At times Culture Briefing will focus on a particular theme; at others, the collection of articles that catches our eye will be more scattershot. This week’s Culture Briefing is of the latter kind.
Following on the theme of technology and disruption from last week’s briefing, Wired recently published a deep dive into the “secret history of the Apple Watch.” Interestingly, the basic social fact the designers of the Apple Watch wanted to “disrupt” was their own shared conviction that “your phone is ruining your life.” This, according to David Pierce, was the final raison d’être for the Apple Watch: Apple, the very company that bears some responsibility for the fact that an increasing number of us live within a constant state of partial distraction, can birth a new mode of sociality precisely by reinventing one of humanity’s oldest pieces of “wearable technology.”
This briefing is also unique in that it includes a video. Titled “What is College For?,” the discussion between David Brooks and William Deresiewicz extends and develops much of the thought expressed in Brooks’ recent work on character and Deresiewicz’s influential article from the New Republic, “Don’t Send Your Kids to the Ivy League.”
The discussion between Brooks and Deresiewicz presses in two directions. First, and most immediately, it raises questions about the nature of higher education in our time—what it is for, what we expect from it, what is required to sustain its influence, and so on. That argument (and the book that followed Deresiewicz’s essay) harkens back to Brooks’ own diagnosis of the meritocratic turn in higher education in his seminal essay, “The Organization Kid.” “College,” Brooks said then, “is just one step on the continual stairway of advancement,” and one can see in the recent interaction between Brooks and Deresiwicz that neither think this basic fact has changed. Though “The Organization Kid” is now nearly 15 years old, the trend Brooks recognized at the turn of the century has only accelerated.
This also raises the question of shifting norms regarding adulthood in our time. Whatever we decide about curriculum reform or the place of the liberal arts within modern universities, the discussion itself shows just how the normative status of adulthood—that is, both its content and desirability—is up for grabs. Without some degree of consensus regarding what constitutes a well-formed adult, the technocratic impulse Brooks and Deresiewicz identify becomes the default moral order. This is due to the fact that, as James Hunter puts it in “Wither Adulthood?,” “the characteristics that have made adulthood recognizable and desirable have been deinstitutionalized.” Moreover, “the very category of adulthood,” Hunter argues, “has become opaque.” This can be seen in the ongoing search for agreed-upon rites of passage, one of which used to be a college education.