Commentary Magazine, 01.01.15 | by Amy L. Wax
Like the high achieving students who are its centerpiece, Excellent Sheep* is nothing if not ambitious. In the book’s opening chapters, William Deresiewicz, a writer and former English professor at Yale, derides virtually every aspect of the country’s most prestigious colleges. In the next hundred pages, the author serves up his own ideal vision of a liberal education. And in a closing section ominously entitled “Society,” he critiques our nation as a whole.
Deresiewicz’s deplores the endless admissions hoops Ivy League students jump through, the subjects they choose to study, the activities that fill their time, and the jobs they pursue upon graduation. These students, claims the author, are status-seeking, prestige-obsessed, unimaginative, incurious, passionless, cautious, conformist automata. Although hard-working and energetic, they have little interest in questioning cherished assumptions, acquiring real knowledge, and embracing high ideals. They seek neither personal inspiration nor social improvement but a safe berth. Above all, the Ivy League fails at the central mission of liberal higher education, which the author claims is “soul craft”—the search for the authentic self, the discerning of true passions, and the discovery of a worthy, meaningful life. According to Deresiewicz, our universities exist to serve this grand quest, but in shaping generations of “excellent sheep,” they have decisively let us down.
Like Saul Steinberg’s famous map of the nation drawn from the Manhattan resident’s view, this bold indictment of higher education looks out from the rarified precincts that constitute the author’s world and inform his perspective. At once grandiose and narrow, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is strewn with unexamined assumptions, parochial preoccupations, half-baked observations, and unsupported claims. While Deresiewicz enshrines “soul craft” as higher education’s goal, the experience of reading his book points toward a humbler but no less exacting objective: to learn how to recognize humbug. Intended to offer a theory of what a sound liberal education is supposed to achieve, this book serves as an example of what it should inoculate us against.
How does Deresiewicz arrive at his unrelentingly gloomy portrait of Ivy League life? He relies mainly on his own haphazard impressions, quips from teachers and administrators, and disgruntled banter from random students. He also trots out a few grasped straws of objective evidence, including Ivy students’ tendency to reject majors in the humanities and their surging preference for work in consulting and finance. As a basis for the author’s indictment, none of this would pass muster in a third-rate social-science department. Deresiewicz touts the importance of intellectual integrity and a probing mind, but he himself displays neither one.
That he exhibits many of the shortcomings he deplores should not surprise us. His ideal of a liberal education is based on what David Brooks calls “expressive individualism.” According to this paradigm, higher education must be judged by how well it serves the personal bildungsroman. Knowledge and critical thinking are not ends in themselves, but rather facilitators of navel gazing. Aided by the faddish offerings in the typical course catalog, students should pursue their passions and draw their own conclusions, untrammeled by received wisdom. Authority and tradition are the enemies of self-discovery, impeding the journey to the true and authentic self.
The author’s exposition of his soul-craft ideal abounds with muzzy platitudes and flowery banalities, emblematic of the jargon beloved of college educrats everywhere. Although the author never spells out where the quest for self-knowledge should lead, it is not hard to discern where it should not. A 1960s ethos, proudly bohemian and relentlessly progressive, suffuses the book. It is a safe bet that Deresiewicz’s version of the good life does not include standing athwart history yelling “stop,” working to defend age-old wisdom, or supporting the existing order.
In large measure, Deresiewicz’s gauge of worthiness rests on whether someone would make an amusing dinner-party companion. He makes no secret of his preference for the cool, creative, and countercultural. His heroes are refuseniks, crusaders, and grand reformers. For Deresiewicz, the well-worn path is never worth taking and the pursuit of money, status, power, or security is proof of shallowness and inauthenticity. The mainstream professions and businesses are suspect not only for being lucrative but also for being dull. Finance and consulting—the go-to choices of a large number of Ivy Leaguers—come in for special contempt because, well, everyone’s doing it. (Deresiewicz shows not the slightest interest in what people in these fields actually do.)
The author’s hostility toward the establishment comes through in many throwaway observations. He praises the small liberal-arts college Lawrence University for sending only a handful of its graduating students to law school. It’s not that becoming a lawyer is bad, exactly, but that it just doesn’t qualify as a legitimate “goal.” In what might be the book’s most obtuse passage, he disparages Asian and Latino students’ pursuit of financial or medical careers as “just another way of keeping those communities down.” One can only surmise that group advancement and upward mobility are, by definition, antithetical to personal self-realization. Teach for America gets slapped down as an elite résumé-builder that condescends to the lower orders. And Deresiewicz warns students that parents are the enemies of soul craft. Their priorities are oppressive, and their advice poison. He claims that top Ivy colleges are filled with too many rich students because the SAT “measures parental income,” not aptitude. Correlation, however, is not causation, and this well-worn knock on the SAT is simply false.
Occasional good sense does turn up. Deresiewicz recommends working in local governments, as opposed to heading straight to Washington or to trendy nonprofits. He urges Ivy graduates to forsake the coasts for heartland cities such as Dayton, Ohio. But, for the most part, the future can wait and prolonged adolescence is de rigueur. Go out and implode the present order, and don’t worry about how to pay for it. As for marriage, if the word appeared once in this book, I missed it. Soul craft apparently does not include finding a soul mate. Traditional family life would only interfere with the open-ended journey of self-discovery.
The book’s final chapters border on the ridiculous. According to Deresiewicz, the country is infused with corruption and greed, and the Ivies are to blame. Yale, Harvard, and Princeton, he maintains, are driving American economic inequality. That rich, mediocre students have better odds of attending elite schools than their qualified low-income peers is central to his understanding of our national dysfunction. But Deresiewicz never mentions that the absolute number of such highly qualified, underplaced students is actually small, suggesting that other initiatives like rebuilding the family or expanding vocational options would do more good than jiggering college admissions.
