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To Hell With Ivy League Schools

So says former Yale professor William Deresiewicz, in a barn-burner of a New Republic essay. He argues that the system of elite higher education in this country is profoundly screwing up kids who are brilliant and driven, but stunted by anxiety, fear of nonconformity, and no deep sense of what education is for, aside from being […]

So says former Yale professor William Deresiewicz, in a barn-burner of a New Republic essay. He argues that the system of elite higher education in this country is profoundly screwing up kids who are brilliant and driven, but stunted by anxiety, fear of nonconformity, and no deep sense of what education is for, aside from being certified to proceed into the meritocratosphere.

I found myself wanting to stand up and slow-clap at a number of moments in this piece, among them:

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.

Look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. A large-scale survey of college freshmen recently found that self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in the study’s 25-year history.

This reminded me of one of my Yale undergraduate friends. Went to Yale happy. Came home on holidays consumed by social anxiety of just this kind. It was tearing her to bits. More:

College is not the only chance to learn to think, but it is the best. One thing is certain: If you haven’t started by the time you finish your B.A., there’s little likelihood you’ll do it later. That is why an undergraduate experience devoted exclusively to career preparation is four years largely wasted.

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.

I’ve mentioned before two friends of mine who went to the same Ivy League school but came to LSU for a semester to get a much cheaper deal on the same program they would have taken at their school. Both of them said they very much appreciated how laid back and depoliticized the campus was, and how much easier it was to get the professor’s attention at LSU than back East. I remember my friend N. (whose father worked at the mill) saying how she had so many classmates at Brown who were rich kids, especially European kids, who were just there to coast. LSU was full of non-rich kids who were there to coast, but in N.’s telling, they didn’t have that intolerable sense of entitlement. Another Ivy League friend descended into depression because of the overwhelming social pressure to achieve there — the same kind of stuff Deresiewicz talks about, but this was going on in the 1980s. Still another hated the oppressive political atmosphere at his Ivy League school. He was (and is) a progressive, and agreed with almost all of the progressive causes on campus in his day. But he’s a laid-back Louisiana guy, and said everybody was so damn uptight about them, always on the outlook for deviation from the party line, that it made daily life on campus way more fraught with anxiety than it ought to have been.


But diversity of sex and race has become a cover for increasing economic resegregation. Elite colleges are still living off the moral capital they earned in the 1960s, when they took the genuinely courageous step of dismantling the mechanisms of the WASP aristocracy.

The truth is that the meritocracy was never more than partial. Visit any elite campus across our great nation, and you can thrill to the heart-warming spectacle of the children of white businesspeople and professionals studying and playing alongside the children of black, Asian, and Latino businesspeople and professionals. Kids at schools like Stanford think that their environment is diverse if one comes from Missouri and another from Pakistan, or if one plays the cello and the other lacrosse. Never mind that all of their parents are doctors or bankers.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t a few exceptions, but that is all they are. In fact, the group that is most disadvantaged by our current admissions policies are working-class and rural whites, who are hardly present on selective campuses at all. The only way to think these places are diverse is if that’s all you’ve ever seen.

Yes. Yes. A thousand times yes. This is how that entire class rolls, from their “diverse” colleges to their “diverse” newspapers. Here’s Wendell Berry, from The Progressive magazine (!):

Disparagements of farmers, of small towns, of anything identifiable as “provincial” can be found everywhere: in comic strips, TV shows, newspaper editorials, literary magazines, and so on. A few years ago, The New Republic affirmed the necessity of the decline of family farms in a cover article entitled “The Idiocy of Rural Life.” And I remember a Kentucky high school basketball cheer that instructed the opposing team:

Go back, go back, go back to the woods.
Your coach is a farmer and your team’s no good.

I believe it is a fact, proven by their rapidly diminishing numbers and economic power, that the world’s small farmers and other “provincial” people have about the same status now as enemy civilians in wartime. They are the objects of small, “humane” consideration, but if they are damaged or destroyed “collaterally,” then “we very much regret it,” but they were in the way–and, by implication, not quite as human as “we” are. The industrial and corporate powers, abetted and excused by their many dependents in government and the universities, are perpetrating a sort of economic genocide–less bloody than military genocide, to be sure, but just as arrogant, foolish, and ruthless, and perhaps more effective in ridding the world of a kind of human life. The small farmers and the people of small towns are understood as occupying the bottom step of the economic stairway and deservedly falling from it because they are rural, which is to say not metropolitan or cosmopolitan, which is to say socially, intellectually, and culturally inferior to “us.”

Enemy civilians in wartime. I know exactly what he means. 

I won’t quote more of the Deresiewicz piece; you really should read the whole thing. He said the best thing you can do to keep your kid from turning into “an out of touch, entitled little sh*t” is send her to a public university. The second-best thing is send him to a second tier (but not second rate) liberal arts college.

The man — an Ivy grad (Columbia, 1998) and teacher (Yale, 1998-2008) —  is a traitor to his class. Bless him.

