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The nation's top colleges are turning our kids into zombies.
July 23, 2014 12:34 PM   Subscribe

It's hardly breaking news, but more and more people are questioning the race to the Ivy League that in some cases begins as early as preschool. And in addition to perpetuating the increasingly-rigid class structure in the US, the Ivy League colleges are inadvertently creating and admitting students who have no idea how to really take advantage of the resources available to them. So writes William Deresiewicz in his article, "Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League" from the New Republic:
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. Once, a student at Pomona told me that she’d love to have a chance to think about the things she’s studying, only she doesn’t have the time. I asked her if she had ever considered not trying to get an A in every class. She looked at me as if I had made an indecent suggestion.
See also Deresiewicz's earlier article, "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education" from American Scholar, previously discussed on the blue.
posted by math (138 comments total) 46 users marked this as a favorite

 
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.

Yeah, it kind of troubles me since we seem to take so many of our leaders from the Ivy League. I'm not saying don't vote for Ivy Leaguers because for the most part they are among the best and brightest, but it does help if they are someone who has faced other forms of adversity in their life, like Obama.
posted by Drinky Die at 12:39 PM on July 23 [9 favorites]


It’s considered glamorous to drop out of a selective college if you want to become the next Mark Zuckerberg, but ludicrous to stay in to become a social worker. “

No, it's more like: It's ludicrous to pay full-sticker for an Ivy League education to become a social worker. So, many people don't.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:41 PM on July 23 [9 favorites]


My education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class. I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me. We were “the best and the brightest,” as these places love to say, and everyone else was, well, something else: less good, less bright.

This has not been my experience of Ivy people.

Elite schools [...] nurture what a former Yale graduate student I know calls “entitled mediocrity.”

This has been my experience.
posted by winna at 12:44 PM on July 23 [32 favorites]


On the one hand - its kind of an interesting article and certainly points out the problems with our "holistic" admissions process and the culture it perpetuates.

On the other hand - this is a dude who claimed the reason why he couldn't make small talk with his plumber was because he went to Columbia.
posted by JPD at 12:45 PM on July 23 [16 favorites]


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.

As someone who is now an Ivy Leaguer, but was nowhere near that when I was in college, I can say that this is basically the experience of 18-22 year olds, everywhere. That's why I was drunk and high all time.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 12:46 PM on July 23 [16 favorites]


So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success.

It's true: parents are intensely crazy now, and they're making their kids crazy. I feel blessed to have taken the SATs in an era when you just showed up with pencils, without any prep. But it's worth pointing out that this is not totally new. I'm an Ivy alum from back in the day, and I still remember the cops guarding the bridges to prevent suicides during big exams.

Still, I'd say the biggest argument against going elite these days is much simpler: it's cost, pure and simple. There are really very few situations in which one can say these institutions are worth the money. The best bang for your undergrad buck is now an honors program in a decent state research university.
posted by mondo dentro at 12:46 PM on July 23 [5 favorites]


There's a pretty good counterpoint on Slate.

To believe that a college—Ivy or otherwise—can confer intellectual benefits in four years that you won’t be able to attain at some point over the course of the next 60 is to believe in magic. If a student leaves college capable of independent thought, it might not be because professors are miracle workers or because he managed to glean perspective from the underprivileged like one wrings water from a towel. It could be because he was raised in an environment conducive to independent thinking—a characteristic that a decent college should look for when admitting students in the first place. An entitled, out-of-touch 22-year-old who leaves school incapable of independent thought is not necessarily a lost cause, and might not have been helped by even an ideal liberal arts education. So send your kids to an Ivy. Or don’t. Whatever you decide, don’t take out loans to buy into the idea that life on campus has more to offer than life off of it.
posted by NoxAeternum at 12:46 PM on July 23 [7 favorites]


Good, can't afford that stuff anyway. Now I can rest easy sending the kid to community college in 14 years!
posted by davros42 at 12:53 PM on July 23 [2 favorites]


The best bang for your undergrad buck is now an honors program in a decent state research university.

For a middle class family, an actual Ivy is likely to work out cheaper than their state university. Harvard tuition for families earning 65K=$0.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:56 PM on July 23 [29 favorites]


A friend who teaches at a top university once asked her class to memorize 30 lines of the eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope. Nearly every single kid got every single line correct. It was a thing of wonder, she said, like watching thoroughbreds circle a track.

This I do not understand. I was never Ivy League material, although I went to a good school, and graduated with honors. Anyone that I went to school with, in high school or college, could do this. I mean, we memorized old English in 9th grade, and learned the translation.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:56 PM on July 23 [7 favorites]


A friend who teaches at a top university once asked her class to memorize 30 lines of the eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope. Nearly every single kid got every single line correct. It was a thing of wonder, she said, like watching thoroughbreds circle a track.

What a total waste of everyone's time and effort. That fits completely in the 'stupid human trick' category of learning, like memorizing pi out to a hundred decimal places.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:59 PM on July 23 [36 favorites]


davros42, I've had several very good honors thesis students who went to a community college for the first couple years, living at home to save money.

For a middle class family, an actual Ivy is likely to work out cheaper than their state university. Harvard tuition for families earning 65K=$0.

Good point. If you get financial support, it's as good or better. Of course, you've got to get in, and so the article's critique comes into play.
posted by mondo dentro at 12:59 PM on July 23


Boola fucking Boola. Jeez, didn't these kids have any peers around to corrupt them?
posted by jonmc at 1:00 PM on July 23 [1 favorite]


Still, I'd say the biggest argument against going elite these days is much simpler: it's cost, pure and simple. There are really very few situations in which one can say these institutions are worth the money. The best bang for your undergrad buck is now an honors program in a decent state research university.

My impression is that Ivies and Ivy-equivalents don't actually charge that much and also tend to offer substantial financial aid packages (you'll catch some of them on the tuition list here, but they're all gone if you switch to net costs, which shows that the average amount of scholarship and grant aid is pretty high). Once you've got an endowment on the order of an Ivy, squeezing otherwise qualified prospective students for a few grand in tuition doesn't make that much sense.
posted by Copronymus at 1:00 PM on July 23 [2 favorites]


JPD: On the other hand - this is a dude who claimed the reason why he couldn't make small talk with his plumber was because he went to Columbia.
I think he explains that pretty well:
My education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class. I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me. We were “the best and the brightest,” as these places love to say, and everyone else was, well, something else: less good, less bright.
He's been socially crippled by class privilege. I don't mean we should pity him; but his discomfort trying to reconcile his upbringing with his morality (and reality) is believable.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:01 PM on July 23 [5 favorites]


There are really very few situations in which one can say these institutions are worth the money.

But the real value of getting into the Ivy League isn't the actual education, is it? You can get a great education at many institutions.

Isn't the value the connections and resources available there? Connecting to the children of Senators and Presidents and CEOs and media superstars is an enormous advantage. If you want to start a business, it helps that your roommate or buddy's dad is a bigwig at Goldman or can set up a meeting for you at Disney.

That access to the elite class seems invaluable.
posted by Sangermaine at 1:03 PM on July 23 [40 favorites]


As someone who is now an Ivy Leaguer, but was nowhere near that when I was in college, I can say that this is basically the experience of 18-22 year olds, everywhere. That's why I was drunk and high all time.

And this is why I think most parents should pay half of their kids rent for a gap year or two, or if that's not an option just do it self supported working at subway or something.

I still feel way ahead having dropped out of college after a year to just fuck off through that ennui, rather than mire through it getting mediocre grades and failing a class here and there.

If you're going to have a "pre-life crisis" and smoke weed and drink all day, why pay school tuition? Do it until you're tired of it and know what you want from life.

I really think a lot of the problems discussed here would be solved by just telling these kids "here, go fuck off for a year or two and learn who you are, then go back to school". Trying to do that and go to school is a recipe for not really getting a good chance to absorb and contemplate either. I'm aware there's elements of the admissions/scholarship/etc system trying to force you to go straight in, and I think that's fucked too.
posted by emptythought at 1:04 PM on July 23 [29 favorites]


from the previously:

"I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work. "

someone like him? wtf? how condescending. This guy is a jerk. At least he admits it. I don't see how going to Columbia means you can't talk to a plumber. This reads like someone who totally internalized the lure of elite education and then got disillusioned with it.

