According both to the book and to his own website, the notoriety of his book sent him on a continuous (and surely lucrative) speaking tour of the very institutions he condemns, an exercise in academic sado-masochism. Deresiewicz very well knows the hand that has fed him, in other words, and he is being paid handsomely to bite it.
If this characterization is true now, it was even more true a generation ago when Deresiewicz was himself a student, and truer than that before the establishment of “meritocratic” regime in the mid-1960s. Holding aside the offensive rhetoric, one also has to marvel at the Manichean quality of these statements which, like so many others in the book, are statistical generalizations without statistics.
The flagship publics are, however, now at a precipice. Their imitation of the elite private institutions endangers their public mission at just the moment when many of them have finally come to reflect the demographic complexity of the society they serve. More than half the students at my university, Rutgers, identify themselves as non-white. Fifteen percent of them come from families with annual incomes of $30,000 or less. Following the national trend for public universities, our tuition is rising rapidly in response to even more rapidly declining state support putting our educational resources financially out of reach for some of our most promising and gifted students. Despite one of the highest rates of Pell grants in the nation, many Rutgers students find themselves in a precarious position: one small change in their family’s economic circumstances (a parent losing a job, for example) can force them to quit school altogether. Definitely not a white people problem.
When all is said and done, Deresiewiz really doesn’t seem to like his students, because they aren’t very interesting to him. They major in things he disapproves of, for starters: Economics heads the list. And they all want jobs in finance and consulting: half of Harvard graduates in 2007 went into these fields. It’s what he calls “training in playing it safe.” In today’s job market, majoring in English sure wouldn’t be. Some people might say they are tailoring their education to reality, which might be seen as a sign of high situational awareness. But not Deresiewicz. Recession be damned, family and mortgage be damned: live, he seems to say, dangerously.
We can begin with his defamation of the students of elite universities. Like countless graybeards before him, Deresiewicz complains that the kids today are just no good: they are stunted, meek, empty, incurious zombies; faithful drudges; excellent sheep; and, in a flourish he uses twice, “out-of-touch, entitled little shits.” I have spent my career interacting with these students, and do not recognize the targets of this purple invective. Nor does Deresiewicz present any reason to believe that the 18-year-olds of today’s Ivies are more callow or unsure of their lives than the 18-year-olds of yesterday’s Ivies, the non-Ivies, or the country at large.
Still, there are no grounds for the sweeping pronouncements about the virtues of non-Ivy students (“more interesting, more curious, more open, and far less entitled and competitive”) that Deresiewicz prestidigitates out of thin air. It’s these schools, after all, that are famous for their jocks, stoners, Bluto Blutarskys, gut-course-hunters, term-paper-downloaders, and majors in such intellectually challenging fields as communications, marketing, and sports management.
Is it true that a doctor’s child from Pakistan has nothing more to teach a privileged white kid from California than a doctor’s child from Boston? Are the experiences of upper-class African-Americans really indistinguishable from those of upper-class whites? Is a nearly all-white but economically diverse university in Maine or New Hampshire a good preparation for students entering a racially and ethnically diverse country? Does a coherent policy for achieving diversity really have to choose between race and class? Why not insist on both?
Perhaps the most egregious example is Nathan Heller’s review in the New Yorker. Heller asks “Are Elite Colleges Bad for the Soul?” and begins by describing the many forms of sleep deprivation endured by him and his classmates “early in this century” at an unspecified Ivy League university. All this makes clear that he will avoid the larger issues raised by the book and focus instead on an anecdotal defense of his own experience—a strategy followed by other reviewers as well. Deresiewicz has unintentionally invited this. So to do him justice it’s important to emphasize that his argument stretches beyond the Ivy League, toward all of higher education in the contemporary United States—and beyond our borders to encompass the striving professional classes from Canada and the United Kingdom to China and India.
Nathan Heller, “Poison Ivy.” (The New Yorker)
Hold it right there. In 2014, self-differentiation takes forms other than outdated hippie and punk fashion; students dressed like that today are probably headed for a Halloween party. And anyone who cannot find a hipster or a lesbian on an élite campus is working from a long-expired field guide. Several times in Deresiewicz’s book, one has the sense that he is not so much seeking a better version of the contemporary university as reaching back toward an older one.
His complaint is sound, but these quandaries are distinctly middle-class. Deresiewicz suggests that someone who grew up poor should be at least as eager to turn down the lucrative consulting job and take a risky road as anybody else. “If you grow up with less, you are much better able to deal with having less,” he counsels. “That is itself a kind of freedom.” The advice seems cheap. When an impoverished student at Stanford, the first in his family to go to college, opts for a six-figure salary in finance after graduation, a very different but equally compelling kind of “moral imagination” may be at play. (Imagine being able to pay off your loans and never again having to worry about keeping a roof over your family’s heads.)