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    Snobs vs. The Ivy League (or, The Question of Bill Deresiewicz's Character)

    There is nothing a snobbish Ivy Leaguer likes better than putting down the Ivy League. It's an easy way to signal that you are above your own Ivy League school and the privilege it confers -- all a big humbug that your superior perspective sees right through -- while holding on to every last scrap of that privilege. It allows you to position yourself as not only 1. better than people who didn't get into Harvard, Princeton, or Yale, but 2. the benevolent champion of those little people who didn't get in and also 3. better than everyone else who did get into your school and who, unlike you, need to take the place seriously. It's a time-honored game for the insider's insiders, and William Deresiewicz plays it like an old hand in the latest New Republic, with an article titled "Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League."

    Even the title of that article is disingenuous. William Deresiewicz has never studied or worked outside the Ivy League. He has three degrees from Columbia. He taught for ten years at Yale. Public colleges, and the students at public colleges, are merely rhetorically convenient symbols for him. He displays no understanding of, and no curiosity about, what those places and people are actually like.

    Is going to an Ivy League school worth it? Unless you are already a person of enormous inherited privilege, the question is disingenuous. Of course it is. This question is like the popular media question, "Is going to college worth it?" No one asking that question honestly believes that they would have been better off not going to college; they would not be writing in whatever magazine is asking the question this week if they had not gone to college. And none of them would be willing for their own children not to go to college. Asking the question is an act of dishonesty. The writer is at the very least deceiving him- or herself. 

    Deresiewicz argues that one should turn down admission to an Ivy League school and go to a public university, where you will build superior character. So, if you get into Harvard you should go to the University of Massachusetts instead. Let me say, as a proud alumnus of both Harvard and U. Mass.: don't be ridiculous.

    And yes, I learned to think at Harvard. Of course. Were some of my classmates careerists who resisted genuine introspection? Yes, surely a few. But no institution teaches students to love thinking. Only another person can teach you that. The Harvard I went to abounded with such people.

    I should certainly not turned down Harvard when I was 17 and gone to U.Mass instead. That would have been crazy. And anyone telling a young person in my position to do that isn't striking a blow against elitism. They're just trying to keep less-privileged people out of the elite.

    I said yes to Harvard for a simple reason: I could not afford not to. I grew up comfortably middle-class. But we certainly weren't the upper middle class. (One of my parents was a high school teacher, the other  police lieutenant.) I could not turn down a break like getting into Harvard. I could not count on getting another break like that again. Anyone who tells a kid like me to turn down Harvard is doing that kid wrong.

    Any 18-year-old who gets a chance to go to school with people smarter than she or he is should take that opportunity. Knowing that nearly all of your classmates know interesting things that you don't is a gift that only a fool would refuse. I am grateful that I was given that opportunity; there is no stronger expression of entitlement than ingratitude.

    I have three university degrees: two from world-famous universities and one from a state school. I have spent the last ten years teaching in a public university. I think it's fair to say that I have seen both sides of this question. And I am absolutely committed to public education. In fact, what makes me angriest about Deresiewicz is the way his phony, patronizing praise for public universities helps paper over the crisis that public schools are in.  Public universities have been bleeding support for years, with our resources falling further and further behind those of the wealthy private colleges, and Deresiewicz knows it. The endless budget problems interfere, inevitably, with the education we can provide our students. Disguising that basic and terrible fact is a bad thing.

    Let me confess here that this is personal. In an earlier article on this theme, Deresiewicz claimed that students were better off going to the university where I teach than they are going to Yale. He named us specifically and repeatedly. We have wonderful students and I am proud of them, but telling people to turn down Yale for us is insane. But still more insane was Deresiewicz's reason: you see, when Yale students struggle, they have enormous resources to help them: a small but well-trained army tutors and counselors. My students don't have that. We have some tutors and some counselors but when our students hit trouble (and my students as a group have far, far more troubles than Yale students), they are mostly on their own. Deresiewicz feels that this is a great thing. You see, it builds character. Isn't it better to be at a poor school, struggling?