(FWIW, my dad's a plumber and sent most of his kids to Ivy League schools. He reads The Economist front to back every week and can talk to you about nearly any subject. Formal education isn't the only route to knowledge)
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:04 PM on July 23 [48 favorites]


My impression is that Ivies and Ivy-equivalents don't actually charge that much and also tend to offer substantial financial aid packages...

Sure, that's how I was able to go to one. Even before tuition inflation hit, it was a big deal. My parents paid a third, I worked for a third, and I got assistance for the rest.

That's why the whole thing about Ivies being full of nothing but rich kids is bullshit. Sure, I knew some rich kids, but I had a very wide circle of friends from similar backgrounds. That's who I hung out with.
posted by mondo dentro at 1:04 PM on July 23 [6 favorites]


Seriously. I know plenty of folks who went to fancy schools as children of privilege and anyone who couldn't shoot the shit with a tradesman because he had been taught they were beneath him is just an asshole.
posted by JPD at 1:06 PM on July 23 [11 favorites]


That's why the whole thing about Ivies being full of nothing but rich kids is bullshit. Sure, I knew some rich kids, but I had a very wide circle of friends from similar backgrounds. That's who I hung out with.

I actually think the stereotype is much more true of the next rung down. On the east coast at least.

Also there is an entire ecosystem of private smaller colleges that are really like this.
posted by JPD at 1:07 PM on July 23 [7 favorites]


Yeah that's the kind of value one gets instilled in them in the first 18 years of their life, from their family and friends. not from 18-22.

I'm sure he internalized watching his parents interact with plebs. Don't blame Columbia.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:08 PM on July 23 [5 favorites]


That's why the whole thing about Ivies being full of nothing but rich kids is bullshit.

Maybe so, but there are not a lot of VERY poor young people in Ivies, at least not proportionally at all. Aside from the cost, which can be waived by aid and scholarship, many of them are working full time while attending school, so that their families can benefit.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:08 PM on July 23 [2 favorites]


...memorize 30 lines of the eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope...

What a total waste of everyone's time and effort.

Depends on the class and the context. A synthetic chemistry seminar? Yes. A prosody course? Maybe not. If you're studying poetry in a deep way, then memorizing short passages gets you that much closer to the work.
posted by Iridic at 1:08 PM on July 23 [5 favorites]


IAmBroom: The thing though is that it's not like he wasn't an active participant in that process. To say "I was taught these people were beneath me" is to reject the agency he had in learning that belief. Which is the point of the Slate piece I posted - placing an entitled git in a public school isn't going to magically make them empathic.
posted by NoxAeternum at 1:09 PM on July 23


There aren't many VERY poor young people at any college.
posted by JPD at 1:09 PM on July 23 [8 favorites]


That's why the whole thing about Ivies being full of nothing but rich kids is bullshit. Sure, I knew some rich kids, but I had a very wide circle of friends from similar backgrounds. That's who I hung out with.

I actually think the stereotype is much more true of the next rung down on the east coast.
posted by JPD at 4:07 PM on July 2


Yeah, there's a class of colleges where I assume people are rich, but they tend to be the expensive, fine but nothing to write home about liberal arts colleges that litter the Northeast.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 1:10 PM on July 23 [3 favorites]


Yeah, he had me until he concluded the solution was for rich kids to go to Wesleyan instead.
posted by likeatoaster at 1:10 PM on July 23 [3 favorites]


We were “the best and the brightest,” as these places love to say
I went to a well-regarded school, though emphatically not 'college,' and we only ever used these phrases (my personal favorite was "Future leaders of America!") with dripping sarcasm.

My roomate used to say, about certain aspects of our education, that it was beyond unnecessary into irrelevant: if you hadn't learned these things by 18/19, a few years in the pressure cooker were not going to change that. And I agree: if someone isn't intellectually curious, isn't open-minded, doesn't understand that their experience of the world is not the whole world before getting to college/university, they are probably not going to learn it there.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 1:11 PM on July 23 [1 favorite]


There aren't many VERY poor young people at any college.

Well, true.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:11 PM on July 23


What a total waste of everyone's time and effort.

Memorizing poetry? Everyone should memorize poetry.

(Unless the instructor purposely picked a bad piece.)
posted by pracowity at 1:11 PM on July 23 [5 favorites]


I also think that next rung down tends to be far more pre-professional which is part of his concern.

NB - I say this as a grad of one of those schools.
posted by JPD at 1:13 PM on July 23


I had a girlfriend who went to Harvard. We were having a conversation once (I can't remember exactly what it was about), and I said, "Did you just believe everything they told you in school?" She replied by throwing her hands up in the air and wailing plaintively, "That's how you get into Harvard!"
posted by dortmunder at 1:13 PM on July 23 [34 favorites]


MisantropicPainforest: someone like him? wtf? how condescending. This guy is a jerk
You're injecting that tone into his statement. Once again, he explained himself: he had been brought up with such fucked-up social attitudes that just talking to someone clearly from another social group left him self-conscious. Hell, I felt that way around the first few mechanics I brought my first cars to; "These guys probably think I'm a know-nothing egghead who can't even fix a car."

There's no need to assume condescension, unless it's really important to you.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:14 PM on July 23 [6 favorites]


So the gist is: it's so competitive to get in to a top university that once students get in, they can't turn off the competition for grades and get an education?

Not my experience, FWIW, at a top U and then a state U (for grad work).

--The only students hyper OCD about high grades were the pre-meds. If you have a degree from a top school in any other major, it does not show your GPA...so who cares if you graduated with a C- average?

--Class sizes at the top schools were small! I had many classes with 5 to 15 students and one professor. Class sizes at the State schools were gigantic (not to mention 40 or 50,000 students total).

So guess where the education is? 10 students and one professor at a top school meeting in a small room a few times a week, or 250 students in a lecture hall then a few meetings a week with a grad student and 40 other students at the State school....

Of course, the attitude the student brings to education is a large factor....
posted by CrowGoat at 1:15 PM on July 23 [3 favorites]


Also, this article was floating around my facebook this week, and a lot of folks pointed out that the article skirts the issue of race, and ignores that fact that status and networks and prestige are incredibly valuable for many folks of color/immigrants/etc. And completely justify the decision.
posted by likeatoaster at 1:17 PM on July 23 [3 favorites]


You need to interact with them directly, and it has to be on an equal footing: not in the context of “service,” and not in the spirit of “making an effort,” either—swooping down on a member of the college support staff and offering to “buy them a coffee,” as a former Yalie once suggested, in order to “ask them about themselves.”

Jesus Christ, what an asshole.

Sometimes I'm very grateful that my mother drilled it into my head when I was a teenager that private colleges were a colossal waste of money, but I grew up in New York, which has a huge public university system.
posted by inertia at 1:17 PM on July 23


But the real value of getting into the Ivy League isn't the actual education, is it? [...] Isn't the value the connections and resources available there?

This is no doubt true, but there's a tendency to interpret this entirely cynically (that's the spirit of our age, after all). The potential value to students of going to any top university is the quality of the other students. Are these "connections"? I suppose, if you're built that way, and many people are. But it's much more general and "truth and beauty" than that, as well. It's just really cool and even thrilling to hang out with smart creative people that push you in various dimensions. Do you need to do this in an elite college? Absolutely not. You don't need college at all, if you're lucky and/or discerning enough to fall into some creative cultural scene somewhere.

You can find the same thing in state schools (that's the kind of place I teach in now), but you have to look harder. Not surprisingly, there's much more of mainstream America represented--in a sense, there's more of a continuation of the anti-intellectualism and rah-rah tribalism that one finds in high school. Of course, this is just my perspective, a former egg-headed kid from Bumfuck, Ohio who loved my undergraduate days (not to say they were without conflict and disappointment, mind you...).
posted by mondo dentro at 1:18 PM on July 23 [4 favorites]


NoxAeternum: To say "I was taught these people were beneath me" is to reject the agency he had in learning that belief.
If you believe he picked that belief up in college, sure - what a jackass.

If you believe he was raised in it, long before college - children don't have agency. Adults generally need to have their beliefs challenged before they question them. Such challenges aren't likely in an ivory tower.