Excellent Sheep has hit a nerve. In July, Deresiewicz’s New Republic essay (drawn from the book) warning parents and students away from the Ivy League garnered a record number of online readers. His speaking tour of elite colleges drew legions of worried students. Why so much attention to this jeremiad? First, the Ivy League is a source of obsession and an easy target. These institutions are supposed to educate a leadership class, but that class seems to be failing us. Our economy is in the doldrums, our foreign policy adrift, and our lives increasingly polarized by class and race. The consensus on the worthy life has fractured, and the verities of family, faith, and self-reliance, once taken for granted, have been under lengthy attack. The best and brightest can no longer look to a cohesive set of precepts for their own conduct, let alone for leading society. The growing economic volatility of American life—an important but risky source of our dynamism—means that the country’s winners are riding a bucking bronco, unsure whether they will continue to enjoy their success, let alone whether they can secure success for others.
It is therefore not surprising that our most accomplished graduates are anxious and uncertain. This uncertainty highlights Deresiewicz’s greatest sin, that of omission. The most damaging corruption of higher education today is not mentioned in his book: the smothering weight of extreme, left-leaning political correctness that bears down on nearly every campus. Especially in the humanities, but increasingly in the sciences and social sciences, an obsession with race, class, gender, sexuality, identity, and multiculturalism holds sway, crowding out other priorities and stifling alternative opinions. Anyone who doubts this should try pointing to inconvenient facts during a lecture or challenging academia’s cherished items of faith. Although tenured professors might dare, undergraduates risk ostracism or official sanction. The message is clear: Build your soul, but watch your mouth and steer clear of sacred cows.
Students are exposed only to a narrow range of positions on important public issues. Too many leave with utopian beliefs that ill equip them for reality. In the grip of a catechism dictating that discrimination is the root of all evil, bad behavior is society’s fault, bureaucracy is your friend, government spending solves problems, and social engineering works, our leading graduates cannot help but experience moral vertigo once they leave the Ivy bubble. And the prevailing creed of non-judgmentalism—except toward the ultimate sin of discrimination—doesn’t help. Ivy graduates are hard-pressed to acknowledge, let alone address, the personal and policy choices that actually stymie efforts to elevate the less privileged. The resulting frustration yields a hypocritical inward turn. Elites wall themselves off in ritzy zip codes while continuing to mouth progressive pieties about social justice and change.
As for alternatives to the Ivies, Deresiewicz’s praise for small liberal-arts colleges is based on trifling distinctions that don’t withstand analysis. Apart from offering no relief from political correctness, these schools mostly draw students from the same narrow, well-heeled socioeconomic sector that dominates the Ivy League. Although students might choose a school such as Oberlin or Kenyon out of a desire for greater individual attention or better teaching (despite no reliable evidence they will get it), plenty land at these schools because they didn’t get into Harvard or Yale. Small colleges may attract more contemplative brooders, as opposed to the hyper-energetic, ultra-high-IQ résumé-stuffers found in the Ivies, but so what? Which students are more likely to achieve greatness or do what really matters? In light of the multiple demands of modern life, the overloaded denizens of Princeton and Yale might have the edge.
Deresiewicz’s relative enthusiasm for big state universities is similarly unfounded. While less insular and more diverse than the Ivies, these schools teem with students whose intellectual indifference perfectly matches the unbearable lightness of the academic programs they’re offered. As Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Laura T. Hamilton document in Paying for the Party: How College Maintains Inequality, the bacchanalian, sports-obsessed, anti-intellectual atmosphere of large state schools is hardly conducive to soul craft.
Excellent Sheep has also attracted outsized interest because college admissions have evolved into a high-pressure, high-stakes rat race. As a mother who has thrice run this gauntlet, I can attest to the need for a thoughtful analysis of how we arrived at this fraught status quo. Unfortunately, this book doesn’t provide it.
Excellent Sheep could benefit from a broader perspective on the elite students it so roundly indicts. Deresiewicz disparages Ivy students for making all the wrong choices, but as Charles Murray documents in his masterful Coming Apart, their lives appear to be going mostly right, and not just because of their superior earning power. Graduates of four-year colleges, and especially elite schools, are far more likely to be married, employed, churched, and law-abiding than the rest of the population. Men with college degrees tend to live with their children, and educated parents are investing more time in family life even as they have highly demanding jobs. Deresiewicz’s excellent sheep are prospering greatly in their mostly straight-laced lives.
About the Author
Amy L. Wax is the Robert Mundheim Professor of Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
New Republic, July 21, 2014
In the spring of 2008, I did a daylong stint on the Yale admissions committee. We—that is, three admissions staff, a member of the college dean’s office, and me, the faculty representative—were going through submissions from eastern Pennsylvania. The applicants had been assigned a score from one to four, calculated from a string of figures and codes—SATs, GPA, class rank, numerical scores to which the letters of recommendation had been converted, special notations for legacies and diversity cases. The ones had already been admitted, and the threes and fours could get in only under special conditions—if they were a nationally ranked athlete, for instance, or a “DevA,” (an applicant in the highest category of “development” cases, which means a child of very rich donors). Our task for the day was to adjudicate among the twos. Huge bowls of junk food were stationed at the side of the room to keep our energy up.
The junior officer in charge, a young man who looked to be about 30, presented each case, rat-a-tat-tat, in a blizzard of admissions jargon that I had to pick up on the fly. “Good rig”: the transcript exhibits a good degree of academic rigor. “Ed level 1”: parents have an educational level no higher than high school, indicating a genuine hardship case. “MUSD”: a musician in the highest category of promise. Kids who had five or six items on their list of extracurriculars—the “brag”—were already in trouble, because that wasn’t nearly enough. We listened, asked questions, dove into a letter or two, then voted up or down.
With so many accomplished applicants to choose from, we were looking for kids with something special, “PQs”—personal qualities—that were often revealed by the letters or essays. Kids who only had the numbers and the résumé were usually rejected: “no spark,” “not a team-builder,” “this is pretty much in the middle of the fairway for us.” One young person, who had piled up a truly insane quantity of extracurriculars and who submitted nine letters of recommendation, was felt to be “too intense.” On the other hand, the numbers and the résumé were clearly indispensable. I’d been told that successful applicants could either be “well-rounded” or “pointy”—outstanding in one particular way—but if they were pointy, they had to be really pointy: a musician whose audition tape had impressed the music department, a scientist who had won a national award.
