The Elite American College Pile-On
The Ivy League and other top schools are producing no more than ‘excellent sheep,’ says William Deresiewicz. Standardized tests need more emphasis, says Steven Pinker. What they miss.
You’ve probably heard the buzz around William Deresiewicz’s polemic against the “miseducation of the American elite.” In the most widely read article in the history of The New Republic, Deresiewicz lambasted Ivy League schools (and others) for attracting students who will do almost anything to build a résumé that will get them through the admissions filter, and then they wind up without a clue about how to pursue an education in college or how they might lead a meaningful life. Our most highly selective schools, he argues, have become “inimical to learning,” training people who aspire to be both technocrats and aristocrats. They may talk about checking their privilege in undergraduate humanities courses, but they have been well trained to pursue paths only for the sake of prestige, power, and money. As one of Deresiewicz’s student sources put it: “It’s hard to build your soul when everyone around you is trying to sell theirs.”
Deresiewicz offers a complaint about “those young people today” that many have dismissed as a familiar rant about youth culture by someone no longer part of it. The author evokes Allan Bloom, who provided a similar, if more deeply sourced, critique of education in The Closing of the American Mind (1987). Deresiewicz is surely right to complain about the rat race among ambitious high school students eager to do whatever it takes to get into a school with the most social prestige, without having to pay attention to how they want to learn or to what kind of learning context might be right for them. His comments on how bright and hardworking students enter the most selective schools with a wide variety of dreams about what they want to do after graduation, only to become more and more homogeneous by the time they graduate, are chilling. Look down the rows on graduation day at the most elite universities and colleges, Deresiewicz emphasizes, and two of three seniors are likely to aspire to being bankers or consultants. They just don’t know what else to do, as they’ve been trained always to go for the biggest prize. They’ve been taught that what matters can be measured; money is easy to measure.
Many students have written to Deresiewicz with tales of similar high-achievement/low-meaning experiences. His work has certainly struck an important chord in a culture that seems bent on making education only a job-training program—even for the most accomplished students. But there have also been biting critiques of his penchant for cherry-picking his facts, preaching to the elite’s choir, and falling into embarrassing clichés. (“Have I mentioned that it isn’t easy? It’s not easy. It’s never easy. Life is tragic, which means, among other things, that you can’t have it all.”) The New Republic has just published a stinging rejoinder from Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, who agrees that elite universities are paying attention to the wrong things in their holistic admissions processes. Pinker claims that less than 10 percent of the Harvard entering class is chosen just for academic aptitude, and he finds that scandalous. But he will have none of Deresiewicz’s talk of a well-rounded, meaningful life. Pinker wants students who excel when tested; he wants students who can perform in the classroom. Not quite saying what academic aptitude is, he is sure Harvard should emphasize it to create a “true meritocracy.” Many perversities would be eliminated, he insists, if we had more faith in standardized tests. Sure, they correlate with wealth, he opines, but perhaps aptitude does, as well. If we just focused on academic aptitude, he suggests, the professors would be well-served. Would the students? Would the culture that supports the university?
William Deresiewicz called his recent book Excellent Sheep because he thinks we have created a system in which young people are encouraged to conform, not to think. By getting students to become better test takers and résumé builders, he argues, we create people less capable of asking themselves questions that challenge the status quo—we create people incapable of thinking against the grain. Pinker seems to think that really smart people will think against the grain because they will pursue information and argument wherever it might take them. Worry about academic aptitude, he suggests, and the soul will take care of itself. Columnist David Brooks sees the debate between Deresiewicz and Pinker at the heart of tensions over the role of college education today.
Deresiewicz mentions Wesleyan (where I am university president) and other liberal arts colleges as places in which very capable and creative students escape the herd mentality characteristic of the most elite institutions. Teaching thousands of students over the last few years at Wesleyan and other schools that emphasize liberal learning, I certainly see young people eager to question their own and other people’s assumptions. At the best residential colleges and universities, I also see faculty and staff willing to engage in the “education of the whole person” and not just training for a specific task. There are herds everywhere, and I’m sure you can find them at some very fine schools, but in my work at and visits to liberal arts colleges, I haven’t seen many sheep. I don’t see many folks who have already made up their mind about what the rest of their lives will look like. Instead, I see staff members discovering new talents and finding ways to share them with others. I find faculty learning about their specific, specialized research areas, but also about the wider society and natural world. And I discover students with whom I can learn and who are eager to find meaning in their lives as well as skills with which to live.
Of course, even a university president must recognize that there are plenty of problems in American higher education. But we should beware of the facile tradition of criticizing colleges, professors, and the young (or just mocking them). This tradition goes back to the founding of our country, as I’ve recently shown in Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. Some, like Deresiewicz, have attacked student culture for not paying attention to what older folks know about “a meaningful life.” Others, like both he and Pinker, have complained about the process of selection—how could it be fair, inclusive, and still not offend? Taking potshots at admissions offices is so easy when you don’t have to offer any ideas about putting together diverse cohorts of young people who can learn from each other.
Our colleges and universities aspire to help students to find what John Dewey called ‘The large and human significance’ in their lives and work. This requires not just teaching to the test and not just parroting critiques. It requires learning to think with contexts and concepts, deploying cooperation and creativity. American higher education has much room for improvement, but our goal has served this country well: to help students develop the capacities and skills to reshape themselves and the world around them by learning to think for themselves and continually reinvent what they do.