    I don't feel great about that. I long for the resources I used to be able to call in to help Stanford undergrads when they were in trouble. When my students get in trouble, I don't have those people to call, and that is a terrible, terrible feeling.

    My students need that help and they don't get it. Deresiewicz applauds that. In fact, Deresiewicz, avowed anti-elitist, applauds struggling poor kids not getting help. That itself is outrageous. But Deresiewicz's cheap rhetorical ploy had real-world effects at my school, because it served as an excuse for not providing any of that help that our students need. When Bill Deresiewicz says it's great that my students don't get help, he does my students wrong. It will take me a long time to forgive him.

    But what about character? What about elitism and snobbery? It is true that elite schools are full of students who are already from various elites. That is the nature of the beast. But, whether Deresiewicz realizes it or not, the class system is alive and well among the students at public universities. Rich students and poor students have very different experiences at those places, to the ultimate detriment of both. Skim the annual lists of famous party schools: it's not the kids who need to work for their tuition money who are throwing those parties. Drinking your way through school while studying the absolute minimum is one of the oldest ways for students to express their wealth and privilege, and it is now perversely easier to get away with that game at Flagship State than at one of the Ivies.

    I cannot deny that elite universities have more than their healthy share of the arrogant, the entitled, and the egotistical. No one who has spent time at one of those places could deny that. There are a lot of big egos at Harvard and at Stanford both. But my experience of the world is that there are some arrogant and entitled people everywhere. Those people don't always base their sense of superiority on going to a fancy school, or on any educational achievement or talent. In fact, many people who feel superior to others don't base their conviction of superiority on anything that anyone else can detect. Arrogance and entitlement are their own reasons. And if you want to prevent a bright teenager from becoming an arrogant jerk, sending her to a school where there are always three smarter people in the room is not a bad idea. Most of what I know about humility I learned at Harvard.

    Deresiewicz wants to discuss character, and I don't want to impugn his. My spouse knows him from her own Yale days, and speaks well of him as a teacher. I am certainly willing to hope that his character is better than his essay makes it appear. 

    So let's make it personal, Bill. You speak of character. Why not apply for a teaching job outside the Ivy League? If you believe in the mission public education, why not be part of that mission? Romanticizing my students' poverty is not good for them, and not healthy for you either. But you have the tools to help fight their disadvantage. It is not an easy job. It is much harder, in most ways, than teaching at Yale. And it will sorely test your spirit, because teaching a full range of college students means that at least a few of your students will not succeed, no matter what you do, because things outside school prevent them. Knowing that you cannot get them all through is a bitter thing. Knowing that another budget cut is coming, sooner or later, is hard on the spirit. But you wanted to build character, didn't you? You can use the privileges that you have been given to help those who have been shut out. Ranting about how awful Yale is helps no one, and it is a waste of your talents. Our country is full of less privileged schools, with less privileged students. Get a job at one. It is a chance to do something good, and something useful, in the real world.



    Your last paragraph really tells it like it is for poor students in college.  I want to add that families that are poor who do send their kids to college make difficult choices to keep them there. It is a process that effects all the members of the family.  These choices that are sometimes painful are made to try to minimize the outside pressures so the student can succeed.  Sometimes it can be a dilemma in just finding a way to create a private, quiet place for them to study.  Well some of you are thinking that should not be too hard? You are not living in a small trailer with out enough bedroom space or doubled up with two families sharing the same apartment. Or putting together a schedule in order to get everyone where they need to be on time with only one car and limited bus service. It is not only financial help and tutors but all this other stuff that can be hard and stressful.  

    Thanks for brining this up.   

    Thanks. You are absolutely right that the challenges for poor  students go beyond tuition and fees and books. Time is money, and space is priced per square foot. Time to study costs, a quiet place to read costs, getting to campus costs, fitting into the semester's schedule costs.

    Every student can have life setbacks, or family crises. But when you're poor, the margin is so precarious that a setback can throw everything off.

    A rich student who has car trouble misses a class. A poor student who has car trouble might have drop out for a semester, because she needs that car to keep her job and she needs to work 200 extra hours to lay for the car repairs.

