“There is No One Path”

Talking with Frank Bruni about higher ed, journalism careers, and how we get where we're going.

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In April, New York Times columnist Frank Bruni sat down with Paula Marantz Cohen, dean of the Pennoni Honors College, to discuss, among other things, higher education and his most recent book Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.

P: I’d like to discuss your life and career a bit before discussing your latest book. You went to journalism school at Columbia, then you worked at the New York Post, then at the Detroit Free Press before coming to the NYT, and that was in 1995. Now what I think is interesting is that seems to me sort of the traditional trajectory for getting into journalism at the highest level at the time.

B: Yes and no. The idea of trading up newspapers or trading up venues is traditional. I don’t think starting out at a tabloid and ending at the NYT, that’s not exactly traditional.

P: Do you think that trading up (the tabloid aside) is totally gone now? What does one do, in your opinion, now to get a career in journalism?

B: There is no one path any longer. There are people who get jumpstarted by the fact that they somehow do some work that gets noticed on the Internet right away. So in that sense, you can cut a lot of corners and end up on an express lane. And there are other people who do something like what I did, who keep trading showcases for ever more prominent ones, but it isn’t necessarily newspaper, newspaper, newspaper. Because those smaller news that used to be the gateway to the profession, many of them have gone away or have such tiny staffs that they don’t exist as the farm teams for bigger papers as they once did.

P: Your point about the New York Post, the tabloid — how come out of Columbia journalism school your first job was at the Post?

B: It was a simple matter of the fact that I was graduating from journalism school, I had not yet gotten a job offer from any of the newspapers whose doors I was knocking on. And I was there in Manhattan, and somebody said, “The Post needs some summer help.” And since they are a unionized paper, even though you are just 21-22, they’ll have to pay you quite decently because they can’t pay less than a certain amount.”

I went over there for what I thought would be somewhere around five to 10 weeks and in my third week they said, “We’d like to offer you a job.” And I thought, “Well, I don’t have anything else happening, I feel privileged to be making this salary.” New York was exciting. The Post was exciting. The Post was then trying to be more mainstream: a little less tabloid-y. I thought, ‘This is going to be an amazing experience — which it was — if I don’t stay too long, I will be forgiven for the tabloid and I will be able to work for the kinds of newspaper that I envision myself at down the road.” At the year-and-a-half mark, I said, “I gotta go.”

P: So you were very strategic?

B: I’m not a very strategic person, but that was one bit of planning that I thought was well-executed.

P: When you got to the Times in 1995, I am really blown away by the number of jobs and the kinds of jobs that you had.

B: By my dilettantism? My little brother says I don’t have a career; I have an attention deficit disorder.

P: That sometimes can create a career! I’m just going to run through these because it’s just so interesting. First is metropolitan reporter and you also wrote for the Times magazine. Then, as a reporter for the Washington bureau. Then as reporter on the GW Bush’s presidential campaign and following his win as a White House correspondent. Then you became the Rome bureau chief…

B: In between them, I was a staff writer for the magazine for a while, based in Washington. Then the Rome bureau chief…

P: Ah, and then two years later you surfaced as a restaurant critic…

B: Yes, and that I did for five-and-a-half years.

P: And that’s actually how I first was introduced to you. And then in 2011 you became, what I think is general known as the most prestigious position at the Times, an op-ed columnist…

B: And then, after that, a short stint as a magazine staff writer. There were basically two periods between other jobs where I was writing full-time for the Sunday magazine.

P: So this range of experience — is this common to Times reporters or were they trying to figure out how to use your voice?

B: It’s not common, but it’s not unheard of at all. Wild guess, I’d say about 80% of people at the Times have much more linear careers that stay focused on certain things. There are others, myself among them, based on our roving curiosity, based on whatever our strengths happen to be, we’re easier to plug into different holes. So I‘m just one of those people who gets restless very easily, who’s fairly adaptable to different formats, and who has a broad range of interests. I think when they spot someone like that, and again I’m hardly alone, they are very accommodating of trying different things. At various junctures, I was asked to do certain jobs because they wanted someone who had a fresh set of eyes or a fresh approach. When they started having me write about politics, it was in part because I hadn’t been writing about politics. When they asked me to do restaurant critic, it was in large part because I hadn’t spent a career around writing about food. And they thought that would bring a different element to it. So in some ways, my lack of experience was considered a benefit or attribute for these jobs.

“My little brother says
I don’t have a career; I have an attention deficit disorder.”

P: So you were a restaurant reviewer for five years. You’re also a self-described anorexic and bulimic.

