and prominent during the 1970s and 1980s. Sots artists mocked the regime’s efforts to control all forms of creative expression by distorting and defacing recognizable elements of Soviet propaganda in their work.”

So while much of his work gives you exactly what a viewer might expect from an artist who came to maturity in the former USSR—one sculpture of a face, for example, springs into motion whenever a viewer passes, because the eyes begin to move from side to side to spy on every passing form—a lot is tantalizingly ambiguous. The iconic Russians and the iconic Americans, for example, are staged in a meeting ground in which their fame or notoriety is the common element, not their respective economic and social arrangements. Who won the Cold War, then?

My favorite sculpture—and one in which, more importantly, I think you can find a key to these juxtapositions—is one in which Mickey Mouse stands on a hammer and sickle. The crossed hammer and sickle, of course, was the symbol of the USSR. Uncrossed, each provides a platform for one of Mickey’s feet. Remember, these are big feet; Mickey is shod in outsize clown shoes.

But it’s the spatial arrangements that are so interesting. This is a small—almost tiny—sculpture. Mickey seems to be bracing against the hammer and sickle, almost vibrating with a kind of tensile strength. So in one read, he has vanquished the USSR and its symbols. Not to belabor the symbolism, but a potent symbol of consumer capitalism (Mickey is one of the most ubiquitous and recognizable symbols of the West, and a commodity himself in a thousand cartoons and Mouseketeer hats)—has trod upon the USSR’s discredited symbols. They are underfoot. He is victorious.

Except that the tensile way in which he braces himself seems ambiguous. It prompts another read of the USSR’s symbols. Think of what the hammer and sickle are, divorced from the flag. Before the hammer and sickle were crossed on a flag, they were the tools of working people. So—despite a somewhat threatening look to Americans—they are the common implements of, well, carpenters and farmers. The tools of common guys and ordinary gals.

If these are the tools of common guys and gals, might it be said that they support Mickey, rather than provide fodder for the dust under his feet? That elements in common use are the buttress upon which his fame and power rest? After all, Mickey Mouse gained his popularity because millions of common guys and gals would buy a ticket to see his antics. Those ticket buyers, those viewers, those people who watched the cartoons and set the mouse ears upon the heads of their children, are his foundational support. So when the West won, when the Wall fell, it was because of the adherence of common folk–carpenters and farmers and their like–to the pleasures that Mickey symbolizes.

Homage to Margaret Drabble, Part II

In yesterday’s post, I promised more on Margaret Drabble’s most recent novel, The Pure Gold Baby. So, here it is!

This novel is a return to the concerns of her first decade as a writer. So she has returned to maternity and God’s love for humankind, and even to the scene of those early novels, gentrifying London, circa 1960s and later. Like the heroine of The Millstone, the heroine is a single mother; unlike the heroine of The Millstone, Jess Speight of The Pure Gold Baby gives birth to a daughter, Anna, who is in some unspecified way unable to mentally develop past her initial primary grade.

The novel is a meditation on the needs of such a child and the balance between tending to those needs and the contemporary considerations of her anthropologist mother: giving up travel, men (mostly), and a wider social circle. The book, narrated by a friend of Jess’s, is full of entertaining digressions on the efforts of 19th-century Victorians to help the less fortunate–the doctors who built sanitariums for the slow-witted (as they were then called) and the insane–and even Dr. Livingstone on his African sojourns. (Jess’s anthropological interests center on Africa.) Drabble widens her canvas, in a sense, to weave the social history predominant in her mid-career novels (The Ice Age, The Radiant Way, The Realms of Gold) with the earlier focus on how we care for those who most need it.

Given the affectionate portrayals of 19th-century scientists and philanthropists in The Pure Gold Baby, it would be safe to say that Drabble believes a rather 19th-century credo herself: that how the less fortunate are treated is a proxy for a kind of moral and spiritual order. (Indeed, she says as much in the Cooper-Clark interview: “I think the idea that you’re here in order to enjoy yourself is very wrong. You’re here in order to do the right thing and to seek the depths in yourself.”) This could serve as a gloss on The Pure Gold Baby, which is about the tug between Jess’s needs for self-fulfillment and duties as a parent.

Puzzling out the right thing is her books is done via intertextuality; her narrators (and then you, reader!) think in tandem with writers of the past. Affection for past avatars of British concern animates Drabble’s works.