“Super People,” the writer James Atlas has called them—the stereotypical ultra-high-achieving elite college students of today. A double major, a sport, a musical instrument, a couple of foreign languages, service work in distant corners of the globe, a few hobbies thrown in for good measure: They have mastered them all, and with a serene self-assurance that leaves adults and peers alike in awe. A friend who teaches at a top university once asked her class to memorize 30 lines of the eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope. Nearly every single kid got every single line correct. It was a thing of wonder, she said, like watching thoroughbreds circle a track.
These enviable youngsters appear to be the winners in the race we have made of childhood. But the reality is very different, as I have witnessed in many of my own students and heard from the hundreds of young people whom I have spoken with on campuses or who have written to me over the last few years. Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.
When I speak of elite education, I mean prestigious institutions like Harvard or Stanford or Williams as well as the larger universe of second-tier selective schools, but I also mean everything that leads up to and away from them—the private and affluent public high schools; the ever-growing industry of tutors and consultants and test-prep courses; the admissions process itself, squatting like a dragon at the entrance to adulthood; the brand-name graduate schools and employment opportunities that come after the B.A.; and the parents and communities, largely upper-middle class, who push their children into the maw of this machine. In short, our entire system of elite education.
I should say that this subject is very personal for me. Like so many kids today, I went off to college like a sleepwalker. You chose the most prestigious place that let you in; up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth—“success.” What it meant to actually get an education and why you might want one—all this was off the table. It was only after 24 years in the Ivy League—college and a Ph.D. at Columbia, ten years on the faculty at Yale—that I started to think about what this system does to kids and how they can escape from it, what it does to our society and how we can dismantle it.
A young woman from another school wrote me this about her boyfriend at Yale:
Before he started college, he spent most of his time reading and writing short stories. Three years later, he’s painfully insecure, worrying about things my public-educated friends don’t give a second thought to, like the stigma of eating lunch alone and whether he’s “networking” enough. No one but me knows he fakes being well-read by thumbing through the first and last chapters of any book he hears about and obsessively devouring reviews in lieu of the real thing. He does this not because he’s incurious, but because there’s a bigger social reward for being able to talk about books than for actually reading them.
I taught many wonderful young people during my years in the Ivy League—bright, thoughtful, creative kids whom it was a pleasure to talk with and learn from. But most of them seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them. Very few were passionate about ideas. Very few saw college as part of a larger project of intellectual discovery and development. Everyone dressed as if they were ready to be interviewed at a moment’s notice.
Look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. A large-scale survey of college freshmen recently found that self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in the study’s 25-year history.
So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk. You have no margin for error, so you avoid the possibility that you will ever make an error. Once, a student at Pomona told me that she’d love to have a chance to think about the things she’s studying, only she doesn’t have the time. I asked her if she had ever considered not trying to get an A in every class. She looked at me as if I had made an indecent suggestion.
There are exceptions, kids who insist, against all odds, on trying to get a real education. But their experience tends to make them feel like freaks. One student told me that a friend of hers had left Yale because she found the school “stifling to the parts of yourself that you’d call a soul.”
“Return on investment”: that’s the phrase you often hear today when people talk about college. What no one seems to ask is what the “return” is supposed to be. Is it just about earning more money? Is the only purpose of an education to enable you to get a job? What, in short, is college for?
The first thing that college is for is to teach you to think. That doesn’t simply mean developing the mental skills particular to individual disciplines. College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance.
Learning how to think is only the beginning, though. There’s something in particular you need to think about: building a self. The notion may sound strange. “We’ve taught them,” David Foster Wallace once said, “that a self is something you just have.” But it is only through the act of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique being—a soul. The job of college is to assist you to begin to do that. Books, ideas, works of art and thought, the pressure of the minds around you that are looking for their own answers in their own ways.
College is not the only chance to learn to think, but it is the best. One thing is certain: If you haven’t started by the time you finish your B.A., there’s little likelihood you’ll do it later. That is why an undergraduate experience devoted exclusively to career preparation is four years largely wasted.
Elite schools like to boast that they teach their students how to think, but all they mean is that they train them in the analytic and rhetorical skills that are necessary for success in business and the professions. Everything is technocratic—the development of expertise—and everything is ultimately justified in technocratic terms.
Religious colleges—even obscure, regional schools that no one has ever heard of on the coasts—often do a much better job in that respect. What an indictment of the Ivy League and its peers: that colleges four levels down on the academic totem pole, enrolling students whose SAT scores are hundreds of points lower than theirs, deliver a better education, in the highest sense of the word.
At least the classes at elite schools are academically rigorous, demanding on their own terms, no? Not necessarily. In the sciences, usually; in other disciplines, not so much. There are exceptions, of course, but professors and students have largely entered into what one observer called a “nonaggression pact.” Students are regarded by the institution as “customers,” people to be pandered to instead of challenged. Professors are rewarded for research, so they want to spend as little time on their classes as they can. The profession’s whole incentive structure is biased against teaching, and the more prestigious the school, the stronger the bias is likely to be. The result is higher marks for shoddier work.
It is true that today’s young people appear to be more socially engaged than kids have been for several decades and that they are more apt to harbor creative or entrepreneurial impulses. But it is also true, at least at the most selective schools, that even if those aspirations make it out of college—a big “if”—they tend to be played out within the same narrow conception of what constitutes a valid life: affluence, credentials, prestige.
Experience itself has been reduced to instrumental function, via the college essay. From learning to commodify your experiences for the application, the next step has been to seek out experiences in order to have them to commodify. The New York Times reports that there is now a thriving sector devoted to producing essay-ready summers, but what strikes one is the superficiality of the activities involved: a month traveling around Italy studying the Renaissance, “a whole day” with a band of renegade artists. A whole day!
