Ivy League miseducation

Harvard graduates celebrate at the 2013 commencement ceremonies. Image copyright Getty Images

Mommas, don't let your babies grow up to be Ivy League students.

In a lengthy article in the latest issue of the New Republic, former Yale associate professor (and Columbia graduate) William Deresiewicz says that the prestigious private colleges dotting the US, particularly in the Northeast, are creating a class of entitled "zombies".

The author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to Meaningful Life, writes:

"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."

Ivy League colleges and their ilk, says Deresiewicz, have created an education-industrial complex that processes the children of privilege from cradle to diploma and beyond.

Private and affluent public primary education, test-prep courses, "enrichment" programmes, volunteer service projects, international travel, music lessons, sports activities - all the high-cost building blocks of the perfect college application - put crushing pressure on the upper middle class and their offspring.

The ones who successfully navigate the college winnowing process are near perfect - or at least think they are. He says he observed the results in the students he taught.

"The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them," he writes. "The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk."

College shouldn't be this way, Deresiewicz writes. Instead of four years of career training, it should be preparation for a thoughtful, well-examined life.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Few elite university students have had to deal with failure or real adversity, William Deresiewicz writes

What of attempts by admissions officials to achieve classroom diversity? While some colleges may give preference to minority applicants, Deresiewicz says, ethnic diversity only covers up socio-economic homogeneity.

"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," he says.

His solution is to democratise higher education, freeing it from the stranglehold of elite colleges and the crushing debt that such degrees often bring.

"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," he writes.

In the meantime, he says, parents should consider sending their kids to public universities or small religious or liberal arts colleges where they can be challenged by a more authentic diversity of experiences.

Deresiewicz's article has provoked a fair amount of discussion and debate, even within the pages of the New Republic (which, many commentators have enjoyed pointing out, is staffed predominantly by Ivy League graduates).

In an article on the New Republic's website, JD Chapman, an academic director of a Roanoke, Virginia high school, says that most admissions offices he deals with are keen on identifying and admitting the unconventional students Deresiewicz says they ignore.

In addition, he says, Deresiewicz relies too much on his own anecdotal evidence for taking the pulse of today's youth.

"My own experience suggests that thoughtful, curious people in this age group are widely prone to confused self-loathing no matter where they are."

The website IvyGate solicited comments from current Columbia students and, needless to say, they weren't particularly thrilled with the article.

"Deresiewicz does a fantastic job of ignoring the reason why security (not wealth, not fame, SECURITY) has displaced cultivating the mind as the number one takeaway Kids These Days want from college," Alison Herman says. "The Great Recession ripped away the mental, and often material, safety net that's necessary to prioritise Learning to Think over, say, learning C++."

Osita Nwanevu, a University of Chicago senior interning at Slate, writes that Deresiewicz places too much emphasis on the transformative power of higher education.

"To believe that a college - Ivy or otherwise - can confer intellectual benefits in four years that you won't be able to attain at some point over the course of the next 60 is to believe in magic," he writes.

The problem, writes Chris Lehmann in In These Times, is that Deresiewicz doesn't go far enough in his recommendations.

"Deresiewicz is unable to wean himself from the care and feeding of our self-anointed intellectual elite, nor from the bedrock conviction that all schemes of social improvement must be about them," he writes.

Lehmann advocates nationalising higher education and slashing tuition. He admits it's a long-shot, but so is Deresiewicz's "expectation that better-trained meritocrats somehow will rescue the rest of us".

This don't-send-your-kids-to-Ivies plan only works if everyone buys into it, writes the Washington Post's Alexandra Petri. In a tongue-in-cheek column, she notes the conundrum facing well-meaning parents:

"If some people don't get the memo about Massive Structural Shifts in How We Are Educated, their kids will get into Ivy League schools in your kids' place, and all the employers who did not read the article will keep assuming that going to an Ivy League school is a mark of quality and hire them instead."

And that, as they say in the hallowed halls of Yale, would stink.