So, by admitting his failures, he becomes a "jerk" in your eyes. Good thing you popped out perfect with no fuckups to learn from, huh?
posted by IAmBroom at 1:18 PM on July 23 [12 favorites]


--The only students hyper OCD about high grades were the pre-meds. If you have a degree from a top school in any other major, it does not show your GPA...so who cares if you graduated with a C- average?

The entire pre-professional crowd cares a lot about grades.

Actually I had some lunatic ask me within the last few months what my undergrad GPA was.

I've been working in the same field since I graduated. in 1999.
posted by JPD at 1:19 PM on July 23 [3 favorites]


Does it matter if they turn you into zombies, though? I had a friend on the internet when I was younger who was of a similar age, has about as many Issues as I've got, and went to an Ivy League school, while I was at an inexpensive state school. And now we've both still got Issues, and I will give you one guess which of us is living in a major city making comfortably over six figures.
posted by Sequence at 1:20 PM on July 23 [1 favorite]


Also, this article was floating around my facebook this week, and a lot of folks pointed out that the article skirts the issue of race, and ignores that fact that status and networks and prestige are incredibly valuable for many folks of color/immigrants/etc. And completely justify the decision.

It doesn't just skirt the issue of race, but dismisses it outright - the author talks about how affirmative action should be shifted from race to class.
posted by NoxAeternum at 1:21 PM on July 23 [4 favorites]


Read the article again. If he blamed his parents or himself its not nearly as problematic as what he said.

Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League degrees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. “Ivy retardation,” a friend of mine calls this. I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn’t talk to the man who was standing in my own house.
posted by JPD at 1:21 PM on July 23


It doesn't just skirt the issue of race, but dismisses it outright - the author talks about how affirmative action should be shifted from race to class

which really means abolishing affirmative action. This guy never read The Shape of the River? Class based affirmative action does not produce a racially diverse student body.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:24 PM on July 23 [2 favorites]


JPD - ???

He squarely puts the blame on himself for his shortcomings in the way he behaved.

There exist certain people who cannot possibly redeem themselves on the internet, and must be forever blamed for their past mistakes. Even when they own up to them.
posted by IAmBroom at 1:24 PM on July 23 [1 favorite]


For what it's worth, the guy standing in his house was probably thinking "I hope he's not going to try to make awkward conversation, I have work to do."
posted by happyroach at 1:25 PM on July 23 [23 favorites]


Yeah he clearly lays the blame on Columbia.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:25 PM on July 23 [2 favorites]


I mean, one of the solutions that he proposes is that students take service jobs, so they can interact with other people. I think it's pretty safe to say if you're at an Ivy and have never had to have any sort of bullshit job, it's likely that you're not one of the students getting their tuition paid for.
posted by inertia at 1:28 PM on July 23 [1 favorite]


pracowity: Memorizing poetry? Everyone should memorize poetry.

Why? I don't think it's necessary to understand poetry, or to write poetry, and it's certainly not necessary to appreciate poetry. Plus, the vast majority of people will simply dump it out of their memory within the week. I really can't see the point.
posted by Mitrovarr at 1:30 PM on July 23 [2 favorites]


There is a very simple solution. Ivies should require (as part of the admission process) that all accepted students defer enrollment to work at a minimum wage job. They must have roomates (the school can match you with other students on deferral if necessary). They can have no support from their parents (monitored just as strictly as athletes).

Violation of the spirit or letter of the agreement means not being allowed to matriculate.
posted by oddman at 1:30 PM on July 23 [1 favorite]


For what it's worth, the guy standing in his house was probably thinking "I hope he's not going to try to make awkward conversation, I have work to do."

Nah, I'm sure the plumber knows exactly how to talk to this guy:

"It's gonna run you about thirty-eight hundred, chief, but if you pay me in cash, I can probably go twenty-six fifty."
posted by valkane at 1:31 PM on July 23 [3 favorites]


that all accepted students defer enrollment to work at a minimum wage job.

How would that work? What if you've already worked a minimum wage job, but did so while you were living in a solid middle class home?
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:33 PM on July 23




there are also finite amount of minimum wage jobs. they should go to people who don't need them.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:35 PM on July 23 [3 favorites]


So, by admitting his failures, he becomes a "jerk" in your eyes. Good thing you popped out perfect with no fuckups to learn from, huh?

I'll be the first person to tell you that I am nowhere near perfect. I have my failures and flaws, and I will happily acknowledge them. But I also strive to work on them, to better myself.

As the old saw goes, "the first step is admitting that you have a problem." But it's important to remember that is only the first step - now you have to have to act on that knowledge. The gaping hole at the core of his thesis is that there is only a small window for someone to develop an empathic sense of self, and that to do so, they need an environment where that empathy can be nurtured. Which neatly avoids the point that the key element needed for that growth is the individual making the choice to grow.

So no, you don't win points with me for admitting your faults if you don't demonstrate a willingness to address them.
posted by NoxAeternum at 1:36 PM on July 23


It's very easy to say that you shouldn't go/send your kids to an Ivy when you've gone to one and taught at one...
posted by lesbiassparrow at 1:39 PM on July 23 [1 favorite]


yeah and you've parlayed that career into a cushy writing and speaking gig
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:47 PM on July 23 [3 favorites]


There are many important people who have made decent contributions to our society that have gone to ivy league schools; many who have gone to state schools...and some who have dropped out of college.
What often molds students at a given time is not the school but the condition of the economy
posted by Postroad at 1:48 PM on July 23


Ugh. A thread about fear of failure and we get IVYGRAH. But nevertheless let's give this a shot. Fear of failure. It's paralyzing. It stops you from pursuing your hobbies, your ambitions, your dreams. It takes so much time, effort and determination to recognize it and then pull yourself out of it. It's so difficult to start because merely recognizing the problem admits some degree of failure and that's what you're entirely afraid of. So it ends up being a vicious cycle where a person just can't be honest with their self. It also ends up like sequence says to take a guess at who's making "six figures".

To be able to take a good, long, hard look at yourself and be completely honest with your failings, your areas you want to improve, your desire to do the work to accomplish these far off goals that look like mountains. It's one of the most terrifying pieces of introspection a person can do. I've been working with a therapist for over a year now and god only knows how people who don't have access to such terrific people to help you become the person you want to be fare. It's even worse for people who may have been naturally high achievers at young ages and who have innately grasped most things they've come across. Why can't I grasp this? Other people can. It's supposed to be so easy! I must be so fucking dumb!

And then, to be able to have compassion for yourself and forgive yourself for your personal failings? That's an even bigger kettle of fish and being unable to forgive yourself turns paralysis into deep depression and severe mental illness. It's a wonder that even a small percentage of people become major successes. The sheer amount of mental resilience those people must have to failure, the compassion they must have for themselves after making mistakes and the dedication they have to persist through all the shit that comes along with success is near superhuman in requirement.
posted by Talez at 1:48 PM on July 23 [25 favorites]


My education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class. I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me. We were “the best and the brightest,” as these places love to say, and everyone else was, well, something else: less good, less bright.

Sometime in the last year, one of the younger women on the Slate Double X Gabfest (Noreen Malone, maybe?) casually mentioned that for her, it was a serious red flag if a potential dating partner had gone to a state school. Nobody else blinked. I haven't forgotten it.
posted by Kwine at 1:51 PM on July 23 [5 favorites]


Not far from Pomona is Harvey Mudd, where as far as I know the first semester is still pass-fail so people get used to not acing everything, because you simply WON'T there. You are no longer the smartest person at your school.

I think this is a good plan.
posted by flaterik at 1:55 PM on July 23 [7 favorites]


This sort of article always leaves me wondering if the author has been tasked with discouraging readers of the publication from applying to Ivies in order to thin the application pool. Only analytically impaired sheeple are still applying to Ivies anymore, New Republic readers! You didn't spend all that money on organic teething biscuits and cello lessons to raise a ZOMBIE did you? And then there are four more slots in the Class of 2022 for the folks in the real VIP room.
posted by apparently at 1:57 PM on July 23


My education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class. I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me. We were “the best and the brightest,” as these places love to say, and everyone else was, well, something else: less good, less bright.
This message is certainly in the air on Ivy League campuses, but it's far from the only message available. Some students believe it, others don't. And some students that believe it while they're on campus manage to drop it once they leave and get to know some pretty bright people who didn't go to Ivy League colleges.

