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 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.
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.