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Zombies in the Quad: The Trouble With Elite Education

William Deresiewicz's new book, Excellent Sheep, is in part, he says, a letter to his younger, more privileged self.
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(Photo: Northfoto/Shutterstock)

(Photo: Northfoto/Shutterstock)

There are many reasons to go to college—some idealistic, some practical, and some merely self-indulgent. Among the first category: nourishing the intellect, pursuing what Keats called “Soul making.” Among the second: money. Among the third, in the words of Animal House: “acts of perversion so profound and disgusting that decorum prohibits listing them here.”

For many college-bound students, however, an elite education is such an obvious “next step” that they never really articulate why they want to go. In his new book on American elite higher education, William Deresiewicz—now 50 and wiser—confesses that he was just such a student: “a sleep-walker,” “a zombie,” who went to Columbia University because going to the best possible school was simply the done thing. He now wants students and their parents to approach college with purpose. Excellent Sheep, he says, is partly a letter to his younger self, explaining how to make the wisest use of education, but it grew into a call to educators and parents to re-examine their attitudes toward that privilege. Deresiewicz’s call is broadly compelling—until it gets prescriptive and betrays a conspicuous lack of wisdom of its own.

Most students are never blessed with the option of an elite education, but most are affected by what happens in elite universities. In addition to minting new cohorts of America’s ruling class, the top universities set trends for less selective schools. Foremost among these is the rise in tuition in the last few decades. A year at Yale, for instance, now costs students more than $60,000, more than America’s median household income. We complain about spiraling health care costs; tuition has risen roughly twice as fast. New graduates average $33,000 in debt. These dismaying figures haven’t diminished the obsession with attending top schools, even as the schools deliver a product of increasingly questionable value.

Deresiewicz is an unapologetic defender of finding oneself, and a doubter of the prescription for education put forward by a critic like Brooks, who advocates developing a self by working on practical problems.

Deresiewicz is amply qualified to play Jeremiah to America’s most complacent students, having taught English at Yale from 1998 to 2008. What he saw disturbed him. His students measured success in dollar amounts and prized status over true education. They experienced “toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation.” They deemed friendship and romantic relationships impediments to advancement. “Questions of purpose and passion were not on the syllabus,” Deresiewicz writes. One student remarked, “It’s hard to build your soul when everyone around you is trying to sell theirs.”

Deresiewicz fears the effects of soul-salesmanship not only on students but also on society. He presents a familiar type of student, the slave to credentialism—the “accumulation of gold stars”—who is unimaginative and risk-averse and fears unpleasant or ungovernable emotions. Her life could be more structured only if lived in a penitentiary. The accretion of extracurriculars is an arms race, with mutually assured misery for winners and losers alike. “We are not teaching to the test,” Deresiewicz writes, “we’re living to it.”

His feelings about these kids could be described as “not mad, just disappointed.” He directs his real scorn at parents. The values inculcated by helicopter-parenting include selfishness, status anxiety, and blind ambition. “Experience itself,” Deresiewicz writes, “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.” Parents orchestrate service trips with life-changing “lessons” writ in neon before the bags have even been packed.

That our system encourages dissembling, with the complicity of educators and parents, is a practical as well as a moral concern for Deresiewicz. The student taught at 17 to pad his résumé and simulate concern for others will probably be engaged in the big-boy version of the same at 27, with uglier results. “If we want our kids to turn out differently, we have to raise them differently.” We should begin, he suggests, by teaching children to take risks and fail; to present themselves as they are and to accept criticism and rejection; to carve out a path, a self, and a moral imagination, rather than expecting these to appear by magic at 18. We should teach them to ask what an education is for.

The purpose of an education is something nobody can or really ought to agree on, but Deresiewicz offers persuasive examples of what it might be. Education should teach you rigor and resistance to the allure of received opinion (one of academia’s major exports). It should guide you to become a “unique being—a soul” by fixing foremost in your mind two questions: “What is the good life and how should I live it?” Deresiewicz concedes that focusing on these questions will invite the charge of self-indulgence. New York Times columnist David Brooks, who comes in for hard words here, may condemn you for adopting the gauzy “baby-boomer theology” of seeking to “find yourself.”

But Deresiewicz is an unapologetic defender of finding oneself, and a doubter of the prescription for education put forward by a critic like Brooks, who advocates developing a self by working on practical problems. Fulminating against those who let parental pressure dictate their college, major, or course selection, Deresiewicz asks, “What do you owe your parents? Nothing.” An independent student, he argues, should speak with his parents infrequently, withhold his grades from them, and refuse to “ask them for help of any kind” ($60,000 a year for an elite education apparently not qualifying as “help”).