One doesn’t have to read her own remarks about Wordsworth, for example (“he believed in plain living and high thinking, something that always haunted me….He believed in those spots of time in one’s life when one is in touch with something slightly beyond the immediate”), to realize his influence on her books. The epigraphs in The Ice Age, her novel about commercial Britain in the run-up to the Thatcher years, place Wordsworth in dialogue with Milton.  The latter’s epigraph foretells “a year of sects and schisms,” setting the stage for the novel’s tumultuous politics. The former’s, however, from Wordsworth’s poem “London, 1802,” specifically calls on the memory of his illustrious forbearer as a guide to order through the chaos: “Milton! Thou shouldst be living at this hour:/ England hath need of thee…/ We are selfish men;/ Oh! Raise us up, return to us again;/ And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.”

One has only to think of the lines left out of the epigraph—“the heroic wealth of hall and bower,/ Have forfeited their ancient English dower/ Of inward happiness”—to realize the implicit analogy. The Drabble of 1977 was calling upon Wordsworth, just as Wordsworth (more explicitly) called upon Milton.

In her biography of English writer Arnold Bennett, Drabble remarked that many times she “wanted to shake his hand, or thank him, to say well done.” Well, ditto, from this reader to her.

Homage to Margaret Drabble, Part I

Today’s post is about the British writer Margaret Drabble, who recently published, by my count,* her 18th novel, The Pure Gold Baby. Drabble has been, since your Meta-ist was a very young woman, one of her favorite contemporary novelists.

 Why? The intellectual play of her books is made for all the actual and incipient graduate students and thinkers among us. They are meta: the characters think and think about thinking, but in a way that portrays thinking as a comradely and pleasant activity. Several years ago, unfortunately, she forswore novel-writing in favor of the memoir. Also, in recent years, Drabble has been known less for her own books than for a feud with her novelist sister A.S. Byatt (the two don’t speak). Both oeuvre repudiation and sibling squabble are a profound shame, because they threaten to end or obscure her novelistic voice–which is very distinctive and very thoughtful. Therefore, it’s a relief to have her back with a new work of fiction.

Although Drabble’s early books (A Summer Birdcage, The Millstone, The Garrick Year) were written before my time, I happily discovered them when I was the age of their narrators. Each features young Oxbridge-educated women facing marriage, children, and possible exciting careers, often in the arts, and speaking in the first person, as if they’d just sat down to recount their current lives. Margaret Drabble young 2(BBC newsreading and acting is very big in the books published during the 1960s and 1970s; Drabble was married to the actor Clive Swift at the time and at one point served as an understudy for Vanessa Redgrave.)

She told the Paris Review that the writing of Birdcage, her first novel, was easy, as if she were writing a letter, and although the books are not epistolary, an easy candor does come through loud and clear. These are very specific to a time: the 1960s on the cusp of full liberation, and the 1970s+, liberation and after. She was giving a considered, intelligent report from the front lines.

The Pure Gold Baby is a return to the scene of these early books, such as The Millstone and The Garrick Year. All these books are about a primacy of bond between women and children, and about what one gives up for children: they are very explicit that careers, friendships, and relationships with men might suffer when children are in their early years, when their care takes precedence. (The Garrick Year has the narrator thinking that flirtatious conversations and affairs must be ended because children require constant attention, lest they tumble down river banks or into mud.) I don’t mean this to sound grim: it isn’t. Being a parent is a source of great joy in these books.

This aspect of Drabble’s writing brought her a great deal of critical attention at one time; critics in her mid-career often viewed her through the lens of maternity. In one interview, conducted by Diana Cooper-Clark, published originally in the Atlantic, and reprinted in the collection Margaret Drabble: Critical Essays (edited by Ellen Cronan Rose), Drabble said “I see motherhood in such positive terms that I feel almost embarrassed to state it. I think it’s the greatest joy in the world….I see parental love as an image of God’s love.”

It is these kind of linkages I like most about Drabble. Her works were once described to me (by someone who wasn’t aware of my fondness for her novels) as being “about relationships.” Well, yes. But also their higher, more abstract reverberations.

Next: More on The Pure Gold Baby.

*A list of her books through 2011, as well a brief biography, can be found on the Web site maintained by musician Jan Hanford.