William Deresiewicz has a point. The Ivy League is probably overrated. Parents who agonize about sending their children to the Ivies are ignoring the fact that better, and probably less expensive educational opportunities exist at many state schools.
And yet, since Deresiewicz himself was denied tenure at Yale, one suspects that he might not have warm feelings toward an institution that refused to grant him a lifetime appointment.
Since he is going to argue for more diversity on campus, it is worth noting that Deresiewicz’s being a white male probably did not help his cause.
Either way, his New Republic essay is a thoughtful long form piece that people will be reading through, mulling over and talking about. Why not start the ball rolling.
Deresiewicz focuses primarily on the students who attend Ivy League institutions. These children have worked long and hard to get where they are. Apparently, they accept the notion that they are destined to rule the world, and thereby have become what he calls “entitled little shits” who lack a soul or a self.
He doesn’t quite say it, but Deresiewicz is implying that today’s college students are little Fausts who have sold their souls for material advancement and societal power.
Brimming with contempt for these students, he does not bother to examine the quality of education that is offered, for example, in Ivy League Humanities departments.
Surely, in Ivy League schools the Humanities are hotbeds of political correctness. One understands that children exposed to such indoctrination would exit college with their minds and their values somewhat askew.
When Deresiewicz suggests that Humanities courses fail to teach students how to think, he makes a good point. The fault, however, does not lie with the students or their parents. It lies with leftist faculty members. Given that they have hollowed out the educational experience, students are now gravitating to STEM subjects and learning how to socialize with their fellow future world leaders.
The mindlessness of the academy has often been documented. One does not feel quite right trashing leftist professors who cannot, truth be told, defend themselves in the arena of ideas.
Nevertheless, the following remarks by Christina Hoff Sommers offer a sense of what students in Ivy League schools are taught:
The Millennials have been cheated out of a serious education by their Baby Boomer teachers. Call it a generational swindle. Even the best and brightest among the 20-somethings have been shortchanged. Instead of great books, they wasted a lot of time with third-rate political tracts and courses with titles like "Women Writers of the Oklahoma Panhandle." Instead of spending their college years debating and challenging received ideas, they had to cope with speech codes and identity politics. College educated young women in the U.S. are arguably the most fortunate people in history; yet many of them have drunk deeply from the gender feminist Kool-Aid. Girls at Yale, Haverford and Swarthmore see themselves as oppressed. That is madness. And madness can only last so long.
If, as has been noted here and elsewhere, students no longer read the great books, no longer grapple with the canon, they are going to end up not knowing very much. They are certainly not going to learn how to think.
But this is not the point that Deresiewicz wants to make. Given that his background is in literature he offers a sociological argument. By his lights students are suffering from a lack of true diversity:
In his words:
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.
Let’s not kid ourselves: The college admissions game is not primarily about the lower and middle classes seeking to rise, or even about the upper-middle class attempting to maintain its position. It is about determining the exact hierarchy of status within the upper-middle class itself. In the affluent suburbs and well-heeled urban enclaves where this game is principally played, it is not about whether you go to an elite school. It’s about which one you go to. It is Penn versus Tufts, not Penn versus Penn State. It doesn’t matter that a bright young person can go to Ohio State, become a doctor, settle in Dayton, and make a very good living. Such an outcome is simply too horrible to contemplate.
This system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead. The numbers are undeniable. In 1985, 46 percent of incoming freshmen at the 250 most selective colleges came from the top quarter of the income distribution. By 2000, it was 55 percent. As of 2006, only about 15 percent of students at the most competitive schools came from the bottom half. The more prestigious the school, the more unequal its student body is apt to be. And public institutions are not much better than private ones. As of 2004, 40 percent of first-year students at the most selective state campuses came from families with incomes of more than $100,000, up from 32 percent just five years earlier.
Children who excel at the college admissions process invariably, Deresiewicz tells us, have been coddled. Their parents have the extra income to hire tutors and coaches… the better to prepare them for the Ivy League. This implies that if only poor children had more money and more college prep courses, they too would be getting perfect scores on their SATs.
