The New Republic has an article by William Deresiewicz arguing that parents and college bound young people should not consider the Ivy league for their higher education due to several factors, including but not limited to, arrested intellectual curiosity and poor academic development. At first glance, it's a rather bizarre state of things, an author with an Ivy league bachelors (Columbia), masters (Columbia), and Ph.D. (Yale) that then led to a 10 year career teaching at an Ivy league (Yale), attempting to argue against the very education he both received and dispensed. However, it could be a telling indication of the accuracy of his statements. In particular, if his arguments are poorly constructed, his evidence poorly collected, and his research poorly conducted, perhaps he's right. Let's run through his piece to see if we can figure it out:
These enviable youngsters appear to be the winners in the race we have made of childhood. But the reality is very different, as I have witnessed in many of my own students and heard from the hundreds of young people whom I have spoken with on campuses or who have written to me over the last few years. 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.
I should say that this subject is very personal for me. Like so many kids today, I went off to college like a sleepwalker. You chose the most prestigious place that let you in; up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth--"success." What it meant to actually get an education and why you might want one--all this was off the table. It was only after 24 years in the Ivy League--college and a Ph.D. at Columbia, ten years on the faculty at Yale--that I started to think about what this system does to kids and how they can escape from it, what it does to our society and how we can dismantle it.
This appears to be the basic foundation of the author's argument: Ivy League schools do a disservice to those that attend and fail to accomplish what the author believes is the core role of a university education. This begs the question (that the author soon answers), what's the purpose of college?
"Return on investment": that's the phrase you often hear today when people talk about college. What no one seems to ask is what the "return" is supposed to be. Is it just about earning more money? Is the only purpose of an education to enable you to get a job? What, in short, is college for?
The first thing that college is for is to teach you to think. That doesn't simply mean developing the mental skills particular to individual disciplines. College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance.
I would argue that infancy is for teaching you to think (I'm not being glib, either), not college. In fact, when will you have more space between familial orthodoxy and a demanding career than when you're a baby? I digress. The author then attempts to make a comparison between the Ivies and schools that do a better job in his view:
Elite schools like to boast that they teach their students how to think, but all they mean is that they train them in the analytic and rhetorical skills that are necessary for success in business and the professions. Everything is technocratic--the development of expertise--and everything is ultimately justified in technocratic terms.
Religious colleges--even obscure, regional schools that no one has ever heard of on the coasts--often do a much better job in that respect. What an indictment of the Ivy League and its peers: that colleges four levels down on the academic totem pole, enrolling students whose SAT scores are hundreds of points lower than theirs, deliver a better education, in the highest sense of the word.
To clarify, after the second paragraph in the above quote, the author offers no additional information on these "religious colleges no one has ever heard of on the coasts". Has no one on the coasts heard of them because they're in the middle of the country? The highest sense of the word "education" is what exactly? How often do they do a much better job? These questions remain unanswered throughout the piece so, sadly, we'll all just have to live with the mystery. That aside, the sheer lack of anything resembling a citation or anecdote, suggests that this particular argument is worthless.
The irony is that elite students are told that they can be whatever they want, but most of them end up choosing to be one of a few very similar things. As of 2010, about a third of graduates went into financing or consulting at a number of top schools, including Harvard, Princeton, and Cornell. Whole fields have disappeared from view: the clergy, the military, electoral politics, even academia itself, for the most part, including basic science. It's considered glamorous to drop out of a selective college if you want to become the next Mark Zuckerberg, but ludicrous to stay in to become a social worker. "What Wall Street figured out," as Ezra Klein has put it, "is that colleges are producing a large number of very smart, completely confused graduates. Kids who have ample mental horsepower, an incredible work ethic and no idea what to do next."
Here at WSO, most users can name at least a dozen major differences between consulting and "financing" (which, let's assume is code for "banking"). I'll leave it to the commenters to find the remaining absurd statements within the paragraph.
Insofar, the author has stated his position, and supported said position by pointing to poor outcomes in student's mental/emotional states, weaknesses in their operations (doesn't teach "how to think"), and an unwanted universality of post graduate employment opportunities. But, just in case his arguments didn't convince you, let's not forget the effect on society as a whole:
Let's not kid ourselves: The college admissions game is not primarily about the lower and middle classes seeking to rise, or even about the upper-middle class attempting to maintain its position. It is about determining the exact hierarchy of status within the upper-middle class itself. In the affluent suburbs and well-heeled urban enclaves where this game is principally played, it is not about whether you go to an elite school. It's about which one you go to. It is Penn versus Tufts, not Penn versus Penn State. It doesn't matter that a bright young person can go to Ohio State, become a doctor, settle in Dayton, and make a very good living. Such an outcome is simply too horrible to contemplate.
This system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it's supposed to lead. The numbers are undeniable. In 1985, 46 percent of incoming freshmen at the 250 most selective colleges came from the top quarter of the income distribution. By 2000, it was 55 percent. As of 2006, only about 15 percent of students at the most competitive schools came from the bottom half. The more prestigious the school, the more unequal its student body is apt to be. And public institutions are not much better than private ones. As of 2004, 40 percent of first-year students at the most selective state campuses came from families with incomes of more than $100,000, up from 32 percent just five years earlier.
I realize there's a lot to take in there but here are a few things to keep in mind. The "250 most selective colleges" is essentially "all selective colleges plus about 100 others". Again, I'm not being glib here, according to US News, Kansas State University, ranked #135, has a 99% acceptance rate. That's not to say that KState isn't a good school or doesn't deliver a quality education but, what it does mean, is that it is not selective. Also, a family with two high school teachers making the median salary for high school teachers has an income of $110,000. I don't think there's many people out there talking about how teachers earn entirely too much. Really, if 60% of your student body comes from families whose earnings are at least $10,000 less than that of a pair of teachers, it would seem that you're pretty economically inclusive.
The author goes on with one poorly conceived argument after another (e.g. kids should be waiting tables instead of volunteering) suggesting that, ironically, his thesis must be correct. If this is the best argument that a Columbia/Yale graduate and former Yale professor can construct, his education must have been painfully lacking. I guess it's time to figure out how to get into those religious colleges that only those in the middle of the country are aware.