What is the Ivy League For?

SOMETIMES a writer is attacked so widely and vigorously I can tell he’s right. That’s the case with William Deresiewicz’s New Republic essay about the fallacy of elite college education, and  Ivy League schools in particular. I don’t mean I agree with every word of his piece, and I know the Ivy League only from a distance. (For what it’s worth, my upcoming book is on Yale University Press.)

This all said, I recognize in this piece by the Columbia-educated and formerly Yale-employed scholar and scribe a great deal of wisdom. I especially concur with his lament for a society that’s lost its values, even at what is supposedly the highest level. In some ways, his critique chimes with that of Christopher Hayes’s Twilight of the Elites, one of my favorite recent books of social criticism.

Anyway, here is Deresiewicz, who I expect will explore these subjects in more depth in his upcoming book Excellent Sheep:

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 themthe 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.220px-Rhind_sculpture_at_Princeton

Some readers of CultureCrash may wonder what this has to do with the arts and culture. The connections are profound. The Ivy Leagues educate leaders in most sectors of American society, and academia is increasingly a harbor for the fine/ literary arts as the marketplace withers. And when students become so pragmatic, culture pays the price. The audience for much of the arts and culture comes from schools like these: They matter.

Deresiewicz pains a pretty grim picture of today’s Ivy League students. “So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success,” he writes. “The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them.” Many of them, he writes, are “entitled little shit[s].”

As luck would have it, I’m also reading a book about liberal arts education by Michael S. Roth, president of Wesleyan University. (Deresiewicz praises Wesleyan — my alma mater — in his article, though also calls it a “second-tier” school.) I’m hoping to post on Roth’s Beyond The University in the near future.

Most of the dismissals of his piece have struck me as defensive and shallow. The one that seems smartest is also in the New Republic, by an official at a Virginia private school, and argues, in response to the huge number of Ivy Leaguers who go to Wall Street:

…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.

I look forward seeing Excellent Sheep.

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Comments

  1. Neil McGowan says

    I suppose the Ivy League supplies the Pentagon with its next generation of warmongering pyschopaths??

  2. says

    Noam Chomsky has observed that the principle function of elite schools is socialization in elitism itself. I think this helps explain why our elite schools have so many composition professors who have so much status (and often a corresponding sense of their own self-importance,) and yet who have very limited careers, especially internationally. Where are our composers with international careers like Boulez, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Henze, Penderecki, Shostakovitch, Ades, Rihm, Lindberg, Gorecki, etc.?

    Most continental European countries legally forbid private universities, since they are seen as reinforcing unhealthy social class systems. And indeed, I can say after having lived in continental Europe for 35 years that one runs into “privileged little shits” a lot less often. Can it be that socialization in elitism creates a kind of stupidity born of narrow-mindedness and a lack of social awareness? Could this help explain why our Ivies produce so many composers, but so few that are any good? A blinkered view of the world seldom leads to profound artistic awareness. Are we taking our brightest young people and dulling the exactly the sensibilities that would lead to deeper artistic sensibilities?

    • Neil McGowan says

      Could this help explain why our Ivies produce so many composers, but so few that are any good?

      Seems very likely to me. If daddy’s sponsoring the faculty, how dare they demur?

  3. Bobg says

    Re: the response to the article. Chapman says “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.”

    The obvious retort to this is that an education ought to enable smart students to appreciate values in society other than making a lot of money up front. It didn’t used to be the case that college graduates focused solely on their long-term job security. Young people used to have a sense of adventure, a wish to experiment and engage with a wide variety of social types, a wish to make a difference in other people’s lives in some way–even a wish to do work that is interesting or emotionally rewarding, whether or not it was immediately profitable. Are we now a society in which the only thing that matters is making a buck? Shouldn’t a college education (even an Ivy League education) help students move in that direction?

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