    As far as your argument for choosing Harvard over UMass, and your critique of Deresiewicz and his reasoning, I think you are spot on, and really have nothing to add. 

    There is, however, one quibble to I do have, and it is this assertion:

    This question is like the popular media question, "Is going to college worth it?" No one asking that question honestly believes that they would have been better off not going to college; they would not be writing in whatever magazine is asking the question this week if they had not gone to college. And none of them would be willing for their own children not to go to college. Asking the question is an act of dishonesty. The writer is at the very least deceiving him- or herself. 

    Of course, no one should talk some kid out of trying to go to college, and should help them however one can achieve that.  And no parent is necessarily wrong to say they would prefer that their kid go to college as opposed to not going. 

    But the fact of the matter is college is not for everybody.  So many kids go because that is what they is expected of them.  They dutifully go through the hoops, and go off to college.  Some fail and drop out immediately, others take a little longer.  Others even trudge through it get their degree, which does open opportunities that would otherwise not be open to them.

    I would note it also closes some opportunities.  When I was fresh out of college and struggling to make in the Bay Area, just trying to get something to pay the rent, there were plenty of places that if they knew I had gone to college would not have considered me because they'd figure I would take off as soon as something better came along. 

    I had one friend who had gone to four colleges in nine years because that was what his father and mother (both college educated) expected of him.  Eventually he dropped out about the time I graduated without a degree, went and got a job and the last time I crossed paths with him was doing quite well, happy and content with where his life was, as much as any of us can hope to be.

    Did he learn things during all that time in college. Yes, definitely.  Did he have experiences and meet certain people he would otherwise not have had or met had he not.  Yes, definitely.  But as Econ 101 will teach you, there was an opportunity cost. While he was learning Geology and Chemistry and whatnot, meeting this person, and having this or that discussion over Conrad's Heart of Darkness, there were experiences and people he was not meeting, lessons to be learned out there beyond the well-manicured lawns of a college, knowledge he could have been obtaining which don't come from a classroom or a professor.

    There are some people for  whom the academic world just do not fit them.  I know a few.  Maybe 1 out of 100 of these might make it.  Is right to push those other 99 through the experience of crashing and burning in the academic world, a process that says nothing about that person's character or intelligence or discipline, etc., in order to prop up the idea that the best route to a good life is through the academic gates?

    Actually, ET, I don't recall saying everyone should go to college. I would never say that.

    But I do wonder about the sudden rash of articles that claims college is a bad investment, when the actual economic data says just the opposite: people without college degrees are falling further and further behind. (And as David Leonhardt points out today, those articles are even more misleading because they use private-college sticker prices, rather than what families actually pay.)

    Those articles don't say "Don't go to college if you're not good at school." They're telling people for whom college is a real option that "College will be bad for you financially," which is the opposite of the truth.

    One thing I did identify with about this piece is that I went from a small prep school (class size around 100) to a large public university and it really was an eye opening experience.  I think I was better off sharing classes with some older students who had to put off college so they would work a few years to pay the bills or even to share classes with people who had kids -- I wasn't going to get that if I'd gone from prep school to small liberal arts college.  That was important for me socially and politically.

    Not defending the piece, which has all the deficiencies you point out.

    Doc, I read your piece yesterday before reading Deresiewicz's, nodding all the way through. Today, I read Deresiewicz's piece, and while I still agree with your critique, I found more than I expected in the piece. Yes, he's pretentious and seems naive about the state of public universities, but if you put aside the flippant college advice and paeans to public education, he offers a searing indictment of elite private colleges and universities.

    As I understand him, he's not complaining that Ivy students are arrogant, hardly a news flash. He's arguing that the much ballyhooed merit-driven diversity of America's elite colleges is a myth. Not only are the students at these schools still overwhelming wealthy, they're becoming wealthier every year.

    That's news to me and disturbing news at that. Having attended an elite liberal arts college in the 90s, I was well aware of the privileged nucleus of wealthy students, but they seemed to be a shrinking holdover from an earlier era. Old waspy alums would often tell us that they would not have been accepted under the stringent academic requirements in place when I applied to college, and the school has become even more competitive since then, so I imagined that merit-based admissions and diversity programs would eventually swamp the privileged elite.