I’ve noticed something similar when it comes to service. Why is it that people feel the need to go to places like Guatemala to do their projects of rescue or documentation, instead of Milwaukee or Arkansas? When students do stay in the States, why is it that so many head for New Orleans? Perhaps it’s no surprise, when kids are trained to think of service as something they are ultimately doing for themselves—that is, for their résumés. “Do well by doing good,” goes the slogan. How about just doing good?
If there is one idea, above all, through which the concept of social responsibility is communicated at the most prestigious schools, it is “leadership.” “Harvard is for leaders,” goes the Cambridge cliché. To be a high-achieving student is to constantly be urged to think of yourself as a future leader of society. But what these institutions mean by leadership is nothing more than getting to the top. Making partner at a major law firm or becoming a chief executive, climbing the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy you decide to attach yourself to. I don’t think it occurs to the people in charge of elite colleges that the concept of leadership ought to have a higher meaning, or, really, any meaning.
The irony is that elite students are told that they can be whatever they want, but most of them end up choosing to be one of a few very similar things. As of 2010, about a third of graduates went into financing or consulting at a number of top schools, including Harvard, Princeton, and Cornell. Whole fields have disappeared from view: the clergy, the military, electoral politics, even academia itself, for the most part, including basic science. It’s considered glamorous to drop out of a selective college if you want to become the next Mark Zuckerberg, but ludicrous to stay in to become a social worker. “What Wall Street figured out,” as Ezra Klein has put it, “is that colleges are producing a large number of very smart, completely confused graduates. Kids who have ample mental horsepower, an incredible work ethic and no idea what to do next.”
For the most selective colleges, this system is working very well indeed. Application numbers continue to swell, endowments are robust, tuition hikes bring ritual complaints but no decline in business. Whether it is working for anyone else is a different question.
It almost feels ridiculous to have to insist that colleges like Harvard are bastions of privilege, where the rich send their children to learn to walk, talk, and think like the rich. Don’t we already know this? They aren’t called elite colleges for nothing. But apparently we like pretending otherwise. We live in a meritocracy, after all.
The sign of the system’s alleged fairness is the set of policies that travel under the banner of “diversity.” And that diversity does indeed represent nothing less than a social revolution. Princeton, which didn’t even admit its first woman graduatestudent until 1961—a year in which a grand total of one (no doubt very lonely) African American matriculated at its college—is now half female and only about half white. But diversity of sex and race has become a cover for increasing economic resegregation. Elite colleges are still living off the moral capital they earned in the 1960s, when they took the genuinely courageous step of dismantling the mechanisms of the WASP aristocracy.
The truth is that the meritocracy was never more than partial. Visit any elite campus across our great nation, and you can thrill to the heart-warming spectacle of the children of white businesspeople and professionals studying and playing alongside the children of black, Asian, and Latino businesspeople and professionals. Kids at schools like Stanford think that their environment is diverse if one comes from Missouri and another from Pakistan, or if one plays the cello and the other lacrosse. Never mind that all of their parents are doctors or bankers.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few exceptions, but that is all they are. In fact, the group that is most disadvantaged by our current admissions policies are working-class and rural whites, who are hardly present on selective campuses at all. The only way to think these places are diverse is if that’s all you’ve ever seen.
Let’s not kid ourselves: The college admissions game is not primarily about the lower and middle classes seeking to rise, or even about the upper-middle class attempting to maintain its position. It is about determining the exact hierarchy of status within the upper-middle class itself. In the affluent suburbs and well-heeled urban enclaves where this game is principally played, it is not about whether you go to an elite school. It’s about which one you go to. It is Penn versus Tufts, not Penn versus Penn State. It doesn’t matter that a bright young person can go to Ohio State, become a doctor, settle in Dayton, and make a very good living. Such an outcome is simply too horrible to contemplate.
This system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead. The numbers are undeniable. In 1985, 46 percent of incoming freshmen at the 250 most selective colleges came from the top quarter of the income distribution. By 2000, it was 55 percent. As of 2006, only about 15 percent of students at the most competitive schools came from the bottom half. The more prestigious the school, the more unequal its student body is apt to be. And public institutions are not much better than private ones. As of 2004, 40 percent of first-year students at the most selective state campuses came from families with incomes of more than $100,000, up from 32 percent just five years earlier.
The major reason for the trend is clear. Not increasing tuition, though that is a factor, but the ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game. The more hurdles there are, the more expensive it is to catapult your kid across them. Wealthy families start buying their children’s way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel (“enrichment” programs, to use the all-too-perfect term)—most important, of course, private-school tuition or the costs of living in a place with top-tier public schools. The SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is parental income, which it tracks quite closely. Today, fewer than half of high-scoring students from low-income families even enroll at four-year schools.
The problem isn’t that there aren’t more qualified lower-income kids from which to choose. Elite private colleges will never allow their students’ economic profile to mirror that of society as a whole. They can’t afford to—they need a critical mass of full payers and they need to tend to their donor base—and it’s not even clear that they’d want to.
And so it is hardly a coincidence that income inequality is higher than it has been since before the Great Depression, or that social mobility is lower in the United States than in almost every other developed country. Elite colleges are not just powerless to reverse the movement toward a more unequal society; their policies actively promote it.
Is there anything that I can do, a lot of young people have written to ask me, to avoid becoming an out-of-touch, entitled little shit? I don’t have a satisfying answer, short of telling them to transfer to a public university. You cannot cogitate your way to sympathy with people of different backgrounds, still less to knowledge of them. You need to interact with them directly, and it has to be on an equal footing: not in the context of “service,” and not in the spirit of “making an effort,” either—swooping down on a member of the college support staff and offering to “buy them a coffee,” as a former Yalie once suggested, in order to “ask them about themselves.”
Instead of service, how about service work? That’ll really give you insight into other people. How about waiting tables so that you can see how hard it is, physically and mentally? You really aren’t as smart as everyone has been telling you; you’re only smarter in a certain way. There are smart people who do not go to a prestigious college, or to any college—often precisely for reasons of class. There are smart people who are not “smart.”
