How Bad Are the Colleges?

Matthew Spiro
William Deresiewicz, Portland, Oregon, 2012

During the dark economic days of 2008, the literary critic and English professor William Deresiewicz, who had recently been refused tenure at Yale, published a dystopian essay in The American Scholar called “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” “After twenty-four years in the Ivy League—college at Columbia; a Ph.D. at the same institution, including five years as a graduate instructor; and ten years, altogether, on the faculty at Yale,” Deresiewicz had come to believe that “the system,” as he calls it, was cheating students out of “a meaningful education, instilling them with values they rejected but couldn’t somehow get beyond, and failing to equip them to construct their futures.”

According to a note appended to Excellent Sheep—the short book that Deresiewicz has built around the essay and subsequent dyspeptic reflections on the baleful effects of such things as the US News & World Report college rankings, the alarming rise of MOOCs (massive open online courses), and the increasing reliance on temporary or “adjunct” professors—“The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” has now been “viewed more than one million times online.” An excerpt from the book in The New Republic, under the incendiary title “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” and accompanied by a cover illustration of a Harvard flag in flames, is now the most-read article in the history of the magazine. “Apparently I’d touched a nerve,” Deresiewicz remarks.

Bad news emanating from the Ivy League—cheating scandals or grade inflation—has long had a special appeal for American readers. During the financial panic of 1837, Emerson chided Harvard for producing bookworms rather than original thinkers. “The book, the college, the school of art, the institution of any kind, stop with some past utterance of genius,” he said in his Phi Beta Kappa address. “They pin me down.” Thoreau, a member of the 1837 class, sounded like a Sixties radical when he wrote in Walden that he had “lived some thirty years on this planet, and I have yet to hear the first syllable of valuable or even earnest advice from my seniors.” Melville’s Ishmael claimed that a whaling ship was his Harvard and Yale. “Four years of Harvard College, if successful, resulted in an autobiographical blank,” Henry Adams (class of 1858) wrote, adding, more cheerfully, that “it taught little, and that little ill, but it left the mind open, free from bias, ignorant of facts, but docile.”

The docility of students in elite colleges today is a major concern in Excellent Sheep. While teaching a course at Yale on the literature of friendship (his first book was called A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter), Deresiewicz suggested to his students that introspection and solitude were required for the life of the mind—“things,” he adds patronizingly, that “they probably had not been asked to think about before.” One of the students, “with a dawning sense of self-awareness,” asked, “So are you saying that we’re all just, like, really excellent sheep?”

Deresiewicz’s notion of which schools are truly elite will strike many readers as surprisingly narrow, encompassing only the very top tier of the Ivies (the “Big Three” of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton) and their presumed equivalents among the liberal arts colleges (Amherst and Williams), with Stanford and Pomona occasionally mentioned as well. Hardly any schools from the South or the Midwest meet his standards, nor does he seem closely familiar with them. It is not enough just to mention in passing such different colleges as Kenyon and Sewanee, with the claim that they “have retained their allegiance to real educational values.”

He is hardly the first to note that children groomed for highly selective schools are often relentlessly coached and coerced from an early age to perform in ways that will win eventual admission: extracurricular activities like student government or sports; college-level Advanced Placement courses; “service” in impoverished countries during the summer; expensively acquired skills in music or tennis; the ability to outperform others—especially those from public schools—on standardized tests like the SAT. Deresiewicz sensibly suggests that young people (and their harried parents) need a break from all this regimented rigmarole, by which training for adulthood begins soon after conception. He vividly describes his day on a Yale admissions panel, sorting out from the “double-800 crowd” the merely “well-rounded” from the “pointy—outstanding in one particular way.” “But if they were pointy,” he adds, “they had to be really pointy.”