    But Deresiewicz argues that "merit-based" admissions are actually driving the trend the other way because of the exorbitant cost of academic, artistic, and athletic extracurriculars needed to make the cut. The Ivy's are becoming more economically exclusive, not less. In that context, I read his flippant college advice as meant primarily for rich kids, and I understood him as wishing that more lower and middle class students were able to attend elite universities. You're right that it's an arrogant way to put it, but I think his argument is not quite as hollow as you present it.

    You know, Mike, I didn't address a lot of his specific claims because I find them so garbled and muddled.

    He does not have an actual plan for producing more diversity at Yale. (And the Ivies' problems with economic diversity is old news.) the meritocratic system he attacks is much better than the previous system, and he doesn't have a third system to replace it.

    The arguments he cobbles together, contradictory as they may be, are a grab-bag of old insiders' critiques of Yale (which should of course always be criticizing itself and trying to do better, but not peddling those internal critiques to poor kids as a reason not to come) and old legacy-Yalies criticisms of the meritocracy.

    a lot of what he says has been said before by people trying to keep Yale LESS diverse, and I think that history matters.



    You're right, he certainly doesn't offer an alternative plan. This is a rant, not a constructive proposal. I did find it somewhat eye-opening, but I accept that it's because of my unfamiliarity with the dialog.

    Yeah, well, I didn't unpack that dialogue for outsiders either.

    It makes a big difference how focused upon a field of study a student happens to be. Deresiewicz doesn't address that range and the lack renders his piece not very helpful to those of us in midst of making choices about colleges.

    Our family visited Cornell this last weekend and were impressed by their many resources and programs. Other places are offering programs that appeal to my son just as much and he has worked hard enough to work out what sounds right for him. He has an idea.

    His experience is much different than mine. I went to a small liberal arts college and became a tradesman immediately afterwards. I don't hold the college at fault for not giving me a seat at this or that place (the feeling is probably not mutual) because I didn't go into it with an idea that the experience would get me to this or that place. It was just very interesting. My son is not the hippie i am.

    Deresiewicz needs to pick a lane. If all "higher" education is purely vocational, he has to claim that is his position. If he doesn't like where that philosophy leads then he cannot get so gassy about which institution places some people in one line of work as opposed to another.

    PS. Why is this in the Reader's section? The Doctor is on the top banner as a resident blogger.

    Saw this and thought you would appreciate it:

    The New Privilege: Loudly Denouncing Your Privilege - The Cut

    Its conclusion:

    Because in the end, waving away your own privilege — and looking with disdain upon those who aspire to it — is the most old-fashioned form of snobbery. It's Edith Wharton characters with austere taste and Dutch last names sniffing with disgust at the vulgarity of new money. It's the owners of decrepit New England family summer homes shaking their heads at encroaching McMansions. It's saying you went to school "outside Boston," ostensibly to avoid sounding like a braggart, but actually as a dog whistle for those in the know.

    In other words, the pastime most likely to indicate a person’s membership in the Ivy League is complaining about the Ivy League in exquisite detail.


    Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! And thank you.

    Much of your counter-attack is classic ad hominem.  Judged on its merits, the New Republic article has a lot of important things to say about how elite universities (and their twisted "meritocracy') perpetuate a corrupt class system.  There is a sickness in the Ivy League, and at other elite institutions like Emory, Duke and Stanford.  Neoliberal power is reproducing itself in a way that widens the class divide and empties out the ruling class of any ethical substance, with most students encouraged to pursue neoliberal wealth and power by following a narrow instrumentalist, technocratic path.  No doubt, there are exceptions to the sick pattern--students, teachers and classes that don't simply exhibit the symptoms of an empire in decline--but his diagnosis is generally valid.  And we should heed his call for reform.  You can attack his "character" and pick at aspects of his argument, its logic, etc., but I think that he offers us a much needed inside view of what's wrong, and he also provides a few good suggestions about how we might change things for the better,

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