In his words:
Wealthy families start buying their children’s way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel (“enrichment” programs, to use the all-too-perfect term)—most important, of course, private-school tuition or the costs of living in a place with top-tier public schools. The SAT is supposed to measure aptitude, but what it actually measures is parental income, which it tracks quite closely. Today, fewer than half of high-scoring students from low-income families even enroll at four-year schools.
One cannot help but be struck by the fact that this sociological analysis offers no recognition of the achievements and the presence of Asian students at the Ivy League. Many of them, of course, avoid Humanities courses and stick with science and math. But many of them did not grow up rich. They studied hard, they took prep courses, but these were not at a crushing expense.
Surely, one of the reasons for admitting candidates on other than academic grounds is to keep the Ivies from becoming predominantly Asian.
You might want to denounce them as automatons, for lacking well-roundedness… but still, what could possibly justify Deresiewicz’s failure to take account of their influence and presence.
In a recent article in City Journal Dennis Saffran looked at a similar issue through New York City’s most prestigious high schools. Bronx Science, Brooklyn Tech and Stuyvesant High admit students on the basis of a standardized text. This makes them purely meritocratic. As it happens, Asian students far outperform white and minority children on the test and thus gain most of the places at those schools.
Naturally, New York’s leftist mayor de Blasio believes that this is evidence of discrimination. Thus, he wants to be able to add diversity criteria to the test scores, the better to mitigate the unfair advantage that “rich” Asian students have.
The problem is: the Asian students who ace these tests do not come from wealthy families. The new criteria would mainly advantage wealthy white children. Saffran writes:
Asians in New York are overwhelmingly first- and second-generation; some three-quarters of the students at Stuyvesant are immigrants or the children of immigrants. They’re hardly affluent, notwithstanding de Blasio’s implication that families who get their kids into the specialized schools are “rich.” True, Asians nationally have the highest median income of any racial group, including whites—and in New York City, their median household income ranks second to that of whites and well ahead of blacks and Hispanics. But Asians also have the highest poverty rate of any racial group in New York, with 29 percent living below the poverty level, compared with 26 percent of Hispanics, 23 percent of blacks, and 14 percent of whites. Poor Asians lag far behind whites and are barely ahead of blacks and Latinos. Thus, the income spectrum among Asians in New York ranges from a surprisingly large number in poverty, through a hardworking lower middle class, and on to a more affluent upper middle class.
It might seem reasonable to assume—as de Blasio and others apparently do—that the Asian kids at the specialized schools come largely from families at the top of this pyramid. But this isn’t the case. Half the students at the specialized high schools qualify for free or subsidized school lunches, including 47 percent at Stuyvesant and 48 percent at Bronx Science—figures that have increased correspondingly with Asians’ rising numbers at these schools. Based upon these figures, Stuyvesant and Bronx Science (as well as four of the other six specialized schools) are eligible for federal Title I funding, given to schools with large numbers of low-income students. Think about that: two public high schools that, along with half their students, are officially classified as poor by the federal government rival the most exclusive prep schools in the world.
The poor students get into such schools through hard work and sacrifice—both their own and that of their parents. The students typically attend local tutoring programs, which proliferate in Asian neighborhoods, starting the summer after sixth grade and for several days a week, including weekends, during the school year prior to the test. The costs are burdensome for poor and working families, but it’s a matter of priorities.
For applicants to the best American universities today, Asian students are the competition. Foresighted parents know this and have been introducing the cultural ethos of the Tiger Mom.
Perhaps such children are not as well rounded as their peers who spend their time on play dates and bacchanalian festivities. And yet, when you ask how these children are doing in the world, how well they do in business and finance one need but look to Silicon Valley to see their success. Somehow or other, these high tech companies have succeeded while not having very much diversity.
Whether or not students in Shanghai or Singapore can have a conversation with a plumber—a Deresiewicz criterion—they are doing just fine overall.
We are not going to compete with them by offering withering critiques of their soullessness.