B: Never anorexic.

P: They don’t go together?

B: No. Anorexic means you’re someone who is starving yourself. Meaning you are well below a normal body weight and sort of emaciating, wasting away: someone who is not eating at all because you’re trying to exert some kind of control over the world by controlling your body weight in a way that becomes severely unhealthy. Bulimic means you’re throwing up meals, you’re using throwing up as a weight control management mechanism. Some bulimics are using it quite successfully, if you want to use an odd adverb. But bulimia refers to that behavior.

P: So you were bulimic?

B: For a brief period in college.

P: I was going to say — it would seem to me that that kind of illness would be hard, the pathology sort of stays with one. I’m trying to think of how a bulimic and a restaurant critic go together.

B: I don’t think they go naturally together, which is why I wrote a whole book about it.

P: Was it stressful for you to be a restaurant critic and have this in your past?

B: It was not, and maybe this is how they go together. Bulimia is often a feature of a binge-purge approach to life and to eating. Which was my approach. Being a restaurant critic puts you on a steady rhythmic eating schedule that essentially forbids you from executing that binge-purge psychology. So if you’re someone who is binging on food it’s usually because you’re promising yourself that a purge around the corner. If you’re a restaurant critic, you can’t ever do the purge deprivation part. So your binge permission is the promise of the diet of the deprivation, and you can’t make yourself that promise. Actually being a restaurant critic in a weird way is a very healthy regimen.

P: So it’s a sort of antidote. But isn’t going to a fancy restaurant where you’re going to have three or four courses, isn’t that a kind of binge?

B: Not when you’re a restaurant critic, because you’re there to sample the food and so you’re actually approaching the food in a different way. You’re not approaching it from an attitude of pure hunger and fill me up, you’re approaching it as I have to figure out what my opinion of the steak is, what the duck dish is. So you’re not going there from a pig-out mode.

P: That’s so fascinating. It’s sort of the difference between reading for pleasure and reading as a critic. They’re really different mechanisms.

B: Right, although for pleasure or as a critic, you’re still going to finish the book. I probably never in my life didn’t finish as many meals as when I restaurant critic. That wasn’t the point of the meal. Unless things were going to get really sloppy and out of control, you had to pace yourself. Because it was every night you were out. So you can edit down what you’re consuming if you’re a food critic in a way you can’t if you’re a book or movie critic, and still have to see the whole movie, read the whole book.

P: That’s a very interesting distinction. Still staying with your restaurant reviewing, I remember talking to a friend of mine who was a music reviewer at the Times who said at a certain point going to concerts became a chore and eventually he moved into a different area. Was that part of your move? Was there a point where food ceased to be interesting, having to deal with it on a regular basis?

B: Oddly, no. I spent two, two-and-a-half years at the Detroit Free Press as a movie critic. I had always been an enormous, enormous movie fan. And I found that being a movie critic and having to watch the number of movies I had to watch in a given week, so many of them bad, having to watch them all with the thought of how am I going to capture or define what worked or didn’t, I found it really diminished my joy in movies. And after I left that job it was many years before I began to consume movies with the pleasure and frequency that I once did.

That did not happen to me as a restaurant critic. I don’t know why, possibly because there are so many other thing that go along with having a meal, it becomes the way you keep in touch with friends. It’s a great way, since you need companions at the table, to keep your social life alive. It’s interesting once you stop being a restaurant critic, one of the quickest changes is you lose touch with a lot of people who you were keeping in touch with because you lose the forced excuse of “oh I need to go out anyway, I need to bring them to the table.” So, many friends I saw frequently as a restaurant critic, I see now maybe once a year.

P: Interesting. It kept your social life more connected.

B: It’s like a forced march. That was the exhausting part, not the eating or going to restaurants. I like restaurants; I think they’re pleasant places to be. Even when they’re bad restaurants, you can still have a stiff drink and enjoy that aspect. The hardest part of that job is you’re filling your table every night with different people. Although some are people who come out with you once or twice a week, there are always some people who only go out once a month. For them it’s a big deal. Like “Oh I’m going out with a restaurant critic tonight.” And you are essentially the host of a party seven nights a week. And there are a lot of nights where you just don’t want to be up or on. I’m a little bit of an introvert and I found it exhausting to have to summon whatever facsimile of charm I happen to possess night after night for these meals. That part was tough.

P: You then were assigned the job of being an op-ed writer for the Times. I believe you were or are the first openly gay columnist at the times? And I wonder, the Times is a liberal paper, but it’s also kind of a stodgy paper. I know for a long time, for example, the top editors didn’t like to advertise they were Jewish. Did you find there were challenges built into the Times culture even though they may have chosen you in part because they wanted that other perspective?

