I am on a liberal education trip these days. I have zipped through books with titles such as In Defense of a Liberal Education; Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life; and Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters. It’s a fascinating subject, considering I like things ancient, think Good Will Hunting and Dead Poet’s Society were fantastic movies (can you tell that I miss Robin Williams!?), and spend a heckuva lot of time reading and recording fantastic quotations about values. My latest acquisition is by scholar William Deresiewicz and is entitled Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite. In this blog, I highlight some interesting quotations about education and reflect a bit on the Ivy League, America’s values, and what education means.
William Deresiewicz “published an essay that sketched out a few criticisms [of elite higher education] titled ‘The Disadvantages of an Elite Education’….” In so doing, he “evoked a widespread discontent among today’s young high achievers – a sense that the system was cheating them out of a meaningful education, instilling them with values they rejected but couldn’t somehow get beyond, and failing to equip them for their futures.”
As well, “The compulsive overachievement of today’s elite college students – the sense that they need to keep running as fast as they can – is not the only thing that keeps them from forming the deeper relationships that might relieve their anguish. Something more insidious is operating, too: a resistance to vulnerability, a fear of looking like the only one who isn’t capable of handling the pressure,” Deresiewicz believes.
“Why do I not seek some real good – one which I could feel, not one which I could merely display? ~ Lucius Annaeus Seneca
It’s bad: “[s]tudents at Stanford talk about ‘Stanford Duck Syndrome’: serene on the surface, paddling madly beneath. In a recent post titled ‘Meltdown’ on an MIT student website, a sophomore confessed her feelings of shame and worthlessness and ‘overwhelming loneliness.’”
This is the land of bottled-up feelings, shame, angst, anger, and emotional vacuity. He notes that “[i]solation is a major factor. ‘People at Yale,’ a former student said, ‘do not have time for real relationships.’ …A recent article in Harvard Magazine described students passing their suite mates like ships in the night as they raced from one activity to another. Kids know how to network and are often good at ‘people skills,’ but those are very different things from actual friendship. Romantic life is conducted with an equally utilitarian spirit: hookups or friends with benefits….”
In his intriguing and somewhat-startling book, he quotes many former students he interviewed in the course of his research (anonymously). “For many students, rising to the absolute top means being consumed by the system. I’ve seen my peers sacrifice health, relationships, exploration, activities that can’t be quantified and are essential for developing souls and hearts, for grades and resume-building,” an elite student reported. As one of his Yalies put it as: “A friend of mine said it nicely: ‘I might be miserable, but were I not miserable, I wouldn’t be at Yale.’”
Specifically, “[s]ince 1992, admissions rates have fallen by more than a third at 17 of the top 20 liberal arts colleges…and by more than half at 18 of the top 20 universities.” Vanderbilt, for example, saw an acceptance rate drop from 65 percent to twelve percent! That is an amazing increase in the scores and the strength of applicants. It’s not unusual to see four, six, even eight clubs, or as high as ten advanced placement high school courses. That must make GPAs on a scale from 0 to 5.0! Imagine a 4.5 not only being possible, but not being sufficient to gain entry to a UC Berkeley or a Tufts! This is a kind of inflation, really – and not unrelated to grade inflation, which has been a thing for a long time now. In fact, I believe the most common grade by far that is earned in a Harvard College classroom is an “A.” A “B” is likely to land a professor in a meeting in which the student has complained to the Dean. Imagine that.
“It is indeed reasonable to say, as many students have, that you might as well go to Wall Street and make a lot of money if you can’t think of anything better to do.” ~ William Deresiewicz
Deresiewicz doesn’t blame admissions officers, whom he thinks do an impressive job, considering. I mean, 33,000 applicants got rejected from Harvard last year alone, and so obviously these folks are applying to many schools simultaneously. James Fallows puts the percentage of students who are in this upper crust of college applicants at approximately 400,000 kids annually. So it’s all admissions officers can do to deal with the Herculean task of looking carefully at each little shining star.
