Showing posts with label Class. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Class. Show all posts

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Not as easy as A-B-C

Today's NYT has an article about how much easier it is to raise K-12 students' math scores than it is to raise their reading scores. Here's the opening:

David Javsicas, a popular seventh-grade reading teacher known for urging students to act out dialogue in the books they read in class, sometimes feels wistful for the days when he taught math.

A quiz, he recalls, could quickly determine which concepts students had not yet learned. Then, "you teach the kids how to do it, and within a week or two you can usually fix it," he said.

Helping students to puzzle through different narrative perspectives or subtext or character motivation, though, can be much more challenging. "It could take months to see if what I’m teaching is effective," he said.

Educators, policy makers and business leaders often fret about the state of math education, particularly in comparison with other countries. But reading comprehension may be a larger stumbling block.

As the article goes on to note, there are a lot of reasons for this. Math is a much more universal language, not as dependent on things like cultural context and not as intimately connected to home and family life (kids learn math in school, but they learn vocabulary, sentence structure, and the expression of complex ideas at home--and they're either introduced to books at a young age or they're not). It's not that math is easier, but at the lower levels it's more straightforward to teach or remediate in an academic setting.

But although the article mostly has implications from educational policy, testing, and teacher evaluation, it's surely relevant for those of us in higher ed, too. Those bozos in other departments who blame the English department when their students still can't write--even after a whole semester of freshman comp? Listen: writing is hard! It takes a long time to learn how to do well, especially if students enter with deficiencies. Those people who claim that the humanities are easy majors, because all students do is read books and talk about them? Not so!

As I point out to my Shakespeare students after we've spent 30 minutes looking at one speech and I can tell they're getting tired of being pushed to talk about individual words, images, or poetic devices, this is shit they do all the time without realizing it, whenever they ask a friend for an opinion about an email or text message they just received: "But what do you think it really means? Why did he use that word? Why that word?" We all know, on some level, that the words people choose and the way they arrange them mean more than their dictionary definitions convey. And the people who can best pick up on those meanings have an edge in life: they're quicker, more perceptive, and more versatile. They can tell signal from noise, they can recognize things that are implied but aren't stated explicitly. They tend to be better at moving among different worlds, tolerating ambiguity, and seeing possibilities.

Reading well is more than just comprehending a text's basic content--and even "basic content" is tough to comprehend for those without exposure to a wide range of styles and genres (a student who can read a scene from an Elizabethan play and summarize its plot is also someone who can identify the key components of a legal contract or an initial public offering). Being able to figure out how a text works, to recognize patterns and variations, to grasp primary meaning and any possible subtexts--those are major life skills. They're career sills. But they're not easily or quickly obtained ones.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Office of alumi counter-relations and de-development

I've written before about how cluelessly patronizing and tone-deaf I find pretty much every fund-raising appeal from my alma mater, whether delivered by letter, email, or in person (I can't even talk about the go-get-'em-tiger speeches given by my class treasurer and reunion gift officer last year, which resembled nothing so much as a branch manager's exhortation to his team to meet that month's sales targets). But every single one pisses me off.

Here's the latest:

Dear fellow alumni,

It was about this time of year that each one of us carried that last armload of books back to the Library before graduating. What did you feel as you pushed them across the desk or slid them into the book drop—relief, joy, sadness, gratitude? Well, did you know that when you give to the Alumni Fund, you can choose to give directly to the Library through the "Library Resources" bucket? The Library puts your dollars to work immediately to ensure that its resources stay up-to-date, its expert librarians can help every inquiring student, and its couches are comfortable.

No matter how you took advantage of the Library during your time at [INRU], we hope you will join us in giving back today by designating your Alumni Fund gift for Library Resources! Visit [website] today.

Boola boola,
[Alumni Fund Officers]

Now, okay: I react especially negatively to this approach because I work in higher education and my own institution's library doesn't have half the resources (whether in the form of books, databases, or comfy couches) of my alma mater. But I don't think that's the whole of it; I have a hard time imagining this appeal being effective with anyone I know, even those outside of higher ed.--plenty of whom are sentimental about their college days and prone to nostalgic reveries about Saturdays spent in those grand reading rooms or prowling the stacks.

Because however callow and heedless we may have been in our youth, and however much we may have taken INRU's resources for granted, we've all been out in the world since then. We probably all have connections to or emotional investments in at least a dozen organizations with relatively shallow pockets: our local schools, arts organizations, places of worship, homeless shelters, and so on. If I'm nostalgic about my experiences in INRU's libraries? I'm going to give to a literacy organization, or a local library, or the library at my kid's school--not to an institution with a $20 billion endowment, whose libraries are nicer than those at 99% of the world's universities.