If Deresiewicz (born 1964) still believes it, and it's messing with his ability to get along with people, he should take ownership of the fact that he chooses to believe in it instead of blaming Columbia for apparently irreversibly indoctrinating him thirty years ago.
posted by burden at 1:57 PM on July 23 [3 favorites]


This guys seems like kind of a loser and he's incorrectly blaming the college he went to. If I knew this guy when I was in Harvard I totally would not have taken mushrooms with him. He has a point that the top schools, and colleges in general, are not as diverse as they should be, but the rest is just projecting his own weirdness onto other people. There are all kinds of people at top schools and we each have our own weirdnesses, thank you!
posted by snofoam at 1:59 PM on July 23 [2 favorites]


I went to Harvard. While I was there, I read a book by Dinesh D'Souza. His first book, I think. It was all about how colleges were evil dens of PC indoctrination. It was the 90s, that was the kind of thing people worried about back then. Anyway, there were six chapters, about six different schools, and I read the first five chapters, and I was like, wow, our higher education system is seriously under threat, and then I read the last chapter, which was about Harvard, and I realized, whoa, while there are no assertions in this chapter which are factually incorrect, it somehow manages to give a completely false impression of what it's like to go to Harvard, in a way that serves the narrative D'Souza had in mind before writing the chapter!

I feel sort of that way about this piece. It's not as false to life as D'Souza. Harvard kids care about their grades a lot, or at least I did, in a way that seems sort of ridiculous now. And yes, rule-following types who like to get gold stars and please authority figures are overrepresented at Harvard because they -- ok, WE -- are privileged by the admissions criteria.

But how does this play out when you actually go to college? You want to get good grades and please authority figures. When the authority figure is somebody teaching you poetry, what that means is that you are inclined to say, I don't really get what's going on with poetry, but this professor, and lots of other extremely smart people throughout history, really cared about poetry, and thought it was worthwhile to think really hard about how it worked, and so I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt and work hard to do the same. Same for biology. Same for economics. Same for the theory of morals. And in each case, you find, yes, there are real intellectual rewards here, which I wouldn't have been able to grasp if I hadn't actually sat down and worked. It was great. I would send my kid there in a hot second.

Yes, a lot of my classmates are now lawyers and doctors and bankers. I think it's bad economic reductionism to say this means the point of Harvard was to make them lawyers and doctors and bankers.

None of which is to say you can't get the same education at a state school. You can. I should know -- I teach at one! But you have to work harder for it. You're swimming against the current a little more.
posted by escabeche at 1:59 PM on July 23 [9 favorites]


Re: tuition, HYP's tuition is not a major sticking point for lower-income families right now, though a lot of people assume otherwise and the competition is extremely stiff. I can safely say that a family in my home state making less than $100K/household (which is a freaking high ceiling) would pay less to send their kids to an Ivy League school than to pay in-state tuition. Which is absolutely nuts, and is a combination of two trends that have happened over the last decade: 1. even more need-based aid at Ivies and 2. crazy, uncontrolled inflation of state school costs. Of course, you can get a merit-based scholarship at a state schools, and maybe even a free ride - especially if you're choosing between a state school and HYP - but even that seems to be on a downturn as state schools' funding gets more and more gutted.

Unfortunately I don't think a lot of the liberal arts colleges this author likes have financial aid policies that are even remotely comparable to the Ivies, nor merit-based scholarships that are comparable to state schools, because their endowments are so much smaller and teaching institutions don't get as much money from grant overhead. As a result, I kind of can't imagine that they have more socioeconomic diversity than the Ivies; I'd even wager that they probably have less. But I could be wrong, I haven't seen numbers about that.

I have a lot of thoughts about this topic but I'll save 'em until I get a longer break at work.
posted by en forme de poire at 2:00 PM on July 23 [3 favorites]


Isn't the value the connections and resources available there? Connecting to the children of Senators and Presidents and CEOs and media superstars is an enormous advantage. If you want to start a business, it helps that your roommate or buddy's dad is a bigwig at Goldman or can set up a meeting for you at Disney.

That access to the elite class seems invaluable.


Exactly this. Yes, you can get a great education for much cheaper at State School U, if you're already smart and dedicated. But no, you can't play beer pong with the son of a Fortune 500 CEO or hook up with the granddaughter of a 4 term Senator anywhere other than the Ivy or near-Ivy equivalents. If you're not already upper class, what you're paying for is access to the upper class, not education, although education requirements are a useful screener for keeping too many of the non-elite from gaining such access.
posted by T.D. Strange at 2:02 PM on July 23 [2 favorites]


Having lived in Cambridge seven years, I never once heard anybody say this:
"Harvard is for leaders,” goes the Cambridge cliché.
A google search appears to confirm that this is not a phrase widely in use.

If you're going to construct Arguments from Telling Anecdotes, you at least have to use anecdotes that are, you know, true.
posted by burden at 2:06 PM on July 23 [3 favorites]


But how does this play out when you actually go to college? You want to get good grades and please authority figures. When the authority figure is somebody teaching you poetry, what that means is that you are inclined to say, I don't really get what's going on with poetry, but this professor, and lots of other extremely smart people throughout history, really cared about poetry, and thought it was worthwhile to think really hard about how it worked, and so I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt and work hard to do the same. Same for biology. Same for economics. Same for the theory of morals. And in each case, you find, yes, there are real intellectual rewards here, which I wouldn't have been able to grasp if I hadn't actually sat down and worked. It was great. I would send my kid there in a hot second.

But this doesn't square against the author's opinion of what "real education" necessarily entails—i.e. the political undertones of his essay—details given in the article, such as independent thought at the individual level and free/democratic education and the societal level.

The act of intellectual submission that you describe, plenty of the elitely educated have gone through that, and one can read that this includes the author's own experiences 24 years go. So I think he knows your point, it's just that he sees it as part of the problem.
posted by polymodus at 2:08 PM on July 23


exactly this. Yes, you can get a great education for much cheaper at State School U, if you're already smart and dedicated. But no, you can't play beer pong with the son of a Fortune 500 CEO or hook up with the granddaughter of a 4 term Senator anywhere other than the Ivy or near-Ivy equivalents. If you're not already upper class, what you're paying for is access to the upper class, not education, although education requirements are a useful screener for keeping too many of the non-elite from gaining such access.

I think people massively overstate the value of this to all but a small minority of the people who should benefit from this.

Not to say I don't know people who haven't used this to their benefit, but unless you are doing something entrepreneurial its not of great value.

Get invited to some fun weddings though.
posted by JPD at 2:09 PM on July 23


Just one more thing: ...my mother drilled it into my head when I was a teenager that private colleges were a colossal waste of money, but I grew up in New York, which has a huge public university system.

I know you realize this but I think it bears repeating that New York is a huge, huge outlier here. My state, for instance, has exactly one major university and it's pretty expensive even if you pay in-state tuition. The SUNY system is literally one of the best in the USA in terms of quality, variety, and price. Not everybody has access to something like Stony Brook, or UT Austin, or Michigan, or UW-Madison.
posted by en forme de poire at 2:12 PM on July 23 [4 favorites]


If you're going to construct Arguments from Telling Anecdotes, you at least have to use anecdotes that are, you know, true.

Except that while that one line might not be literally true (i.e. exactly what is the alleged cliche quoting?), the rest of the paragraph is accurate criticism. It's the internalization of the idea—it becomes unspoken. And goes for all the other elite schools too.
posted by polymodus at 2:13 PM on July 23


So I think he knows your point, it's just that he sees it as part of the problem.

Then he's wrong.
posted by escabeche at 2:17 PM on July 23


This guys seems like kind of a loser and he's incorrectly blaming the college he went to. If I knew this guy when I was in Harvard I totally would not have taken mushrooms with him. He has a point that the top schools, and colleges in general, are not as diverse as they should be, but the rest is just projecting his own weirdness onto other people. There are all kinds of people at top schools and we each have our own weirdnesses, thank you!

Someone who went to Harvard calling an author a weird loser who refuses to take personal responsibility… this kind of proves Deresiewicz's whole point.
posted by polymodus at 2:18 PM on July 23


This is the illustrative bit for me:

Is there anything that I can do, a lot of young people have written to ask me, to avoid becoming an out-of-touch, entitled little shit? I don’t have a satisfying answer, short of telling them to transfer to a public university. You cannot cogitate your way to sympathy with people of different backgrounds, still less to knowledge of them. You need to interact with them directly, and it has to be on an equal footing: not in the context of “service,” and not in the spirit of “making an effort,” either—swooping down on a member of the college support staff and offering to “buy them a coffee,” as a former Yalie once suggested, in order to “ask them about themselves.”