He likens the survival of the fittest, and natural selection and adaptation, evolutionarily speaking – “Like giraffes evolving ever-longer necks, our kids keep getting more and more deformed. Just what they’re going to look like in another twenty years is anybody’s guess.” It is indeed all about competition (fitness?). He writes: “It is about determining the exact hierarchy of status within the upper middle class itself.” Deresiewicz puts it in that manner because he is showing that this “admissions frenzy” has intensified and become more absurd since the economic meltdown of 2008, but that “…it has been raging, in good times and bad, for close to fifty years, not six.”
Indeed, he likes it to a nuclear arms race, in that “the only point of having more is having more than anybody else.” He does see US News & World Report college rankings as crassly ratcheting up the stakes to a higher and higher level, and of course, globalization. In the book Privilege, Harvard College graduate and New York Times columnist, Russ Douthat, writes: “Meritocracy is the ideological veneer, but social and economic stratification are the reality.” In reviewing the book, Stephen Metcalf indicates “Douthat is in possession of one central insight: that even operating under the most stringent meritocratic guidelines, success is cumulative and self-reinforcing, and gets passed on to children as privilege, or unearned advantage. From that insight, Douthat has drawn one conclusion: The culture of privilege is built on bad faith and is therefore inevitably rotten.
Metcalf continues: “The wound-up, overachieving children of the wound-up, overachieving professional elites find themselves ensnared in a paradox: the more intense the competition for social rewards, the more advantages their parents feel compelled to confer on them (and at earlier and earlier ages). Even as these children compete harder to achieve more, they may suspect they are less and less deserving. This is a recipe for neurosis, in which a style of condescension appropriate to the old Protestant upper crust mingles nonsensically with the gaping insecurity of the striving middle classes.”
“What is not reasonable is to say that we have constructed an educational system that produces highly intelligent, accomplished 22-year-olds who have no idea what they want to do with their lives: no sense of purpose (and what is worse, no understanding about how to go about finding one).” ~ William Deresiewicz
“To prevent failure, middle-class parents pass along to their children every possible advantage, in the form of social capital, or those habits of speech and self-discipline that allow a child to thrive in the classroom,” Metcalf believes. He cites the point that when a family can possibly afford to move to a school district that has a sufficient tax base to provide enviable schools, they jump on it (or expensive private schooling).
Metcalf continues: “Held to the impossible standard of the Golden Age, universities are now easily portrayed—even public universities, and even the old land-grant colleges—as finishing schools for a stable professional elite. The less they are viewed as purveyors of a public good, the easier they are to underfund. The more underfunded they become, the more expensive they are, the fewer scholarships they provide; the fewer scholarships they provide, the more exclusive they become … and on and on and on.”
This is a gross devolution of the public university. UC Berkeley, a top school, was once free. Yes, free. In the 1960s. So was my alma mater, and UC San Diego. Heck, when I paid $5,500 a year that wasn’t too bad. Why? Taxpayer subsidies. It was an investment in excellent workers who might remain in California. Now, schools get 5-25% of their expenses paid by tax dollars. No wonder tuition has been up, up up in recent decades.
Slate book reviewer Stephen Metcalf can’t be much clearer than this: “At Harvard, the leftover ideals from the Golden Age and the age of diversification are each used to mask the current reality, in which education in general, and Harvard in particular, are weapons with which the middle class—and increasingly an upper-upper-middle class—sustain and defend the status of their own children.”
“Our idea of success should be more closely related to our ideas of excellence and fulfillment, and to our idea of happiness. A careful look around the world will show us something in this connection that’s very interesting. The happiest people in the world are people who love what they’re doing, regardless of whether wealth, fame, power, and elevated social status ever come their way. The most fulfilled people are individuals who delight in their work, whatever it might be, and strive to do it well. They are people who derive their rewards from the intrinsic enjoyment of what they are contributing to life, come what may.” ~ Tom Morris
Deresiewicz believes “[t]he system itself – one that to put it in a nutshell, forces you to choose between learning and success. Education is the way that a society articulates and transmits its values. While I’m often critical of the sort of kids who populate selective schools, my real critique is aimed at adults who’ve made them who they are – that is to say, the rest of us,” Deresiewicz maintains. He continues: “The system manufacturers students 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.”
