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.

  • fukaya category

    the man is a socialist, but we shouldn’t be fascists. let people continue to pay into the system and come back 15 years later whining that they didn’t get what they paid for. anyone going to the Ivy League who is under the preconception that higher education in the states is fact, NOT big business is a complete idiot. I don’t care if they have their PhD in Wiccan Studies or Pottery.

  • tiduck34

    “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.”
    As a public university student I find I lack the advanced cognitive skills to understand exactly what this statement is supposed to mean. Someone wanna break it down for me?

    • 17

      Seems to be that Cal students/their equivalent are compelled to take a pre-professional track in order to compete with Ivy/Stanford/private grads, which goes against Deresiewicz’s suggestion that by going to public universities, students will “learn to think” more than they would by going to a private college.

      in other words, if you take D’s advice to attend a public university, then you have even more of an incentive to take a pre-professional track because your chances of getting employed against an Ivy/Stanford/private university grad is even lower.

      • Lagertha

        So wrong. In SV or Europe (northern and Nordic countries) no one cares if you even went to college if you are brilliant and can prove it with the typical “problems” you have to solve (coding; IQ, etc.) in order for the most innovative companies to believe you are smart enough for them to hire you. At 19, my son is earning mega-bucks doing contract work while returning to his junior year at a wonderful, gorgeous flag-ship state U. He will have no debt and can pick up a degree (double major) in 2 years…and there are already co’s. in SV & east coast & Europe who are intrigued with him.

        He did not want any debt, and, he likes to study and play near the beach or in the Rockies. He feels that most of the students in his classes have the intellectual hardiness and creative intensity that D speaks about; which some people- I really want to bitch slap former Ivy Leaguers – assert only exists in a scarce number of state u students. I have always hated the ridiculous arrogance of elite u grads that believe only THEIR campus was/is filled with intellectual heavy weights. And, can we lose the condescending term, “2nd tier, 3rd tier schools?” It is soooo arrogant and smacks of American shallowness (and kinda’ uncouthness)…a sort of obsession with a class system that Americans insist doesn’t exist.

        And, as a mother who went to an elite U; whose brothers went to various elite u’s; whose father taught at an elite U, I completely agree with D. Elite private universities can’t continue without the support of the ultra wealthy, so it is not a surprise that there are not so many rabid geniuses and creative wunderkinds walking around HYP & Co. anymore. I saw this happening in the early 80′s as I saw the “shrinking middle class” students disappearing. And, the children of the very wealthy have rarely been the most astonishing in their public success in the “real world” after elite u. And, I can say this as I am a 7th generation university graduate.

        When I asked my sons if they wanted to apply to the Ivies, they felt, “naaah, that’s for all the goody-goodies that are just so tragic who have difficulty living apart from their helicopter parents.”

  • BustinOutTheBando

    I’m at one of those so-called “elite universities” and I thought the author was spot on in many regards. I don’t know why people get so defensive about this stuff, though I’d venture to guess it has something to do with how closely Elite College Kids tie their matriculation to their senses of self-worth, identity, and purpose.

    For one, I thought his take on Overachiever Culture had some salient bits. Case in point: the admissions team that needs to see a laundry list of extracurriculars, but rejects the applicant who has too many for being “too intense.” It underscores the absurdity of the process itself: who can blame the kid when the whole thing is designed to make him feel that he’s never doing enough because of what that other kid’s doing?

    To see the truth in what he’s arguing just go onto the awful College Confidential forums. Amid all of the “chance” threads and pining for acceptances from elite schools, you get the feeling that these kids don’t really know why they want to go to X or Y other than the fact that they’re taught to, that it’s the next rung up the social ladder. And you know what? In my experience, (some of) these kids really ARE vapid, robotic, smarmy, status-obsessed, and overly competitive. I know many who I count as friends, or at least acquaintances.

    Of course, outside of the bubbles of elite higher-ed, it should be obvious to anyone that in the “Real World” what matters isn’t where you went to school or even what you studied, but what you do with it–in other words, it’s about the strength of your work ethic, creativity, personality, and passion. High-ranking colleges open doors to powerful and lucrative positions, sure, but 1) nothing is ever guaranteed; and 2) to act like that’s all there is to life is missing out on quite a bit.

    Notice how successful, visionary types who went to an Ivy/similar school rarely bring up where they went to college, but those who did and landed in some cushy but otherwise unexceptional job can never stop talking about it. Caveat for you argumentative types: obviously that’s not true for everyone.

    This blog post itself betrays signs of a tendency all too common to “elite” students: missing the forest for the trees.

    • prospect

      Great post.

    • alum

      Full disclaimer: I went to an elite Ivy and I still live and breathe for that school. It changed me as a person, helped me grow, made me think critically, and gave me four very unforgettable years where I was given the opportunity to travel around the world–all on full financial aid.

