Entitled "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education," Deresiewicz's essay argues that an elite education (which he never precisely defines, but which seems to mean attending an Ivy or equivalent institution) prevents one, first, from having a conversation with a plumber; second, from valuing intelligences that are other than analytic; third, from believing that people who went to other schools are worth talking to; and fourth, from taking risks or leading the kind of intellectual or artistic lives that such schools, really, ought to be encouraging.
That's not an entirely fair distillation of his essay (which is worth reading in its entirety), but it captures the extent to which I believe Deresiewicz overstates and exaggerates the more credible parts of his argument--as well as the fact that his essay is pulling in two or three different and somewhat contradictory directions.
Because yes, it's true that schools like Deresiewicz's Yale (or my own Instant Name Recognition U) are fetishized out of all proportion by a certain class of parents and their children, who come to believe that admission to such schools and only such schools represents success--or rather, the first and most necessary of what will become a lifetime of successes. And this can indeed produce kids who, though smart and certainly hard-working, learn that whenever there's a hoop, it's to be jumped through. No choice, no questions, and no failures--as long as you keep clearing those rings.
But you know, although I've taught kids who seem to match the above description, I knew very few of them when I was actually in college. It may be that things have changed in the 15 years since I entered INRU as a freshman, or it may be that I instinctively avoided people like that: my friends hailed, probably disproportionately, from public high schools and from less wealthy communities, and a lot of them were first- or second-generation college students. (And I'm pretty sure that we're all not only capable of having, but of enjoying having conversations with our plumbers, secretaries, and supermarket cashiers. That's why God invented the weather. And local sports teams. And the infinite variety of women's accessories.)
But I think it's more a matter of who's doing the viewing, and from what perspective. The older one gets, the less familiar the attitudes and the poses of the young become. When you're 30 or 40, you may still feel that you're just like your 18- to 22-year-old students, but you're not. You've grown up and they haven't (yet), and their callowness and shallowness can be exasperating. You're also seeing them, primarily, in their in-class selves, and you can't take their blasé or eager-to-please personae as evidence of how they actually feel (which Deresiewicz, in another context, admits).
Most students are taught to be hoop-jumpers. The difference lies in what they understand those hoops to consist of. The funniest and truest part of Deresiewicz's essay, but also the part that best encapsulates its limitations, is when he writes this:
A friend who teaches at the University of Connecticut once complained to me that his students don't think for themselves. Well, I said, Yale students think for themselves, but only because they know we want them to.
I laughed out loud at that, thinking, "Yeah, that's INRU all over." But then--as someone who now teaches at an institution more like UConn than like Yale--I thought ". . . but damn. I wish I had more students like that." Students give us what they think we want, because that's the dynamic of the student-teacher relationship. But surely students who know how to think for themselves, and that doing so is desirable, are closer to actually doing it, all the time, than those who still think that there are absolutely right and wrong answers, and that regurgitating your lectures will guarantee them an A.
But elite students aren't risk-takers! Deresiewicz says. Well, no. But most students aren't. Most people aren't. Most people fear failure--but in my experience, "failure," for students at schools like Yale or INRU, means "selling out" just as much as it means "not getting a good job." I had an awful lot of conversations, in my junior and senior years, with friends who were asking what the point of it all was, and how they could do something meaningful in the world, and whether they were doomed to life on some kind of treadmill (making a living, supporting a family) no matter what their career path.
And that's what Deresiewicz leaves out of the picture: the fact that students, elite or otherwise, are generally aware of the choices they're making. It's their life, after all, and they know that choosing one path means abandoning a bunch of others that they may not ever be able to return to. Deresiewicz, though, claims that elite students (uniquely? or is it only bad when they do it?) value safety over opportunity, and he blames it on an institutional culture that has made them unable to contemplate failure, unwilling to risk financial security and court disappointment by trying to make it as an artist or intellectual.
Now, I've had students who might be the kind of students Deresiewicz has in mind, like the brilliant creative writer who wound up at law school in no time flat. But you know what? I don't presume to know why she made that decision. I also don't presume to think that that's where her story ends: she'll be 27 or 28 when she gets her J.D., with a whole life and set of opportunities still ahead of her.
I also have a hard time feeling that it's a huge loss if someone who isn't willing to take risks declines to take them. Would I have liked to have seen the novel that student of mine might have written? Yes. But I'd probably also like to have seen the novel that one of my freshmen comp students at RU might someday have written--had he had parents who were academics, who encouraged his writing, and who sent him to a fancy school where he could participate in 10-person fiction workshops with prize-winning novelists. But he didn't, and he's majoring in criminal justice. Is the unwritten novel of the former more valuable than that of the latter? I'm sure Deresiewicz would not say so. But his argument comes close to implying that, because one is privileged enough to know the good things in life, one has a moral obligation to pursue them at all costs. The other kid? Well, he probably has to support a family, or whatever.
The essay, really, strikes me as a series of cheap shots, pandering either to the self- and class-loathing of those who spent too many years in the Ivy League, or to the resentment of those who didn't (see? I was better off where I was!). Either way, it's profoundly self-congratulatory, flattering its readers for being anything but the "really excellent sheep" Deresiewicz teaches, without asking them to examine their assumptions that the elite are, somehow, different--and that their failures or successes matter more than everyone else's.