The Magazine

Making It

Love and success at America's finest universities.

Dec 23, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 15 • By DAVID BROOKS
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I've bounced his observations off many students, and some of them think he is overstating this. Many students are involved in long-term relationships. But fewer, I sense, than two decades ago. And it's undeniable that students do bring a prudential frame of mind to their romantic activities. College is a busy time. One has to take advantage of the unique opportunities. It's better, many of these students have reasoned, to put off serious relationships until one's career is established and you have time to invest in them.

When you put it this way, it sounds cold and calculating. In fact, these students are merely following the advice of their parents--the same people who would be quick to condemn them for taking the magic out of love. How many parents do you know--liberal or conservative, atheist or evangelical--who would enjoy seeing their child devote the bulk of his or her collegiate energies to a boyfriend or girlfriend, rather than to the vast array of activities and learning opportunities available at these $40,000-a-year schools? Very few. Parents who are ambitious for their kids imbue them with a professional, strategizing mindset. It's not surprising that they have carried this over--to some extent--into the arena of romance and sex.

One other quick observation about dating and romance. I was having lunch at a restaurant, and two female African-American law students were at the table next to me, talking loud enough that I could not help overhearing. (You call it snooping, I call it reporting.) They were complaining about how many of their male black law school friends would date white women. They ran down the list of their classmates, noting which ones would date whites with the same tone of contempt you might use to describe friends you thought would betray you to the secret police.

The overall tone of their conversation, such as I could hear it, was not merely segregationist. It was desperate. These were two extraordinarily attractive women. They were students at one of the world's best law schools. In theory they should have had to beat men off with sticks. And yet their general feeling was that the pool of available men for them was tiny and shrinking, that their prospects were truly grim. I mentioned this tale to a few black students at similar schools, and they all agreed that the conversation was utterly typical. Several noted that black men are more inclined than black women to date across racial lines, but nobody had a good explanation as to why this was so.

LET'S MOVE FROM SEX TO SUCCESS. If affairs of the heart are influenced by time pressures and the desire to grasp opportunities, you can be assured that professional and career choices are too. Many of the students at these elite colleges are aware that they are the products of a certain sort of meritocratic system. Their lives have been formed by an intricate network of achievement-enhancement devices. As kids, they jumped through all the right hoops, as they often put it. They performed the requisite extracurricular activities, impressed teachers, and mastered the obstacle course of grades, standardized test scores, and mentor recommendations. Nobody planned this system. It arose organically. It has millions of interlocking parts--from animated public television programs teaching letter awareness or sermonizing about environmentalism, up through grade school teachers, SAT prep tutors, coaches, guidance counselors, parents, and friends. Each component in the system does its part to hone each child for growth, progress, learning, and ascent. Indeed, as I was teaching (this is the first time I've taught a course), I became aware how small a part each individual teacher plays in this vast achievement machine. The students, at least at these elite academies, have so many resources to draw on, so many experiences available to them, that the most an individual teacher can generally hope to do is to throw one more bucket of ideas into the ocean of their minds, and hope that somehow it makes a difference.

Many of the students are deeply ambivalent about the system and how it has shaped them. And they are right to be, because while the system produces lively and intelligent adults, it has a few serious drawbacks. On the positive side, the system does encourage students to exert themselves. Actually, it demands it. As one student at the Yale Political Union astutely noted, the system doesn't necessarily reward brains; it rewards energy. The ones who thrive are the ones who can keep going from one activity to another, from music, to science, to sports, to community service, to the library, and so on without rest. To get into a competitive school, you need a hyperactive thyroid as much as high intelligence.

Second, the system lovebombs the kids--at least the moderately successful ones--with encouragement. I was at a community college not long ago looking through some projects that students had done for a landscaping class. The students were asked to list their goals for the course. One wrote, "to become more comfortable, confident, and competent in my designs."

At elite schools, students are able to project that level of comfort, confidence, and competence. I asked a science professor who had moved to Yale how big the difference was between students at Yale and at the other competitive colleges where he had worked. The students at Yale are not that much smarter, he said. He's taught the same course at different schools, and the test results from school to school do not differ widely. But, he continued, most students at Yale, when they walk into a room, feel they can basically handle whatever situation they find there.

These students have been instilled with a basic faith in themselves. They are thus remarkably eager to try new things, to thrust themselves into unlikely situations, to travel the world in search of new activities. At Dartmouth and Princeton, too, every other student you meet has just come back from some service adventure in remotest China or Brazil. During my conversations with them, I would sometimes realize with a start that they were two decades younger than me. With their worldliness, their sophisticated senses of humor, their ability to at least fake knowledge of a wide variety of fields, they socialize just like any group of fortysomethings.