There's this mentality that one cannot come to empathy on one's own, but that it has to be forced upon them. It's a rejection of the agency of the person involved, a statement that this is something external.

Which, to me, is a horribly flawed view.
posted by NoxAeternum at 2:21 PM on July 23 [1 favorite]


Then he's wrong.

Well but he actually detailed why and how, as in, the structural analysis, and its implications for education and American society in the long run, and provides examples of alternatives to mainstream elite education and he reinterprets the significance of those alternative schools in this societal context/situation that he sees.
posted by polymodus at 2:21 PM on July 23


Not to say I don't know people who haven't used this to their benefit, but unless you are doing something entrepreneurial its not of great value.

Or you know, just looking for a job. You don't have to be asking for seed money for your next Facebook, just knowing someone who's Dad is on the board of directors is a pretty powerful feather in the cap when there's 2500 resumes for the position, and yours is the one that gets a pull from the bottom to the top. Network effects are real, and going to the right school with the right people is a huge built in networking advantage.

Not to mention the soft social opportunites in the romantic department. Find the right partner at Ivy School and hey, you might be the next John McCain.
posted by T.D. Strange at 2:25 PM on July 23


I am unimpressed by Deresiewicz and all his fancy talk and his fancy degrees from Ivy League universities.
posted by borges at 2:26 PM on July 23


toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation.

I went to fancy university in England after growing up as one of the poors, and when I got there all the teachers and the other students were much more caring and considerate to me than any of the depressed and angry people I'd grown up around.
posted by colie at 2:27 PM on July 23 [4 favorites]


If it makes this guy feel any better, the plumber probably makes more money than he does. (my next door neighbor was a plumber as a kid. He drove a Cadillac)
posted by jonmc at 2:30 PM on July 23


It doesn’t matter that a bright young person can go to Ohio State, become a doctor, settle in Dayton, and make a very good living. Such an outcome is simply too horrible to contemplate.
Agreed. M Go Blue!
posted by caddis at 2:35 PM on July 23 [1 favorite]


...memorize 30 lines of the eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope...

What a total waste of everyone's time and effort.


No way. Memorizing is one of the very best ways to understand, study, and appreciate a poem. I can't think of a better way to make sure the student is attending to every word rather than skimming (and every word is worth attending to in any poem worth studying).

Here's a couple articles on the subject:

My late colleague Joseph Brodsky, who died in 1996, used to appall his students by requiring them to memorize something like a thousand lines each semester. He felt he was preparing them for the future; they might need such verses later in life. His own biography provided a stirring example of the virtues of mental husbandry. He’d been grateful for every scrap of poetry he had in his head during his enforced exile in the Arctic, banished there by a Soviet government that did not know what to do with his genius and that, in a symbolic embrace of a national policy of brain drain, expelled him from the country in 1972.
posted by straight at 2:37 PM on July 23 [9 favorites]


So I think he knows your point, it's just that he sees it as part of the problem.

Then he's wrong.


If learning close reading of poetry from Helen Vendler is wrong, then I don't want to be right.

Someone who went to Harvard calling an author a weird loser who refuses to take personal responsibility… this kind of proves Deresiewicz's whole point.

I don't understand this.
posted by snofoam at 2:41 PM on July 23


(my next door neighbor was a plumber as a kid. He drove a Cadillac)

A child plumber! That sounds like the kind of unusual prodigy that would have an edge in the admissions process.
posted by snofoam at 2:44 PM on July 23 [16 favorites]


If you're not already upper class, what you're paying for is access to the upper class, not education, although education requirements are a useful screener for keeping too many of the non-elite from gaining such access.

There are plenty of class and social issues that would prevent working-class kids from mingling with the kind of people you're talking about here even if they did attend an Ivy.

The challenges which confront working-class academics are very similar.
posted by winna at 2:48 PM on July 23 [4 favorites]


For a middle class family, an actual Ivy is likely to work out cheaper than their state university. Harvard tuition for families earning 65K=$0.

This is so true. I went to elite schools and paid almost nothing. It would have been significantly more expensive to go to a state school, even twenty years ago before their public funding was slashed.

At least at the ivy where I was at grad school, the super wealthy students (driving brand new $90k cars, etc) largely self-segregated. They lived together and socialized together, and lived fairly separate lives from us poors.
posted by Dip Flash at 2:50 PM on July 23 [2 favorites]


To be fair you do get a little cross-pollination across social strata in student groups and dorms, mostly because at Ivies students are generally required to live on campus (or the prevailing norm is to live on campus). State schools tend to be big and dispersed by comparison.

Part of the experience of going to an Ivy as a non-super-elite is interacting with entire strata that you never even realized existed, with their own values and shibboleths. Unfortunately at least in my case it was a negative experience, as you learn the existence of these values and shibboleths primarily by breaching them repeatedly and unknowingly.
posted by en forme de poire at 3:04 PM on July 23 [9 favorites]


memorize 30 lines of the eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope

in 1980, i listened to an 8 year old girl rap along with rappers' delight - she had every word memorized by heart - of the 15 minute version!

somehow, i don't believe she ended up at an ivy league college

a little college is a dangerous thing
think deep or touch not the ivian spring
posted by pyramid termite at 3:26 PM on July 23 [4 favorites]


The whole "no one except the wealthy can afford Harvard because they have a high sticker price" trope for disparaging the Ivies or their fellow superselective schools is so strange. Is it coming from people who are so wealthy themselves that they had never considered that some people may not have to pay sticker price? Or are colleges just doing a really bad job of getting the message out about the availability of financial aid? Related is the idea that science PhDs actually pay tuition and so must also be from the 1 percent.

These sloppy misconceptions can only take hold in the context of an overall devaluing of education. Meanwhile, we hold up tech companies, which are probably less economically diverse and certainly less gender-diverse, as shining examples of meritocracy.
posted by Ralston McTodd at 3:34 PM on July 23


Yes, you can get a great education for much cheaper at State School U, if you're already smart and dedicated. But no, you can't play beer pong with the son of a Fortune 500 CEO or hook up with the granddaughter of a 4 term Senator anywhere other than the Ivy or near-Ivy equivalents.

Here too it depends on what your goals are. If you want a mobile national career, Ivy connections are great. If you want to be, say, active in state political life, you might be better served by the connections you'd make at your flagship state u.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:39 PM on July 23 [2 favorites]


I can appreciate the situation the "Ivy Track" puts on kids from that strata of society. No one should live their life pathologically afraid of failure.

That said, the fear of failing is alive, well, and infesting all levels of society. In my experience, it hits one full-force as soon as you get a job. It's that "Give 110%" environment so pervasive in workplaces. Everyone is petrified of getting something wrong. It's a horrible way to live, yet, especially these days, getting anything wrong, no matter how seemingly small, can literally lose you your job.

And, now that I think of it, who runs those businesses and enacts those environments? Ivy leaguers!
posted by Thorzdad at 3:45 PM on July 23 [2 favorites]


I work at a not-too-selective public university, and my students are totally paralyzed by fear of failure. I think that some of the things that he thinks characterize Ivy students are actually true of most members of their generation and have to do with the economic realities that young adults are living with. Given how hard it is to succeed as a recent college graduate in the current economy, you'd be a little nuts not to be a bit terrified of failure.

I just think there's a lot about that article that's weird. I don't think he has a clue what non-top-tier public universities are like, and it's goof-tastic to suggest that Wesleyan and Reed are good places to get over your class isolation.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 3:55 PM on July 23 [12 favorites]


Mortimer Adler once said that he would ask students in his class if, assuming they had enough money to live a life of pure leisure would they go to college at all. Many said not. He said then you might as well leave my class because I have nothing to teach you.

Point being that college can be either a shiny star on your resume or something of value to the inquiring mind.

Not of a lot of inquiring minds when I went to college, as I recall. A lot of wannabee doctors and lawyers, though. Mostly for the money. (I attended a name brand school in the middle of economic bad times - Ralph Nader did not have the kind of drawing power he had in better times.)