When they get to college, such high-achieving students, according to Deresiewicz, continue to perform in the same approved ways, majoring in two or three or even four disciplines (with economics a popular choice), taking courses in which they are confident that they will receive an A, piling up credentials for their résumé like writing for the student newspaper or playing in the orchestra, and graduating with an acceptance from law school or an offer from Bain or McKinsey. “The system,” Deresiewicz writes,

manufactures 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 products of all this smoothly running machinery are of a surpassing uniformity, or so Deresiewicz claims:

What I saw at Yale I have continued to see at campuses around the country. Everybody looks extremely normal, and everybody looks the same. No hippies, no punks, no art school types or hipsters, no butch lesbians or gender queers, no black kids in dashikis. The geeks don’t look that geeky; the fashionable kids go in for understated elegance. Everyone dresses as if they’re ready to be interviewed at a moment’s notice. You’re young, I want to say to them. Take a chance with yourselves. Never mind “diversity.” What we’re getting is thirty-two flavors of vanilla…. College used to be understood as a time to experiment with different selves, of whatever type.

This is comic hyperbole, of course. Even a seminar on Jane Austen at Yale has more stylistic diversity than this, and the docile flocks at Woodstock, with their tie-dyed shirts and bellbottoms and the occasional dashiki, had their own rigid codes of acceptable attire.

But Deresiewicz discerns a deeper conformity. A colleague who attended college during the late 1970s tells him that he can’t imagine a Yale undergraduate today “spending an entire weekend lying in bed reading poetry or glued to a keyboard writing a breakthrough iPhone app…. Yet, when I was an undergraduate,” he adds, “people did things like that all the time; passionate weirdos were all over the place, and they were part of what made college interesting.” Again, one is tempted to quibble. Writing a breakthrough iPhone app is something that only by extension can be said to be something that people did all the time in the late 1970s; moreover, it is precisely what a gifted student is likely to do today at Harvard or Yale or Stanford, in bed or otherwise.

Deresiewicz is clearly right to suggest that students should be encouraged to look around (experiment with different selves and different fields of knowledge) before deciding on a profession, and view college as an escape from the job market as much as a preparation for it. But he doesn’t leave it at that. Adopting a messianic tone, he urges students to rebel against their well-meaning parents (who may be understandably alarmed by a scary jobs outlook), just as they allegedly did during the 1960s, since “a child who never rebels remains a child forever.” “What do you owe your parents?” he asks. “Nothing.”

While conceding that students from a “Confucian culture” might hesitate to give offense, he has no patience for the others. “‘My parents would kill me’ goes the common phrase: if I majored in music, if I went on that road trip, if I took a leave of absence. So here is an idea: kill them first.” And if your parents are really poor, should you ignore their entreaties, too? Well, “don’t sell your options short,” he says reassuringly. “If you grow up with less, you are much better able to deal with having less.” You might also learn something by observing just what many parents have to do in order to pay the bills.

Conformity has spread inexorably, according to Deresiewicz, and to free themselves from it, students should expect no help from their elders. The “race of bionic hamsters” hatched in our colleges is now in charge of the country. Eight of the nine Supreme Court justices got their law degrees from Harvard or Yale. Elena Kagan is nothing but a “resume jockey devoid of discernible passion.” Obama, another excellent sheep, “plays it safe, like every other product of the system.” He is “like a student who’s afraid to take a course he might do poorly in” and “dodges the difficult fights.” (Presumably the fight for universal health insurance, unmentioned by Deresiewicz, was a walkover.) “The time has long since passed,” he proclaims, as though he’s running for public office himself, “to rethink, reform, and reverse the entire project of elite education.”

For an indictment so sweeping, Deresiewicz’s remedies for shaking things up may seem rather tame. He is alarmed, and with good reason, by the ways in which the very rich—“out-of-touch, entitled little shits”—take up so many places in elite colleges and universities, a finding confirmed in recent reports in The New York Times and elsewhere.* So-called feeder schools for the Big Three are a tiny slice of American high schools. Deresiewicz cites a study showing that a hundred high schools, 0.3 percent of the total, account for 22 percent of the students at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. He makes a familiar and clearly justifiable call for ending preferential admission for legacies (children of alumni), children of generous donors, and athletes (especially athletes in traditionally upper-class sports like lacrosse, squash, sailing, fencing, and crew), which, in his view, merely maintains what he calls the “hereditary meritocracy,” while also sustaining endowments with gifts from rich alumni.