They are also incredibly entrepreneurial when it comes to student activities. I've long regarded Yale as the best school in America, on the basis of conversations with adult friends who went there. It seems to have the best combination of small classes, a curious intellectual atmosphere, and a fun social scene. (I went to the University of Chicago, which had the first two, but not the last.) But even I was blown away by the richness of student life at Yale. There are periodicals, singing groups, secret societies, theater groups, community service groups, religious groups, debating societies, intramural teams, and so on everywhere you turn. Students start these things themselves. They run them themselves (and many of these groups are really small businesses). They build them bigger and bigger. Even if the Yale faculty disappeared tomorrow, the school would still be a fantastic place for students because of these activities.

Indeed, for many students, I suspect, these activities are the most important part of their college experience. It is through activities that students find the fields they enjoy and the talents they possess. The activities, rather than the courses, seem to serve as precursors to their future lives.

There is a dark side to the meritocratic system, however. One of the most destructive forces in American life today is the tyranny of the grade point average. Everyone argues about whether SATs are an unjust measure of student ability, but the GPA does far more harm. To get into top schools, students need to get straight A's or close. That means that students are not rewarded for developing a passion for a subject and following their curiosity wherever it takes them. They are rewarded if they can carefully budget their mental energies and demonstrate proficiency across all academic disciplines. They are rewarded, as Joseph Epstein put it, for their ability to take whatever their teachers throw out at them, in whatever field, and return it back in their warm little mouths. Idiosyncrasy is punished. Students are rewarded for having a lukewarm enthusiasm for all fields in general and none in particular. They are rewarded for mastering the method of being a good student, not for their passion for the content of any particular area of learning. They are rewarded for their ability to mindlessly defer to their professors' wishes, and never strike out on their own or follow a contradictory path.

This meritocratic system punishes eccentricity. As I went from campus to campus, meeting with, eating with, and drinking with groups of students, I found myself looking for and delighting in the students who stood out as bizarre or untamed. I came to cherish the left and right-wing radicals, the stubborn ROTC types, the caustic, comic lesbian jocks. One young woman came up to me at Dartmouth and called me a coward because I had been insufficiently scathing about her generation of college students in a piece I did for the Atlantic Monthly a couple of years ago. I practically wanted to hug her for being so refreshingly, and unusually, confrontational. That same evening I met a young man who told me he wanted to become president of the United States someday. Then he handed me his business card, which had his photo on it. That sounds kind of creepy, but this guy was so charming, so witty, and so unsystematic, he became one of the most memorable figures of my visit there. He had truly charted his own course.

Unfortunately, I also met some students who have simply accepted the system's definition of success. The system says that Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and a handful of other schools are the definition of success. And I found some students who attended these schools even though other schools, ones that came in lower on the U.S. News and World Report rankings, actually appealed to them more. I met students who felt compelled to do summer internships at investment banks and consulting groups because the system subtly encourages that kind of ascent-oriented summer job. These students knew that all spring people would be asking them how they were going to spend their summer. They didn't want to answer "Lifeguarding," because that would make them sound like a loser in the great climb up the ziggurat of success.

I met students who had a secret passion for philosophy, but who majored in economics under the mistaken impression that economics represents a higher step up the meritocratic ladder. I met students who applied for the special competitive programs, such as the Woodrow Wilson school at Princeton, not because they had any interest in the program's international affairs curriculum, but because if something is hard to get into, then it must be good, and therefore it is a prize they must grasp.

Most of all, I met students who had never really thought about how they wanted to spend their lives. They had never really used their imagination to create an ideal future. The system had encouraged them to get into an Ivy League school, and they had done that. Then the system encouraged them to get into a top law, medical, or business school, so they were headed for that. I met a student who took the LSATs, the MCATs, and the business school admissions tests. He figured he'd see what sort of test he did best in. Then he'd go into that line of work.

When you see students like this, you just want to despair. You begin to think that the true test of character is whether you find out what your calling is and pursue it even if it doesn't meet the world's criteria for maximum success. This sounds easy, but it's not. If your kid was accepted at Harvard, but you secretly thought he or she would be happier at Bennington, would you have the guts to turn Harvard down?

The second thing you think is that this vast meritocratic system has a huge hole at the end of it. Many of the students one meets graduate from these outstanding universities without any clear sense of what their life mission is. Moreover, they don't have any real idea of what is out there, of what real world career paths look like. If I were a magazine entrepreneur I would start a magazine called CareerPaths. Each issue would describe how various successful people got where they are.

