Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Are the Nation's Top Colleges Turning Kids into Zombies?

Everybody is commenting on William Deresiewicz's screed against the Ivy League, so I guess I had better weigh in, too. Deresiewicz thinks that Ivy League schools are not really educating students, only equipping them with the analytical skills they need to succeed in business; destroying rather than enhancing their curiosity; making them miserable; and increasing inequality through their phony “meritocratic” admissions process. Here's a sample:
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.”
To which I say, I loved Yale and have never been happier. I was determined to learn everything and I absolutely did not feel like a freak; in fact Yale was the first place I had ever been where I did not feel like a freak. My horizons were widened in every way. Awesome experience. I also knew people who hated it and vowed that they would never let their children go to any such school. That’s life – nothing works for everybody.

I won’t bother to defend the college admissions process except to ask, what would work better? If Deresiewicz has any ideas, I would love to hear them. But he seems to prefer vaguely worded but catastrophic-sounding complaints to useful advice.

Actually Deresiewicz does offer one constructive if completely implausible suggestion for reform:
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.
Isn’t it a bit puzzling that a man who think elite education makes students miserable wants to offer it to everyone? If I understand this, Deresiewicz is saying that we should make an Ivy League-quality education -- no, actually, but some kind of education better than what the Ivy League offers -- available to every American 18-year old. This strikes me as the epitome of the Ivy League smugness Deresiewicz thinks he is attacking. It completely disregards things like political realities, educational economics, what 18-year-olds really want, what the non-academic majority of the nation wants to spend its money on, and so on, in fact every single thing in the universe except the dreams of William Deresiewicz. And not only that, but the amazing education he wants to offer every student doesn't even seem to exist, since everything about the system falls short of his exalted standards.

Part of Deresiewicz's rant concerns how isolated Ivy League students are from the bottom half of America, and he recommends that they spend some time working as waitresses or some such so as to appreciate how other people live. ("How about waiting tables so that you can see how hard it is, physically and mentally?") I recommend that he quit his job at Yale and go teach in a community college for a few years, then get back to me on his vision for democratic education.


Unknown said...

I admit I've only skimmed Deresiewicz, but I get the impression he does have one interesting point, which is to remark on the creepy strangeness of the extreme hypermeritocracy that the Ivy League has become in the last twenty-five years or so. Imagine a campus packed with thousands of copies of Amy Chua's kids. They don't watch movies anymore, because they've been making them since they were ten, in between performing Paganini in concert and rappelling around the Grand Canyon, using tackle of their own design.

I wonder if, perhaps unconsciously, Deresiewicz's real point about waiting tables is wishing they would spend a large amount of time doing something that didn't prove them to be excellent.

John said...

I agree that hyper-meritocracy is crazy, but what is the alternative? An admissions lottery?

Unknown said...

It is in the hands of the admissions committees. I doubt any single, programmatic decision was made, Ivy League-wide, to be hypermeritocratic. It began as a tendency, reflecting the culture of the 80s-90s. Likewise, admissions committees could just start tending in a more relaxed direction, admitting people because they were interesting, rather than because they had "the brag."

This recommendation has the virtue of requiring me to do nothing. If I wanted to do something, I'd be a hypermeritocrat.