Like some other reformers, he would prefer preferential admission based on social class rather than race or ethnicity:

Visit any elite campus across our great nation, and you can thrill to the heartwarming spectacle of the children of white businesspeople and professionals studying and playing alongside the children of black, Asian, and Latino businesspeople and professionals. Kids at schools like Stanford think that their environment is diverse if one comes from Missouri, another one from Pakistan, or one plays the cello and the other one lacrosse—never mind that all of them have parents who are bankers or doctors. They aren’t meeting “all kinds of people,” as they like to say. They’re meeting the same kind of people; they just happen to come from all kinds of places.

Dina Rudick/Boston Globe/Getty Images
Students in Harvard’s introductory computer science course, November 2013

Is it true that a doctor’s child from Pakistan has nothing more to teach a privileged white kid from California than a doctor’s child from Boston? Are the experiences of upper-class African-Americans really indistinguishable from those of upper-class whites? Is a nearly all-white but economically diverse university in Maine or New Hampshire a good preparation for students entering a racially and ethnically diverse country? Does a coherent policy for achieving diversity really have to choose between race and class? Why not insist on both?

Government funding for quality public higher education should be, as Deresiewicz suggests, more of a priority in this country, where public universities have been forced to rely increasingly on fund-raising rather than tax revenue. He dreams of a time when state legislatures might support their university systems the way that California once supported its great institutions of higher education, when Berkeley competed with Harvard and Yale for top students and professors. In other words, he wants high-quality higher education to be a right rather than a privilege. (A little like affordable health care, perhaps?) And yet he does not convincingly consider the obstacles posed by American politics. How precisely are state legislatures, their budgets slashed to the bone by tax-cutting initiatives, meant to bring about this revolution?

Deresiewicz believes that colleges and universities should restore the liberal arts to the center of the curriculum, with the humanities at the center of the liberal arts. (“Instead of humanities,” he quips, in a joke that is better heard than read, “students are getting amenities.”) By the humanities he seems to mean, primarily, English literature and the Western classics, “still the major portion of our mental past,” supplemented by history, philosophy, and religion. (One hopes that students will read Max Weber and John Dewey and John Rawls with equal intensity.) Such works of literature, he writes, teach students to “build a self”—if it were only so easy!—by asking the “big questions”: “Questions of love, death, family, morality, time, truth, God, and everything else within the wide, starred universe of human experience.” He mentions an “exemplary version” of the kind of course he has in mind, “a two-term sequence that’s been taught since 1945…centered on the humanities” but drawing on other disciplines, at Lawrence University, in Wisconsin, in which “big questions, like what is the good life, are put directly on the table.”

When Deresiewicz tries to specify what students might actually take from their readings in the classics, the results can be deflating. He knows the answers to the big questions. From Macbeth students will learn about “ambition,” from Invisible Man about “marginality.” In the timeless works of the past they will find people very like themselves. “We read of Hamlet or Jane Eyre, and across the differences of time and place, with a pang of guilt and bliss, we see our nature mirrored up to us, but seen as if anew.” When he claims to have “learned from Dante that love and hate are complements, not opposites (a good thing to know if you happen to belong to a family),” you may never want to read Dante again.

Beleaguered English teachers may rejoice in Deresiewicz’s full-throated advocacy, but genteel blather about literature and the good life is among the reasons why literary study, like religion a century ago, has been shunted aside at many colleges today. Deresiewicz’s prose style—incisive and unflinching in his book reviews but meant, in Excellent Sheep, to appeal to disaffected students (“a letter to my twenty-year-old self,” he calls it)—is generic and sounds deliberately dumbed down, relying on quotations from David Brooks, Anna Quindlen, and “Harry R. Lewis, the former Harvard dean.” A sentence beginning “Your soul, in the words of Allan Bloom…” is a sentence you may not want to read to the end. The cascading quotations make the arguments feel stale and secondhand, and they undercut Deresiewicz’s larger self-evident claim that “the way to a meaningful life” is more likely to be found in great books rather than in “today’s op-ed or yesterday’s position paper.” One looks in vain for pungent passages from more challenging thinkers like Paul Goodman, who addressed some of the same developments (technology in the classroom, standardized tests, programmed learning) that bedevil Deresiewicz.

