The Case Against Ivy League Schools

| 10/22/2014 10:01:00 AM


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.

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