Saturday, July 26, 2014

"Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League" (where I went and then taught)

About ten people have sent me William Deresiewicz's article "Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League," published in the New Republic. It's part of the fun being had by people who went to great universities, making money telling other people that going to a great university isn't worth it. As this gloss in the Washington Post notes, others writing in the same genre have included William F. Buckley, Jr. [Yale], and Ross Douthat [Harvard]. In Deresiewicz's case, it was Columbia, before teaching at Yale. And we might as well throw Peter Thiel into that group, since he is using the the wealth he accumulated after his Stanford education to try to persuade smart kids that they don't need any college education at all.

It's a pretty disappointing piece, full of cheap zingers like "Not being an entitled little shit is an admirable goal." Which is not to say it's all wrong. But Deresiewicz doesn't seem to quite get the idea that with the collapse in support for the great public research universities, the Ivies and a few brethren privates like Stanford and MIT are now very often the cheapest places for low-income students to attend. It's another question whether families that actually can afford to pay the high sticker prices at these institutions will continue to think it is worth doing. There is no sign that they are changing their minds, and I doubt Deresiewicz's writings will lead to a mass desertion.

And then there is the problem that Deresiewicz's prescriptions for change don't make a lot of sense when you penetrate more than a millimeter below the surface. I know he is far from alone in thinking that universities should "stop cooperating" with US News, for example. "Cooperating" of course just means making available to US News the sorts of data that universities should be making public so people can make well informed decisions about college choices, rather than relying on … ranting headlines in the New Republic. Would Deresiewicz really prefer that universities keep the data secret? Or perhaps release it only to publications that had met the standards of some board of censors? Are universities really responsible for the downstream use of the data they release?

It feels like Deresiewicz's haymakers are wild swings because of the weight of some huge chip on his shoulder. He is capable of better. I thought The Miseducation of America, in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, was a much better piece. It's an essay on related topics cast as a review of the film Ivory Tower, which I blogged a few weeks ago. As I predicted, that movie disappeared from Kendall Square pretty quickly, and the list of upcoming bookings is not encouraging.

Both the New Republic and the Chronicle of Higher Education pieces are teases for Deresiewicz's book, Excellent Sheep, to be published on August 19 (just in time for back to school! and for getting down to work on those college applications after the US News rankings come out!). Interesting title! I haven't read the book but two people who have tell me that Excellence Without a Soul is quoted more than once. (Sounds like maybe a lot more than once.) I suppose I can conclude from the fact that I'm generously quoted that the book is also not all wrong, and that the author and I have related criticisms. I can say only that even when I have been most disappointed, I have always been hopeful, and have seen the great universities as a glass half full; Deresiewicz seems more like a glass-half-empty kind of guy.

Added later. The New Republic has posted a thoughtful commentary in response to the article, making some clear factual as well as cultural points. And no list of critiques of higher education would be complete without mentioning Allen Bloom's Closing of the American Mindwhich to my eternal shame I neglected to cite in Excellence Without a Soul.


  1. Jim Sleeper asked me to post this comment:

    As one who told Harry Lewis that he's quoted in Deresiewicz's book, I'll note here my review of that book (from which Deresiewicz's recent New Republic article is simply an excerpt) has been posted in Bookforum.

    What's true in Deresiewicz's book -- as represented in its several citations of Harry's Excellence Without a Soul -- is compromised by much of the rest of his book, which consists of ranting, sweeping charges and sound bites from anonymous students that read a lot like texting.

    I'll have a bit more to say on this in a day or two in Salon, the gist of it being that jeremiads against the Ivies and other "elite" liberal-arts colleges will keep coming for as long as the American "class structure" keeps assuming Gilded Age proportions, and, while upscale colleges do reflect and reinforce this, I think Harry's right to suggest that they can also provide vital openings to corrections, solutions, and ways out -- if people keep pushing to provide them. --Jim Sleeper

  2. Jim Marino at Cleveland State has a good rejoinder, as well, that might be of interest:

  3. Wow, Sleeper NAILS it. I have been fighting like hell against this article since it first appeared in my feed on Facebook. It is both disgustingly sloppy and politically irresponsible.

    "ranting, sweeping charges and sound bites from anonymous students that read a lot like textin

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