B: No. Never. I was openly gay from the moment I walked in the door in 1995. And I have never found, I cannot think of a single moment, instance, anything honestly, when that made me feel diminished, challenged, or anything less than totally accommodated. It’s interesting; the Times, I think, had an epoch when it was known to not be the friendliest place for gay people. That was over by the time I got there. So when I’m reading about that, I’m reading about a bit of history I don’t personally know. To the point of how little they were concerned about gay employees: when I was covering Bush, I was openly gay. Our chief political correspondent, Rick Burke, at that time, is openly gay. The reporter who often filled in for him — who later on became our chief political correspondent — Adam McGuerney, is openly gay. I remember someone once telling me that Bush turned to an aide during the campaign saying, “Wow, everybody covering me from the Times is openly gay.” He wasn’t complaining because privately he wasn’t as censorious of that as he might have been in public. But the Times, I think, didn’t even notice that they had three gay men covering the Republican front-runner. And if they had noticed, they obviously didn’t care.

P: Well, that was going to be my next question. Was covering that campaign uncomfortable or odd?

B: No, not for me because I have a lot of different friends in life of different political persuasions. Many of my relatives are stalwart Republicans. And I find it easy to compartmentalize. I obviously don’t agree with the Republicans’ positions then or to the extent that most are still opposed to marriage equality. In the same way that people aren’t single issue voters, I’m not a single issue writer or person. I can see valid perspectives being made by a political party that might have one or two positions that I am not at all in agreement with.

“The Times, I think, didn’t even notice that they had three gay men covering the Republican front-runner.”

P: I interviewed Barney Frank and he mentioned you by name.

B: He seems to be going around bringing up my review to complain about it.

P: To fill in readers: you had reviewed his book, Frank, his memoir. Barney Frank is a former congressman of three decades. You took him to task for not being more personal, he talks about his life as a gay man in the book and he took umbrage…

B: No. I think he very mischievously and cynically and deliberately to drum up more press for himself, he’s gone around saying, “He wanted me to say more about my sex life.” That’s a phrase in the review. I absolutely criticized the book for being so steadfastly impersonal. And if you’ve read the book and you’re honest about it, it’s a very technocratic book. He begins by saying he’s going to write a book that is a measure about what it was like to be a gay man and have this yearning to be in political life that was in conflict with it. And for the first 100 pages, he makes fleeting references to being in the closet, but you have no idea. Is he dating? Is it hard to be in the closet? What’s going on psychologically?

Instead, he tells you about what his portfolio was as a mayoral aide in Boston. And so that is what I took issue with and I stand by that. And as an example of how impersonal it was, I said he doesn’t tell you whether he’s had sex or whether he wants to. He’s taken that one phrase and he’s decided to make a campaign out of it because it’s a nice sound bite that gets him attention.

P: So let’s get to your new book. Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be takes on this subject of college admission mania. What prompted you to tackle this subject in book form?

B: The answer is a purely journalistic one. I tackled it first in column form. When you look at the world around you notice certain things that don’t make sense or that you think cry out for explanation or remedy. Whether it’s an education of something else you tend to gravitate to those and think that’s a story, something worth talking about. I’ve been really struck over the last few years over the fact that the college admissions process, the pursuit, kids’ pursuit of admission into the most selective schools has become frenzied, manic, feverish to a degree that was unimaginable in the early ’80s when I was applying to school.

Read It

CO_COHEN_BRUNI_CO_001
Where You Go is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania
By Frank Bruni
Available now from Grand Central Publishing

I grew up in a family that was super-conscious of the Ivy League. My mother wanted certain stickers on the back of her car. She would read aloud the stickers on other people’s cars. Running commentary, they have Harvard, Yale, and Duke – they did well. They have state universities – they didn’t do as well. And I thought that the consciousness and self-consciousness around the process was at a pretty high level then. What I’ve seen through my nieces and nephews, through the children of friends over recent years, is a completely new and changed world where you hire private college consultants – hired for $50,000 — to help them with every decision they make from the eighth grade forward. You have $14,000 three-day a weekend essay writing camps. All of this stuff, an industrialized process, was unbelievably striking and unbelievably surprising in the sense that when I looked at the world around me, reflecting on all the successful people I’ve interviewed, in a career that has been across many different subject matters, I don’t see a preponderance or prevalence of elite institutions in peoples’ backgrounds that justifies this level of frenzy and obsession for elite institutions. To me that is the kind of contradiction problem, whatever you want to call it, that is a great story. So I just saw a great story.