I am under no illusion that it doesn’t matter where you go to college. But there are options. There are still very good public universities in every region of the country. The education is often impersonal, but the student body is usually genuinely diverse in terms of socioeconomic background, with all of the invaluable experiential learning that implies.
U.S. News and World Report supplies the percentage of freshmen at each college who finished in the highest 10 percent of their high school class. Among the top 20 universities, the number is usually above 90 percent. I’d be wary of attending schools like that. Students determine the level of classroom discussion; they shape your values and expectations, for good and ill. It’s partly because of the students that I’d warn kids away from the Ivies and their ilk. Kids at less prestigious schools are apt to be more interesting, more curious, more open, and far less entitled and competitive.
If there is anywhere that college is still college—anywhere that teaching and the humanities are still accorded pride of place—it is the liberal arts college. Such places are small, which is not for everyone, and they’re often fairly isolated, which is also not for everyone. The best option of all may be the second-tier—not second-rate—colleges, like Reed, Kenyon, Wesleyan, Sewanee, Mount Holyoke, and others. Instead of trying to compete with Harvard and Yale, these schools have retained their allegiance to real educational values.
Not being an entitled little shit is an admirable goal. But in the end, the deeper issue is the situation that makes it so hard to be anything else. The time has come, not simply to reform that system top to bottom, but to plot our exit to another kind of society altogether.
The education system has to act to mitigate the class system, not reproduce it. Affirmative action should be based on class instead of race, a change that many have been advocating for years. Preferences for legacies and athletes ought to be discarded. SAT scores should be weighted to account for socioeconomic factors. Colleges should put an end to résumé-stuffing by imposing a limit on the number of extracurriculars that kids can list on their applications. They ought to place more value on the kind of service jobs that lower-income students often take in high school and that high achievers almost never do. They should refuse to be impressed by any opportunity that was enabled by parental wealth. Of course, they have to stop cooperating with U.S. News.
More broadly, they need to rethink their conception of merit. If schools are going to train a better class of leaders than the ones we have today, they’re going to have to ask themselves what kinds of qualities they need to promote. Selecting students by GPA or the number of extracurriculars more often benefits the faithful drudge than the original mind.
The changes must go deeper, though, than reforming the admissions process. That might address the problem of mediocrity, but it won’t address the greater one of inequality. The problem is the Ivy League itself. We have contracted the training of our leadership class to a set of private institutions. However much they claim to act for the common good, they will always place their interests first. The arrangement is great for the schools, but is Harvard’s desire for alumni donations a sufficient reason to perpetuate the class system?
I used to think that we needed to create a world where every child had an equal chance to get to the Ivy League. I’ve come to see that what we really need is to create one where you don’t have to go to the Ivy League, or any private college, to get a first-rate education.
High-quality public education, financed with public money, for the benefit of all: the exact commitment that drove the growth of public higher education in the postwar years. Everybody gets an equal chance to go as far as their hard work and talent will take them—you know, the American dream. Everyone who wants it gets to have the kind of mind-expanding, soul-enriching experience that a liberal arts education provides. We recognize that free, quality K–12 education is a right of citizenship. We also need to recognize—as we once did and as many countries still do—that the same is true of higher education. We have tried aristocracy. We have tried meritocracy. Now it’s time to try democracy.
William Deresiewicz is the author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and The Way to a Meaningful Life, coming out August 19 from Free Press. He taught at Yale from 1998 to 2008.
New Republic, August 16, 2014
My goal in writing „Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,“ which appeared last month in The New Republic, was to start a conversation. That certainly has happened, with a number of criticisms directed at my piece. My best response is my new book from which the essay was drawn, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, where I go into these issues in much greater depth. I also propose a constructive vision of what college should be about—not just for the privileged, but everyone—as well as how students can save themselves from the current system and find their way to a sense of purpose.
The criticisms fall into several categories. The first asks, What’s your evidence for all these claims? Here is my evidence. I first sketched out these observations in an essay, „The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,“ in 2008. The piece went viral. Since then, it has been read over a million times—not all at once, but steadily, at the rate, after the initial surge, of about 10,000 page views a month. In other words, people have been reading it and passing it along for the last six years, an eternity on the Internet. It’s clear that I tapped into an enormous hunger to discuss these issues.
To judge from the hundreds of emails I’ve received in response to that piece, that hunger was greatest among young people, students and recent graduates of selective colleges, almost all of whom have told me some version of: Thank you for putting my feelings into words. Add to that the hundreds of students I’ve met at events (often student-initiated) at campuses across the country. I’ve also talked with parents, professors, administrators, older alumni, and employers. Nearly all have concurred with my observations. So have many of the people who have also written on these matters—Harry R. Lewis, the former dean of Harvard College, and Terry Castle, a long-time professor at Stanford, to name just two.
So that’s my evidence: not systematic, but very substantial. I have spent the last six years listening, thinking, reading, and writing about these issues, on top of 15 years at the front of Yale and Columbia classrooms. I’ve been accused of hypocrisy for having been associated with Ivy League schools myself but wanting to dissuade others from going. But my recognitions dawned only slowly, as I realized what the system had been doing to me—and more to the point, what it was doing to the students in front of me. I feel I have an obligation to speak out.
Critics also questioned my claims about the extreme psychological stress (and distress) that the system creates. These kids are doing just fine, they say. Or: College students have always been stressed out. No, they haven’t—not like this. We are putting these kids under the kind of pressure that no young person should have to endure, and a lot of them are cracking.
We already know this with respect to high-achieving students in high school. In The Price of Privilege, Madeline Levine cites a raft of troubling statistics: “Preteens and teens from affluent, well-educated families … experience among the highest rates of depression, substance abuse, anxiety disorders, somatic complaints, and unhappiness of any group of children in this country”; “As many as 22 percent of adolescent girls from financially comfortable families suffer from clinical depression.” Mental health problems “can be two to five times more prevalent among private high school juniors and seniors” than among their public-school counterparts.