The very revealing book notes that “[y]ou went to college, you studied something, and afterward you went on to the next thing – most probably some kind of graduate school. Up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth, getting to the top – in a word, ‘success.’ As for where you went to school, that was all about bragging rights, so of course you chose the most prestigious place that let you in.” Wow, okay. Very utilitarian and austere.
A. Lawrence Lowell, President of Harvard University from 1909-1933 wrote in his book, What a University President Has Learned (1938): “Anyone who sees in his own occupation merely a means of earning money degrades it; but he who sees in it a service to mankind enables both his labor and himself.” This sentiment is about the most conservative I wax – the idea that society used to be different; that public leaders were more honored and more trusted. It’s true, you’ve got your “robber barons” and your tycoons and your newspaper magnates, but service meant something it doesn’t seem to today. With the most popular Ivy League major being economics, will we be led to more “me-me-me!” and even, possibly, ENRONs and Goldman Sachs-type economic meltdowns? It might sound paranoid, but let’s face facts: what is valued in a society is what is cultivated there, and what is cultivated is what is produced. A society such as Spain may be able to be criticized for being not very work oriented, bohemian, or epicurean, but working 50 hours a week at a hedge fund, how is that right for the majority of our best and brightest (folks who may in fact come out of college “morally unmoored” and almost emotionally/spiritually fragile)?
“A happy life is one which is in accordance with its own nature.” ~ Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Deresiewicz, who used to be a Yale professor, saw many students come and go. He never really noticed the awesome treadmill these “go-getters” are essentially stuck on. In their desire to get ahead, impress parents, and find a career that will provide the money, status, and security they are looking for, the upper crust (well, in merit at least, but often, in family wealth and prestige) seems to be producing great college applicants, but mediocre (even miserable) human beings. He refers to what he terms “endless hoop-jumping” to describe the barrage of extracurricular activities such as music lessons, tutors, and “service” (don’t forget sports and SAT prep), “left them no time, and no tools, to figure out what they want out of life, or even out of college.” The meaning of life, purpose, significance, and anything related to passion were not something a kid would find a tutor for, get credit for on a college application, or impress their parents with. Isn’t it odd and alarming when it takes as much expense, parental shepherding, and time – not to mention the cost of trophies for every kid, in every event – and leads to a place bereft of self-awareness, true self-esteem, and psycho-emotional development? We seem to have gotten further and further from the educational ideal, expressed in the words of noted scientist Mary Leakey: “Basically, I have been compelled by curiosity.”
When I was a late adolescent, I had a pretty significant self-esteem problem. I think it was more of the culmination of genetics, growing up, my parents’ divorce, the loss of my last (and emotionally closest) grandparent, my issues with my mother, and a relative lack of developing the kinds of skills that Deresiewicz refers to. I was not integrated into a faith community due to my propensity toward skepticism. Increasingly through high school, I was almost a full-time actor, plagued by insecurity, social anxiety, and a lack of successful romantic relationships. One thing that I suppose was fortunate (possibly) is that I got off the elite college track when my parents divorced, my mom left, and my dad experienced more and more depression and anxiety. Few kids will study honors English or take chemistry if their parents don’t demand it of them. Frankly, since I earned an “F” in geometry as a sophomore, and dropped out of water polo and swimming, it’s no wonder I stumbled into the local junior college. It was a chance to lick my wounds and try to get into a better transfer institution. When I earned a 2.3 the first semester, it wasn’t looking positive. I did, happily, find philosophy, sociology, and psychology, which became like a saving grace. I have even felt at times that “Socrates saved me.”
“Our goals must either come from the heart or at least resonate thoroughly with what our hearts tell us. They must appeal to our deepest instincts and to our most fundamental values in the most direct way possible if we are to pursue them to our greatest possible benefit. One of the worst things that can happen in connection with goal-directed behavior is for a person to take on goals from other people just to please them, or to benefit from their favor, despite the fact that the values and desires behind those goals are alien to his own value system and destructive for him to embrace.” ~ Tom Morris
And why do not the adults in these hopeful Ivy-Leaguers perpetuate this? “If adults are unaware of all this, that’s partly because they are looking in the wrong direction. Getting A’s no longer means everything’s okay, assuming that it ever did,” Deresiewicz writes. Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann echoes that sentiment: “We have students, who, no matter what else is going on in their lives, know how to get those grades.” Adults either do not want to know, or do not know what to do – it’s like an addiction to finding future success. Indeed, Deresiewicz notes that he was largely unaware of this phenomenon when he was teaching! His position of authority at Yale just made him oblivious to the undercurrent of suffering. He observed students being bright, driven, and competitive, but I would imagine not terribly much else.