Ergo: Given how hard it is to succeed as a recent college graduate in the current economy, you'd be a little nuts not to be a bit terrified of failure.

Very much this.

Mind you, the fear of failure thing means different things to different people.* For the would-be ivy leaguer, failure to get into an ivy is probably a minor loss of status that can be made up at a second tier college - sad, but in the grand scheme of things, no big deal. Plenty of wrungs beneath him on the ladder, still plenty of chances to grab on and climb.

For someone lower on the socio-economic ladder, failure to grab that first wrung can mean actual survival.

I have no good answers.

*(I have a vague memory of reading that John O'Hara never got over the failure to attend Yale, to the point that he got a hold of the yearbook for what would have been his year and examined it wistfully ever after.)
posted by IndigoJones at 3:59 PM on July 23


a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him.

Um, talk about baseball. Seriously, if there's any topic that spans classes and races, it's sports. I worked in construction for years, mostly in rich people's houses, and my co-workers and the customers could almost always bond over last night's game or the upcoming draft. Or talk about the weather. Or traffic. Or your kids. People are people, you can always find something to chit-chat about.
posted by octothorpe at 4:14 PM on July 23 [4 favorites]


Warning: Long comment below.

I have been wrestling with my thoughts about how to respond to this article for quite a while now. It makes me feel a lot of conflicting things. I think he makes some very insightful and astute points. I also know he is a fan of attracting controversy and stirring up shit, which is a persona he seems to have adopted in the public sphere now that he can do the writing thing full-time again.

I know this because he was perhaps the best professor I ever had.

I took a well-known writing class with him that involved writing 300 words of decent prose a day. (If you thought this was easy, you were in the wrong class.) When so many (not all! but a lot) of our classes were just exercises in grade inflation, Deresiewicz really really pushed us to try harder and to really take risks with some of these assignments, telling us to fail creatively and THEN see what we could do. It was unlike any of my other classes and the grades were most certainly not inflated. This was frustrating to me but boy, did I really learn a lot of lessons about what I could churn out when I was really really trying for something, failure be damned. I realize this was just in a writing class, but it did make a huge impression on all of us. He seemed to like shocking us by telling all kinds of crazy stories about himself and making big pronouncements about how important it is for us not to be sheep. This seemed to be his shtick and it seemed a little fake, to be honest. But as a teacher, he was just magnetic. It's such a shame he didn't get tenure (although, when you're constantly bashing the academy and Ivy League schools, not receiving tenure from one of them is not such a shock).

Yet, as I got to know him more individually, through office hours and meetings and things, I found a really kind and thoughtful man, one who really wanted to help and was actually HONEST about what he thought I could do. As in, "you can try being a writer, but you should probably have another source of income while you do it." Or "I wouldn't recommend going to graduate school in the humanities right now, if ever." You have to understand that mostly we were just being told that we could do whatever! we! wanted! All! the! time! So to hear someone tell it to me straight like that was immensely helpful.

I'm still wrestling with a lot of the things this article brings up, like a paralyzing fear of failure, a difficulty in carving out my own path now that it's completely mine to follow. I also like that he is honest with himself about his own failings and limitations. I sometimes have trouble with the persona that my old prof puts on in these articles and I think they can be problematic for many of the reasons above, but I do think he's saying some important things here that are worth hearing.
/end rant
posted by bookgirl18 at 4:24 PM on July 23 [19 favorites]


When has aversion to risk ever stopped Sociopaths before?
posted by Yowser at 4:55 PM on July 23


A friend who teaches at a top university once asked her class to memorize 30 lines of the eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope. Nearly every single kid got every single line correct. It was a thing of wonder, she said, like watching thoroughbreds circle a track.

What a total waste of everyone's time and effort. That fits completely in the 'stupid human trick' category of learning, like memorizing pi out to a hundred decimal places.


I very much disagree with this assessment. By memorizing a poem or two and reciting aloud one can learn to enunciate well and how to emphasize different parts of speech. Also one learns to hear and check what is coming out of one's own mouth.
posted by telstar at 5:02 PM on July 23 [1 favorite]


What a total waste of everyone's time and effort. That fits completely in the 'stupid human trick' category of learning, like memorizing pi out to a hundred decimal places.

Not if they actually thought about what Pope was saying in his poem.
posted by srboisvert at 5:18 PM on July 23


Hilarious he was a good writing teacher--his articles seem completely devoid of theses and dependent entirely on anecdotes and is own subjective opinion.

Awful and lame and not at all the critique the education system and its entrenched hierarchies and frailties deserves.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 5:21 PM on July 23


I went to Columbia. The professor I wanted to study philosophy with is there and that's why I went. And in that regard it was extremely rewarding. All around I found the education to be downright amazing and I treasure it. It was expensive but I had scholarships and I worked as a bartender and a cupcake icer and a few other odd things throughout to help pay for the rest.

I do get the fear of failure thing. The pressure from having gone there can be kind of horrible and debilitating. I actually really hate it when people ask where I went to school, because I tell them and I worry their reaction will be "you went to Columbia and now you're doing this? That's it?" Sometimes that is their reaction. As if merely having Columbia on your resume is some golden ticket into super elite jobs and success and money, especially in today's economy. (My first job out of the Ivy League was wrapping fucking burritos at Chipotle because I was broke and needed work immediately and the economy was crashing and because I have a degree in philosophy.)

I've had to learn to let go of other people's expectations of me, but I'm pretty sure that's a Life Lesson for Everyone Thing and not something unique to Ivy League grads. The Ivy League Degree is just a footnote in their particular crises.

It does bother me that these sorts of articles (which seem to come around once a year or so), and also a lot of folks who read them, tend to think Ivy Leaguers are some sort of great monolith, like we aren't talking about a huge number of individual souls here. There were a lot of really smart and interesting and creative and kind people there, and there were also a lot of douchey assholes there too. Probably because Ivy Leaguers are actually a pretty diverse group of folks. Probably a lot of entitled assholes and nice people at any school. I will tell you though that Columbia didn't make the assholes assholes nor the good folks good. The people who went to Columbia so they could look down on people were looking down on people long before they got to Columbia.

Some of my classmates are making tons of money and some are making no money. Some are depressed and anxious and in bad places and some seem to be happy and good with their lives, probably like any graduating class of any other school.

Is it worth it? I don't know. I don't tend to advise it to most kids looking at colleges. Just having the name behind you is not going to work magic for your life. It might be icing on an otherwise good cake, but it's not what the media and the myth make it out to be of course. If you don't have a good reason to go to an Ivy, choose the school that will put you in the least amount of debt, is my advice. I don't know if going to Columbia or Harvard or Yale will make you depressed and anxious, but I do know that crippling debt will. So if it's free, do it. If not...

As for the other reasons to go. I don't know - If you were looking to go to an Ivy for the purpose of building an elite social network, I would probably advise against it. It's hard. There is actually kind of a lot of segregation between the wealthy, legacy type kids and the busted your ass to get in on scholarship kids, just like in real life. The elite kids tend to find each other and stick together.

The only career reason I can think of to go is if you want to be an investment banker or very high level politician. In my experience, these are the only two occupations where not having an Ivy degree is a barrier to entry. Pretty much anything else you want to do you can do (and do very successfully) with a degree from some other place.

I generally find America to have a strange obsession with people's Alma Maters, an interest and obsession that really outpaces the actual consequences and benefits of where you went to school. Maybe the only real thing that matches the degree of people's interest in your college is the length of your student loan repayment.

Also: memorize a poem and you'll never be lonely.
posted by Lutoslawski at 5:22 PM on July 23 [3 favorites]


I lived in Boston for 10 years, my best friend went to Harvard, and the company I worked for most of that time spun out of MIT, so I know many people in the "top college" demographic.

Most of them are totally meh about it. I'd say more MIT people feel allegiance to/superiority about MIT than my Harvard friends do about Harvard. Most of my Harvard friends are embarrassed to mention they went there because of the reactions it gets from non-Ivy types [the code phrase is "I went to college in Cambridge"], and while being conscious of their privilege, try to downplay it as much possible. (Also, many of the Harvardites are downright opposed to giving Harvard any money ever -- not because of the education, but because they just didn't like it as a place)

I have also experienced people from big state school honors programs who majored in the same thing I majored in being total dicks to me about how I went to a small private engineering school and how I must think I'm so fancy and why don't they tell me the 10 reasons their education was better than mine.