There is no reason to believe that the situation improves when these kids get to college, and plenty of reasons to believe it does not. In a recent survey—summarized by the American Psychological Association under the headline “The Crisis on Campus”—nearly half of college students reported feelings of hopelessness, while almost a third spoke of feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function during the past 12 months.” Convening a task force on student mental health in 2006, Stanford’s provost wrote that “increasingly, we are seeing students struggling with mental health concerns ranging from self-esteem issues and developmental disorders to depression, anxiety, eating disorders, self-mutilation behaviors, schizophrenia and suicidal behavior.”
The closer you are to these kids, the more you see it. Deans of students see it. Campus counseling services see it. Professors and instructors see it, at least the ones who bother to look. And the kids themselves see it, even if they don’t always know what they’re looking at. One rebuttal to my article by a current Yale student mentioned, in a different connection, that roughly half of that institution’s undergraduates “access the school’s mental health and counseling services at some point,“ without bothering to pause over the significance of that remarkable fact.
Then there are the arguments against my claims about economic inequality on selective campuses, the fact that elite higher education acts, on the whole, to retard rather than promote social mobility. Usually these criticisms take the form of, essentially, “But I had a working-class roommate!” I’ve been hearing about this working-class roommate for six years now. But this is not a matter of conjecture. A study from 2004 (things, if anything, are likely to have gotten worse by now) found that 75 percent of freshmen at the top 100+ selective colleges come from households in the upper quarter of the income distribution, 3 percent from the bottom quarter. You had a working-class roommate, and 25 affluent friends.
It is true that about 50 percent of Ivy League students receive some form of financial aid. It’s also true that most of them are affluent themselves. In 2007, Harvard capped tuition at 10 percent of income for families earning up to $180,000. Still, 40 percent of kids are continuing to pay full fare. An income of $180,000 puts you in the 94th percentile of households, which means that at least 40 percent of Harvard students come from the top 6 percent. The upper class pays full tuition; the upper middle class receives financial aid; and as for the tiny remainder, “The function of the (very few) poor people at Harvard,“ as Walter Benn Michaels puts it, „it is to reassure the (very many) rich people at Harvard that you can’t just buy your way into Harvard.”
Another critic pointed out that only 45 percent of kids at Yale attended private high schools—a number roughly comparable to those at similar institutions. Yes, but the proportion in the country as a whole is 8 percent. A recent study found that 100 high schools—about 0.3 percent of the nationwide total—account for 22 percent of students at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Of those hundred, all but six are private, and the ones that aren’t are located in places like Greenwich and Palo Alto.
Many of my critics are simply so far inside the system that they cannot recognize how they’ve absorbed the assumptions that it makes about itself. The Ivy League colleges, one of critic says, are „the best schools in America—and perhaps the world,“ and the students who go there „receive a first-rate education.“ But those are precisely the claims that are in question. What is a first-rate education, and do the Ivy League and its peer institutions deliver one? Are they, in fact, „the best“?
They are the most prestigious, yes. They are the wealthiest, for sure. Their research may be the finest in the world. But none of those circumstances tell you that they do a particularly good job educating undergraduates, and the last one tells you that they probably don’t. Their professors are selected for their scholarship, not their pedagogy. They are actively discouraged from spending more time than necessary on teaching. Everybody in the academic profession knows this; the schools have just been very good at hiding it from families and kids.
I am myself the worst elitist, goes another argument. In fact, I not only blast our existing elite, as well as the schools that ensure its self-perpetuation, I call for the effective dismantling of the entire system through the creation (or re-creation) of free, high-quality public higher education, paid for by taxes on the wealthiest 10 percent. But the indictment appears to revolve around two charges.
First, that I’m discouraging lower-income families from aspiring to send their children to the Ivy Leagues. But if you come from a family of relatively modest means, you don’t need to go to a top-10 school in order to rise. More importantly, we already know that very few of those lower-income kids are actually going to get in to an Ivy League school, whatever the mythology of meritocracy.
Second, that going to college to „build your soul“ is all well and good for the privileged, but most kids have to be practical. Behind this lies a historical argument: In the 19th century, a liberal arts education was something that they gave to gentlemen. Now you have to think about getting a job. But the narrative omits a major chunk of American history—roughly, the first two-thirds of the 20th century. Central to higher education, and especially to public higher education, as it developed and expanded over those years was the notion that what once belonged to gentlemen should now belong to all.
Nor was it—or is it—an either/or situation: Either a general, liberal arts education or a specialized, vocational one; either building a soul or laying the foundation for a career. American higher education, uniquely among the world’s systems, makes room for both. You major in one thing, but you get to take courses in others. The issue now is not that kids don’t or at least wouldn’t want to get a liberal education as well as a practical one (you’d be surprised what kids are interested in doing, if you give them a chance). The issue is that the rest of us don’t want to pay for it.
That is finally what’s at stake here. Are we going to reserve the benefits of a liberal education for the privileged few, or are we going to restore the promise of college as we once conceived it? When I say, at the end of my book, that the time has come to try democracy, that is what I am talking about.
William Deresiewicz is the author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and The Way to a Meaningful Life, out August 19. He taught at Yale from 1998 to 2008.
New Republic, July 24, 2014
I was born and raised in Roanoke, Virginia, a medium-sized city in the Blue Ridge mountains. It is not the sort of place that produces many Ivy League graduates. Only ten kids in my high school class of 500 crossed the Mason-Dixon Line for college, for example. I went to Yale. I chose to move back home anyway. I now serve as the academic director of an independent high school I helped to found, a school that aims to provide a progressive preparatory education for kids from all backgrounds. As such, I have the opportunity to work with a wide variety of families—very few of whom share the prejudices William Deresiewicz assumes in his recent essay for The New Republic, „Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League.“
I don’t know many people who think it will be the end of the world if their child doesn’t attend an Ivy. Around here, I have my hands full explaining that it might be beneficial to attend a summer language academy, or that looking only at colleges within a two-hour drive might disadvantage a child. I suspect that my experience is the more common one in America, if not among the New Republic’s assumed readership. For families like the ones I serve, the article seems misplaced to the point of destructiveness.
