Part II in my very occasional series on applications that don’t succeed.
Why I do this: Most people who apply for prestigious positions fail, and it seems healthy to acknowledge that truth. Otherwise, we end up in a world where all we can see are the triumphs of the people around us, in stark contrast to our own failures. (Some people refer to this as “Facebook envy”.)
So I’m swimming against the tide, by showcasing the times I wrote something with all my might, only to receive a rejection letter.
A few months ago, The New York Times began accepting applications for The Edit, a newsletter written by and for college students and recent graduates. One of the optional writing prompts: “What’s the best thing you’ve read this week?”
I wrote about Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which will certainly appear in my end-of-year “Best Books” list. I don’t think the piece has any glaring flaws, but I’d guess that the hook wasn’t strong enough to stand out amidst 20,000 other applications.
(The 800-word limit didn’t help, either; my first draft was more than double that length.)
The Edit: Application Essay
2018 is not a bad year to be an intellectual.
You may not believe me. After all, we seem to live in a time when truth is obsolete. When scientists struggle to run experiments that give the same result each time. When colleges are under simultaneous attack from outside forces and their own students. If you like to learn facts and play with ideas, you may think you’ve been born in the wrong era.
Richard Hofstadter, were he alive today, would disagree. In the course of reading his masterpiece, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, I’ve learned that our own age, despite its real barriers to free expression and the pursuit of knowledge, pales in comparison to America’s history.
Imagine being a college graduate in the early 19th century. More specifically, a minister – after all, most colleges back then were explicitly religious. You become a preacher on the prairie, but it’s a hard job: Many frontier families don’t own a single book (even a Bible), and most children rarely attend school. When you open your newspaper (the only copy in town), you see Andrew Jackson, a populist slaveholder with no college degree, crush his abolitionist, Harvard-educated opponent in the 1828 Presidential election.
Irritated, you build a time machine and fast-forward a century, waving to Abraham Lincoln along the way. Unfortunately, you land in 1916, soon after the film Birth of a Nation earns rave reviews for its heroic depiction of the Ku Klux Klan. Meanwhile, anti-war protestors are routinely jailed, and president Woodrow Wilson admits that he “[hasn’t] read a serious book through for fourteen years”.
One more try: You speed through the Depression and World Wars, landing in 1952, the prime of Hofstadter’s career – just in time to see noted intellectual Adlai Stevenson (the Al Gore of his time) get walloped by down-to-earth Dwight Eisenhower.
Meanwhile, a political newcomer has whipped the public into a frenzy with a series of wild accusations, attacking a whole class of people as fundamentally un-American. He has help from The Freeman, a conservative magazine which defends him in familiar language:
“The truly appalling phenomenon is the irrationality of the college-educated mob that has descended upon Joseph R. McCarthy.”
On the whole, maybe 2018 isn’t so bad. Or at least not so different. Throughout America’s history, we’ve seesawed between mocking intellectuals and viewing them as a menace to the public.
Hofstadter doesn’t offer a clear solution, but his book’s most important lesson comes from America’s early evangelists:
“They knew […] that their most important work was not with people who had been exposed to Tom Paine’s assaults on the Bible but with those who had never been exposed to the Bible.”
If intellectuals want the public’s trust and support, they shouldn’t waste energy on the “marginal intellectuals” (Hofstadter’s term for the Steve Bannons of his day) who inveigh against them. Instead, they should explain the virtues of their ideas – free trade, social justice, or anything else – to people who haven’t had the chance to hear them.