Reactions to Deresiewicz

The alleged miseducation of America's elite.

The alleged miseducation of America’s elite.

On July 21, former Yale professor William Deresiewicz published an article entitled “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” in The New Republic. The past two weeks have seen a storm of responses both in support of and in opposition to Deresiewicz’s arguments.

Below are the reactions of three juniors here at the College to the article and its surrounding furor.

Jack Braun

My initial reaction to Deresiewicz’s article was likely similar to that of many of my classmates – am I an “entitled little shit?” Well, I’ve never really thought so, but based on my upper middle class upbringing, reputable public school education, and choice to attend Dartmouth College, it seems there’s really no other option.

This article has definitely struck a chord with students across the Ivy League, shedding doubt on both their educational choice and their self-conception. And while one of the positive effects of this article may be to remind us to reflect on why we are here at Dartmouth, how we seek to grow from this experience, and what our future aspirations are, the underlying assertions that Deresiewicz makes are characterized by a lack of consistency and logic and are supported by sweeping generalizations.

Deresiewicz’s article is at its core a disjointed and unsubstantiated diatribe against the Ivy League and the elite private education system it has come to stand for. He claims that an affluent upbringing provides an unfair advantage in getting into an elite college. While there may be truth to this, it is hard to understand how that supports his argument that therefore it is better to seek a less rigorous education. He erroneously links and confounds larger societal class issues with a few disconnected anecdotes of Ivy League students who may not be getting the most out of their education. Deresiewicz asserts that while many of his Ivy League students are “smart, talented, and driven”, they also are “anxious, timid, and lost.”   It is unclear how this unsubstantiated claim relates to either the class issues he raises or his exhortation to eschew the Ivy League altogether. He leaves us to believe that any student who does feel content and intellectually challenged at their Ivy League school and — god forbid — enjoys learning about the theory of comparative advantage, is just a misguided, self-deceiving sheep “trapped in a bubble of privilege.”

Anyone who has spent much time at other, non-Ivy League schools can sense the apparent differences in the education and the caliber of the student body. The reason the Ivy League has the reputation it has and draws the top students from around the planet is because it provides unparalleled academic resources, a multitude of outlets for intellectual curiosity, and some of the most interesting, experienced, and knowledgeable professors in the world.

At the same time, the experiences can only be as positive and rewarding as we choose to make them. It is up to everyone that calls Dartmouth home to decide whether or not their experience here will be worthwhile. Give the article a careful read and see what conclusions you come to.

Paul Danyow

Deresiewicz’s recent New Republic piece holds at its core the argument that the nation’s top universities are having a negative impact on American society by strengthening economic and social divides and molding the best and brightest students into “zombies,” enitrely concerned with career prospects instead of genuine educational and intellectual development. My experience here at Dartmouth inclines me to agree with Deresiewicz on his points in regard to the class divide perpetuated by top universities; unfortunately, he proceeds to squander his argument with decidedly unfair generalizations about students’ intellectual engagement.

He argues that the main factor explaining elite schools’ reinforcement of the class divide is the enormous cost of raising a child, not only in terms of food and housing but the extracurricular activities and quality high school education necessary for securing admittance. While this may be true, another, more easily addressed problem is that schools like Dartmouth have become unnecessarily expensive, the cost of tuition increasing much faster than inflation in order to keep pace with massive administrative and infrastructural expenditures.

On top of its high tuition, Dartmouth in particular has perpetuated the class divide by refusing to accept AP credits and by accepting fewer applicants who require financial aid. As Joseph Asch has prolifically detailed on, only 45% of Dartmouth students are currently receiving financial aid (as compared to 65% at Harvard). With greater numbers of students paying the full price, the administration has more revenue with which to balance the budget without cutting costs. Thus, Deresiewicz is correct to point out that an education from an elite university is becoming harder to obtain for all but the wealthiest students, but he is completely wrong to suggest that students who possess the talent and means to attend these schools should not do so.

Deresiewicz’s argument against the education provided by schools like Dartmouth is that it constitutes mindless career preparation through academic work rather than actual intellectual engagement with subject matter. From my experience, it is certainly true that some students only view classes as an opportunity to earn good grades and build an impressive resume, but there are many others who are genuinely interested in the subjects they pursue.

Personally, I see no reason why intellectual development and career preparation need to be mutually exclusive. While I enjoy my studies as a History major for the opportunity to practice analyzing information and constructing arguments that they provide, I also view the knowledge I have gained as vital. To me, an understanding of the major events of history and their underlying causes is an incredibly valuable asset regardless of its potential career applications. Despite Deresiewicz’s claims, a top school like Dartmouth remains the best place to gain this sort of knowledge, and it is up to the students themselves whether they will seek to use their college years exclusively as career preparation or whether they will attempt some intellectual growth along the way.

Nicholas Duva

Deresiewicz’s piece was published on the 21st, but perhaps more interesting than the article itself has been the subsequent backlash. From all corners and in all forms, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” has been roundly criticized, its author accused of hypocrisy, generalization, and a host of other unsavory indictments.

So why has this universally-derided article made such a splash? I would hazard a guess that a large portion, if not a majority, of current Ivy Leaguers has read this marginalized ex-professor’s polemic. It’s likely because there are kernels of truth in Deresiewicz’s diatribe – kernels that have a particular resonance with students today.

Probably the most important is Desersiewicz’s discovery of “toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression” beneath “the façade of seamless well-adjustment.” Recent hand-wringing over identity-based issues has obscured another, more subtle change to our society – upper and upper-middle class students are often raised in an environment that, more than ever, has been expressly designed to have them “succeed.” Think tutors, the array of private and “affluent public” high schools, and the admissions process before college; think “brand-name” graduate schools and employment after.

This system has had, as Desersiewicz points out, a number of effects on the mindset of current college students. Too many students now have a “violent aversion to risk,” move almost thoughtlessly from one “brand name” to another, or construct their extracurricular experiences with college essays or employability in mind. This combination has precipitated an almost wholly under-the-surface crisis of confidence among today’s students, all the more potent because it comes at a time when they ought to be discovering their true “self.”

So Ivy Leaguers read this article, see their own experiences reflected in print, and wonder if they’re on the wrong track. What they ought to understand, however, is that this article is not aimed at themselves but the angry and disenfranchised.

Deresiewicz is simply making a desperate attempt to find something relevant to say. He perversely accomplishes this by joining the current populist outrage against “entitled little shits” and those toxic, elite schools that spawn them. In essence, he conflates – for maximum shock and outrage – a bunch of basically unrelated social, economic, and psychological issues into a singular, self-righteous attack on an easy target – in this case, the “bubble of privilege” – and the driven, soulless young people inside.

My point to current Dartmouth students, then, is this – don’t sweat this article too much. But if his points hit a little too close to home, all I can suggest is to spend more time with activities not expressly designed to achieve “success.” Read a book without the expectation that you’ll ever discuss it; travel without telling anyone where you’re going. Take a gap year, work (as Deresiewicz suggested) in a restaurant – basically, take a break from the interminable drive towards success. But, if you can’t, don’t stress out too much. You’re really not an entitled little shit.