Maybe I just don't know anyone capable of giving truly big bucks--the donors the university really wants to cultivate--and maybe such people respond differently to such appeals. But as someone intensely fond of her alma mater and capable of donating annually in the low three figures (but who does not), what I want from a fundraising appeal is, first of all, a direct acknowledgement of the university's fabulous wealth. I want an acknowledgement that there are other charities out there that I might (and do) consider worthier.

That's the most important thing, actually: the acknowledgment that decades of need-blind admissions (and extremely generous financial aid) mean a lot of graduates neither come from money nor go on to it, and that even more graduates have an uncomfortable and ambivalent relationship to INRU's wealth. Then I'd like a pitch that explains why--despite those facts--I should still give: because the recession has cut into the endowment, forced them to freeze faculty lines, imperiled the university's ability to fully fund students with family incomes below $65,000. Whatever.

Maybe they can't do that second part, because it's not true. Fine. But imagining your alumni as living in a sentimental bubble, in love with nothing so much as their alma mater and untouched by any financial pressures of their own--well, that's gross. If those people exist, I don't even want to know them, much less be taken for one.

Wanna to know why I don't give even the minimal sum that covers the cost of my alumni magazine subscription? That's why. Boola boola.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Hacking away at the groves of academe

I've written a lot over the years about the stressors and outside obligations my students face, some of them quite terrible and occasionally tragic. This past semester another couple of situations arose for two of my students--events so stressful and distracting that I can't imagine remaining enrolled or being able to complete the required work, though both these students did.

Every time I'm made privy to this stuff, especially when it's drama that involves a student's family of origin, I wonder why I see so much more of this at RU than I did as either a student or a teacher at my alma mater. I've long had two theories: the first is that I genuinely have a more diverse student population now: some of my students are putting themselves through college, working either full or part-time; some of my students have kids; some of my students are married. Nearly every semester I have a student or two who are veterans, and it's not uncommon to have a student with at least partial responsibility for a sick parent or a developmentally disabled sibling. A sizable minority of my students, then, are simply juggling more outside demands than your basic Ivy League undergraduate.

My second theory is that I just didn't know what was going on with my classmates and with my students when I was at INRU: my classmates would have been unlikely to share their personal difficulties with me, and as a grad student I never taught more than 18 undergraduates a semester (usually as a once-a-week TA), so there wasn't as much opportunity or necessity for them to confide in me. These days, by contrast, I teach at least 60 students a semester and have up to 40 advisees, so there's necessarily more reason and more opportunity for me to hear what they're going through.

Both these theories seem correct, and together they provide much of the explanation for the difference (Ivy League students probably do have fewer real-world distractions, but they don't have none--and some of their problems are every bit as serious as those faced by the students I teach now). However, I'm coming to realize that there's a third explanation that has to do with familial assumptions about what college and the college experience are meant to be.

Most of my students, even those who come straight from high school, who live in the dorms, and whose parents are footing the bill, are not understood by their families as being off in protected space of intellectual development where schoolwork and self-discovery take precedence. Many of their parents expect them to come home for every family friend's funeral, every cousin's first communion, or to help out with various family matters like helping them move households or doing emergency babysitting. This is more true when the family lives nearby, but I see versions of it even when the family lives several hours away.

I really didn't understand this at first: so your aunt's second husband's mother died. . . and your parents are coming by to pick you up tonight, and you'll have to miss a week of school for the wake and the funeral? What? Often the student didn't seem to want to go, or to be deeply affected by the death (or eager to do whatever else the family obligation may have been)--and I just couldn't figure out why their parents would think it was appropriate to demand their presence or participation at the expense of their schoolwork.

But I've come to see that there's a fundamental difference in the way that some of my students and especially my students' families understand the college experience, relative to how INRU students and their parents understand it. I suppose you could call this difference one of "class," but that's not really a useful descriptor, since it doesn't fully correlate with income or with whether one's parents went to college or not; the working-class kid from Charlestown who gets into Harvard may well have supportive parents who understand the nature of that opportunity, and who want to protect him from outside distractions. And on the flip side, many of the kids I see with especially demanding families are economically stable, second-gen college students.

Moreover, I don't think this is just about how expensive and prestigious INRU is compared with RU; many not-especially-selective colleges also cultivate a real sense of their community's specialness and separateness. What it boils down to is this: at some institutions and among some families, there's a kind of collective agreement their students live in the magical Groves of Academe, a charmed space, a space outside of time. And though that's almost always more the fantasy than the reality, the fantasy is still productive. At a regional state school like RU, however, attitudes are mixed. There are indeed students and parents who take the above view of the college experience--but there are many who don't, who see the degree as a means to an end and their coursework as something more like a part-time job, to be fitted in around everything else.

