The great New York Times reporter David Carr passed away Thursday night at the age of 58. In 2010, I interviewed Carr about his views on his own education — both formal and informal — as part of a series of Q & As I was doing with people from different walks of life about education. Excerpts of our interview, which remain as interesting as when I first published them, are below.
Carr wrote about media and culture for The New York Times. He told his own story in “The Night of the Gun,” a beautifully written, funny yet wrenching memoir that spares nothing about the drug addiction and madness into which he descended, but, from which, almost unbelievably, he escaped. Before going to The Times, he was a contributing writer for Atlantic and New York Magazine and was the media writer for Inside.com. He also worked at the alternative City Paper in Washington D.C., as editor. A father with three daughters, Carr and his wife lived in Montclair, N.J.
Here are excerpts from our conversation that were originally published on The Answer Sheet in 2010:
Q) Where did you grow up and go to school?
A) I grew up on the border of Hopkins and Minnetonka in suburban Minneapolis. I went to a Catholic grade school 1 through 8, and then there was a tradition in our family to go to an all-boys Catholic high school. I had three older brothers and they had gone there. I went. It was also tradition that we would pay for half of our tradition, so I worked summers… I must say, though it was probably a good school, I loathed it.
A) I didn’t like the boys part. I fancied myself as a little bit of a rebel and it wasn’t the place for that… Athletic accomplishment was sort of the metric there, and I was a decent athlete but not really all that interested in sports, like crazy interested. But you know what? It was a good education.
Q) What were you best at in school?
A) I was good at English, terrible at chemistry…
Q) It seems like everybody I talk to was bad at chemistry.
A) How do we even run as a culture? It’s mind-blowing.
Q) How did you do on standardized tests?
A) I’m a good test taker.
Q) So what happened with you and college?
A) I was working at a candy plant…and I said I was going to take a year off school to think over my options. He said some words that you wouldn’t publish. So I went to the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, a small satellite campus. My art-slash-English teacher had recommended that I go to a journalism day [program] there…. And I went [to college] with a great deal of steam academically. I think I got 60 credits my first year there, partly because I had a good high school experience. A lot of it was a repeat of things I already knew….
Q) Were you always a good writer? Did you like to write when you were young?
A) Yes, but journalism was something I talked about more than did. It was something I would say at keggers. I wasn’t involved in the college paper. I wasn’t really doing anything. I was self-funded all through college and I was always working, from 20 to 40 hours a week. College was only part of what I did. While I was in River Falls I was working at a nursing home, which was oddly a job I liked a lot.
Q) What did you do there?
A) I was an orderly there. It was … I don’t know how to explain it. I know people think about it as being horrible. I liked it. I felt like I was doing something useful and I felt like I was good at it. It helped me sort of… I worked with 12 women every night. I was the only male there I think and I got a lot of attention…. But I was not alive or alert academically. I didn’t see myself as a scholar. I didn’t have deep passions as a kid academically, I didn’t see myself as especially smart. Eventually, I decided I couldn’t stay [at River Falls]. What hemmed me in wasn’t the school itself but the small town. … It was a posse town. I knew too many people…..
Q) Then what happened?
A) Robert Beck. I had an English teacher there. I don’t know where he came from. He was dead by the time I was doing my book. I had always been quite taken by him. He had a way of speaking that I admired…. Anyway, when I was leaving, he said, ‘You are a really bright young man but you haven’t read anything. You don’t know anything.’ And he gave me a list of 100 works of mostly contemporary American fiction, and over the course of the next four or five years, I’d say, I knocked out that list…
Q) It is interesting that you felt compelled to read the books even though you didn’t have to.
A) I was reading Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, John Cheever. It didn’t really feel like homework. My sort of college reading career had been sitting in a bean bag chair smoking pot and reading ‘Lord of the Rings. I really didn’t know or understand reading as its own kingdom and its own magical place until I read those books. One thing led to another… When I was young I had read all the Hardy Boys and Black Stallions and S.E. Hinton, so my head over time filled with words and I think that’s part of the reason I am a writer.
Q) Would you say you are somewhat self-educated as a result of the reading that you did?
A) I would say that is a big part of who I am. Like a lot of journalists, I am involved in a lot of ongoing education. My intellectual life right now is very much alive and cooking and that’s partly what I do for a living. It’s a great way to sort of get into the world…
Q) Did you finish college?
A) I ended up at the University of Minnesota with a double major in psychology and journalism. It took me seven years to get through college, a B.A….. When I transferred to the big school I damn near flunked out…. I still have nightmares that I haven’t graduated, that there is a hole in my transcript… I’m always nervous when I am on a college campus that someone is going to leap out and say, ‘You didn’t really graduate.’…
I’m on college campuses a lot now. In the last year I’ve been at Yale, I’ve been at Harvard, I’ve been at MIT. I’ve been speaking to fairly august groups and I always feel a fraud. I’m at a newspaper where there is ivy growing all over these desks. There are so many people who are so learned who have such significant academic backgrounds, and I really don’t have that. … But we find our way…
Q) Lots of journalists feel like frauds…. So back to books. Which ones would you say that no kid should get out of high school without reading today?
A) We just got ‘Catcher in the Rye’ for our 13-year-old. I like to somehow interrupt the vampire riff she’s on.. Everything she reads is drenched in blood.
Q) What grade is she in?
A) She is in 8th grade. She is in a public school, unlike her sisters. Her sisters are each 21. One is at Michigan and one is at Wisconsin. The one at Wisconsin is finishing her last semester in Prague, and the Michigan one is in fact a genuine true academic who will go on and get her masters and probably her doctorate. We were enormously pleased by their choice of schools because both my wife and I are mid-Westerners. We didn’t pipe up, but the fact that they went to high-quality land grant universities in the Midwest was a vindication of our values.
Q) The kids lived in D.C. when they were young, right? Where did they go to school?
A) My kids did grow up in D.C. They went to Janney [Elementary School] and they had that incredibly charismatic principal…. She ran a great show.
Q) Anne Gay. She was terrific.
A) When we came to Montclair, the twins went to a Catholic grade school and then to Mount St. Dominic [Academy], which is the equivalent of what I went to. A Catholic girls school. That was a terrible mistake. They liked it just fine, but we were in a place where they could have gone to a public high school. It was a lot of money. As soon as I realized what college would cost, we decided to send the young one to public schools.
Q) Do you pay much attention to the work your daughter does? How much is the school driven by standardized testing?
A) A lot. Far too much. We were incredibly impressed with her grade school but junior high, middle school seems to be turning her into a testing machine. I don’t like the looks of that. … We like what we see in the high school. She will enter high school at a very high level and she’ll have a lot of options…..
Q) Do you remember any other teacher as particularly inspiring?
A) I had another teacher in high school who was a total babe. She was a beauty in all kinds of ways and was the subject of much graffiti in the boys bathroom. She taught English and art, and she was the one who told me to go to [the] journalism day [program] at the college… She set me on my path.
Q) How would you change schools today if you could?
A) I think the bandwidth of teachers in the public schools is incredibly broad. You will meet this schlumpy lifer who five minutes into the conference makes you just feel like killing yourself, and you think, ‘I leave my child with this kid?’ And the next person you meet will be this incredibly charismatic person who sees every young person before them as this unique piece of clay about to be molded. The high school here seems to have more of that kind of person. I’ve learned this the hard way. Teaching is a real skill…. I think the way to make schools good is to make teachers good, and I don’t think the really good ones are into standardized testing. The really good teachers see standardized testing as a necessary evil–or just plain evil.