One of the reasons that the War on College is so potent is that the attacks aren’t just coming from conservatives; they’re coming from liberals as well. Consider, for example, the art of the Ivy League-loathing memoir: boy (and it’s almost always a boy) goes to elite school filled with intellectual idealism, and then the corruption and ideational conformity of the place makes him realize it’s all a sham. This is a time-honored tradition on the right, starting with William F. Buckley’s “God and Man At Yale” and continuing through Ross Douthat’s “Privilege.”
Which brings me to William Deresiewicz’s forthcoming book “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducaton of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.” The New Republic has excerpted part of it for its cover story this week. Deresiewicz’s argument can be summed up in this lament:
A young woman from another school wrote me this about her boyfriend at Yale:
Before he started college, he spent most of his time reading and writing short stories. Three years later, he’s painfully insecure, worrying about things my public-educated friends don’t give a second thought to, like the stigma of eating lunch alone and whether he’s “networking” enough. No one but me knows he fakes being well-read by thumbing through the first and last chapters of any book he hears about and obsessively devouring reviews in lieu of the real thing. He does this not because he’s incurious, but because there’s a bigger social reward for being able to talk about books than for actually reading them.
I taught many wonderful young people during my years in the Ivy League—bright, thoughtful, creative kids whom it was a pleasure to talk with and learn from. 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. Very few saw college as part of a larger project of intellectual discovery and development. Everyone dressed as if they were ready to be interviewed at a moment’s notice….
Is there anything that I can do, a lot of young people have written to ask me, to avoid becoming an out-of-touch, entitled little s**t?
Do read the whole thing — which, as savvy, well-educated readers of the Washington Post, I suspect you will. Some of you will even note the similarities between Deresiewicz’s essay and David Brooks’s “The Organization Kid” from more than a decade ago. As you’re reading, however, I’d like you to contemplate a few questions.
First, is it possible to inject more self-loathing into a New Republic essay? As Deresiewicz notes:
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.
In publishing this at The New Republic, Deresiewicz guarantees that he’s hitting the perfect demographic audience. Because I bet you that 99 percent of the people who will read it are people with some combination of elite college affiliation and self-loathing about their privileged position. They’ll want to agree with Deresiewicz.
Look, I’m not saying that Deresiewicz is completely wrong. I’ve attended/taught/spoken at a lot of the institutions referred to in the essay, and I recognize the out-of-touch, entitled little s**ts to whom he’s referring. I’m sure everyone reading these words knows a few of these people as well. That said, in my experience they’re a decided minority.
Of course, that’s just my experience. Which leads to my second question: where is the data to back up Deresiewicz’s claims? For example:
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.
Well, this is a damning indictment, and I was looking forward to seeing the evidence to back it up and… and… there really isn’t any in this essay. Just his assertion. Maybe his assertion is correct, but we have no way to know without further inquiry. If you’re going to throw around grandiose claims like that, you need to back them up with some empirics. Having taught at a decent but not elite public university and a few elite private schools, it does not jibe with my experience. But two anecdotal experiences aren’t enough. There needs to be more data.
At the core of Deresiewicz’s essay is the ongoing question of whether elite universities are havens of meritocracy that educate the mind and promote the best and the brightest or just prestige cartels that entrench pre-existing networks in our corrupt, unequal, rent-seeking society. The problem has always been the difficulty in parsing out these effects, because they lead to similar predictions of elite graduates doing well. I suspect the reality of the situation will not provide a monocausal answer, so one should be very wary of arguments that do not allow for causal complexity.
Deresiewicz bemoans the atrophying of critical, curious inquiry in his essay. So I’d encourage all my readers to read it in full — and then apply their questioning skills to Deresiewicz’s assumptions and assertions.