I wish all of my students were able to devote themselves full-time, for four years, to a process of education and self-discovery, but I'm not sitting here criticizing those who don't or can't. For one thing, I have students with messy, complicated lives who are still doing great things intellectually. And for another, the idea of college as a charmed space outside of time isn't always positive: it can actually produce or protect the irresponsibility and hooliganism seen at party schools, but not only at party schools. The insularity and self-containment of many colleges does not actually make them better or more productive learning environments.

I wouldn't want to lose the many wonderful students I have whose lives just happen to be really complicated; they bring a lot to the classroom and the classroom, I hope, brings a lot to them. But I do wish that all my students had families who really valued and respected the work they were doing--even if they still occasionally needed to drag them out of class or take up time that would otherwise be devoted to their schoolwork.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Different classes, same classroom

A couple of weeks ago New York magazine had a cover story, "Does Money Make You Mean?" about the effects of wealth on personality. It's a suggestive and interesting piece, though the research is still preliminary. But while I'm reserving judgement about how money affects individual personality, the article's discussion of the different values emphasized by working-class vs. more elite families seems pretty sound--and potentially important for those of us who teach students from a range of economic backgrounds:
"Parents in working-class contexts are relatively more likely to stress to their children that 'it's not just about you' and to emphasize that although it is important to stand up for oneself, it is also essential to be aware of the needs of others and to adhere to socially accepted rules of behavior," wrote a team led by Nichole Stephens. . . . Parents with higher incomes "more often tell their children that 'It's your world' and emphasize the value of promoting oneself and developing one's own interests."

[. . . .]

[Studies] have found, broadly speaking, that the affluent value individuality--uniqueness, differentiation, achievement--whereas people lower down on the ladder tend to stress homogeneity, harmonious interpersonal relationships, and group affiliation. . . . Lower-class people wanted to be the same as their peers, whereas better-off subjects showed. . . "a preference for uniqueness."
Reading this, I had a sudden insight: this is why my students at Big Urban University and Regional University have been generally cheerful, even actively enthusiastic, when I assign them to work together in groups--and the students at my Ivy alma mater tended to hate it. I'd never been able to figure this out. I hated working in groups when I was in college, and as a grad student teacher I saw that my own students disliked it, too, and I assumed that this was just a natural response to a crappy pedagogical strategy--until I started teaching at non-elite institutions and was astonished to get feedback to the effect that I should put them in groups more often.

Now, there are other variables here, to be sure: introverts may feel differently about group work than extroverts; the specific make-up of the group matters, and so does the make-up of the class as a whole. The classes I taught at BUU, for example, were two or three times as large as anything I taught at Instant-Name-Recognition University, so group work gave more students a chance to really get into a conversation about the material. This generally isn't true at RU, though, where most of my classes have 25 or fewer students and where even students in a 12-person seminar usually seem happy to work in pairs or quartets.

But beyond explaining a previously mystifying phenomenon, the article made me think about how a classroom can address both tendencies and not privilege just one. This goes beyond group work--though I do need to think more about that. Most of us have probably noticed that while some students have no hesitation asking for extensions or extra help or other special treatment (sometimes justified, sometimes not) others are diffident and won't advocate for themselves even when they have a compelling reason. If they've missed a class or missed a deadline, no matter the reason, they just seem to figure that they're out of luck: the professor doesn't care, doesn't want to hear their sob story, and would never adjust his or her policies just for them. And in my experience, the second group consists disproportionately of first-generation college students, especially when they're also economically disadvantaged.

When members of both groups are in the same classroom--the strong self-advocators who identify with and want to please Teacher and the reticent, blank-faced ones who never explain why they missed class or speak up when they're confused--it can be hard to be sure you're being fair, or really giving everyone the same opportunities and the same treatment. I've learned over the years to seem like a hard-ass in my syllabus policies, but to include a "crisis policy"--which I also read aloud, at the beginning of the semester in every class--telling students that hey, life is hard and they all have lots of outside commitments and pressures, but when an emergency arises they should TELL ME, because I'm willing to be flexible when I can.

That seems to help with that particular problem. But the New York article has made me think about the other ways in which the cultural differences between working-class and more affluent students might cause problems in the classroom, or simply not be fully legible to me as a teacher.

What do you think? Is this a problem? Where have you seen it in action, and how have you dealt with it?