I've also met Harvard assholes and awesome state school people.

Basically, if the kind of person who is a dick about their college education and feels it makes them better than everyone is the kind of person who would be that way no matter where they went (or whether they went to college at all). I'm sure this guy would have as much trouble talking to his plumber if he'd gone to DeVry as he does as a Harvard grad.

Also, the penalty for getting an F at a big name elite school is usually the ability to talk to a prof, redo some sort of work, or squeeze in a re-take of the class, or otherwise remediate the grade. The schools are just as keen to avoid failing you and making you drop out as you are to avoid failing in the first place. On the other hand, my friends at big state schools would fail classes regularly and the penalty there was paying for an additional quarter or semester of coursework because the classes were so crowded, they couldn't necessarily get into it the following term to re-take it, which then meant they didn't have a prerequisite for something else down the line... and so college careers extended to 5, 6, or 7 years of paying increasingly inflated tuition. Because State University don't give a fuck, it seems. So while there is peer pressure and competition playing up the fear of failure in elite schools, at other schools there are consequences that can be more practically dire, particularly for lower and middle class students.

In conclusion, universities are lands of contrasts.
posted by olinerd at 5:29 PM on July 23 [7 favorites]


the code phrase is "I went to college in Cambridge"], and while being conscious of their privilege, try to downplay it as much possible. (Also, many of the Harvardites are downright opposed to giving Harvard any money ever -- not because of the education, but because they just didn't like it as a place

Ha, yes. I almost always say "I went to school in New York," and trail off and try to leave it at that. And I would never give Columbia any money. They have plenty, and plenty of mine, already.
posted by Lutoslawski at 5:39 PM on July 23


That's what I like about having gone to CMU. Not a household name, so the scorn factor is low, but the large number of syllables give it an air of distinction.
posted by grumpybear69 at 6:00 PM on July 23 [2 favorites]


My education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class. I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me. We were “the best and the brightest,” as these places love to say, and everyone else was, well, something else: less good, less bright.
I agree that he probably exaggerates when he says all Ivy League students feel this way.

That said, I remember seeing comments in an Ivy League student paper saying that the undergraduate students there were clearly smarter than their TAs, because the graduate school accepted a larger percentage of applicants than the undergraduate. I doubt they ever thought about how different the two applicant pools would be.
posted by jb at 6:29 PM on July 23


jb, reading the comments in an Ivy League student paper is a special level of hell. They are just relentlessly, relentlessly shitty. There was actually a campus-wide campaign at Princeton a while ago to try to convince people to sign their online comments, in the hope that less anonymity would mitigate the intense shittiness on display in venues like the Daily Princetonian comments section (and a few other general campus websites). Though of course, they're hardly alone there - comments for my hometown's paper are pretty horrifying as well in a way that totally belies my impression of the town I know.
posted by en forme de poire at 6:53 PM on July 23 [1 favorite]


That's what I like about having gone to CMU

As a Pitt alum I can attest that there is a strong scorn factor for some Carnegie Mellon smartypantses, based on how they called the Cathedral of Learning (Pitt's next-door-to-CMU academic skyscraper) the "Tower of Ignorance."
posted by daisystomper at 7:38 PM on July 23 [2 favorites]


I went to Purdue (in the 80s) and most of my parent's friends (we lived on the East Coast) thought I was at an Ivy League School. I never corrected them. All the social stigma of an Ivy League education, at Big 10 prices!

Both of my kids are attending non-flagship State schools, and they are getting great educations and having a great time.
posted by COD at 7:46 PM on July 23 [1 favorite]


Hooray for being too stupid to get into the Ivy League and going to public school!
posted by jenfullmoon at 8:44 PM on July 23


The author does actually in fact cite a large-scale 25-year survey on college student well-being (amongst other concrete statements given), so it's simply not consistent/valid criticism to say that the article is incorrectly attempting to make a monolithic statement about all students, or that the article is biased towards the author's personal experience.
posted by polymodus at 9:08 PM on July 23


I'd be interested to know whether the conclusions from that survey ("self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in [its] 25-year history") were specific to the Ivies; it's not clear from the text and there's no link to the study.
posted by en forme de poire at 9:22 PM on July 23


The fact that major news organizations run stories on the internet that quote studies and don't link to those studies is one of the most infuriating facts about modern life.
posted by escabeche at 9:24 PM on July 23 [6 favorites]


Oh my god, for real, it is the worst.
posted by en forme de poire at 9:26 PM on July 23


Within 12 months of graduating, no one gives a shit about your alma mater, except maybe that dude in the office who also went there, but you don't want to associate with him because, well, he's a douchebag. I agree the Ivies can be a ticket in the door but I've also noticed (I work in software) that coming from one of the better Canadian or State research schools can be a pretty good ticket too- there's an aura of credibility, like you actually got an education or something.

I made some suboptimal choices in my graduate career and really felt the sting of failure when all the things I thought I was entitled to didn't materialize. It took a couple years for me to sort myself out and stumble into a career that I really enjoy, working with people from all over the map, some who have serious credentials and some who are self-made. I have a ton of respect especially for the self-made folks because they are far less risk-averse- really willing to test the breaking point of anything.
posted by simra at 11:10 PM on July 23


daisystomper: "That's what I like about having gone to CMU

As a Pitt alum I can attest that there is a strong scorn factor for some Carnegie Mellon smartypantses, based on how they called the Cathedral of Learning (Pitt's next-door-to-CMU academic skyscraper) the "Tower of Ignorance."
"

Huh, I have degrees from both schools and have never encountered that.
posted by octothorpe at 4:01 AM on July 24


This discussion is making me hungry for O fries.
posted by grumpybear69 at 4:35 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]


Within 12 months of graduating, no one gives a shit about your alma mater,

This has not been my experience. It's not like some big ticket to riches wherever you go, but people bring it up more than I would have guessed and seem to keep a general awareness of schools and signifiers. (As noted above, the more local but intensely loyal networks from a "directional state university" will sometimes get you a lot further than the big name place on the other side of the country.)
posted by Dip Flash at 6:40 AM on July 24 [2 favorites]


I know you realize this but I think it bears repeating that New York is a huge, huge outlier here. My state, for instance, has exactly one major university and it's pretty expensive even if you pay in-state tuition. The SUNY system is literally one of the best in the USA in terms of quality, variety, and price. Not everybody has access to something like Stony Brook, or UT Austin, or Michigan, or UW-Madison.

Oh, New York is HUGE outlier here, which is why I barely even considered anything else.

A coworker of mine is debating which $50k/year private school to send her kid to right now, and it's crazy to me. It seems like in NY so many private colleges market themselves aggressively to students regarding their "prestige" and beautiful campuses and branding, while they lack the solid academics and even reputation of a school like Geneseo, Binghamton or Stonybrook.
posted by inertia at 6:44 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


The author does actually in fact cite a large-scale 25-year survey on college student well-being (amongst other concrete statements given)
Well, he does cite that study ("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,") but as someone said above, it's not at all clear that it's specific to the Ivies. I seem to recall from reporting about it elsewhere that it measured the entire student population, not just students at elite institutions. I'm not entirely sure how that's evidence that you shouldn't go to an Ivy, therefore. What it does is give the whole thing an air of truthiness: look, I mentioned something that looks like evidence, and I'm going to assume my readers are too distracted or lazy to think about whether it really works as evidence for my contention. If you actually go through the article and identify the warrant for each claim he makes, it's remarkable how often the evidence is anecdote or a quote from someone. A lot of the time, he just puts a claim out there with no evidence at all.

