The New Republic writer William Deresiewicz, a 24-year Ivy League affiliate, came under fire when he wrote its latest cover story, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” arguing that the blind drive and ambition these institutions encourage actually don’t do students any favors:
Our system of elite education [from Ivy League schools to test prep courses to the grueling admissions process] manufactures 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: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing, but with no idea why they’re doing it.
These impractical standards for applicants—off-the-charts test scores, just the right amount of extracurricular activities to appear accomplished but not intense, relationships with or recommendations from all the right donors—promote all the wrong qualities, Deresiewicz argues. There’s a greater social reward in being able to talk about the right books than actually reading them, a loved one of a student wrote to him, perfectly illustrating his concern on meritocracy. He cites that a survey of college freshmen found that self-reports of emotional well-being has hit its lowest in the course of the 25-year study, with increases in eating disorders, self-injuries and alcohol abuse.
But there’s a buzz-idiom, three little words that always seem to rise to the defense of pricey endeavors: “return on investment,” the phrasal enemy of any whimsical liberal arts major. Seldom do we wonder, let alone challenge, what anyone means by “return.” Earning more money, perhaps? “Is the only purpose of an education to enable you to get a job? What, in short, is college for?” Deresiewicz asks. To teach you to think and build a self, he answers, but not quite of the technocratic nature one might develop in Harvard.
The irony is that elite students are told that they can be whatever they want, but most of them end up choosing to be one of a few very similar things. As of 2010, about a third of graduates went into financing or consulting at a number of top schools… It’s considered glamorous to drop out of a selective college if you want to become the next Mark Zuckerberg, but ludicrous to stay in to become a social worker.
Yet another problem with the system is the “banner of diversity” every selective college waves in a rather misleading fashion, with background economic status being fairly uniform across these campuses. How diverse can a school claim to be when most of its students (of various races, granted) mainly come from families of bankers, lawyers and doctors?
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 maintaining its position. It is about determining the exact hierarchy of status within the upper-middle class itself.
And the numbers support the argument. In 1985, 46 percent of freshmen at the 250 most selective schools came from the top 25 percent of income distribution; in 2000, that number rose to 55 percent of freshmen. As for state schools in 2004, 40 percent of freshmen came from families with a yearly income of at least $100,000, up 32 percent from 1999. Most astoundingly, however, is that fewer than half of high-scoring SAT students from low-income families even enroll at four-year institutions. While tuition is, indeed, on the rise, Deresiewicz speculates that these numbers reflect the increasing costs of raising an eligible applicant, with expensive extracurricular activities or prep courses likely affecting the disparity between the could-have-beens and the admitted.
Many took this informative piece as an affront on the privileged, who, no doubt, still put forth tremendous effort for that long-anticipated acceptance letter, despite the hurdles they’re forgiven. And what about those who receive financial aid, who wowed the admissions staff solely on a bootstraps-résumé and gifted scores, all while lacking an esteemed last name? As for the mechanical thinking in exchange for curiosity, certainly there are a number of exceptions.
But after zooming out, that all seems beside the point. “The system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society it’s supposed to lead,” Deresiewicz writes. At a time when affirmative action has been slowly fading state by state, innovative alternatives have been suggested: What if advantages were given based on economic standing rather than race? A new mass of minds—more justly diverse, this time around—would populate the campuses and challenge the order Deresiewicz so frankly condemns. Classrooms that aren’t socioeconomically homogenous would naturally breed more profound discussions, exposing varied opinions that are surely results of mixed backgrounds. This could not only repel the historically sustained hierarchy, but also simultaneously enliven the lost sense of wonder, inspire a deeper thirst for knowledge, and revitalize each student’s self-mission for a true education. Deresiewicz concludes, “We have tried aristocracy. We have tried meritocracy. Now it’s time to try democracy.”
Image by David Ohmer, licensed under Creative Commons