The Harvards, Princetons and Yales of the world are more likely to turn your kid into an entitled brat. That might not necessarily sound like breaking news—remember the guy who vowed to never apologize for his white male privilege? —but now that argument is being made by an Ivy League insider.
William Deresiewicz, who got his bachelor's and Ph.D. from Columbia and then spent 10 years on the faculty at Yale, presents a convincing case on why and how the nation's top colleges are turning their students into "zombies."
In his essay, excerpted from his forthcoming book and published in this week's The New Republic, Deresiewicz compares Ivy League super-students to thoroughbreds circling a track; they've been meticulously trained and groomed to win "the race we have made of childhood."
Here's a breakdown of Deresiewicz's argument, and why he wants students to escape the "horserace."
Students become sleepwalkers
Deresiewicz recounts the story of a kid who, prior to college, was a voracious reader and passionate storywriter. He says after three years at Yale, the same kid is "painfully insecure" and "fakes being well-read by thumbing through the first and last chapters of any book he hears about and obsessively devouring reviews in lieu of the real thing. He does this not because he’s incurious, but because there’s a bigger social reward for being able to talk about books than for actually reading them."
Deresiewicz claims the environment at elite schools discourages creative thinking and natural curiosity, while encouraging students to get As in every class.
Paralyzed by success
Think about the types of kids who get into the Ivies — students with the highest SATs, GPA, and class rank, and those who tout the best letters of recommendation and the most extracurriculars padding their resumes. But those are the only considerations that matter. Deresiewicz says it doesn't hurt if an applicant is a "DevA" (child of rich donors) or a "MUSD" (an incredibly talented musician).
On the path to elite colleges, these students have never experienced anything but success. That track record makes them completely averse to risk and paralyzed at the thought of success Deresiewicz argues.
Peter Sims, author of Little Bets: How Breakthrough Ideas Emerge from Small Discoveries, explains the consequences of this failure-free system in a public Facebook discussion (which is worth reading in itself): "The nature of the beast breeds a lot of white sheep marching with the flock, lacking in self-awareness and skills for invention, discovery, and entrepreneurship, at a time when needs to embrace their inner black sheep if we want survive and thrive in this highly uncertain time."
Learning how to think
College is the best place to learn how to think and develop a sense of self, Deresiewicz says. In an Ivy League environment, where education acts as a stepping stone to a highly paid job, students only learn how to become successful as business professionals. Which is why he thinks, "an undergraduate experience devoted exclusively to career preparation is four years largely wasted."
Increasing tuition is a factor in the rampant inequality found at elite institutions, but that's not the whole story. The incredible cost of manufacturing kids who can compete in the admissions game (think: private tutors, summers abroad, squash lessons) is the main problem.
What's more: elite private colleges need these students to maintain their massive endowments; they have little incentive to accept those who can't pay full tuition and then contribute to their donor base after graduation.
The result, Deresiewicz says, is that elite universities "are not just powerless to reverse the movement toward a more unequal society; their policies actively promote it."
So how can college graduates avoid becoming entitled jerks?
Deresiewicz's answer: go to a public university. Also try waiting tables, rolling up your sleeves, and immersing yourself in a truly diverse environment where you'll encounter people with interests and skills different than your own.
Here's a video of Deresiewicz discussing his new book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, at Stanford University:
Alexandra DiPalma is a producer for Fusion Lightworks, Fusion’s In-house Branded Content Agency.