“What,” William Deresiewicz asks in an essay in The New Republic, “is college for?” “College,” he writes, “is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years.” Deresiewicz argues that elite colleges, and especially the Ivy League, have duped students into thinking that what they offer is a “life of the mind,” when in fact they offer careerism and the temptations of money. Elite colleges, he argues, don’t do much but measure and perpetuate status and wealth. He urges parents to consider public universities and private liberal-arts colleges as a solution: democracy instead of meritocracy.
Deresiewicz makes a fair point about the absurdity of the college-admissions process in the United States. As a graduate student, working at the writing center, I read many essays written by undergraduates hoping to attend med school that relied on the trope of the Doctor Without Borders (in the vein of “ … as I held the cholera-stricken toddlers, I knew I wanted to go to medical school. … ”) to try to get traction in an expensive, obscure, and insanely competitive process. The essays make for uncomfortable reading; the sick and the poor are props in a drama proving the empathy, professionalism, and moral fortitude of the applicant.
I can imagine the undergrad version of the admissions essay, with its lists of extracurricular activities, its fables, its invocations of exotic human misery to make a dramatic demonstration of humanitarian ambition and worldly experience. When Deresiewicz argues that the admissions process demonstrates the fantasy of meritocracy, he’s right. College admissions officers should “refuse to be impressed by any opportunity that was enabled by parental wealth,” and should count a part-time job in the service industry to be as high an index of character as a well-digging trip to the global south.
But Deresiewicz’s essay is weirdly bifurcated. On the one hand, he makes a fair and timely critique of the way the Ivy League overvalues the sorts of life experiences and skills only the rich can buy for their children. On the other hand, he makes a self-regarding and oddly self-pitying stand on behalf of a romantic idea of the history and purpose of universities. A public intellectual, Deresiewicz is obsessed with the idea that colleges ought to produce intellectuals. He criticizes undergraduates for their careerism and conformism, and for buying into what he calls the “analytic” mode of thinking: “Everything is technocratic,” he complains.
Colleges are, and always have been, bureaucracies and concentrators of labor. The life of the mind, at least within the academy, requires a large workforce of support staff and a significant physical plant. Being interested in ideas does not remove a scholar from the world; being in and of the world does not empty a student’s mind of ideas. The “life of the mind” is an industry with gatekeepers, arbiters, salaries, and benefits. That doesn’t cheapen ideas, it is their material reality. Garth Algar, in Wayne’s World, makes Deresiewicz’s argument more succinctly, and with more nuance: “It’s like people only do things because they get paid, and that’s just really sad.”
Every generation gets the William Deresiewicz essay it deserves. In 2008, in an essay for The American Scholar, Deresiewicz blamed elite colleges for what he called “entitled mediocrity”—the complacent narrow-mindedness of elite graduates that led to George W. Bush, to Enron, and to WorldCom. In 2014, the focus of the critique has shifted from the Iraq War and the “smartest guys in the room” to the way elite colleges perpetuate income inequality.
Deresiewicz has one idea, an aesthetic judgment about the tiny minority of Yale students Deresiewicz taught, themselves a tiny minority of college students in the United States, which can be configured as the cause of any number of complex social problems. Income inequality shocks the conscience, but I get the sense that if it weren’t an editorial priority at middlebrow magazines, William Deresiewicz could have found another issue to blame on the Ivy League.
“Kids at less prestigious schools,” Deresiewicz writes, “are apt to be more interesting, more curious, more open, and far less entitled and competitive.” The “apt” does a lot of work in that sentence, and it has to, since it is a perverse point of pride for Deresiewicz that he is a pure product of the Ivy League.
The reality is that wealthy teenagers with long résumés are a tiny minority of college students. The “typical” college student goes to a community college (or is a transfer student from a community college), is in her mid-20s, works full-time, and may have children to support. To Deresiewicz, these are the “exigencies of career.” The idea that the solution to a broken system of elite admissions is to reject the kinds of advantages that elite colleges offer on the grounds that they are careerist is a slap in the face to most college students. For first-generation college students, the pressure to use educational opportunities to earn more money is even more acute. The idea that careerism in college is somehow shallow and greedy is self-regarding and elitist in the extreme.
Deresiewicz, having benefited from structures of power, now urges would-be college students to deny that those structures exist, like a depressed tycoon telling a homeless man that money doesn’t buy happiness. But denying the existence of power makes Deresiewicz complicit in it.
Author Bio: Padraic X. Scanlan is a Prize Fellow in Economics, History, and Politics at the Center for History and Economics at Harvard University.