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How Do We Fix the Ivy League?

What’s the problem with Ivy League schools these days? According to William Deresiewicz, their problems are legion. In an article for The New Republic, he cautions parents and students against pursuing an Ivy League institution. The schools are mere machines, he writes, drawing students who are “smart and talented and driven,” yet also “trapped in a bubble of […]

What’s the problem with Ivy League schools these days? According to William Deresiewicz, their problems are legion. In an article for The New Republic, he cautions parents and students against pursuing an Ivy League institution. The schools are mere machines, he writes, drawing students who are “smart and talented and driven,” yet also “trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.” He explains further:

So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk. You have no margin for error, so you avoid the possibility that you will ever make an error. Once, a student at Pomona told me that she’d love to have a chance to think about the things she’s studying, only she doesn’t have the time. I asked her if she had ever considered not trying to get an A in every class. She looked at me as if I had made an indecent suggestion.

Peter Lawler has recognized this problem in the past, and points to our technification of education as a large part of the problem. “I’ve long believed that the main threat to liberal education—real higher education, in my view—is our tendency to judge the success of academics in technical terms,” he wrote recently at Minding the Campus. “… The art of teaching is becoming a technology defined by skills, competencies, machine-based grading, ‘smart’ classrooms, rubrics, and expert-generated ‘best practices.'” Lawler calls professors back to a mode of teaching in which history, philosophy, and literature are not lost in the quantifiable and scientific: in which professors mind their students’ “souls” and virtues.

In his article, Deresiewicz points to some problems in the admissions process, and offers some suggestions on how to fix it. A lot of his propositions are intriguing:

The education system has to act to mitigate the class system, not reproduce it. Affirmative action should be based on class instead of race, a change that many have been advocating for years. Preferences for legacies and athletes ought to be discarded. SAT scores should be weighted to account for socioeconomic factors. Colleges should put an end to résumé-stuffing by imposing a limit on the number of extracurriculars that kids can list on their applications. They ought to place more value on the kind of service jobs that lower-income students often take in high school and that high achievers almost never do.

… More broadly, they need to rethink their conception of merit. If schools are going to train a better class of leaders than the ones we have today, they’re going to have to ask themselves what kinds of qualities they need to promote. Selecting students by GPA or the number of extracurriculars more often benefits the faithful drudge than the original mind.

Deresiewicz is right: admissions departments are more likely to pull students based on their amount of technical abilities and measurable gifts than their more abstract (yet often more virtuous or innovative) talents. Even the colleges who acknowledge this problem are struggling to change. They are used to using numbers to measure and make all decisions, and their desire for quantifiable control can turn almost humorous. As Eric Hoover wrote for Nautilus,

As colleges de-emphasize tests scores for applicants, they are turning to research showing that a student’s potential relies on more than cognition. Traits such as optimism, curiosity, resilience, and “grit” may actually play a stronger role in determining a student’s long-term success. …

Motivated by such findings, the Educational Training Service developed an online rating tool called the Personal Potential Index. Designed to quantify what’s conveyed in a recommendation, it asks past instructors to rate students on a five-point scale in six categories: communication skills, ethics and integrity, knowledge and creativity, planning and organization, resilience, and teamwork. To gauge resilience, for instance, respondents are asked to what extent a student “accepts feedback without getting defensive; works well under stress; can overcome challenges and setbacks; works extremely hard.” Recommenders can type in comments to elaborate on their ratings, if they choose.

Notre Dame Business School and the American Dental Association are among the first to use the Personal Potential Index in their admissions process. Kyllonen expects that the results of an ongoing large-scale study will validate the new tool as a predictor of student success.

Colleges are recognizing that “soft skills” are important—but they still don’t have the gumption to give up the numbers, and start listening to students themselves, judging each based on their individual merits, rather than placing their trust in numbers.

Contrast this “Personal Potential Index” with Bard College’s recent admissions experiment—the liberal arts school decided, in the words of its president, Leon Botstein, to “declar[e] war on the whole rigmarole of college admissions.” While students can still submit a standard application, they can also choose to write four essays (totaling 10,000 words) on a variety of scholarly topics. Students who get a B+ or better are accepted. Of course, this is a more tedious and difficult process—both for the applicant, and for the college. However, the point of the process is much larger, and deeper, than most admissions programs. It is getting at the very thing that Deresiewicz is calling for in his essay: the attempt to bring true value back to education.

Deresiewicz acknowledges the fact that smaller liberal arts colleges have held onto their academic virtues to a greater degree then their larger, more prestigious counterparts. However, he concludes his piece by pointing to public universities as our solution: “I used to think that we needed to create a world where every child had an equal chance to get to the Ivy League,” he says. “I’ve come to see that what we really need is to create one where you don’t have to go to the Ivy League, or any private college, to get a first-rate education.”

But there is no indication that the problems he’s identified in Ivy League colleges can’t be perpetuated at public universities, as well. The focus on quantifiable skill sets, the swath of extracurriculars, the pressure to perform: these things can plague any university. Granted, public schools won’t have the pressure of performing to donors—but they are most often competing for highly skilled (athletically, musically, intellectually) students, just like all the other colleges out there.

Our problems, though somewhat institutional, are primarily philosophical: questions having to do with the purpose of education, the nature of learning, the best way to train future career holders and members of society. These fundamental questions either strengthen or destroy our modes of education. The school that overemphasizes rigor and scholasticism will fall into vices of one sort; the school that dispenses with rigor and discipline will encourage vices of another sort. In our pursuit of virtue, the greatest difficulty is in determining what education is for, and how to help students truly learn—and we must answer these questions before we can fix anything else.



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