Because many bright college students don't have a clue about the incredible variety of career paths that await them. They don't have the vaguest notion as to how real people move from post to post.

Some students believe that they face a sharp fork in the road. They can either sell their souls for money and work 80 hours a week at an investment bank, or they can live in spiritually satisfied poverty as an urban nursery school teacher. In reality, of course, the choices between wallet and soul are rarely that stark.

Other students operate under the assumption that there are only six professions in the world. There are doctors, lawyers, corporate executives, and so on. They haven't really been introduced to the massive array of unusual jobs that actually exist. As a result they fall into the familiar ruts.

In a weird way, the meritocratic system is both too professional and not career-oriented enough. It encourages prudential thinking, and a professional mindset in areas where serendipity and curiosity should rule, but it does not really give students, even the brilliant students at top schools, an accurate picture of the real world of work. These young people are tested and honed from birth, from when they get their Apgar score until graduation, when they get their honors degree. Then the system spits them out into the world when they are in their twenties, and suddenly there is nothing--just a few desperate years as they search for some satisfying spot in the universe.

ONE FINAL POINT about colleges and politics. When one reads about America's colleges in the media, especially in the conservative media, one gets the impression that the top universities are left-wing hothouses, filled with multicultural radicalism and fevered anti-American passions. That's not true. Most professors are liberals, and it's true that in its wisdom American society has decided to warehouse its radical lunatics on university campuses--in specialized departments that operate as nunneries for the perpetually alienated. But most students at these places do not live in an overly politicized world.

There is, one must always remember, a large cultural gap between the students and the faculty. I met few students--alarmingly few students--who seriously contemplated a career in the academy. They thought of becoming high school teachers or reporters or even soldiers. Academia just never came up. And if you focused their attention on the professorial life, they would talk about what they saw as the pedantic specialization of academic research, the jargon and the impenetrable prose, the professors' cloistered remove from the real world. Academia seems stale to many of them, not a place that allows for exciting inquiry.

There is also a political gap between students and their professors. The professoriate, on balance, is well to the left of the students, and the students, aware of this gap, simply accept it as part of the inevitable structure of the universe. Students know who the radical professors are (they are a loud but small minority on each campus). On the whole, the students are condescending toward them.

A radical professor can be a good or even a great professor, most students would agree. But his or her left-wing views are regarded as a blemish, the way a professor's absent-mindedness would have been in an earlier generation. Left-wing radicalism, the students tend to perceive, is something that can only survive in the protected world of academia. It is seen by many as a sign of infantile withdrawal from reality.

As to their own views, I would say the center of political gravity I encountered is somewhere slightly to the right of the New York Times. The students are liberal, but not excessively so. That's only natural because most of the students I met at elite schools are from upper-middle-class suburbs or cities on the East and West coasts. When I gave talks on these campuses, I'd generally ask students to raise their hand if they came from states George Bush carried in 2000. Generally a fifth or a quarter or a third of the students are from red states. There are many more students from suburban New Jersey or Maryland or Northern California. Their politics are pretty representative of the politics you would find among adults in those areas.

I did run across many conservative students, who don't seem to feel fundamentally alienated from their peers. I'm happy to report that many of the smarter students one meets have some conservative opinions, especially about the venality of the United Nations and such things. You would not call them movement conservatives, however, and many said they are privately embarrassed by confrontational conservatives such as David Horowitz and publications like the Dartmouth Review.

I'm not going to close with any grand summation about the moral and intellectual health of America's student generation. What I will say is that today's students are a lot of fun to be around. When I signed up to teach at Yale, I figured I'd try to meet some members of the Yale faculty while I was up there and taste the intellectual life. But then I started having lunches and dinners with groups of students (my interactions with students in class are off the record), and I found them so completely engaging I never got around to meeting these scholars. At Kenyon, an enormously appealing place, I found myself at the one campus bar, amidst students who actually talked philosophy over beers. Then I met some of the members of the Kenyon football team. The team, which has a grand total of 29 players, is among the worst in the country. This year they lost every game but one. They even lost to Oberlin, not exactly a football powerhouse. One opponent, I was told, started kicking field goals on second down to avoid running up the score with more touchdowns. And yet these Kenyon guys practiced as hard as any team, cared about winning as much as any set of players, and endured teasing that was painful to them. By 1 A.M., they were drunk and getting gooey about their friendships--hugging and slobbering over each other. I'm sure they are learning important things from their professors, but even if they aren't, they are getting their money's worth out of their college experience.

David Brooks is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.