P: I want to probe some of the points you made. First, I want you to address what strikes me as at the heart of some of the problem: US News & World Report, this magazine that ranks schools. This magazine and its ability to influence people strikes me as so bizarre. Do you have thoughts on that? Why does this issue of a magazine, with its rankings, which few people read otherwise, have this kind of clout?

B: Because this is a decision people are making that involves a whole lot of money and does involve preparation for the future. And we like to outsource our judgment to experts in a gazillion ways. We go to Consumer Reports before we buy a washing machine or an oven. We go to Car & Driver before we buy a car. When you are making a big decision that involves a lot of money you want somebody from outside. You want some outside authority. You want to surrender your freedom to something or someone who knows better. US News & World Report, to its credit, has done an amazing job of rounding up statistical information on schools and presenting that in one of the most comprehensive forms. So, that is sort of their calling card. The issue, the problem, is that when it then decides to rank those schools in an order that chooses some of these metrics as proxies for quality. It becomes a very debatable formula and a very debatable thing. A lot of the things they measure don’t mean very much and aren’t necessarily indicators that you will have a great education at a school.

P: One of your major points is that students who don’t go to their first-choice schools can go on to become just as successful as those who do. You have many anecdotes in your book of such people. But the issue among many is rejection and the idea of rejection, and what that feels like for kids nowadays, particularly from a certain socio-economic group. You use yourself as an example when you say that you got into Yale. But you chose to go to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a superb school, and you did very well. But you chose to go to Chapel Hill. You were not rejected from Yale. You were in the extraordinary position of being able to reject Yale. I’m feeling that for many of the students, the feeling of rejection and being positioned to be rejected is a major part of what’s involved here – the pain, the suffering is that feeling of being rejected.

B: People have always been rejected and rejection has always been painful. My concern is that we have sent a message to many kids in this generation that this one moment, this one juncture, getting this acceptance or rejection, is going to have a profound and lasting effect on the entire trajectory of their lives. Kids have always been disappointed, and I think disappointment now is being felt in a much more intense way because it is being felt in the context of this message they received that they’ve lost out on something irreplaceable – irrevocable. What I’m trying to do when I talk to someone like you is to remind us matters of common sense that we have thrown out the window in this admission process.

We know that not everybody blooms at the same moment in life. There are so many successful people I know who are very late bloomers. We have forgotten that when we tell people this one juncture is so important. We know that there are certain matters of potential and intellect that can’t be measured so easily and yet we are treating the judgment of admission committees as if it is some binding judgment on self worth. The rejections of today are being experienced in that context and that context really has changed. We have become amplified, magnified, from 20 years ago.

P: I agree with you, absolutely. But I think, and you say this in the book, the problem lies more with the parents than with the students. I want to talk to you about what I think the parents’ investment in their children is. The child is some sort of curated extension of themselves and the college experience is that moment of transition from their care into the world at large. This is where I think college admissions have come to mean so much to the parent, who has been curating this child since preschool and now is going to launch the child. So that notion of fear on the part of the parent as to what lies in store and that they will no longer be in control is informing this mania.

B: I would agree with that, but I would say it perhaps in two other related ways. One of which is that I think a lot of parents view this moment, after all that curation, as a final report card on their efforts. I did well if I’m sending my child off to Harvard. I didn’t do so well if I’m sending my child off to Penn State. And that is nuts for all the reasons we talked about moments ago.

I’m sympathetic to parents in general because it’s really tough to figure out how to navigate this stuff and how hard to push, how hard not to push, etc. It’s been a decade now, of acute economic pessimism. It used to be when you asked parents “Do you think your kids will have a better life than you?” A clean majority of them said yes. That answer has changed over the last decade in this country. And if you have lost faith that the pie will keep growing, if you’re worried about an American prosperity in the future that will be a dim shadow of what it was, you’re worried about your kid not losing his or her purchase on the life you had. You’re going to be looking ever more urgently for anything that will give your kid a leg up. So I think a lot of parents feel that an elite institution, all other things being equal, is probably more of a leg up than a non-elite institution, so, dammit, I’m going to do everything I can to push my kid towards that place.

P: I agree with that and it is very well expressed. One of the things your book does in great detail is show how successful many people can be when they don’t go to their first or even second choice school. And you give many examples of people in top positions throughout the country, as well as students who are perfectly happy after a while when they go somewhere they hadn’t imagined. The idea of success permeates your book and I wonder about that: the whole idea of education and success. We have now come to equate the two. I wonder if that is also at the center of the problem. Thinking about education and successful careers — as opposed to thinking about education as a way of creating a fulfilled human being who might not need monetary success necessarily to be fulfilled — we’re feeding into it in the same by saying, “You can go to a non-Ivy League school and still be very, very successful.” It’s simply pushing the problem into the next step and I wonder what your thoughts on that are?

