Why college kids aren’t timid or lost


The Columbia University campus in New York City. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)
August 3

Author and former Yale faculty member William Deresiewicz has created a sensation with his attack on the Ivy League, published in the New Republic.

He is right to question our misplaced respect for elite colleges. He also wisely wonders why such institutions can’t welcome more students from low-income homes.

But his main point — that the Ivies are turning out a generation of losers — makes no sense. “Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes,” he says, “but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.”

You sometimes hear that from pensioners who think the whole world is going catatonic. But Deresiewicz is only 50, and he should know better.

For 30 years I have been writing about smart kids who go to the most competitive high schools and most selective colleges. The Washington area probably has the highest concentration of such people in the country. My interviews, and the available data, don’t support the notion that they have become dangerously fragile and misguided. They have their problems, but they continue to deal with them as students always have.

Deresiewicz ignores the reality of academically talented teens’ lives when he says that “the kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success.” That’s not what I’ve seen. Ask them about their love lives, and you get a different picture.

As far as their shiny college applications go, doesn’t ­Deresiewicz, who got into ­Columbia, remember the holes in his own impressive résumé? I can’t forget mine. I was No. 1 on the school tennis team but lost every match against other schools. I didn’t tell the colleges that. I made much of my election as student body president — but failed to reveal that I did nothing worthwhile once I took office.

Deresiewicz is a caring educator writing about Yale students he has known. His observations are often right, though disconnected from history. His students were thoughtful and creative, he said, “but most of them seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them. Very few were passionate about ideas.”

Who is at that age? Every class will have some deep and original thinkers, but most of us just try to keep up with the work. If we do have big, wild ideas, we are more likely to share them with friends than professors.

My main objection to Deresiewicz’s thesis is his pathological view of elite college youth. He said he often found “toxic levels of fear, anxiety and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation.” He points out that “a large-scale survey of college freshmen recently found that self-reports of emotional well-
being have fallen to their lowest level in the study’s 25-year history.”

This is the only data he offers in the article to back up his claim of deep college angst. His source appears to be the annual survey of U.S. freshmen by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute. In 2010, 51.9 percent said that their own “emotional health” was at least “above average,” compared with 63.6 percent in 1985. Many of those who didn’t check that box would presumably consider their mental health just average — a long way from “toxic levels of fear, anxiety and depression.” And isn’t the first year of college stressful for nearly everyone?

Deresiewicz’s book, “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life,” will be out soon. The rest of the world thinks our colleges are the best part of our society. We are admired for a higher education system that encourages creativity and produces so many Nobel laureates. American students will be anxious, but they also will benefit from intellectual adventures and kind faculty like Deresiewicz who sometimes worry about them too much.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.
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