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Learn and Live

Doth this ex-Ivy Leaguer protest too much?

Sep 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 01 • By WILLIAM H. PRITCHARD
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It's polemical title leaves us in no doubt of what to expect from this book. William Deresiewicz has written a passionate attack on everything that’s wrong with today’s elite universities and colleges and the credentialed students who attend them. He terms it “a letter to my twenty-year-old self,” who would have benefited from hearing about such matters. Instead, he went dutifully through the correct academic motions: He majored in biology and psychology at Columbia, then decided it was literature he must pursue; graduate study and teaching at Columbia was followed by 10 years at Yale, after which he left the academy. (He doesn’t say whether he was denied tenure or decided not to stand for it.) 

Symmes Gate, Williams College

Symmes Gate, Williams College

The book emanated from an essay he published in the American Scholar about the “disadvantages” of an elite education, an essay that received widespread response and launched him into his current role as culture critic, visiting many institutions and talking to the inmates thereof. By “elite” he means prestigious universities and colleges, as well as “the large universe of second-tiered schools.” More sweepingly, this includes “everything leading up to and away from” such schools, from applications to post-college careers in medicine, the law, investment banking, and “consulting” (the last two of which are chosen by large numbers of graduates). Deresiewicz criticizes the students who, as “excellent sheep,” play the college game all too well; but he adds that his critique is really directed at their parents (“the rest of us”), who cooperate and encourage the game with money and other resources. 

As a professor of literature at one of those elite institutions, I have noted that parents are concerned that their children be taught to write well—a useful skill in various careers—but are not at all worried about what their children are reading. These students, “super people,” victims of high achievement, engage in a “frenzy of extra-curricular activities” but are not as happy as they may look. Deresiewicz says that in his 10 years of teaching at Yale, he was unaware of the depths of unhappiness from which many of his students suffered, evidenced by the increasingly used college health facilities. He also charges them with a willingness to “color within the lines” their education had marked out for them. He finds very little passionate concern with ideas, even at the level of the once-famous college bull sessions that must have fallen by the wayside—too time-consuming, perhaps? Nor is he impressed by the Diversity that all elite insitutions pat themselves on the back for having achieved. 

To Deresiewicz, everybody looks pretty much alike, extremely normal: 

No hippies, no punks, no art school types or hipsters, no butch lesbians or gender geeks, no black kids in dashikis. The geeks don’t look that geeky; the fashionable kids go in for understated elegance.

As he sees it, “diversity” pretty much means that “thirty-two flavors of vanilla” are now available on campus. 

If one were to protest that these charges smack of simplification, even sensationalism, and adduce this or that person who doesn’t conform to the norm Deresiewicz stakes out, he would say: Of course, but no matter; his exaggerations are of a real, unfortunate situation. In the chapter that treats the history of how things came to be what they are, he notes the replacement of an “aristocratic” system of colleges and universities that existed up into the 1960s. This system was taken to task by the onetime president of Yale, Kingman Brewster, who helped create a “meritocracy,” displacing the old-boy network that was already being undermined as more colleges became coeducational. In the last few decades, acceptance rates have declined enormously, with some colleges even expanding their applicant pool so as to make their rates more impressive. Add to this the U.S. News & World Report’s yearly ranking to stoke the competitive fervor. In any given year, accepted students will be assured that they are the most intelligent, diverse, extraordinary group of young people ever so lucky as to fall in with one another.