In the continuing series of blog posts about things I meant to write about a while ago, I had meant to chime in on William Deresiewicz’s annoying piece in The New Republic about how you shouldn’t send your kid to an Ivy League school, but now, having dithered for so long, I can just recommend you start with Gracy Olmstead’s post from this morning on the subject, and the David Heller review of Deresiewicz’s book that she links to.
And I want to endorse, emphatically, this line of Heller’s:
Academe ought to focus on the one thing that it actually did well: letting scholars teach what they knew. That teaching might nurture intellectual skills that the students could use in the real world, but how it did so was mysterious and, anyway, beside the point.
As it happens, I graduated from an Ivy League school – somewhat too long ago, it’s true, to reflect directly on the state of things as they are. But it still strikes me how different my experience was from what I hear described.
I went to Yale University in the early 1990s (class of 1992, if you must know). I majored in history – the most popular major at the time (followed by English). Not every course I took was intellectually rigorous or well-taught, but the average level of instruction struck me as absurdly high, and the expectations for graduation were quite serious. I’m honestly still proud of my senior thesis, about the process of cult centralization in the reigns of Hezekiah and Josiah in the late First Temple period of Israelite history. I was originally going to write about the Taki Uncuy movement in 16th century Peru, but decided I simply didn’t know enough about Inca and pre-Inca culture to say anything really intelligent, so I wound up writing a shorter historiographic paper about the limitations of inquisition records as sources, and switched topics for my actual thesis. I also remember fondly seminars on the Spanish Civil War, on popular culture in early modern England – there were so many great courses in the history department. And beyond: the lectures on Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies, on constitutional law, on political philosophy. I took some excellent creative writing seminars.
Bottom line: my academic experience at Yale pretty well reflected that Heller quote above. I learned a great deal. I had no idea whether any of what I learned would be useful to a putative career. I also had no idea whether any of what I learned would help me “find” myself. To the extent that either turned out to be true, it’s because I continued to think about what I learned in new and different contexts – because I built on it.
Meanwhile, my social experience of college was kind of a disaster. I was anything but the “organization kid” – I had no idea what kind of future I was supposed to be preparing for, signed up for no high-profile internships, joined no prestigious clubs. Oh, I tried to do some of those things – my freshman year, I tried out for a couple of singing groups, joined the Political Union, that sort of thing. But none of it really worked out, and by sophomore year I’d kind of retreated into a bit of a cocoon, socially and psychically.
I was, in other words, almost the opposite of what David Brooks and William Deresiewicz fret about. My college years were centered on an academic experience that was serious and organized around the needs and requirements of the discipline itself. I don’t want to pretend that I was a grind – I wasn’t. I spent plenty of nights drinking and playing poker, or futilely pursuing my female compatriots, instead of studying; I slept through plenty of lectures; I wrote plenty of papers in last-minute all-nighters. In other words, I was a college student. But I didn’t have a plan for my life. When I graduated, I tried to become a novelist, and set myself up in a dreadful cockroach-infested apartment. After a year of that, with no novel to speak of, I decided I needed a plan.
And, basically without thinking about it – or even knowing what one was – I went to work for a hedge fund. Which led to a 16-year Wall Street career. Which is exactly the kind of choice that Deresiewicz’s laments his “sheep” are primed to make. Maybe they aren’t making that kind of choice because they are being raised wrong, but because that’s where the money is?
It’s increasingly the same point with me: if you’re troubled by the culture, follow the money. The incredible fortunes to be made on Wall Street and in Silicon Valley, and the ruthless competition in traditionally genteel fields like law, are what have driven the increasingly frantic race for a place at the top – and to so much drift among those who have the right credentials to compete in that race, but lack the talent, temperament or simple luck to really be a contender. And that frantic race has infected everything. I mean, the same summer that Deresiewicz called for burning down Harvard, Reihan Salam called for closing Stuyvesant High School, which operates a very different kind of meritocracy.
And by the way: one of Deresiewicz’s suggestions is that many students who go to the Ivies might be better off at a big public university. He might be interested to read the following, from one of the commenters on my piece responding to Salam:
Just over a decade ago I was enrolled in a fantastically expensive and exclusive private school that treated my friends and I like hothouse flowers. From there, I went directly to an enormous urban public research university, a veritable boiler room of meritocracy. It was in many ways a rude awakening, but the rudest transition of all was in the kind of ethical attitudes I suddenly encountered for the first time. University brought a more diverse crowd in every way, in terms of ethnicity, religion, class, wealth, etc; that was all to the good. What wasn’t good was the toxic way in which the school’s “total sink-or-swim environment” interacted with people who genuinely didn’t care about anything but their score.
Why was this such a shock to me? Because at the private school NO ONE had cared about their score, or at least not enough to cheat. After all, the school’s academic standards were known to be generally high, and odds were good that every student would at least get into a safety school. There was little need to compete for scholarships; and if all else failed, students from wealthy families (i.e., almost all the students) had other options to fall back on.
For the most part, the “strivers” at the public university didn’t have those other options, and their potential future employers were not going to perform extensive background checks to see if they really earned their STEM degrees honestly. And yes, unfortunately, foreign students from developing countries earned themselves a particularly bad reputation for this; the incentives for them were stacked against integrity at every step.
In retrospect, I’d have been a lot happier at a more expensive private liberal arts college. Meritocracy without integrity is for the birds. If a sense of integrity can’t be maintained among the current crop of students at Stuy, then maybe it would be better for the school to close, rather than risk further darkening the general reputation of the kind of student who still goes there.
Yep: competition’s a bitch. The more I ruminate on it, the more I think I was just lucky to be born into a small generational cohort.