Deresiewicz makes and then bungles two essential claims. The first is that the American college system’s admissions process is reductive and occasionally brutal. The second is that far too many students at our nation’s most selective institutions are going into finance.
From the latter point, Deresiewicz concludes that the Ivies don’t engage students or teach them to be more curious, to take risks or fail. Perhaps, but the recent reduction in job security, working conditions, prestige, and salary for the professions he cites as neglected by Ivy Leaguers—clergy, professors, social workers, teachers and scientists—accompanied by the rapid inflation in the same for Wall Street would be an alternate explanation. It is not Yale’s fault that our society at large has radically devalued the professions Deresiewicz and I prefer, and it is not at all evident to me from the limited data he presents that the education is the cause. In fact, there is some correlation between the percentage of students going into finance and the rise in generosity of financial-aid awards at need-blind institutions; maybe graduates are going into fiscally rewarding jobs precisely because they came from poorer backgrounds.
As for the former point, I am only able to offer my own counter-anecdotes. After more than a decade of working with admissions offices, I feel them to be at least somewhat representative. Many elite schools in the United States, in which I include those Deresiewicz counts as second tier and those as inundated by applications as the Ivies, have relatively large and considerate admissions staffs, and aren’t as easily buffaloed by rich kids’ made-to-order summer trips and falsely inflated lists of extracurricular accomplishments as he implies. I routinely get calls from admissions officers from these kinds of schools, to discuss at greater length the unusual applicants whose biographies don’t follow such a pattern. Those officers tell me that they want exactly the sort of students Deresiewicz implies that they don’t, curious oddballs who have taken risks and learned unusual things. They’re expressly searching for people who are not, to quote the article, “out-of-touch, entitled little shit[s].” I do not get the same feedback as often from other kinds of schools, especially state institutions which cannot afford to hire or retain qualified admissions staff in the same numbers.
Having said that, it is reductive to suggest that the elite schools in America are monolithic in practice or philosophy. Deresiewicz’s central offense, perhaps, is to suggest that they are—and worse, that smaller “religious colleges” (does he mean Wheaton? Earlham? Southern Methodist? Patrick Henry? Notre Dame?) are as well.
One of Deresiewicz’s central contentions, that students at elite institutions are particularly emotionally dislocated and wayward, is presented with two kinds of evidence. The first is anecdotal and personal with no counter-examples of peers from lower profile institutions, or from outside of higher education altogether. The second is a glancing mention of what I assume was the survey „The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010,“ which did not appear to disaggregate data by selectivity at all. („A large-scale survey of college freshmen recently found that self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in the study’s 25-year history,“ Deresiewicz writes.) One wonders, does he know other 18-21 year olds? My own experience suggests that thoughtful, curious people in this age group are widely prone to confused self-loathing no matter where they are.
Most of my friends today are not Ivy League graduates. They are, like most middle class people in America not in the trades, graduates of lower-profile liberal arts colleges and state universities. The ones with whom I have discussed this article are unanimous on that last point: They all felt like they were wandering around with no clear direction at that age and object to the premise that that is a special property of the Ivy Leaguer. They are also unanimous on this point: they are proud of their educations, but do not conclude from that pride that an Ivy League education is “overrated” in comparison.
I agree with Deresiewicz that liberal arts colleges like Sarah Lawrence and Reed are uniquely positioned to nurture and challenge students, and I champion them when I can. I don’t believe the Ivies are for every bright kid, and I have occasionally counseled students capable of admission to them to favor other options. And I agree that class lines are hardening in dangerous ways; the Ivies have too much money and power; and meritocracy is a delusion. That does not mean that an Ivy League diploma isn’t valuable, especially for someone whose family has no history of access to elite careers like teaching at Yale or writing for The New Republic. It means that it is valuable. Whether it should be is another discussion altogether.
J.D. Chapman is academic director and co-head of Community High School in Roanoke, Virginia.
Remember: Do X! Don´t do Y!
Protect innocent, respect life, defend art, preserve creativity!
What´s Left? Antisemitism!
DJ Psycho Diver Sant – too small to fail
Tonttu Korvatunturilta Kuunsilta JSB
Tip tap tip tap tipetipe tip tap heija!
They want 1984, we want 1776
They are on the run, we are on the march!
Dummheit ist, wenn jemand nicht weiß, was er wissen könnte.
Political correctness ist, wenn man aus Feigheit lügt, um Dumme nicht zu verärgern, die die Wahrheit nicht hören wollen.
“Im Streit um moralische Probleme, ist der Relativismus die erste Zuflucht der Schurken.“ Roger Scruton
Antisemitismus ist, wenn man Juden, Israel übelnimmt, was man anderen nicht übelnimmt.
Islam ist weniger eine Religion und mehr eine totalitäre Gesellschaftsordnung, eine Ideologie, die absoluten Gehorsam verlangt und keinen Widerspruch, keinerlei Kritik duldet und das Denken und Erkenntnis verbietet. Der wahre Islam ist ganz anders, wer ihn findet wird eine hohe Belohnung erhalten.
Wahnsinn bedeute, immer wieder das gleiche zu tun, aber dabei stets ein anderes Resultat zu erwarten.
Gutmenschen sind Menschen, die gut erscheinen wollen, die gewissenlos das Gewissen anderer Menschen zu eigenen Zwecken mit Hilfe selbst inszenierter Empörungen instrumentalisieren.
Irritationen verhelfen zu weiteren Erkenntnissen, Selbstzufriedenheit führt zur Verblödung,
Wenn ein Affe denkt, „ich bin ein Affe“, dann ist es bereits ein Mensch.
Ein Mensch mit Wurzeln soll zur Pediküre gehen.
Wenn jemand etwas zu sagen hat, der kann es immer sehr einfach sagen. Wenn jemand nichts zu sagen hat, der sagt es dann sehr kompliziert.
