New Book Looks at Elite Universities Through a Satirical Lens

January 31, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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In a conversation with Jeffrey Brown, novelist and NewsHour essayist Roger Rosenblatt discusses his new book, "Beet," which takes a satirical look at college life. The novel focuses on a fictional elite university of the same title, which looks for new ways to regain its past glory.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, a novel called “Beet,” a satirical take on college life. Jeffrey Brown has our book conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: Longtime NewsHour viewers know that Roger Rosenblatt specializes in casting a sometimes sharp, sometimes amused eye on various aspects and institutions of American life. In his new novel, “Beet,” the spotlight is on a small, prestigious liberal arts college in New England that has gotten itself into a world of trouble.

Roger is here now to tell us about it.


ROGER ROSENBLATT, Author: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: I happen to know that you have been called Professor Rosenblatt many times in your life.


JEFFREY BROWN: Does that have anything to do with writing a satire about academic life?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: No, it’s just people on the street calling me Professor Rosenblatt as I go by. Yes, I’ve taught a long time and always have enjoyed it. And now actually I’m getting good at it. It takes a long time, at least in my case, a long time to know what you’re doing when you teach.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your fictional college, Beet College, started by Nathaniel Beet…


JEFFREY BROWN: … who was the wealthiest pig farmer in the New England colonies?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Yes, and he was a New England divine, as well, so he left his fortune of 100 books, and some land, and some pigs, which were worth more than the books, to establish this college.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this is a place where many of the bad things we hear about in academic life today — political correctness, an emphasis on money — have sort of run amok, right?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Did I only cover many? I was hoping I’d covered all.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’d covered all of them? Well, I’m going to tick off some of the courses that are available at this college: communications arts; Native American crafts and casino studies; the sensitivity and diversity council; ethnicity, gender, and television studies; humor and meteorology.


Questioning the purpose of colleges

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, what's going on at this college?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: You tell me. The essential thing that's driving these courses or putting them into action is money. And this doesn't only apply to Beet College. It applies to universities all over the country in real life, that when money starts to drive an institution, it often loses sight of what it's all about, not just universities, publishing houses, other businesses, et cetera.

And so with Beet College they are now in the thrall of a developer named Bollovate who doesn't really like colleges anyway and believes the land is worth more than all these deep thinkers can come up with, but needs a new curriculum, and so that starts our college off, or claims to need a new curriculum.

JEFFREY BROWN: And in this case, where you're pushing things to the ultimate edge here, the college endowment has vanished, and there is now a question about whether this college should exist or not, and it's a good question.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Right. And the odd thing is -- actually, I sort of got scared as I wrote the book, because the more I started to develop Bollovate's arguments, the more I thought, "Maybe somebody is actually going to take him up on this." That is, why have a college at all? Why not...

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean it might be worth more as a real estate developer?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Not only that, but he starts to say, why have colleges? Why have not have trade schools? Why go for four years? Why not go for six months? All you're doing is to prepare people for the business world. They all want jobs. Why not give them jobs sooner? Parents will save money on tuition; businesses will thrive, so forth and so forth.

An idealistic protagonist

JEFFREY BROWN: The main character is an English professor, Peace Porterfield.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Yes, so he's doomed.

JEFFREY BROWN: As an English professor to start with.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Always, right.

JEFFREY BROWN: But it falls to him in this case to come up with a curriculum to save the college. Tell us about him and his endeavor.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Well, his main sin is that he's an idealist, and he's a good guy, and he's quite bright, and he wants the college to succeed. He believes in things about the liberal arts. He really believes in them.

His wife, Livi, who is a hand surgeon, has a much more jaundiced view. But he wants to make Beet thrive and takes the trustees at their word when they tell him, "If you can come up with a new curriculum, that brings in more customers" -- they talk about customers rather than students -- "and we get more grants and we get more alumni gifts, then the college will save itself."

So his assignment is to come up with a new curriculum that does all these things.

JEFFREY BROWN: And read us a little passage that shows some of his thinking.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Well, it's interesting. I'm going to read you a rare quiet moment in the book, because the book is fairly raucous. But this is the time when he's had a fight with his very caustic friend, Manning, and actually a real fight in the gym, when they're playing one-on-one basketball.

JEFFREY BROWN: And he's a professor, as well.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: He's a professor, as well. And during their discussion, though, before the fight erupted, you could tell an idea is developing slowly in Peace's mind about a curriculum, an idea that might be based on -- a curriculum that might be based on storytelling.

And while he doesn't want to foist his ideas on the committee -- he's a very noble fellow -- the committee has proved itself so inept that you know this is inevitable. So this is the evening after that fight with Manning and the idea of storytelling developing incubatively in his mind.

"That night after supper, as Livi sat reading in the one soft living room chair, Peace took the kids on the couch with him to tell them a story. He had not done that for a while. They sat on either side of him as he told them about the celebrated jumping frog of Calaveras County, and Rip Van Winkle, and a story of Chekhov's that he made clear and simple."

"He found they were happier when he cast the old stories in his own way rather than reading from books, where he knew he had to explain some of the words."

"It was the story they wanted, none so much as a story from Peace's own life. So when he was done with the masters, he dredged up -- he did not know why -- a story told to him by his father, whose father had told it to him, about a boy in a boat, sailing down the path of the moon."

"As he finished, the two children fell asleep leaning against him like books on a shelf."

JEFFREY BROWN: I know that you're making fun of the institution here, but you love teaching, you love learning, and you love storytelling.

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Yes. And I like this guy. I want him to prevail, but the odds against him are so high that the only reason he kind of wins at the end is because of the force of his own character. The bad tendencies of the institution still go on.

Exploring the medium of satire

JEFFREY BROWN: Our viewers have watched you for years as you take on different subjects in essays for us and elsewhere. What is it about a subject that somehow grabs you and forces you to have to write about it or write a novel about it?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Well, the interesting thing that I've learned -- and I'm just an amateur novelist, this being my second -- is that a satire -- I was wondering why I take to satire. Why do I like to do it?

And I realized that satire is an essay, but it's an essay standing on its head, sticking out its tongue. And so all the things that one would say in an orderly way in an essay, believe this, and here's my proof, and so forth, and so on, in a satire, you can create a wild situation that winds up saying the same thing, except you get to your truth through laughter, or you try to.

JEFFREY BROWN: And where do you see -- I want to ask you, because this is a year where we've had these studies about the lack of reading, the loss of reading, the NEA has a new report. And here you're writing a book about how people learn and where people learn.

What do you see in our culture that gives you some hope or some horror about books and language and learning?

ROGER ROSENBLATT: Well, I guess what I've always seen. The one complaint, if there were a single complaint that I had about the curriculum at Beet College or similar places that actually exist, is that the courses are designed to make students feel proud of who they are or to establish self-esteem, whereas my idea of education -- and most of the people I admire -- was that, instead of making you proud, that most of education makes you humble, and that you're in the hands or in the thrall of the best minds, thinking the best thoughts that ever have been thought, and you have four years in which to study those minds.

And it doesn't make any difference whether they're black, white, male, female, anything else, but the idea is not to make you feel better about yourself, but if anything, actually, sort of to make you feel worse about yourself so that you live a life that is useful.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The novel is called "Beet." Roger Rosenblatt, thanks.