Monday, February 27, 2012

Place and class

Several of the comments on my last post have been pursuing the connection between class and geographic mobility. And if we understand "class" as being about more than just income and education level, then yes: the perceived ability to move far away from where one grew up does correlate with class; it's about how many and what kinds of connections and opportunities one has.

If your college friends come from all over the country and then fan out to jobs and graduate programs all over the country once they leave, then you have a different sense of what's possible in your life (whether or not you personally choose to leave the city or state in which you grew up). Some of my students literally do not know anyone who lives more than a few hours away, and though our region does feel the gravitational pull of Boston and New York (their baseball and basketball teams are the ones locals here root for), the students who actually move to those cities after graduation--or indeed to any others, or who move out of this state--are almost exclusively those who already have family or friends there.

So in thinking about what it means to be rooted or rootless, I'm partly thinking about class. But one peculiarity of being an academic is that, unlike most people in "our class," we actually do up and move anywhere. The other people in our class? Not so much. They move to the coasts, basically, and in lesser numbers to places like Atlanta and Chicago, Austin and Houston, Minneapolis and Denver, and the bigger, wealthier college towns. I guess I had always known this, and it's certainly true of my college friends--but I still think of my class as figuring out their lives and as not having settled down yet. But at Cosimo's (ahem) 20th college reunion last summer, I realized that no one apart from the academics and a few quirky entrepreneurs lived anywhere but those places. I met person after person, waiting in line for the ladies room or making small talk at the bar, and they all lived in Fairfax or Fairfield County, or in Newton, MA, or in metro L.A. or S.F. And though they were all friendly and interested in who I was and what I did, they all seemed puzzled by where I lived. Like I said: it's not a place that people move to.

So my point, if I have one, is that even the class that seems to have infinite geographic mobility, doesn't. There are real restrictions on where, say, a high-powered corporate lawyer can have a career, and hence where he can live, but there are also cultural and class restrictions that operate to keep us where "our kind of people" live. If we're not living near our actual families (and of course I do know people who have moved back to their childhood homes), we're living near our families of affiliation: people with similar educations, professions, and interests. I'm not interested in criticizing that choice; indeed, if one can't or doesn't wish to go home again, it makes sense to choose one's new home based on the relationships one has or expects to build with the people there.

But those roots are relatively shallow, even for those who live in major metropolitan areas. And as Shane noted in his comment, those of us who live in more unlikely places often wind up doing a version of the same thing, which is to say, socializing primarily with other transplants. I have a few friends who are locals--former grad students, people I've met through arts organizations, or people I know from my church. But the people I'm closest friends with are others who moved here for jobs (mostly in academia or the medical sciences); some have put down roots here and some haven't, but none are likely to retire here. Sometimes I feel like a real local, or at least a civic booster and aspiring local; at other times I feel like I'm part of a community of expats.

Sunday, February 26, 2012


Although I've loved each of the four cities and regions in which I've lived and every one felt (and still does feel) like home, it's only recently that I've started thinking about what it means to be rooted in a particular location in the way that most people seem to be rooted. I've never had that kind of relationship to place and I'm not sure I ever will.

My parents weren't natives of the state in which I grew up, and neither were most of my friends' parents; indeed, on the rare occasions when I met someone whose grandparents lived across town or whose parents had attended a neighboring high school, I was astonished. Although the families I knew were all well-anchored in our community--our parents bought houses, joined churches, ran for office, and stayed put for 20 or 40 years--it just seemed to be the natural order of things that each generation moved elsewhere. Every summer of my childhood featured a rolling temporary diaspora as my friends and their families traveled to one state or another, or even overseas, to visit their grandparents and cousins.

And sure enough, I moved across the country for college--and moved again, to Manhattan, then back to grad school, then back to Manhattan, and finally to Cha-Cha City when I got this job. That's more or less what all my friends have done, though some have moved farther and some less far, some more times and some fewer. We've moved basically by choice: for school, for a job, for a partner, or just for a change of scene; our choices weren't infinite and were usually circumscribed in various ways, but moving somewhere new always meant doing something new, and usually something better. Haven't Americans always been a people on the move?

But as it turns out, Cha-Cha City isn't a place that people move to. In my first year or two here I was continually getting asked--by shop clerks, tradespeople, my students--why I'd moved here. When I told them cheerfully that it was for a job, they'd repeat the question. At first I thought this was about the local residents' modesty, or maybe low civic self-esteem: they didn't realize what a cool place this was! And so I talked up all the awesome things about the city, and why I loved it, and why I was happier here than I'd been elsewhere.

