Monday, July 28, 2014

Ivy League zombies?

This article in the New Republic seems to have got a lot of attention. It's a strange piece, I think, with good bits and bad. The basic claim is that students should not go to the most elite universities and colleges but should aim one step lower, at places that many people think of as elite but that are not quite as difficult to get in to.

Why? Because:
Our system of elite education 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.
What the author, William Deresiewicz, says he is talking about when he talks about elite education is "prestigious institutions like Harvard or Stanford or Williams as well as the larger universe of second-tier selective schools," but if these "second-tier" schools are so bad then it is odd that his conclusion is that "the best option of all may be the second-tier—not second-rate—colleges, like Reed, Kenyon, Wesleyan, Sewanee, Mount Holyoke, and others." It's also a little strange to hear such good schools referred to as second-tier. Wesleyan is ranked 17th among national liberal arts colleges by US News & World Report, and several others mentioned here are in the top 40. Given the unreliability of the rankings it seems crazy to think there is much difference in quality between any two places in the top 50 or so, although there are probably some exceptions. Perhaps just being ranked 1st or 2nd makes a difference to the kind of students that apply and get in, but I wouldn't blame the colleges themselves for that. Maybe Deresiewicz doesn't either.

What he's really complaining about is:
the private and affluent public high schools; the ever-growing industry of tutors and consultants and test-prep courses; the admissions process itself, squatting like a dragon at the entrance to adulthood; the brand-name graduate schools and employment opportunities that come after the B.A.; and the parents and communities, largely upper-middle class, who push their children into the maw of this machine. In short, our entire system of elite education.
In other words, not elite colleges and universities but the admissions system and the socio-economic, largely economic, inequality that it helps perpetuate. He makes a good point.

Here's another:
Like so many kids today, I went off to college like a sleepwalker. You chose the most prestigious place that let you in; up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth“success.” What it meant to actually get an education and why you might want oneall this was off the table. 
I think this is generally true, and probably always has been. Students (in general and for the most part) don't go to college because they want to learn, even if they think they do. I don't think this is a problem so much as a feature of human nature, especially for young people coming out of high school who are used to doing what their parents and teachers tell them to do.

What is the problem then? Here's one, according to Deresiewicz:
So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk. 
Again, though, I don't know that this is a problem. The obvious solution would be for college admissions officers to give priority to applicants who had failed or had shown a willingness to take risks. Then this would become one more thing that well prepared students would make sure was part of their application. Perhaps some would fail to fail and so accidentally look too perfect. Then they might end up at second-tier schools, where Deresiewicz wants them anyway. The real problems seem more to be the obsession with rankings, as if the generally unmeasurable could be very finely measured after all, and the unfairness (and inefficiency) of a system that perpetuates inequality instead of being the meritocracy it pretends to be.

Here's one of the worst parts of the article:
Religious collegeseven obscure, regional schools that no one has ever heard of on the coastsoften do a much better job in [teaching students how to think]. What an indictment of the Ivy League and its peers: that colleges four levels down on the academic totem pole, enrolling students whose SAT scores are hundreds of points lower than theirs, deliver a better education, in the highest sense of the word.  
He gives no evidence that this is true, and it's hard to believe. Surely many obscure religious colleges stifle thought in favor of orthodoxy. There are different orthodoxies at non-religious colleges, no doubt, but merely asserting that religious colleges are often better than Ivy League schools in this regard is no indictment at all in the relevant sense (i.e. it is an accusation but not evidence that the accusation has any merit).

Such missteps aside, the main point of the article (as I read it) is good:
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. 
Why is this?
The major reason for the trend is clear. Not increasing tuition, though that is a factor, but the ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game. 
Private colleges won't admit the best students regardless of their ability to pay, so the decline in funding for public higher education means that social mobility is in decline.The obvious solution, which Deresiewicz in effect calls for, although he mixes it up with irrelevant claims like "The problem is the Ivy League itself," is a massive increase in funding for public universities along with more sensible admissions policies. This will not ensure that rich kids don't become "entitled little shits" but it will make it far less important that anyone get into an Ivy League university or elite private college. Since no one cares about fairness, though, it will probably take failure to compete economically with better educated countries to prod the United States into improving its educational system. I wouldn't hold my breath, in other words. Especially when it's the zombies who are in charge.


  1. one does wonder how private schools like Cornell that have more money than god in their endowments can continue to be counted as non-profits. But yeah show me an institution of any size that rewards questioning risk takers.

    1. Yes, there seem to be quite a few schools who have more money than they know what to do with. This would be a very good thing if they used it to help lower income kids go there, and to some extent this is exactly what they do. But private schools are never likely to do this job perfectly. Even if as institutions they aren't concerned about making more money, people who work for them will be, if only to be able to show other potential employers what they can do.

      Non-profit status seems undeserved in various cases, but I'm not competent to comment.

    2. the taxes, or lack of are part of the problem, here in Omaha our state medical center is scandalously getting into commercial property development and even talking about a privatized power company but they are no where near the reach/impact of the big money universities in cities like NYC or Boston.

  2. I've often thought that by and large the humanities would be better suited as adult/continuing- ed when students have some life experience and are picking these studies for their own value and not part of a kind of cable-tv like bundle that they are forced into.

    1. Maybe so, especially in the case of literature. But you have to start sometime.

      I wonder how many students pick anything for its own value. It would be nice if they did, but they would probably have to be taught that this was the right thing to do. Instead what they're told is that they should have one eye on their resume at all times. The other eye is on convenience.

      One problem, as I see it, is that college used to be a kind of luxury for the lucky elite. Then more people got in on it. Then more. And now it's almost a necessity if you're going to get a decent job. And instead of questioning the sanity of requiring a college degree for jobs that never required one in the past, the pressure is on colleges to justify their being necessary. So they must either provide vocational training or give students what they want. Or, ideally, both at once: fun-but-important-seeming vocational training. This is not what liberal arts or science are, so they have to go. Except at elite colleges, of course, because they don't have to provide vocational training. So higher education remains a luxury for the lucky few, and everyone else engages in something that's more or less a charade. A profitable one for some people, much less so for others.

    2. there are all kinds of "masters" programs that working people take because they are interested and not b/c it advances their careers, not enough to maintain the current glut in higher-ed but still, and they could be taught for little money (less grading and such) in a variety of settings/formats much as say gardening/genealogy/etc are taught in continuing-ed programs all over the nation including in public libraries.

    3. Yes, I like that idea. At least as an option in addition to the standard kinds of offering.