I fear the pressure to find “the right job” is so great that it is hard to hear oneself think above the din. I do believe there is a tie-in with a) the cost of tuition, b) the economic insecurity of the early 21st century, and c) the way values have changed over recent decades. With some colleges attracting more students from the top 1% of parental incomes than from the bottom 60%, it’s elitism at its worst. Ask someone the first word that comes to mind when they hear the descriptor “Harvard students” and you will no doubt be answered with “snooty” or “rich” or “elitist.” In a society that prizes money almost above all else, this is all just par for the course, I fear.
Indeed, Kevin Roose writes the following in New York Magazine:
“This year, as in most years, a plurality of the graduates of our nation’s top-ranked schools will have degrees in economics. The so-called “dismal science” has been one of the most popular majors at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton for many consecutive years, and students for decades have treated economics departments as a step toward jobs on Wall Street and in consulting. In recent years, the lust for econ degrees has spread to even those Ivies that are not known for producing budding young financiers. Even at Brown — yes, Brown, the grades-optional lefty paradise — 17 percent of this year’s graduating seniors had some kind of economics concentration under their belts.” Gulp. The most popular majors at Cornell and Penn are not English and sociology — no, it’s engineering and finance.
“One of the most common maladies of our time is a misunderstanding of success. In a recent book catalogue of new titles sent to my house by a national bookstore chain, I noticed on one page a book about how to help elementary school-age kids start and run a profitable business. On the next page there was a book about stress and young children. I remember thinking that these two volumes should come as a boxed set. We are in such a hurry to get the edge for ourselves and to give our children all the advantages.” ~ Tom Morris
Overachievement has been a thing for quite a while, perhaps reaching its distasteful zenith with the recent phenomenon of “tiger parenting.” I would imagine that some older Jewish and Armenian parents would ask me, “Really, guy? Education is bad?” But I think a case can be made that the “testing craze,” books such as Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, and the skyrocketing tuition at colleges and universities are tied to kids being encouraged/forced to overachieve. I think psychological research bears this out. I know in my master’s thesis, more than a few participants in my study attributed suicides in Asian students they knew or knew of to academic pressure. Have you heard how intense it gets in China? This article, entitled “China’s Pressure Cooker Schools” makes it plain.
The craze over standardized testing has attracted many detractors, most notable among them perhaps are Alfie Kohn, Robert J. Sternberg, and Howard Gardner. Here is an encapsulation of the standardized testing critique.
Education should really be about encouraging and showing the young how to live a life of integrity and meaning. There are so many things out there in the world beyond studying calculus! In fact, I never studied calculus and am doing just fine. One can grasp evolution, Kant’s ethics, relativity theory, imprinting in baby animals, the structure of the human skeleton, and the life of Mohandas Gandhi without calculus. Going to the moon is a different story. But I know for a fact (because I went to a university which had 70% non-white students) that a huge amount of pressure is applied to young minds to get ahead, work hard, and excel.
Some of this is absolutely functional. My father was a great example to me. He was raised Jewish in New York and then Youngstown and his parents, who were from Belarus, had a corner store and a failed business venture. Life was hard. He studied quite a bit, and got into Ohio State University, where he was the equipment manager for the Buckeye football team, and the president of his fraternity. Then, he earned his way into Ohio State Medical School. He went on to become the head of his clinic and volunteered his time as a Reserve Deputy Sheriff in Los Angeles County (the rank of Captain, no less). He really worked hard. I think that immigrants have special reason to rough it for the first generation – America is not an easy country to assimilate into no matter what the libertarians say. I never wanted for anything growing up. My mother is also an inspiration; she works very hard to help people, get her art out into the world, and even make my life better. I am just saying that we should take the advice of the following thinkers and cool out a bit:
“Philosophy did not find Plato already a nobleman; it made him one.”
