Tuesday, August 19, 2014

My Dialog with Deresiewicz

The Chronicle of Higher Education is featuring a back and forth between me and Bill Deresiewicz, author of Excellent Sheep and several derivative articles that have appeared in various fora recently. Bill is right that there is a lot on which we agree, but we seem to be looking at the same animal and seeing different things sometimes. The dialog has three plies in each direction; the Chronicle reproduces it just as we emailed back and forth to each other, with some links inserted.

A lot of reviews have been appearing, most not very thoughtful. I'd just like to add two points that we didn't cover in our exchange.

One expands what I said in a previous blog post, about how Deresiewicz's remedies, when they are addressed to real problems, are not at all well thought through. The writing has all the hallmarks of the work of a man who has never run anything, so has never had to balance opposing values and considerations. He is prone to sweeping, sometimes reckless prescriptions, voiced in very specific terms, which are not translatable into actual action plans and which start to unravel as soon as the surface is scratched. I mentioned before that the appealing idea of not cooperating with US News is silly. Not that I love US News, and of course it is outrageous when institutions let that tail wag their dogs. But what does he really mean? Not cooperate with any rating or ranking agency, including the federal government's if one comes to pass? Not give data to anyone about your institution, out of fear that a some kind of score would be extracted from it? Refuse to cooperate with US News  but give your data to its competitors? Have a board of censors that would decide which publications are honorable enough to give your data to, and somehow enjoin others from referencing it?

Another prescription Deresiewicz makes is this: Colleges "should refuse to be impressed by any experience or opportunity that was enabled by parental wealth." Again a fine impulse, and not news. If your father is president of a pharmaceutical firm and your research is done under the direction of its chief chemist, it would be foolish not to wonder who really did the work. But where does "wealth" begin? Does paying for test prep, or simply for an academic tutor, because your local school is awful, count as such an experience or opportunity? What if your parents aren't wealthy, but have made some sacrifice to compensate for the inadequacies of the school system? What if your family buys a house in a district with a good high school, is that an opportunity due to parental wealth. so your improved academic performance should be discounted? What if your family took out huge mortgages to make that possible? The various prescriptions for change seem to me operationally problematic, or dependent on the much larger social changes called for near the end of the book, such as making all high schools in America equally good. Another fine idea. How to do it in a federation of proudly autonomous states is another question.

The book is full of wild swings. Penn and Princeton are anti-intellectual; this is mentioned offhandedly as a matter of common knowledge. We are all so inbred we are soon going to grow tails. (Sorry, I don't have the chapter and verse of those two, so I may slightly be misstating them.) It's obviously not a scholarly work, but it's so shallow, so devoid of any acknowledgment of reasonable counterarguments to his theses or action plans, that it's really just not a very good book. Lacking, I should say, in those qualities of critical thinking that the author says the liberal arts are supposed to give us.

But there is one passage that makes me wonder whether Deresiewicz is even a person of good character. It's when he launches an attack on Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom. It's fine to attack Chua and her book; that's fair game. But at the end he goes after her daughter too.
As for her own children, the fact that one has gotten into Harvard now is not a validation of her methods. It is a condemnation of Harvard's, and of the system as a whole. Of course her daughter got into Harvard: that is exactly the kind of printing the system rewards. That's exactly what is wrong with it.
Whatever anyone thinks of tiger mom, it's only in North Korea that we take down children for the sins of their parents. I assume he doesn't actually know the daughter, but is dismissing her qualifications for admission wholesale on the basis of a stereotype he has drawn of her. (I don't know her either.) In the liberal societies for which Deresiewicz pleads, we don't do that to people. As a matter of professional ethics in academia, we don't attack students publicly. Ever. That is simply unethical. I am surprised no one else has pointed that out.


  1. I haven't read Excellent Sheep yet, so I'm entirely unqualified to weigh in on the conversation that seems to spawn in new threads daily, and therefore I'll refrain from doing so. However, my Facebook feed is abuzz with fellow students who have also only read coverage in articles, and have either rushed to defend the Ivies or found a convenient platform to voice more grievances, many of which seem to be unrelated to Dersiewicz's original points of contention. I would be interested to see the Chronicle publish a student version of this dialogue, especially because this book (from what I can glean) seems to want to address/rile students as much as professors.

    1. Good suggestion, Keith. I have passed it along to the editors of the Chronicle.

  2. I also like the suggestion of student responses very much. One thing that I'd like to note is the repeated use of the word "kids" to describe students. At once perhaps a minor usage note, it does give me pause if we claim as educators to be aiming to foster independent thinkers and intellectual curiosity, if at the same time we patronize those students by calling them "kids."

    1. Fair point, though in my defense, both D'z and I were talking a lot about high school students and college applicants in relation to their parents. Not always though.