B: In the book, I mention that education needs to be a lot bigger than just a job you’re getting. And I spend some time in the book talking about the Purdue-Gallup Index, for example, which measures people post-college in two different ways. One is what they report as their level of professional satisfaction. Interestingly, it’s not their level of professional accomplishments/wealth. It’s professional satisfaction. But then it looks at a whole other vector, which is whether they are thriving. That has to do with how they feel with their life and the community, how they feel with their relationships, and all that kind of stuff.

I focused in the book more on people who haven’t gone to elite institutions and how they did success-wise, career-wise because of the myth that I’m pushing back at. There are a whole lot of people going around who say that if you want to reach the professional summit you’ve got to go to the Ivy League. The particular thing I’m trying to disabuse people of is tied into professional success.

P: I see your point. The college admission mania extends prior to college now to prep school and even to preschool, and especially in New York City. And I assume you live in New York City. So, I wonder if whether there is a larger social dysfunction operating here that may have to do with the fact that society has lost some important structural or moral supports that causes people to look to competition for their children in admission to these various junctures along the way as a source of meaning?

B: I think to a distressing degree. This is like everything we talk about, certain things have always been the case, but they become aggravated at different moments in time. We are living in a really status conscious moment and you see it in all walks of life. Part of what you are seeing here in education and higher education, even going down to preschool, is a desire to define, assert, validate status through one’s education pedigree – through one’s educational brand.

I also think we seem to be getting ever better over recent years in defining microclimates of privilege. It used to be that on the plane it was just first-class and coach. Now, there are about six different ways you can inhabit and board a plane, all based on these very subtle gradations of rank. And you see these subtle gradations of rank in health clubs. You see it in the way you use Uber, Lyft, or the common taxi. We’re getting really good, or bad I should say, at ever more precisely defining exactly what cast or echelon you inhabit and I think some people have transferred that psychology to the world of education.

“Now, there are about six different ways you can inhabit and board
a plane…”

P: But why this fixation on micro-hierarches? We’re supposed to live in an egalitarian society, as opposed to Europe, which has always had hierarchy. Is this a backlash against that?

B: I guess we’re just not finding meaning in other places the way we once did. Maybe it’s some of the things you alluded to before: the disintegration of communities, the waning of religion, I don’t know. It’s a question bigger than my brain, certainly bigger than my book. I know what I’m seeing. I know that in a very interesting way higher education and education is a mirror right now for a whole lot else for about the way society is functioning and about the way people are defining and siloing themselves.

P: What about people who can’t go to college or those who are going to community college, night school, or e-learning sorts of things? Can you say the same thing about them in terms of future success that you’re saying about these quasi-privileged people who might not be going to their first-class school?

B: To some degree, no, and to some degree, yes. One of the lessons of almost every story told in the book and one of the things I took away from the reporting of the book is that there is no keeping down a certain altitude of ingenuity and certain kind of resourcefulness. There’s just no way of keeping it down. Not everybody has that. We talk about drive and resourcefulness as if they are things that can simply be honed. And they can be honed. But there are people who are not born with that capacity. That is the brutal truth of life. But, whether we’re talking about someone who is beginning at a school with a 40% acceptance rate and they wanted to be at one with a 10%, or whether we’re talking about someone who is beginning at a community college or somebody who is inventing himself or herself through the Internet, which a lot of people are doing now and finding great success in Silicon Valley, I think, yes, you can say, if you’re an ingenious person, a person who perseveres, a person who is socially nimble, you will get somewhere good regardless of the educational path you take. •

Photo by Brian Kantorek

Paula Marantz Cohen is Dean of the Pennoni Honors College and a Distinguished Professor of English at Drexel University. She is the host of  The Drexel InterView, a unit of the Pennoni Honors College. The Drexel InterView features a half-hour conversation with a nationally known or emerging talent in the arts, culture, science, or business. She is author of five nonfiction books and six bestselling novels, including Jane Austen in Boca and Jane Austen in Scarsdale or Love, Death, and the SATs. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Yale ReviewThe American Scholar, The Times Literary Supplement, and other publications. Her latest novels are Suzanne Davis Gets a Life and her YA novel, Beatrice Bunson’s Guide to Romeo and Juliet.
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