UPDATE: Reader NS, with a great comment. I can tell you from his email address that he really is at an Ivy school:

Well, as a current student at an Ivy League school, I will try and offer my experiences to humanize the picture a little bit. In the interest of this I will offer full disclosure. I’m a multi-generation legacy at the aforementioned school, an ancestor of mine founded the place, in fact. Before that I attended prep school and before that I attended private elementary school. I’m the child and grandchild of the generic and villified “elite” class that Rod and others are ripping into. So this is coming from the enemy, I guess, and maybe as a result it won’t matter much to many of you, but I’ll still offer it up.

Where to begin…

Much of what Deresiewicz writes is spot on but he is trading in absolutes when things are just much, much more nuanced. Simply put, there are people, many of them at my school, who care deeply for being educated. Who look to these four years not as merely a stepping stone to entrance into the “meritocratosphere” but as a place to pursue thought deeply. I have met professors who encourage this, who tell me to spend my time reading and reading, “become a library rat” one of them said, rather than apply for internships or extracurriculars.

Deresiewicz is right. People here are ambitious. They want to break into elite jobs in order to have elite careers and they would probably benefit from a read of The Little Way. The extracurriculars here are insanely competitive and damagingly so. People are very concerned about jobs and prestige. This is something I wish I could change but the culture has moved so far on that there isn’t any turning back. This is the most important point. The Ivy League responded to the culture; it isn’t responsible for its creation. The fact of the matter is that most people in the this country don’t give a lick about real education. Money, careers, and material things are vastly more important to them than Shakespeare, Joyce, Montaigne, Plato, or Dante. The Ivy League doesn’t have a monopoly on ambition or materialism or technocratic values.

It isn’t the Ivy League. It’s the culture. My school isn’t forcing 1/6th of its students to major in economics so they are better prepared for careers in finance. The culture is telling them to do it because that is what the culture values. My school isn’t forcing students to learn “the analytic and rhetorical skills necessary for success in business and the professions.” Students spend their time going to the Investment Club, taking applied math, and going to interviews at career services. The culture demands that of the students and they respond. The culture is technocratic. I really challenge you to find a humanities professor at my school who feels that his or her chief charge is to teach their students “the analytic and rhetorical skills necessary for success in business and the professions” and not the texts. Seriously. That sentence was laughable.

The way I see it, 18-22 year olds aren’t that different no matter where they go to college. Some will be there to learn, some to party, some to network, some to smoke weed and have sex. There are kids at state schools networking just as hard as kids in the Ivy League. There are kids who love studying the great books of the Western tradition at Ivy League schools and there are kids who love studying the great books of the Western tradition at state schools. I know kids who spend their days partying at Ivy League schools and I know kids who spend their days partying at state schools. Again, it’s the culture, not the Ivy League (And guess what, the partying is bigger at state schools. You can get away with not even going to class at state schools. I know a kid who didn’t go to one of his classes for 5 weeks. He failed the class).

What I think the Ivy League does possess, for all of its structural faults, is rigor, class size, and contact with professors. The professors expect a lot from the kids and I’ve seen the syllabi from state schools. They don’t match up. In my first year I read Kant, Nietzsche, Hume, Freud, Durkheim, Kierkegaard, Plato, Shakespeare, the British Romantics, Locke, Marx, Heidegger, Sophocles, Aeschylus among others. Next semester, Aristotle, Kant, Doestoyevsky, the Metaphysical poets, Homer, Lucan, Ovid, Virgil, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Kafka, Faulkner, Melville, Bronte. My largest class was 40 students. I had one class of 4, one of 7, one of 12, one of 15 and the rest were in between 15-20. All of my classes were taught by tenured professors. I hardly think this deserves any scorn from a traditionalist conservative.

So yea, the Ivy League churns out some exhausted, anxious, grievously unread students. But it also churns out some seriously committed thinkers and you will be hard-pressed to beat those class sizes and the contact with professors. Does it vary across the Ivy League? Absolutely. Does everyone have my experience? Absolutely not. But quality education exists at the Ivy League. It isn’t just a bunch of “out of touch, entitled little sh*t[s]” although that sure is a convenient way to reduce an entire institution.

As for the diversity thing, Rod, Deresiewicz has it wrong, wrong, wrong. 66% of my class is on financial aid. 20% are first-generation college students. The idea that the Ivy League just caters to the sons and daughters of “bankers” is flat out dead wrong. No two ways about it. You want some examples? A close friend of mine is a poor white kid from the Deep South whose parents don’t have enough money to get him a bus ticket so he has to hitchhike to school. Another grew up on a farm in Tennessee and another in a small town in Montana. I didn’t realize they counted as elite.

More worryingly to me is your apparent, at least in your writing, dislike (?) disdain (?), correct me if those are too strong of words, for the “elite class”. I think you should withhold your pronouncements on “how that entire class rolls”, especially after you write a post about a brothel in Mississippi in order to demonstrate the complexity of people, in order to demonstrate how we shouldn’t make pronouncements about the South without getting to know it, without coming down there and talking to people to get a feel for the nuance and complexity of their lived experiences. After nearly two years of reading your blog, I’ve often wondered why you refuse to grant that same complexity to people like me.

Anyways, I hope this will move the needle a little bit for some of you. The state of liberal education in this country is a tragedy, not to mention a grave danger, but it’s not the fault of the Ivy League.