But is having to justify one’s course of study and contend with parental veto necessarily bad? The student who intends to pay his own way with loans is certainly less sensitive to parental diktat, but he also exempts himself from having to justify his course of study to anyone, thereby losing one more chance to think about what he’s paying for. (He is probably also more influenced by concern for future income.)

Against the notion that students should study whatever they want come attacks on “expressive individualism”—what one might derisively call Bliss-Following Studies. But Deresiewicz argues such dismissiveness is misguided. He cites a survey that found that “30 percent of companies were recruiting liberal arts graduates, second only to engineering and computer science,” because those companies value hard-to-teach “soft skills” like critical thinking, eloquence, and working productively in groups. He quotes consultant Tony Golsby-Smith, who wrote in Harvard Business Review that “firms like McKinsey and Bain” now want to hire humanities majors “who study Shakespeare’s poetry, or Cézanne’s paintings.”

Put aside the banality of those examples. The point is that the media’s fixation on STEM career training is not shared by those doing the hiring. Instead, Deresiewicz holds up the opportunity to “pursue the trail of inquiry wherever it leads”; to engage with great art and literature, which not only fosters emotional maturity and heightened empathy but also “bring[s] us to that knowledge of ourselves that college ought to start to give us”; and to develop ideals, which provide “the strength to resist the seductions of status and wealth and success.” Deresiewicz might have added that this education will reduce our susceptibility to trivial distractions—memes, reality TV, cable news. Exposure to the “best which has been thought and said,” in Matthew Arnold’s formula, can bring about an allergy to the worst.

It never occurs to the man who calls social mobility a "zero-sum game" that taking a job you do not need for the experience snatches it away from someone who needs it for the money.

It is bracing in our technocratic age to read a defense of intellectual curiosity, citizenship, truth, beauty, and awe. That, at any rate, is what Deresiewicz appears to value until the end of his book, at which point he tackles “what our system of elite education” is “doing to our country as a whole.” Having written most of a book arguing that we are miseducating our most intelligent students, Deresiewicz changes tack and claims that those students are not really all that intelligent. They are beneficiaries of class privilege, bound to perpetuate it unless we teach them to “self-overcome” their advantages.

Deresiewicz wishes there were no elite schools and that Harvard- and Princeton-bound students would apply to second-tier schools instead, where they would be less coddled and more exposed to socioeconomic diversity. He is confident that this is the only diversity of any value, despite confessing that he has lived a life in such ignorance of “regular folks” that he is helpless to make small talk with, say, his plumber (“so alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language”). Deresiewicz compensates for his inability to talk to plumbers and waiters by blithely asserting their superior wisdom or virtue.

One can only marvel at this. Even if it were not the case that plenty of elite students have family, friends, and romantic partners who fall into Deresiewicz’s cringe-inducing category of “regular folks,” the fact would remain that those folks at least possess the confidence not to fret publicly about their (presumably) reciprocal inability to trade mots with Ivy League professors. Deresiewicz believes he is advocating for a class that he is in fact treating as a resource. He beseeches privileged students to apply for food-service jobs. It never occurs to the man who calls social mobility a “zero-sum game” that taking a job you do not need for the experience snatches it away from someone who needs it for the money. One difference between Deresiewicz and “regular folks” is that, were they in his shoes, they would never trade them for bare feet to find out what broken glass feels like.

To his condescension, Deresiewicz adds a number of absurd recommendations. Having noted that SAT scores correlate with parental income, he demands that SAT scores “be weighted to account for socioeconomic factors”—as if the aptitude reflected in high scores were not real and necessary to thrive in elite education, irrespective of whether socioeconomic advantage raised the aptitude (and thus the score) unjustly in the first place. Deresiewicz also calls for schools to “refuse to be impressed by any experience ... enabled by parental wealth,” writing off diversity of experiences and knowledge in a sort of ritual deference to adversity.

Deresiewicz opposes education that yields a valuable credential but imparts no valuable learning. But by the end of his book, he seems to say that if such sham credentials must exist, they should be more widely available. Of course, if Harvard and Princeton and Yale are producing alumni not worth emulating, the problem is hardly that access to those schools is so limited. If they returned their focus to creating citizens or “souls”—adults capable of reasoning their way to intelligent, morally coherent attitudes and decisions—those students would surely come to represent an elite of a kind, but it would be one whose existence was more likely a boon than a threat to our society.

How can we better match students to the kind of education they would best profit from? The outsize role of parental expectations in American college education suggests parents ought to reconsider those expectations—to talk to their children about education and its meaning, and not to allow them to line up for their classes thoughtlessly, like cattle heading through the wrought-iron, ivy-covered chutes of America’s elite colleges. Whether the system that preceded our current one produced parents wise enough for this task is another question—and, given the difficulty a writer as sharp as Deresiewicz has in devising a coherent prescription of his own, one whose answer remains very much in doubt.

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