And how exactly, one wonders, are curriculums built around great books supposed to promote a race of passionate and independent minds, “weird” or not? Might they have the opposite effect, as Emerson feared? “Meek young men grow up in libraries,” he warned the Harvard graduates in 1837, “believing it their duty to accept the views, which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote those books.” If all colleges were liberal arts colleges, with humanities at the center, would students really feel invited to “experiment with various selves”? A lot would depend on just what was taught, by whom, in what way, and here Deresiewicz is not of much help.

A striking feature of American higher education during the past few decades has been its rapidly increasing homogeneity. With few exceptions, our colleges and universities teach pretty much the same courses, hire similarly trained professors, build indistinguishable buildings, and make the same pitches to prospective students (diversity, study abroad, leadership training, internship opportunities, state-of-the-art laboratories). The rankings, with their inflexible categories and point systems, have something to do with this uniformity. So do accrediting agencies, with their checklists for “assessment.” So do grant-making institutions, both public (like the National Science Foundation) and private (like the Mellon Foundation), which tend to fund particular subfields like digital humanities, say, or new ways to teach via “blended” classrooms (connected by video feeds). Under such pressures, confronted with such temptations, our colleges themselves have become excellent sheep.

Deresiewicz longs for more passionate and intellectually curious students, but it’s hard to produce them without passionately independent schools, of which there is a dearth at the moment, with no countermovement in sight. The last great era of experimentation in higher education may well have been the Great Depression, and the years following World War II when the GI Bill made possible for the first time an American system of socialized higher education in which experiments could be financed. Perhaps during the Depression it was felt that old solutions had failed, or that the profit motive was momentarily off the table. Black Mountain College, with its arts-centered curriculum and its faculty melding European émigrés and homegrown mavericks, was founded during the 1930s, as was Bennington, the first college to offer degrees in the performing arts, notably dance. An experiment of equal fervor, according to an alumnus I know, was the prescribed curriculum in the humanities and the natural and social sciences at the college of the University of Chicago in the 1940s.

We still have a few original schools—the tiny and super-elite Deep Springs, for example, with its passionate, low-tech seminars on Hegel and its off-the-grid work responsibilities for its students—who pay neither for tuition or room and board—on an isolated cattle ranch in the California desert, although its recent statement that it hopes to admit women (surely a good thing) has moved the school a bit more to the center. Bard and Hampshire have maintained much of their appeal to offbeat students. Women’s colleges and historically black colleges preserve attitudes and traditions that set them apart from the homogenizing mainstream. Some religiously based schools have retained a passionate weirdness, though they, too, increasingly soft-pedal their idealistic origins in Quakerism, say.

Weirdness may, it turns out, be a good marketing tool in the current leveling landscape. A recent article in The New York Times by Neil Irwin, titled “Why Colleges With a Distinct Focus Have a Hidden Advantage,” pointed to evidence that “colleges and universities that provide some unique cultural or educational experience can have a surprising advantage over more selective schools.” A “specialized mission” like educating women or the poor or artists or naval officers or Mormons, or would-be classicists, could be more seductive to prospective students than those supposedly elite and more highly ranked schools that try to appeal to every student. Deresiewicz wants, laudably, to instill independence and audacity among students. More colleges with a higher tolerance for risk, for passionate weirdness in curriculum and teaching, might well help our children make a more distinctive world for themselves. How far off such hopes now seem.

  1. *

    “A series of federal surveys of selective colleges found virtually no change from the 1990s to 2012 in enrollment of students who are less well off—less than 15 percent by some measures—even though there was a huge increase over that time in the number of such students going to college.” See Richard Pérez-Peña, “Generation Later, Poor Still Rare at Elite Colleges,” The New York Times, August 26, 2014.