Sucht ist, wenn jemand etwas macht, was er machen will und sucht jemand, der es macht, daß er es nicht macht und es nicht machen will.
Sollen die Klugen immer nachgeben, dann wird die Welt von Dummen regiert. Zu viel „Klugheit“ macht dumm.
Wenn man nur das Schlechte bekämpft, um das Leben zu schützen, bringt man gar nichts Gutes hervor und ein solches Leben ist dann nicht mehr lebenswert und braucht nicht beschützt zu werden, denn es ist dann durch ein solches totales Beschützen sowieso schon tot. Man kann so viel Geld für Versicherungen ausgeben, daß man gar nichts mehr zum Versichern hat. Mit Sicherheit ist es eben so.
Zufriedene Sklaven sind die schlimmsten Feinde der Freiheit.
Kreativität ist eine Intelligenz, die Spaß hat.
Wen die Arbeit krank macht, der soll kündigen!
Wenn Deutsche über Moral reden, meinen sie das Geld.
Ein Mensch ohne Erkenntnis ist dann lediglich ein ängstlicher, aggressiver, unglücklicher Affe.
Denken ist immer grenzüberschreitend.
Der Mob, der sich das Volk nennt, diskutiert nicht, sondern diffamiert.
Legal ist nicht immer legitim.
Wer nicht verzichten kann, lebt unglücklich.
Sogenannte Sozial-, Kultur-, Geisteswissenschaften, Soziologie, Psychologie, Psychotherapie, Psychoanalyse, sind keine Wissenschaften mehr, sondern immanent religiöse Kultpropheten, organisiert wie Sekten.
Ohne eine starke Opposition atrophiert jede scheinbare Demokratie zur Tyrannei, und ebenso eine Wissenschaft, zur Gesinnung einer Sekte.
Man kann alles nur aus gewisser Distanz erkennen, wer sich ereifert, empört, wer mit seiner Nase an etwas klebt, der hat die Perspektive verloren, der erkennt nichts mehr, der hat nur noch seine Phantasie von der Welt im Kopf. So entsteht Paranoia, die sich Religion, und Religion als Politik, sogar als Wissenschaft nennt.
Islamisten sind eine Gefahr, deswegen werden sie als solche nicht gesehen. Juden sind keine Gefahr, deswegen werden sie als solche gesehen. So funktioniert die Wahrnehmung von Feiglingen.
Humorlose Menschen könner nur fürchten oder hassen und werden Mönche oder Terroristen.
Menschen sind nicht gleich, jeder einzelne Mensch ist ein Unikat.
Erkenntnis gilt für alle, auch für Muslime, Albaner, Frauen und Homosexuelle.
Islam gehört zu Deutschland, Judentum gehört zu Israel.
Der Konsensterror (Totalitarismus) ist in Deutschland allgegenwärtig.
Es wird nicht mehr diskutiert, sondern nur noch diffamiert.
Es ist eine Kultur des Mobs. Wie es bereits gewesen ist.
Harmonie ist nur, wenn man nicht kommuniziert.
Man soll niemals mit jemand ins Bett gehen, der mehr Probleme hat, als man selbst.
Stupidity is demonstrated by people lacking the knowledge they could achieve
Political correctness can be defined as the telling of a lie out of the cowardice in an attempt to avoid upsetting fools not willing to face up to the truth
“In arguments about moral problems, relativism is the first refuge of the scoundrel.” Roger Scruton
Antisemitism is when one blames the Jews or Israel for issues, he does not blame others
Islam is less a religion and more a totalitarian society, an ideology that demands absolute obedience and tolerates no dissent, no criticism, and prohibits the thinking, knowledge and recognition. True Islam is totally different, the one who will find it will receive a very high reward.
Craziness is, when one always does the same but expects a different outcome
If a monkey thinks “I am a monkey”, then it is already a human
A man with roots should go for a pedicure
Self smugness leads to idiocy, being pissed off leads to enlightenment
If someone has something to say, he can tell it always very easily. If someone has nothing to say, he says it in a very complicated way
Addiction is, when somebody does something he wants to do, yet seeks someone who can make it so he won’t do it and doesn’t want to, either.
If the clever people always gave in, the world would be reigned by idiots. Too much “cleverness” makes you stupid.
If one only fights evil to protect life, one produces nothing good at all and such a life then becomes no longer worth living and thus requires no protection, for it is already unlived due to such a total protection. One can spend so much money on insurance, that one has nothing left to insure. Safety works in the same way.
Happy slaves are the worst enemies of freedom.
Creativity is an intelligence having fun.
If working makes you sick, fuck off, leave the work!
If Germans talk about morality, they mean money.
A man without an insight is just an anxious, aggressive, unhappy monkey.
Thinking is always trespassing.
The mob, who calls himself the people, does not discuss, just defames.
Legal is not always legitimate.
Who can not do without, lives unhappy.
So called social, culture sciences, sociology, psychology psychotherapy, psychoanalysis, are not anymore scientific, but immanent religious cult-prophets, organized as sects.
Without a strong opposition any apparent democracy atrophies to a tyranny, and as well a science , to an attitude of a religious sect.
You can recognize everything from a certain distance only, who is zealous, outraged, who sticks his nose in something, this one has lost the perspective, he recognizes anything more, he has only his imagination of the world in his head. This creates paranoia, which is called religion, and a religion as politics, even as a science.
Islamists are a real danger, therefore they will not be seen as such. Jews are not a danger, therefore they are seen as such. It is how the perception by cowards functions.
People without a sense of humor are able only to fear or to hate and become monks or terrorists.
People are not equal, each single person is unique.
Insight applies to everyone, including Muslims, Albanians, women and homosexuals.
Islam belongs to Germany, Judaism belongs to Israel.
The totalitarian Terror of consensus is ubiquitous in Germany.
There are no discussions anymore, but defamations only.
It is a culture of the mob. As it has already been.
Harmony is only if you do not communicate.
One should never go to bed with someone who has more problems than you already have.