A Missed Opportunity

A former member of the faculty at Yale, William Deresiewicz spends much of his most recent article discussing the “anxious, timid, and lost” student bodies of elite institutions, comprised of individuals with “little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.” He faults the schools that educated these individuals, admonishing them for equipping their students with skills rather than allowing for contemplation and reflection. Finally, he sets the Ivy League at the center of the growing economic inequality in the United States and advocates for its dismantlement.

As a current Harvard student, my education has accomplished exactly what Deresiewicz claimed a college education should do. It has given me the opportunity to become a reflective, thoughtful individual, one passionate about ideas concerning more than merely my own personal well-being. I have developed a sense of self, and become “more interesting, more curious, more open, and far less entitled and competitive.”

I will not, however, pretend as though my academic career is the norm at Harvard. I realize that my personal experiences are exactly that– personal. Deresiewicz offers little evidence beyond stories collected from his own experiences. His arguments rest on generalizations drawn from anecdotes and assertions readers are expected to take for granted. This leaves him in a precarious position, for though (as Deresiewicz rightly points out) the Ivy League does suffer from a lack of diversity, the student bodies at elite institutions today are in no way entirely homogenous entities. Trying to characterize an entire student body, or even the majority of it, as either “out-of-touch, entitled little shit[s]” or as the leaders of tomorrow is a project doomed to failure.

And with a varied student body comes a varied educational experience. Harvard can teach a student “how to think” as defined by Deresiewicz, or how to gain the skills necessary for a profession – but the choice rests largely with the student. Introspection does not happen simply because a curriculum mandates it. While Harvard is not without its issues, grade inflation and academic dishonesty included, it is certainly an institution rife with intellectual curiosity, academic innovation, and reflection.

Aside from concerns generated by no more than an imagined level of homogeneity, the article does touch on very real issues surrounding contemporary higher education and economic inequality. Here, however, it misdiagnoses the symptoms as the cause. Though the admissions policies used by elite institutions do perpetuate economic segregation of classes, the Ivy League itself is not “the problem.” Getting rid of the Ivy League will not end economic inequality in the United States, nor will it make the class system any less rigid. To claim as much is to ignore the much more insidious and pervasive factors at play. Trying to end economic inequality by focusing solely on higher education misses the forest for the trees.

The vision that Deresiewicz sets forward, one in which “everybody gets an equal chance to go as far as their hard work and talent will take them,” is one I believe in myself. Similarly, I also believe in high-quality public higher education that is accessible to all students, regardless of socio-economic status, race, ethnicity, gender, or sexuality. However, higher education does not take place in a vacuum. The inequalities present in colleges’ student bodies are in part a reflection of those persistent in the existing K-12 education system. In reality, the connection between the education system and economic inequality starts far before college, or even the college admissions process, even begins. Early childhood education, in conjunction with access to high-quality public K-12 and higher education, is the key to ending the economic segregation perpetuated by elite institutions and the college admissions process.

Ultimately, Deresiewicz’s article is a missed opportunity. The article brings up valid points of concern, including the current state of the college admissions process, the lack of economic diversity at elite higher education institutions, and economic inequality within the United States. Yet it stops short of discussing any of these fully, choosing instead to denounce a group of individuals who had little to do with generating the inequality present within the education system or society. The solutions he offers are less developed than the epithets he chooses to label Ivy League students with, over-simplifying the causes of the issues he raises. As a result, what could have been a dialogue on the state of higher education and economic inequality in the United States instead becomes a condemnation based largely on misguided assumptions and generalizations. It is indeed, “time to try democracy,” just not the way Deresiewicz advocates.

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