But then I realized that that wasn't it. It's that, for most people--not just here, but across the country--it's odd to move around a lot and even odder to decide to settle down in a random location to which one has no personal connections. Most people I meet find it strange that Cosimo and I grew up on opposite coasts, strange that we each at different points attended schools 3,000 miles away from our families, and even stranger that, now that our schooling is done, we live close neither to school nor friends nor family.

I'm tempted to call this a class difference, but it isn't, or at least not in the usual sense of that word: there are plenty of prosperous, educated, well-traveled people in this city and cities like it, people who may have lived elsewhere at various points in their lives, but who are here, now, mostly because they're from here. (And, of course, there are just as many people in my own "class" who have fled their childhood homes but now can't imagine leaving their adopted homes of New York, Boston, or D.C.; L.A., Chicago, or San Francisco; Austin, Portland, or Denver.)

It's that kind of rootedness that feels foreign to me. I'm ready to settle here. I could live here for twenty years. But at any point I could probably still leave on six month's notice--because I'm not from here and because being with my spouse and having a satisfying career is more of a priority than living in a specific place, even one that I love.

The thing is, I love lots of places. Lots of places could be home. But that means there isn't one, in particular, that is home.

Friday, April 23, 2010


It's been noted, for years now, that much of the racial and ethnic diversity at top-tier universities involves upper- and upper-middle-class minorites: the sons and daughters of black doctors, lawyers, and stockbrokers mingling with the sons and daughters of white doctors, lawyers, and stockbrokers.

Although I believe that racial diversity is intrinsically valuable (it's surely better to have a whole bunch of relatively privileged students from different backgrounds than a whole bunch of relatively privileged students from the same background), this particular rap against college diversity programs does highlight the limited and limiting ways in which we often talk about diversity.

RU does not have the racial or ethnic diversity of the institution where I did my undergraduate and graduate work, and neither does it have the racial or ethnic diversity of the big urban university where I taught for a year as a lecturer. But it's more racially diverse than I would have expected (given its small-town, semi-rural location)--and it's phenomenally diverse in other ways: there are street-wise students from our state's biggest city, students who grew up in farm families, students who are military veterans, students who work full-time, students who have children. Most our students are traditional-aged, if you raise the upper end of "traditional" to 25 or 27, and most of our students live on campus. But a large minority commute, a large minority are transfer students from community colleges, and a small but visible minority are over 35. The range of economic backgrounds is also striking: I have students who take unpaid internships in Boston and New York, and students who are piecing together their tuition by cleaning houses.

And if we believe that diversity is its own good--that all students benefit from it, not just the ones whom diversity outreach is trying to give a leg up in the world--then surely we should define "diversity" as broadly as possible.

But of course, the problem is how to get a student body that's both cohesive enough and diverse enough. If you're an Ivy, you can construct a freshman class with whatever racial and ethnic balance you want; you can have students from every state in the union and most of the countries in the globe; and you can even have students from an impressively large range of family income levels (it doesn't often get mentioned, but the Ivies are much better on economic diversity than most private universities). But what you can't have, if you're an elite, residential institution, is students who vary tremendously in ability or preparation level, in age, or in domestic arrangements. Likewise, the more truly diverse a campus is, the less cohesive its student population is likely to be.

And maybe that's not a solvable problem. But looking back I'm struck by how homogeneous my own classroom environments were, when compared with those of my current students. And perhaps as a result, it took me a long time, post-college, to make friends with people who weren't my exact age (people more than two years older or younger just seemed to lead impossibly different lives), or with educational backgrounds unlike my own. Sure, I thought of myself as having an intriguingly diverse group of friends--but by virtue of being the same age and having attended the same institution, we were much more alike than different. So when I wound up with an officemate who was living with her parents on Long Island, and whose boyfriend was divorced with a kid? I liked her, and we had fun at work. But I couldn't imagine her life, and I probably didn't try very hard.

Maybe it takes a while, for everyone, to appreciate or take an interest in people significantly unlike themselves, and maybe colleges and universities can only do so much. And maybe being exposed to some kind of diversity helps one to negotiate other kinds later on. But I do wish we talked more about, and valued more actively, a fuller range of student and life experiences.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The elite are different from you and me

I've read William Deresiewicz's latest essay in The American Scholar a few times now, trying to figure out why I'm reacting so negatively to it when I've made some of the same arguments myself about certain kinds of students and certain kinds of schools. Probably some of my irritation is born of self-recognition, but at least as much of it is the feeling--having spent a fair amount of time among students similar to Deresiewicz's, and a few years among rather different ones--that he's not merely exaggerating to make his case, but also engaging in a species of complaint that is itself as much an elite indulgence as some of what he criticizes.

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.