In Defense of the Ivy League

The current issue of the New Republic features former Yale professor William Deresiewicz going on for 4000 words deriding the Ivy League and other “elite” schools. This is not unusual: Deresiewicz has done this before and probably will do so again (there’s freedom in not getting tenure, it seems). But with a solid clickbait headline, the article made the rounds on social media and we decided to address some of the fallacies and paradoxes presented in his TNR arguments.

Part I: Kids These Days

Deresiewicz spends the first portion of his article discussing high achieving students and the machine of the elite siphoning privileged kids to Ivies. He describes spending one day in 2008 with the Yale admissions team, which I’m sure is highly representative of the admissions team’s entire process. Nothing new here, just impressive young students.

These kids, Deresiewicz implies, are worse off for achieving. And in succeeding in one of many unnamed sources’ assignments, students are robotic rather than, you know, doing an assignment.

A friend who teaches at a top university once asked her class to memorize 30 lines of the eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope. Nearly every single kid got every single line correct. It was a thing of wonder, she said, like watching thoroughbreds circle a track.”

Finally, Deresiewicz admits he himself is a child of the system: Columbia for undergrad and PhD, 10 years teaching at Yale. As Alison Herman, Columbia ’15, puts it, “I am very skeptical of someone who has benefited from the resources and prestige of the Ivy League turning around and telling those younger and in a much more vulnerable position than him to voluntarily sacrifice its advantages.”

Part II: Zombies!

And here we have another unnamed source: “a young woman from another school” who wrote to Deresiewicz about her boyfriend at Yale. This letter details things everyone everywhere does: being insecure about eating alone and faking cultural literacy. Then we learn that Ivy Leaguers play it safe, don’t care about intellectualism, are not passionate about education, and “dressed as if they were ready to be interviewed at a moment’s notice.” Tell that to the football players in the back of the lecture hall wearing sweats.

Freshmen are anxious and stressed out. Could this have something to do with being away from home in a new environment adjusting to unfamiliar standards while in the midst of an increased cultural awareness of mental health and wellness? Of course not! It’s a problem specific to the Ivy League!

Deresiewicz says elite students fear failure and want to excel academically. But as Peter Sterne, Columbia ’14, told me,

I excelled intellectually but often suffered academically because I was such a perfectionist that I wouldn’t hand anything in. Deresiewicz is worried about overachievers who try to get perfect grades in every class and don’t care about the actual subjects they’re studying; I was like the polar opposite. I was full of self-doubt because I worried that I was wasting my elite education, that what I did produce wasn’t academically genuine enough. I ended up learning a lot but got terrible grades.”

Generalizations based on anecdotal evidence: not always accurate!

Part III: ROI: Ruining Our Intellectualism

Is the only purpose of an education to enable you to get a job?” Well, kind of, yeah. As Sterne said, “people in our generation and class recognize that the best way to get prestigious/intellectual/creative jobs is to go to Columbia or Yale.” Deresiewicz’s logic is twisted: like a Prada bag, Ivy consumers are always, to some extent, looking for that name recognition–in addition to a higher quality education. Ivies are just meeting consumers’ demand (for the record, yup, I was an Economics major. Most of my friends are not zombies.).

But really, I’d argue that nearly everyone going to every college is trying to get a job afterwards. I mean:

(Chart via US Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Elite colleges don’t teach students how to think, Deresiewicz says. Instead, “they train them in the analytic and rhetorical skills that are necessary for success in business and the professions” and also being an informed, curious, questioning human being. Deresiewicz says this ignoring his own experience with the Columbia Core Curriculum, inter-departmental requirements at other Ivies, and Brown’s anti-grade policies.

The Core, for its faults, creates a more liberal arts feel for the undergrad experience (sorry, SEAS) and teaches students how to, well, “think.” Even in my economics classes we were taught to be conscientious and curious (sit in on one of Sunil Gulati or Xavier Sala-i-Martin’s lectures if you think I’m lying). Shane Ferro, C’11, agrees: “My experience at Columbia was that it was very liberal arts oriented. Intellectual curiosity trumped pre-professional training all the time. My CC professor basically gave me a grade for being interested in what we were reading.”

Deresiewicz also appears to ignore that there are different majors with different targets and educational formats. He says that religious colleges offer better intellectual education, as if “Religion” doesn’t exist as a major at elite schools (also ignoring that maybe all religious colleges don’t particularly encourage one to question or stray from the readings). An undergraduate at Rutgers Business School, a public university–which Deresiewicz suggests going to–is likely more pre-professional than a History of Art major at Yale.

Today’s young people, Deresiewicz says, have a “narrow conception of what constitutes a valid life: affluence, credentials, prestige.” Quoth Alison Herman:

Deresiewicz does a fantastic job of ignoring the reason why security (not wealth, not fame, SECURITY) has displaced cultivating the mind as the number one takeaway Kids These Days want from college. The Great Recession ripped away the mental, and often material, safety net that’s necessary to prioritize Learning to Think over, say, learning C++. Not that the two are mutually exclusive.”

