You might have seen that movie Admission with Tina Fey. I watched it on a plane, quaffing a lot of red wine with my tiny meal, so parts of it really got to me.... Anyhow, if the admissions process at Ivy schools is anything like in that movie... it's no wonder today's well-groomed leaders are out-of-touch, elitist, uncreative, self-absorbed a-holes.
Here's how Deresiewicz sums it up:
Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.
Sedulous readers might recall how back in 2007 I re-posted an Atlantic article by conservative pundit David Brooks with similar sentiments, "The Organization Kid." Unlike Deresiewicz, Brooks also worried that kids today are too coddled (safe) and pleasantly addled with mollifying prescription pharmaceuticals:
All your life you have been pleasing your elders, performing and enjoying the hundreds of enrichment tasks that dominated your early years. You are a mentor magnet. You spent your formative years excelling in school, sports, and extracurricular activities. And you have been rewarded with a place at a wonderful university filled with smart, successful, and cheerful people like yourself. [...] The world they live in seems fundamentally just. If you work hard, behave pleasantly, explore your interests, volunteer your time, obey the codes of political correctness, and take the right pills to balance your brain chemistry, you will be rewarded with a wonderful ascent in the social hierarchy.
Of course, Brooks said the problem is that we've taken the moral backbone out of elite education, that "when it comes to character and virtue, the most mysterious area of all, suddenly the laissez-faire ethic rules: You're on your own, Jack and Jill; go figure out what is true and just for yourselves." In other words, elite education is OK, as long as it inculcates a touch of roughhousing rebel sensibility and dash of Christian noblesse oblige in future leaders.
Brooks and Deresiewicz agree that these coddled kids are less likely to be brave and original than their parents or grandparents, because, as Deresiewicz describes it:
Look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. A large-scale survey of college freshmen recently found that self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in the study’s 25-year history.So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk. You have no margin for error, so you avoid the possibility that you will ever make an error.
Personally, I find Deresiewicz's thesis, minus Brooks' moral backbone stuff, more convincing. Smart kids from privileged families learn a lot, they're polite, kind and well-intentioned, but they're so busy with studying, extracurriculars and having "essay-ready summers" that they don't experience real life the way most other kids do. For example, if they work it's because they WANT to, because it looks good on a college application, not because the HAVE to.
I'm not saying all high schoolers should work. No, at least not during the school year. Studying is their job, forget sports and extracurriculars. At the same time, public university should be free for those with good grades, like it is in Europe. That should be the new social contract: study hard, free college. It's also the smartest investment we could make in our workforce. (And those who aren't cut out for college should be tracked into quality trade and technical schools.)
The way things are now, we have kids who work to help pay the family's bills and save up for college, then work during college, and then probably never finish college. (The NY Times recently showed just how dependent U.S. college graduation rates are on their parents' income.) Privileged children will never understand that world; they're carried up and away from it blithely and forever on their parents' shoulders.
That's a failed system of education for top and bottom. For those who never make it to college or don't finish, the failure is obvious. For those who "succeed" their failure is less obvious, since they will have mastered at an Ivy "climbing the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy [they] decide to attach [themselves] to;" however, leadership for them has no higher meaning, or any meaning at all, it just means being on top: the One Percent.
Or as Deresiewicz writes: "This system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead."
UPDATE (08.17.2014): Here's a pretty critical review by Carlos Lozada of Deresiewicz's Excellent Sheep in the Washington Post: "A mind is a terrible thing to waste at Yale." I think most of Lozada's criticisms miss the mark and are full of snark.
By William Deresiewicz
July 21, 2014 | New Republic