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Interviews National

Tugged Out of Narcissism: An Interview with Frank Bruni, Columnist for The New York Times

Frank Bruni has been with The New York Times since 1995, serving as a metropolitan reporter, writer for Sunday Arts & Leisure, White House correspondent, Rome bureau chief, and chief restaurant critic. In 2011, he became The Times’s first openly gay columnist in the newspaper’s 160-year history, writing twice weekly and covering topics including American politics, higher education, pop culture, and gay rights. Bruni is also the author of three New York Times best sellers: Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, Born Round, and Ambling into History.

The Politic: In Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be, you write about your decision to forego studying at Yale in favor of UNC-Chapel Hill. Referring to your parents, you write: “They told me, repeatedly, to forget about the money. They insisted on it. But a part of me refused to. I didn’t want to be a person who could forget that so easily.” How were your views influenced by your upbringing, and specifically, this college decision?

Frank Bruni: I made a decision about where to go to college that was divorced from the simple question of prestige. I don’t know whether that was the right or wrong decision—you can’t be the best judge of your own life—but what it did show me, since my world didn’t collapse, since I had a wonderful college experience and education, since I went on to many jobs and adventures that I was very grateful to have…is that there are a variety of ways to make the decision about where to go to college. And there is definitely a certain subset of American teenagers who…believe that you go to the school…that has the most prestige as conventionally measured. I guess the fact that I didn’t do that and have never been dissatisfied with the results simply taught me…that there are more flexible and broader ways of thinking about the question of where to go to college.

Ruth Whippman of The New York Times just wrote a piece called, “Everything Is for Sale Now. Even Us,” which you retweeted. She says, “In this cutthroat human marketplace, we are worth only as much as the sum of our metrics.” Do you see parallels between the mania of the college process, the metrics of U.S. News & World Report, and other facets of society?

That’s tough. It’s funny because when people are on social media, they’re often not visibly in the company of other people. … People, in a weird way, are more conscious of the audiences in their lives than they were before, and because of that, I think they can be more vulnerable to and sensitive to superficial judgements in a way that I don’t think is psychologically healthy. So, I think maybe that thread runs through the mania people feel to get into a college that is going to flatter them, that when they wear that t-shirt or sweatshirt, or when they mention that name, they will feel proud and validated. That may kind of reflect a consciousness of the audiences in one’s life that is also a phenomenon that exists and is exacerbated by social media. 

Do you see positives to social media as well?

There is this other side to social media that I do think we’re not talking about that pushes back against and argues for not just its utility, but even its beauty. I wrote the piece that you referenced…”The Internet Will Be the Death of Us.“…and a few people responded, saying: “You know what? When I had X disease, social media was salvation.” “When I was suffering X problem, finding a community of people, and finding advice, and finding listening boards on social media meant everything.” “Social media was my route to really important information about treatment, or about counseling.” A lot of people wrote me that, and it’s an important thing for all of us to remember. Social media, when it’s functioning in its most idealized and utopian way, is this powerful and, in some situations, life-saving connector.

One quote that stands out in your book is that “Schools are businesses as well as laboratories of learning—and maybe businesses before laboratories of learning.” Can you dive into that a bit?

When you look at schools that pour a lot of money into certain amenities, the clichéd, stereotypical example is the climbing wall, but a lot of schools have them. I’ve written about this, and I’ve used some of the more floored examples like the lazy rivers—MSU has a lazy river. When you see schools pouring money into the gleam of dormitories, or the sexiness of recreational opportunities, or the splendiferousness of dining options…none of that has to do with education. That is about luring more students…getting so many applications that you can then reject a certain number, end up with a very low acceptance rate, and thus enjoy the prestige that people associate with low acceptance rates. … There’s no way you can deem that impulse, or that exercise, educational.

The question as to whether Yale is a “business” came up in 2015 with the Christakis incident. Many students argued that residential college deans have an obligation to create a “home” for undergraduates. I think the pervasive thought on our campus is that Yale does so incredibly much for us that it really is a home away from home. Do you think it’s dangerous for us students to think that way or to forget that Yale is also a for-profit business?

College is de facto a home to students for nine months of four, five, or six years. The configuration can also be different from that. People go to school in many different ways. And, I should add, college is not a home for many people: maybe the majority of them in the country, I haven’t looked at the figures lately, go to college in a commuter fashion, in a part-time fashion—I’m pretty sure that is the majority. For those people who are having a residential college experience, and who are living the majority of a year for four, five, or six years at a college, you can’t avoid or edit out the fact that the college is their home. I think what can be problematic is if you expect a college to be a place purely of nurture, because the truth of the matter is that even a family, and a home, isn’t always that.

Moving away from the word “home,” one of the things that I think concerned some people watching that unfold at Yale was that some of us heard or worried that we heard, in those complaints around that time or in the voice of that student who was shouting at [Professor Christakis], the notion that college owed you complete comfort and absolute emotional and intellectual safety. College owes you physical safety, but I would direct you to what I think is one of the most eloquent takes on this, on this whole notion on what degree and what kind of safety you’re owed by colleges—and that’s really what that shouting and argument was about. … It’s a quote [by Van Jones] that I’ve used in a lot of public speeches. It’s a long quote where he says, “I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically; I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally; I want you to be strong. That’s different.” And that, I think, is one of the questions or takeaways from that whole incident. Were students at Yale, expecting to always be made to feel emotionally and intellectually safe? And if so, is that consistent with the best kind of education, which can be challenging and which can be provocative?

Are there any questions that you wish interviewers would ask you? Any last thoughts you’d like Yale students to consider?

And here I will participate in the narcissism of our era. I am extremely focused these days, in my own thoughts, on the importance of empathy and perspective. I wish we would do a better job instilling in young people a sense of perspective, and I wish there were a way to imbue young people, and I would say, I wish you would all kind of find a sense of perspective. Not because you don’t have it—[not] at all. This isn’t a comment that’s prompted by any failing I see. But I think in a world in which social media gives us these erroneous and sometimes funny glimpses of other people’s lives, I think that it’s way too easy to fall prey to pity and envy and not to understand that all these kinds of better things you think you see out there, all these people who you think have an easier stride or a much better time…if you had a true and complete look at their lives, if you were looking in a total 360-degree way at everything around you, I think you would find it harder, when you have that sort of perspective, to become self-consumed in either negative or positive ways. And when I say “you,” I mean “we,” all of us. And so, I just wish we would all spend more time thinking about and practicing the talent of perspective. I think it would tug us out of our narcissism, and in many cases, I think it would tug us out of traps of envy and self-pity