In this section Deresiewicz also criticizes Harvard’s emphasis on creating leaders, to which we say: be a sheep! Strive for mediocrity! Because if you want to see the systematic changes Deresiewicz is calling for, going to Harvard to become president or attorney general is definitely not going to help.

Part IV: The Diversity Paradox

Deresiewicz gets into the lack of diversity elite colleges hold and the ways in which the system perpetuates income inequality and immobility. We’re with him on this one. But let’s discuss a slight paradox.

Sarah Durham, Columbia ’16, puts it nicely: “If he has his cake and eats it too–with both the Ivies becoming less pre-professional and poorer kids taking up more of each incoming class–then those poorer kids will not be directed towards the Fortune 500s and the professional industries after all.”

In this light, Deresiewicz’s arguments from the previous section come from a position of privilege. Not everyone can afford to study a non-lucrative passion. Yeah, that’s shitty, but it’s also reality. College education is not free. A student graduating in debt will not benefit from a $35k post-grad job. That would be perpetuating inequality in a cycle of debt. (Not to mention, an international student in need of a visa will be looking at the banks that have the mechanisms to support the process.)

Part V: The Fix

“[T]his article reminds me of the New Testament story of the rich, young man who asked Jesus ‘What must I do to gain the kingdom of heaven?’” Sammy Sainthil, Columbia ’14 said. “[D]idn’t it end with Jesus saying something along the lines of ‘Fuck you you entitled fuck-wad.’?”

 “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 shit?”

In answer, Deresiewicz suggests waiting tables, which doesn’t seem related to where you go to school, but I digress.

Deresiewicz recommends that entitled little shits go to big public universities to be in a more socioeconomically diverse community, even if you’re sacrificing for a more “impersonal” education. Sure, sounds good, that definitely works for everyone in the long run.

“If you encourage elite high schoolers to go to public schools and meet ‘real people,’ the best-case scenario is that they’ll be more sympathetic to ‘real people’ when their resources enable them to dominate American politics, business, and media. The worst case—which is already happening—is that you turn flasgship public school systems like UCal into pseudo-private elite colleges,” Sterne told IvyGate.

Further, as Jeffrey Wayno, a current Columbia PhD student, points out, public university students “know they’re competing with folks who are coming out of the Harvards and Yales and Stanfords of the world. The result? Public education in many places has become little more than a higher-quality, higher-priced vocational school.”

Deresiewicz’s conclusion is that we need “[h]igh-quality public education, financed with public money, for the benefit of all,” which, again, fails to acknowledge realities. It’s an obvious solution, but not a grounded or easily attained one. Again, see: UC Berkeley.

We also hear that academically successful students are dumb, dull, and useless:

“Students determine the level of classroom discussion; they shape your values and expectations, for good and ill. It’s partly because of the students that I’d warn kids away from the Ivies and their ilk. Kids at less prestigious schools are apt to be more interesting, more curious, more open, and far less entitled and competitive.”

I’m choosing to sidestep the accusation that I am uninteresting and neither curious nor open (entitled and competitive? Sure. The rest I can’t judge for myself). Instead let’s look at the facts: being in a smarter environment makes you more successful. “[T]he article fails at explaining how exactly education is better at non-elite institutions, other than vague suggestions of the value of socioeconomic diversity (which I agree is a great thing). That is, why his criticisms of higher education are unique to the Ivies,” says Bernardo Sarmiento, Columbia ’14.

A YLS paper on affirmative action found that black students were more likely to become lawyers if they were at a school technically higher tiered than they were qualified for (based on test scores and GPAs).

“[G]oing to a school below the white median tier hurts a black student’s chances of becoming a lawyer. Going to a school above the white median tier increases a black student’s chances of becoming a lawyer.”

Higher ranked schools provide better opportunities for success, for every race and class. Deresiewicz’s suggestion to go to schools below your qualifications is a suggestion to be less professionally successful. Take that as you will.

Deresiewicz then says the best schools are those like “Reed, Kenyon, Wesleyan, Sewanee, Mount Holyoke,” which definitely, definitely are socioeconomically diverse. “Instead of trying to compete with Harvard and Yale, these schools have retained their allegiance to real educational values,” Deresiewicz writes, apparently having missed Wesleyan’s “Independent Ivy” campaign in 1998.

After spending 4000 words writing about Ivies, Deresiewicz concludes that we should ignore them. Of course though, by “naming the Ivies as the most powerful instrument to deal with income inequality–and treating them like bellwethers of society’s future income distribution as a whole—he’s inadvertently adding to their mystique,” Durham says.

Deresiewicz makes some half-assed points but ultimately, in our assessment, comes up short. Urging qualified students to go to lower-tiered schools is irresponsible. Telling all students to seek intellectualism rather than pre-professionalism is entitled. Saying simply that well-funded, high-quality public universities are the answer is unrealistic and reductive. There are definitely changes that need to be made to the entire American university system in terms of increasing socioeconomic diversity and preventing further stratification. But Deresiewicz’s conception of college as a place to solely build your “self” and learn how to “think” without at all considering future employment is simply incorrect. And blaming elite schools for a national, societal problem is absurd.