      That being said, I have to agree with you. As much as I loved going to school at an elite Ivy, he certainly does hit the nail on the head in a lot of what he says. A large portion of my four years were spent wracked with anxiety and I know for a fact that I was not alone in those thoughts. Mental health takes a staggering decline when you’re sleeping four hours a night, studying ten hours a day, and still not pulling the grades you want to be pulling. And yes, he’s right– at a certain point, it does become a lot more about the grades than it does about learning. Schmoozing and networking are built-in pressures. An exit survey for my school revealed that confidence and self-worth decreased over the four year period students spent there and it’s totally true: I graduated less assured in myself than I did when I got there.

      Of course, that could be because I was an 18 year old brat who had just gotten into an Ivy League when I started and when I graduated, I was a 22 year old adult who had spent four years being humbled by smarter people. It could also be because you graduate realizing that you don’t know a whole lot, relative to what there is left to learn in the world. Either way, I think he makes a fair point.

      Another fair point: a lot of Ivy students are out of touch with reality. It is true what they say: they are the second, third, fourth, tenth, etc generations of rich, privileged, successful families. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.. I mean, it’s because of these families and their donations that many Ivies function at the calibre they do today. But it does create a divide. My parents are both immigrants who learned English as a second language and worked around the clock, year round. My room mate grew up in Beverly Hills as the daughter of the plastic surgeon who operates on celebrities. My lab partner took a helicopter back home for Thanksgiving break. My room mate’s hockey team mate was the son of an oil tycoon. When it came down to doing simple stuff, like opening windows and hanging frames, cleaning things, etc, they were lost and useless.

  • poop

    What a poorly written post.

  • Jay Oza

    I have seen some of these Ivy League students on some of the MOOC courses I have taken and i have to say they are a pretty impressive bunch. They can certainly think based on what I have seen.

  • Sarah from Penn

    He committed academic incest at Columbia. Eeeeeeew.

  • Pat

    This is really poorly written. Message might be okay? Couldn’t stick around long enough to understand the message though. Very elementary style of writing.

    • prospect

      What exactly was it that made the post poorly written to you?

      • Ellie Kesselman

        This post is NOT poorly written. I am freshly arrived from the original Deresiewicz article. It is a steaming pile of tripe. It is not poorly written either, but it is awful.
        “‘Deresiewicz then says the best schools are those like “Reed, Kenyon, Wesleyan, Sewanee, Mount Holyoke,’” Lol Kenyon. Reed is good, but he doesn’t include Swarthmore.

  • Student

    This is a very well written article, and does a great job refuting the condescending, absurd points that Deresiewicz makes. Thank you for writing this, Ms. Svokos!

  • Yaleguy

    I’ve interviewed job applicants from YLS who had Ivy undergrads and applicants from lesser law schools who went to undergrad schools outside the top 25. The caliber of the conversations was incomparable. WD is describing a partial social phenomenon that he can only support with anecdotes. But the reality is that most Ivy grads are far better thinkers and conversationalist than non – ivy grads generally, obviously not an ironclad rule. I went to Yale over a decade ago but there was plenty of thinking going on back then and I would assume that if it has deteriorated since then it is an across the board problem. Also, I’ve read this guy’s stuff for years and while he makes many thoughtful points on a broad range of social and cultural points, he is like the liberal version of David Brooks, a privileged white guy who thinks he has a monopoly on wisdom because his anecdotes are so much better and universal than everyone else’s. In the end, he may be right in a few minor respects but the answer is not what is not America’s underfunded sports obsessed public schools. If I knew what the answer was, I’d be secretary of education.

    • Our Glass House

      We who live in the Ivy ivory tower are not ourselves immune to a little sports obsession, with all the academic short-cuts and NCAA recruiting violations that implies.

      The most recently sports-obsessed school in America is Harvard, breaking new ground with lower admissions standards in men’s basketball recruiting, lower than any other Harvard varsity team and probably lower than any Ivy team in any sport, judging by NCAA-calculated APR scores and the number of players recruited who had not yet reached the League-mandated minimum AI score of 176.

      I agree with you that the average Ivy applicant is articulate and well composed but lurking a bit beneath the surface is just another kid who is happy to bend the rules for a winning team. We’re no better than the SEC or Big XII students that we privately mock.

  • prospect

    Check your roman numerals. Right now you have Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 9, and Part 10. X = 10, not 5.

    • asvokos

      Shows how ineffective an Ivy League degree is. Fixing!

  • jim sleeper

    Deresiewicz’s New Republic article is really just a chapter from his new book, which I reviewed in Bookforum’s summer issue:

  • Logic

    When did we forfeit our right to self-deprecate? To assert that William D doesn’t have the right to subvert Ivy League schools because he “benefited” from them is asinine. Doesn’t someone who experiences something first-hand have the most valuable insight? If we silence those primarily involved with an institution or lifestyle, we rely on stereotypes and speculation. Reminds me of Kanye West, who has both subliminally and very, very, overtly criticized race politics and the music industry itself. The response: he is a multi-millionaire who has benefited greatly from that very industry, so how dare he criticize it. Without the landscape of America as it stands, he wouldn’t be this rich and famous. Excuse me? Boggles my mind. His acute perspective should be valued, like William D’s (not that I agree with everything he says, at all). But if you want to rely on talking heads and the Twitter Egg’s to offer societal insight, then do you. I’ll be paying attention to the experts.