Friday, March 9, 2012


I enjoy the word smug.  It's got a certain, well, smugness.  With its neat, four-letter profile, its flirtatious initial cluster, it's fun to get your lips around.

I have a more uncertain relationship with the emotional state for which "smug" stands in.  There is a great deal of satisfaction in self-satisfaction, but there's also an irritating circularity: I enjoy myself, therefore I am enjoyable.  I am enjoyable, therefore I enjoy myself.

Not much room for improvement there, and I mean that in its most literal sense: if you're smug, you've kicked self-betterment to the curb.

I've been thinking about smugness because I've been reading about it.  In the evenings, with The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a novel which, in its opening chapters, is notable for the smugness with which its protagonists skewer...smugness.  And, in the mornings, with this NYT editorial by Andrew Delbanco.

Delbanco's opinion piece, which riffs on presidential candidate Rick Santorum's now infamous attack on higher education, urges not knee-jerk condemnation, but rather introspection.  What if there is a needle of truth in Santorum's haystack of hooey, Delbanco argues, and that needle is lancing, painfully, the complacency of the elite?

After reaping the significant academic benefits that parental support, high socio-economic status, and cultural privilege have to offer, most freshmen shows up at, say, Princeton ready to learn.  Only 3% of their classmates will have come from families in the bottom 20% of earners.  Our freshmen have worked hard, it's true, but most of them had a head start.
"Yet once the beneficiaries arrive at college, what do they learn about themselves? It’s a good bet that the dean or president will greet them with congratulations for being the best and brightest ever to walk through the gates."
Does this beget achievement?  Maybe.  Does it forward good citizenship?  Probably not.
"In this respect, I agree with Mr. Santorum that our leading colleges could use a little more of their own old-time religion — not in any doctrinal sense, but in the sense of taking seriously the Christian virtues of humility and charity. In secular terms, this means recognizing that people with good prospects owe much to their good fortune — and to fellow citizens less fortunate than themselves." 
Delbanco waxes a little too wistful about "Christian virtues" for my taste, but I find his argument compelling.  It's easy to think highly of ourselves.  It's even easier to forget what we owe to one another.

No comments: