Breaking away from higher ed’s herd mentality

William Deresiewicz

William Deresiewicz

In 2008, former Yale professor William Deresiewicz wrote a scathing essay titled “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” It quickly went viral, gaining more than 100,000 views in a matter of weeks (and many times that since).

“The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven,” he noted, “but also anxious, timid and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose, … great at what they‘re doing but with no idea why they are doing it.”

His book Excellent Sheep: Thinking for Yourself, Inventing Your Life, and Other Things the Ivy League Won’t Teach You (Simon & Schuster, 2014), continues that theme. The “excellent sheep” are the students who spend much of their young lives, often at the prodding of overbearing parents, polishing academic and extracurricular achievements—checking off every box on the form, he says—at the expense of individualism and independent thinking.

Excellent Sheep doesn’t pull punches. What has been the reaction?

It’s been mixed. There’s certainly been a lot of pushback, a lot of negative coverage. But I’ve also been hearing from people who are very happy about the book.

I recently did a tour of five of the eight Ivy League campuses. The rooms were always packed, especially with students. Sometimes there was an initial wariness, but they figured out pretty quickly that what I’m saying is not only valuable to them, but is expressing a lot of the concerns that they have.

The book gives voice to what many people have long suspected, yet schools won’t acknowledge.

Let’s underscore that last point. I was recently talking on the air with a public radio host in Baltimore. He said, “Off the record, a lot of professors have said many of the same things.” And I said, “Yes, off the record.” People sometimes are just afraid to speak up.

You argue that higher education often does a disservice to students because companies want so-called soft skills over hard skills.

I’m not pointing a finger at colleges and universities, although I certainly think they could do a better job communicating. I’m really talking about the choices that students make and that families help them make or force them to make. And, quite frankly, the kind of propaganda that you hear in public.

There’s a lot of talk in public about higher-ed, and most of it comes from people who don’t really know what they’re talking about. It’s journalists with their preconceptions, and their cliches about English majors, or politicians like Barack Obama talking about how you shouldn’t be an art history major.

That’s not what employers say when you ask them what they are looking for. They don’t say “art history majors,” of course, but they also don’t say “economics majors.” Instead they say, “We’re looking for certain skills and we’re not necessarily getting them.”

I saw a poll recently that noted 97 percent of academic administrators think students are being prepared adequately for the job market. But among employers the number is closer to 30 percent. That’s a huge discrepancy. In that sense, the universities are culpable.

Surely the schools must know this.

I’m not sure they do know it. I think there is a huge disconnect. Obviously each school is going to be different, but it seems to me that you’ve got students and families at one end, employers at the other end, and universities in the middle. And there doesn’t seem to be a lot of communication going on in any of those junctures.

Everyone just assumes if you want to be well employed you need to take certain kinds of courses. Or universities might say, “We give our students a good education and they’ll do fine on the job market.”

And employers are troubled too, because some of them hire on the degree or the name of the institution. Sometimes it’s just safer to hire from more prestigious institutions because you can’t be blamed if the person fails.

Historically, getting into elite schools had to do with legacy, and then along came the admissions office.

The admissions office was actually created to enforce the old aristocracy. Admission had been based on exams that covered subjects like Greek and Latin—not generally available in public schools, so the majority of high school grads were automatically excluded.

When the Jewish kids from the New York City high schools started doing well on those tests, that’s when they created the admissions office, along with criteria such as interviews, photographs, character and extracurriculars. It was designed to screen out the Jews and to keep the prep school boys in.

But you are right. Historically, we went through a change like this before. We changed from the aristocracy from the prep school feeder-school system to meritocracy.

The big change came in the criteria they applied. We went to scores and grades. It was supposed to be about sifting pure academic talent, but it never was pure. The legacy system persisted, because the elite schools wanted to keep the old customers happy.

The problem is that now even that meritocratic system has become something that affluent families can really tilt in their favor.

How can we change the admissions process to not favor one group over another?

One way would be to drop this “fetish” for extracurriculars along with these notions of “service” and “leadership” that have become a big part of the process. It has all become a set of rituals—sports, music, and foreign travels—and they cost a lot of money.

I do have a few policy prescriptions—all of which are stolen from other people. We should be looking for things like intellectual curiosity, willingness to take risks, resilience, independence of spirit, willingness to fail—instead of what we’re getting, which are these beautiful, affluent conformists.

Yeah, they are very good at what they are doing, but why do we value what they are doing? It just lets them check off every box on the form. Sure, they are very energetic and ambitious, but in an unfocused way. They are very competitive, sleep-deprived, anxiety-ridden, and sometimes-robotic high achievers. That’s what we’re getting.

What about rising tuition costs? That isn’t the so-called customers’ fault.

We stopped paying taxes. It’s really simple. The taxpayer’s share of public universities is half of what it once was. It’s half of a state’s spending per dollar of income.

So, the share borne by families and students is double. Tuitions, at the very least, should be half of what they are. A huge amount of the trillion-plus dollar student debt load is from money that should never have had to been borrowed in the first place.

The truth is, schools are partly responsible for the huge increase in costs because they’ve been spending on the wrong things, like fancy dorms, sports stadiums and athletic facilities—everything except teaching. The one spending category that’s grown the least in recent years is instructional spending.

But a big part of the reason they’ve had to do that is precisely because of the withdrawal of public funding. So, they’re competing for the students. They are treating students as customers, and competing for their tuition dollars instead of getting state support.

Is there a way to turn it around?

What I see is individuals, whether they are students or parents, making different choices. They choose to opt out of this crazy, insane admissions arms race-system. A lot of people are really fed up with the system, even within the colleges.

Will things change? Perhaps, if pressure is applied. But the elite universities are sitting pretty right now. Their balance sheets look good. The people who work there make a lot of money and have very comfortable lives. The schools are becoming global brands. All around the world, people want to send their kids to them.

So if universities are going to change, leverage needs to be applied nationally by students and families—the customers.

Like the “occupy” movement that has emerged in the last few years?

Exactly. If we want to talk about funding public higher education, it will require large political movements of the kind we’re seeing now with minimum wage and unionization in low-wage industries like food service.

I’d like to see free public higher ed be put on the agenda along with raising minimum wage and resurrecting unionism in the service sector.

Political change can happen quickly and can come from nowhere when pressures build up in an unseen way and then suddenly find a form of expression.

We saw that with the Arab Spring. In some ways we saw it with the Tea Party. These things can come out of nowhere. So we’ll see.

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