Elite Universities Can’t Transform Spoiled Brats Into Better, Less-Entitled People

Getting schooled.
July 23 2014 1:10 PM

The Ivy League Is Not the Problem

The persistent, misguided belief that universities can transform students into better, less-entitled people.

Harvard.
William Deresiewicz contends that universities like Harvard (above) merely serve as places where “the rich send their children to learn to walk, talk, and think like the rich.”

Photo by Jannis Tobias Werner/Shutterstock.com

In a piece in the New Republic, William Deresiewicz argues that Ivy League schools “are turning our kids into zombies.” Elite universities, explains the former Yale professor and author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to  Meaningful Life, churn out “young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.” In their current form, he goes on to say, the Ivies take in adrift high achievers, charge them around a quarter of a million dollars each, and ensure that they leave their vine-covered campuses newly soulless and on the path towards a career in investment banking or management consulting. In the process, students either forget or are trained to shun the true purpose of higher education: “to learn to think.”

Deresiewicz is right about a number of things. The fact that his description of a day on Yale’s admissions committee raised the pulse of this 20-year-old elite-college attendee (I’m a rising senior at the University of Chicago) proves his point about the anxiety-inducing nature of the college admissions process. His description of millennial uncertainty is also fairly dead on, though I suspect it would have been just as dead on in 2004, 1994, or 1984. Twentysomething graduates generally don’t know what the hell they’re doing. This is one of life’s constants. It is also one of life’s constants that older, academic types will puzzle now and then about how to keep the kids from, in Deresiewicz’s words, becoming “out-of-touch, entitled little shit[s].”

In truth, Deresiewicz doesn’t actually have a problem with out-of-touch, entitled students. He merely prefers that they learn to think in the right ways. Spending vast sums of money to purchase an education that will secure you a position at a hedge fund is bad. Spending vast sums of money on, as Deresiewicz puts it, “building a self,” is noble. The fact that pursuing a self-building education might be worthwhile doesn’t change the fact that such an education is as much of a luxury good as a yacht. In fairness, though, Deresiewicz would prefer it if more elite students opted to purchase intellect and insight at a discount. Avoiding the Ivies and going to a public school, he says, is how to prevent yourself from being an out-of-touch, entitled little shit.

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These are the kinds of contradictions that complicate the faith we’ve placed in universities. The halls of academia really are hallowed, and there’s a kind of mysticism at work in the way people like Deresiewicz perennially describe what college is supposed to do: take in our ordinary people and spoiled brats and transfigure them into worldly gadflies, or at least interesting selves. To their credit, our best colleges, both public and private, actually do this in great numbers. But less radical conversions—from, say, being an entitled, solipsistic econ major to being an entitled, solipsistic political science major—are far more common.

The Ivies, Deresiewicz contends, are particularly bad at “self” production and now merely serve as places where “the rich send their children to learn to walk, talk, and think like the rich.” The more socioeconomically diverse public schools, by contrast, can at least offer upper class students the potential for “experiential learning” side by side with the less well off. Wealthier kids, the theory goes, can become more curious about the world and more intellectually serious by interacting with the less privileged.

Deresiewicz says that a campus environment is a rare venue where people from different social strata can interact “on an equal footing.” But having them eat the same processed cafeteria foods and doze off in the same introductory lectures will not put the privileged and the underprivileged on an equal footing. Whether they’re under a publicly financed roof or not, these sorts of interactions are shaped by our past experiences. There will always be a divide between the upper-middle-class student who chooses to attend a public college and the poor student who must. There will always  be a chasm between the students who have been raised to believe they are destined for careers up and away from those of average Americans—at Goldman Sachs or on the English faculty at Yale—and those who haven’t been brought up with such expectations. And the implicit notion that underprivileged individuals exist as resources that well-off kids can mine for social awareness and self-satisfaction is also—to use a popular euphemism at elite colleges—problematic.

Naturally, race also looms over this entire discussion. “Affirmative action should be based on class instead of race,” Deresiewicz writes, as the “education system has to act to mitigate the class system, not reproduce it.” His point about the homogeneity of backgrounds at private schools, where the sons and daughters of white professionals cohabitate with the sons and daughters of minority professionals, is well taken. But it doesn’t change the fact that those hoping to “learn to think” about racial differences might be better off at private colleges than public ones. Inside Higher Education reported in 2013 that “white students at private colleges were, on average, at institutions that have a black enrollment of nearly 12 percent while those at publics were under 9 percent in black enrollment.”

None of this is to say that we shouldn’t attempt to bridge socioeconomic and racial divides, or that we shouldn’t give more money to our struggling public colleges. But it’s unclear why we should expect undergraduate education to produce seismic shifts in perspective that Deresiewicz claims life itself largely cannot. “College is not the only chance to learn to think, but it is the best,” he writes. “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.”

This is perhaps the most terrifying sentence about higher education ever committed to print, one that feeds into the anxious, competitive mindset that Deresiewicz decries. Every ambitious student who believes that college is their opportunity to shape themselves will do whatever it takes to get into the very best, most exclusive school they can. When their experiences underwhelm, as many necessarily will, they will indeed leave college “anxious, timid, and lost,” believing that they’ve missed out on a chance at intellectual development. Deresiewicz has simply traded careerism for another exalted goal, with similar results.

To believe that a college—Ivy or otherwise—can confer intellectual benefits in four years that you won’t be able to attain at some point over the course of the next 60 is to believe in magic. If a student leaves college capable of independent thought, it might not be because professors are miracle workers or because he managed to glean perspective from the underprivileged like one wrings water from a towel. It could be because he was raised in an environment conducive to independent thinking—a characteristic that a decent college should look for when admitting students in the first place. An entitled, out-of-touch 22-year-old who leaves school incapable of independent thought is not necessarily a lost cause, and might not have been helped by even an ideal liberal arts education. So send your kids to an Ivy. Or don’t. Whatever you decide, don’t take out loans to buy into the idea that life on campus has more to offer than life off of it. 

Osita Nwanevu is a Slate intern.

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