“The science of government it is my duty to study, more than all other sciences; the arts of legislation and administration and negotiation ought to take the place of, indeed exclude, in a manner, all other arts. I must study politics and war, that our sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. Our sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history and naval architecture, navigation, commerce and agriculture in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry and porcelain.”
“To the question posed by Marco Rubio, “Do we need more Greek History majors?” I say, “yes.” If we do not help people learn about Greek history, or American History, then only the elite will have access to this knowledge. Essentially what Rubio and other politicians, both Republican and Democrat, are saying is that if you’re poor, you don’t deserve to learn anything that would enrich your life. You don’t deserve to have your mind expanded. You should have been born to a rich family if you wanted to study art, what were you thinking? Turns out this idea I had of everyone having access to the education they want is not new, Thomas Jefferson had it first. He, too, was afraid of only elites having access to education and forming an unnatural aristocracy of birth, wealth, and privilege.”
“The humanities give young people the opportunity and encouragement to put themselves – their values and commitments – into a critical perspective. They help students gain some distance, incomplete though it must be, on their younger selves and to get some greater traction in the enterprise of living the lives they mean to live and not just those in which they happen to find themselves by accident.”
“As reported by Plato in his famous Apology, Socrates was convinced that most of us approach life backwards. We give the most attention to the least important things and the least attention to the most important things. It was his firm belief that ‘wealth does not bring about excellence, but excellence brings about wealth and all other public and private blessings.’ It was the state of our souls that was most important to Socrates; the inner life of each person; greatness of spirit; wisdom; inner excellence.” ~ Tom Morris
Elite institutions — with their pressure and funnel toward economics/finance, and outlandish costs — are not the only route to a “competitive” education, and I believe are not even the best education. I admit that philosopher Henry David Thoreau said that “[i]n the long run, men hit only what they aim at. Therefore… they had better aim at something high.” I think that must be the intention of many parents for their children. For those with more money than class, $65,000 a year for elite education is but a way to ensure their child’s elitism and invulnerability. It’s the cultivation of power, privilege, and patrimony. So, if you are aiming high because the target in question really has merit, then so be it.
But it is an alluring trap laid by society to force many parents to stress themselves out financially and stress their kids out emotionally, this thought of “excellence.” Put it like this: one can get into 1,000 good colleges and universities with half As and half Bs, no honors classes, one sport, one club, and that’s it. One really ought to question why they are hell-bent on “success” and “achievement” and “The Ivy League” if a B+ average just won’t do. Heck, I went to junior college in Orange County, CA and signed an agreement with UC Irvine, the county’s “UC” school, took all the classes I said I would, and only therefore needed a B average. And I am happy to report that in 1997, the tuition was $6,000 a year. I was there for two years. Ba da bing. There are plenty of legitimate ways to “hit the target,” as Thoreau put it, and be “good enough.” Remember, the perfect is the enemy of the good.
If it is a misguided system that charges $250,000 for a college degree and rejects 94% of applicants (as is the case at Harvard University), then what is a better way to view education? The conclusion that elite institutions are placing education as second or third on a list of its primary functions is not terribly hard to defend, I believe. I get that the top 50 colleges and universities are in a way, responding to larger, macro, systemic factors and that they are only partially responsible. After all, the Ivies can’t be expected to admit everyone who wants to go there and has a 3.5 GPA. It’s also not possible to become a triathlete because one wishes to and can run a couple miles without getting winded. But clearly something is quite amiss. It is yet another example of society declining, and I’m comfortable (perhaps too comfortable) placing this absurd situation in the category of “Things Money Has Screwed Up in the Last 50 Years” as well as other social phenomena. It’s as though the well-heeled are trying harder and harder to separate themselves from “the rest of us.” It’s reached a fever-pitch.
This blog continues HERE
The phenomenon in question is essentially about virtue and character as much as it is education, social criticism, or wisdom. Here are other blogs in this genre.