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…

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