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Q&A with William Deresiewicz

How our elite schools are failing us

In his introduction to Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, former Yale professor William Deresiewicz describes today's Ivy League as a highly competent zombie factory, one that "manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and 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." He spends the rest of the book explaining how the alleged best higher-education system in the world got this way — and what can be done to foster a top-tier college environment at once more diverse and less miserable.

In an email conversation, I did my level best to discuss at least a fraction of what Excellent Sheep covers — and to give its unfailingly thoughtful author a chance to engage with his critics.

Q: Your tour for this book is almost exclusively to the very institutions you lambaste for their corporatized fostering of elitist mediocrity. Any awkward moments?

A: I'm speaking at those schools because that is the audience that most needs to hear my message. To the credit of the individuals or groups who have invited me, at least some people on elite campuses recognize as much. I've actually been speaking on these topics at schools like that for the last six years, often at the invitation of student groups. In fact, those conversations were instrumental in helping me develop the book — in giving me a sense not only of what's going on with high-achieving students now, but of what they need and want to hear. So I'm not worried about awkward moments. Besides, I've found that today's students are unfailingly polite — almost to a fault, I would say.

Q: In your early chapters, you present a heartbreaking paradox of students who are overworked and miserable — all, likely, in the service of a lucrative but empty consulting career that will (perhaps) result in a midlife crisis. Will you tell me a little bit more about what you refer to as "the opportunities [elite education] closes down"?

A: I mean the opportunity not to be rich — or high-status — and still live a good life. In other words, if you're a smart, talented, energetic young person in America today (especially if you grow up upper-middle-class or higher), if you're the kind of kid who goes to these schools, you have the opportunity to live a life of meaning and purpose and still make a perfectly decent living. The only thing that can screw it up for you is if you allow yourself to buy into the kind of standards that the system works so hard to instill, that desperate need for the constant affirmation of credentials and gold stars, whether in the form of A's or of ultra-high salaries and prestigious titles.

Q: I'm sure you're aware of the unintended consequences of talk of "doing what you love" and "vocation," which is the monetary devaluation of artistic or creative work. Is there a Golden Mean between the soul-sucking $150K consulting job and the rhetoric of "vocation"?

A: Yes, I'm quite aware of the way the rhetoric of love and vocation has been co-opted by people who don't want to pay their workers what they deserve. But that doesn't mean that love and vocation aren't real things. People should strive to do work that's meaningful to them, and they should also insist (to the extent they can) that they get paid a fair wage for that work. I should also add something very important: I am not telling students to go into any particular kind of work — the arts, academia, service work, whatever. Being a lawyer can certainly be a very meaningful occupation. Purpose and pay are separate issues. The point is not what you do but why you do it, how you choose it.

Q: The book excerpt that you published in the New Republic has ignited some backlash among self-identified "financial-aid kids" from underserved backgrounds, who do not feel part of the "privilege bubble" you describe. What would you like to say to them?

A: Yes, there are some kids on elite campuses who don't come from affluent backgrounds. But they represent a small minority. At the top 100+ schools, according to a study from several years ago, only 3 percent of students come from families in the bottom quarter of the income distribution, 75 percent from the top quarter. When we talk about diversity on elite campuses we focus on race and gender too much, and not enough on class.

The other thing I would say to those kids is that I'll bet they know what I mean, when I talk about the affluent majority being out of touch in a bubble of privilege, a lot better than I do. I've heard from a lot of the kinds of kids you're talking about. All of them have told me how marginalized they've felt on campuses where family wealth is more or less taken for granted.

Q: How do the younger kids you talk to react to your warnings about elite education?

A: I've gotten a fair number of emails from high school students, most of which say, essentially: thank you. Thank you for giving me a perspective that my crazy peers/teachers/parents don't have.

Q: Speaking of younger kids: My first child is due in January, so we have 18½ years to fix all of this (not that she'll get into, or I'll be able to afford, Yale). What can realistically be done in 18½ years, and who has to do it?

A: The whole system is driven by the admissions process at elite private colleges. So I would start by reforming the admissions process to encourage curiosity, risk-taking, and independent-mindedness rather than hoop-jumping, conformity, and credentialism. But the fact is that elite private colleges will only ever go so far. They will always favor the affluent. What we really need to do is make them irrelevant by creating free or low-cost high-quality public higher education. And the fact is that we did this once, after World War II. Look at what the University of California once was: the greatest public system in the world. And there were also terrific systems in other states. Now we have allowed them to fall into decay, and simply because we've refused to continue to make the financial commitment required to sustain them.

I understand that parents are worried about their children's future. But we have to look at what we're doing to our kids. We have to have the strength to raise them to care about something other than "success" in the very narrow terms in which it's come to be defined. I'm not saying you can have it all: In fact, that's one of my biggest messages in the book. You have to choose. Parents already tell their kids to "do what you love" and "follow your dreams." But kids know that they don't really mean it, that what they really want is status and success. Well, we have to really mean it.

Q: One of my favorite suggestions you make is for college kids to stop talking to their parents so much.

A: Young people don't seem to understand sufficiently today that growing up is all about separating from your parents, learning to figure out where their desires stop and yours begin.

Q: Any final thoughts about the initial reactions to the book?

A: One of the arguments I've seen, in published responses to my article, is that I exaggerate the depth of psychological distress among high-achieving students today. Kids are fine, people say; college students have always been unhappy. Well, they're not fine, and they haven't always been unhappy — not like this. We're putting kids under the kind of pressure that no young person should have to face, and a lot of them are cracking, even if we can't see it. We need to start to see it.

How our elite schools are failing us 08/18/14 [Last modified: Monday, August 18, 2014 8:59pm]
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