I'm not denying that there's some truth to what he says. I don't think there's much question that elite schools perpetuate economic inequality, and I also think the arms race to get into them can be very bad for kids from that social strata. But some of the other stuff just seems goofy. In my experience, students in public schools are much more vocationally-oriented than students at elite schools, and I believe that there's research that backs that up. (I don't have time to dig it up right now, but I can try in a week or so if this discussion is still going on.) It makes sense, when you think about it: you can go into finance with a philosophy degree from Yale, but you're not going to get that job with a philosophy degree from Directional State University. The kids at DSU are way more likely to major in business, because they don't have the luxury of playing with ideas for four years and relying on the alumni network to get them a high-paying job. Also, first-generation college students often get a lot of pressure from their parents and communities to see their education in vocational terms. My students are sometimes ashamed of their intellectual curiosity. They see it as self-indulgent and apologize for wanting to take classes that aren't "useful." I think his belief that non-elite schools are better is basically just a reflection of his lack of experience with non-elite schools. And I say that even though I really enjoy working with my students, would not want to work at an elite school, and am convinced that you can get a first-rate education at the university at which I work.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 7:22 AM on July 24 [1 favorite]


I think this is much more of an East Coast phenomenon. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, there just aren't that many kids who end up going to Ivies, and there's less interest in general in where a person went to school, once they're out and in the real world.
posted by stenseng at 11:45 AM on July 24


I dunno man, I don't think it's that cut-and-dry. There's a certain species of New Englander/Mid-Atlantican who's particularly Ivy-crazy, for sure, but out in the Bay Area there's definitely a similar culture around Stanford, which is basically the Ivy's West Coast equivalent and usually gets mentioned in the same breath as HYP.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:13 PM on July 24


Also, first-generation college students often get a lot of pressure from their parents and communities to see their education in vocational terms. My students are sometimes ashamed of their intellectual curiosity. They see it as self-indulgent and apologize for wanting to take classes that aren't "useful."

Yes this has been my experience to a T. And if the student isn't intellectually curious, then all is well and good. But otherwise, its stifling.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 12:19 PM on July 24


It makes sense, when you think about it: you can go into finance with a philosophy degree from Yale, but you're not going to get that job with a philosophy degree from Directional State University.

This is totally true, as is the rest of what you wrote. To be fair though, for a philosophy major in the honors college of State Flagship U, I wonder if the comparison doesn't start to get more equal. After all, big research universities, whether public or private, are a good source of fancy recommendation letters.

But I agree that the overwhelming and increasingly universal pressure to think of your university education as licensing for a future job is probably diminished, if anything, at the Ivies.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:23 PM on July 24


In my experience, students in public schools are much more vocationally-oriented than students at elite schools

Oh definitely, and a big part of that is probably (though maybe it's a chicken-egg issue) that elite schools don't have vocational majors. You go to a state school and you can get a degree in business or teaching or marketing or whatever. Elite schools, with the exception of engineering, just don't offer these sorts of tracks at the undergraduate level.
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:33 PM on July 24


Lutoslawski I sort of agree, but in practice I think biology and economics majors at Ivies are 99% of the time vocational majors for the pre-med and pre-banking set, despite various fig leaves and faculty protestations.
posted by en forme de poire at 12:42 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]


Schools can be pre-professional w/o offering pre-professional degrees.

And the bigger problem isn't just that you can't get a finance job with a philosophy degree from Directional State its that you can't even get an interview with a 4.0 as an applied math major from Directional State.

I don't think being in an honors college matters either. Directional State is Directional State.

I was in a position for a while of recruiting for a one of these gigs as a side part of my job. I tried really hard to push for "lets just put a job listing up at these schools and see if anything comes up" and never got any support.

But part of the problem is that a lot of the kids who have sort of not been exposed to the system might not even know what the hell the job posting is for.
posted by JPD at 12:44 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]


Oh, economics, biology, philosophy are all often pre-professional programs for sure, even if they aren't always explicitly so. Still, pre-professional at the Ivies really only means banker, doctor or lawyer. Sometimes a teacher. I went to an ivy and now I'm going to be an audiologist, which meant I had to go back and do my pre-reqs at a state university after I finished my original undergrad.

And yeah, Big Wall Street jobs are the jobs that are basically impossible to land without an Ivy degree. You just won't get accepted into one of the training programs otherwise. It's not that the big banks think Ivy kids got a better education, it's that they want the kind of person who really wanted to go to an Ivy (competitive, singularly focused, cares about prestige or whatever).
posted by Lutoslawski at 12:50 PM on July 24


I feel like adding to that I was capable of getting into an Ivy League PhD program with degrees from a decidedly not prestigious school, but could not get a decent job writing or in politics or in government (my interests). As much as elite schools are reproducers of privilege, admissions committees HAVE to read your application; at jobs and stuff my 3.0 GPA and mid-tier state school didn't get me past the email filter.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 12:56 PM on July 24


But part of the problem is that a lot of the kids who have sort of not been exposed to the system might not even know what the hell the job posting is for.

I literally didn't know what I-Banking or consulting were before college. As in I had never heard either term, at least as applied to a career. For all I knew iBanking was an Apple product. And yet "finance + consulting" employed something close to 50% of my classmates pre-crash (and it's still around 30%).

(I'm still not totally sure I understand what consulting is, actually.)
posted by en forme de poire at 1:11 PM on July 24 [1 favorite]


> Within 12 months of graduating, no one gives a shit about your alma mater

None of my employers have ever asked for proof of my degree, let alone copies of my transcripts. I could be an elementary school drop-out for all they really knew. I should have put Harvard or whatever on my resume.
posted by The Card Cheat at 4:20 PM on July 24


This is totally true, as is the rest of what you wrote. To be fair though, for a philosophy major in the honors college of State Flagship U, I wonder if the comparison doesn't start to get more equal.

The recruiters don't even show up. I had exactly the same graduating GPA as my roommate in grad school, we were accepted to the same grad school (my program was mildly more competitive), we knew we were really similar in ability.

She went to a prestigious American private university for undergrad; she was recruited into a consulting job with a famous firm for a year before grad school. I went to a Canadian middle-tier university and, despite winning an award for top student in my large major, my job prospects were either graduate school or administrative assistant. Our job fair wasn't even mostly employers - all I remember were the military and foreign education schools trying to sell you on an overpriced BEd that you couldn't even use for sure in Canada.

now I'm remembering why I went to graduate school. it did seem like a logical choice at the time.

The prospects really are completely different for students coming out of non-prestigious universities, even if they are performing at the same academic level.
posted by jb at 7:53 PM on July 24


//Within 12 months of graduating, no one gives a shit about your alma mater//

I know for a fact that I've gotten interviews (15+ years after graduation) because my degree is from Purdue and people are impressed by that. Hell, my Purdue undergraduate degree has done way more for me than my MBA from Georgia State.
posted by COD at 9:28 AM on July 25 [1 favorite]


It's very easy to say that you shouldn't go/send your kids to an Ivy when you've gone to one and taught at one...

Snobs vs. the Ivy League.: "There is nothing a snobbish Ivy Leaguer likes better than putting down the Ivy League. It's an easy way to signal that you are above your own Ivy League school and the privilege it confers -- all a big humbug that your superior perspective sees right through -- while holding on to every last scrap of that privilege. It allows you to position yourself as not only 1. better than people who didn't get into Harvard, Princeton, or Yale, but 2. the benevolent champion of those little people who didn't get in and also 3. better than everyone else who did get into your school and who, unlike you, need to take the place seriously...William Deresiewicz has never studied or worked outside the Ivy League. He has three degrees from Columbia. He taught for ten years at Yale. Public colleges, and the students at public colleges, are merely rhetorically convenient symbols for him. He displays no understanding of, and no curiosity about, what those places and people are actually like. "
posted by naoko at 12:51 PM on July 28 [5 favorites]


Within 12 months of graduating, no one gives a shit about your alma mater,
---
This has not been my experience. It's not like some big ticket to riches wherever you go, but people bring it up more than I would have guessed and seem to keep a general awareness of schools and signifiers.


It hasn't been mine either. Claremont colleges people seem to be EVERYWHERE, and I still get the same look that is a mixture of admiration and "damn you must be crazy" from many of them when Harvey Mudd comes up.

It definitely varies by school...
posted by flaterik at 1:29 PM on July 28


jb, I totally recognize that rigor doesn't explain much of the variance and that recruiters don't really come to even the solid middle of public universities. With that comment though I was referring more to the most "name-brand" of the public universities, like Berkeley, Michigan, U of T, McGill, etc. (I re-read it and I was being totally unclear, sorry.)
posted by en forme de poire at 11:14 PM on July 28




it's funny that you mention McGill - it's certainly a "name brand" university in that it has an easy to remember name. But it is consistently rated lower than the University of Toronto for research.

My point was that where you go really does matter. I didn't realise that when I chose my university - a good solid university with academics comparable to the University of Toronto (and even many Ivy League courses), but ranked lower than McGill - that I was limiting my post-undergrad employment opportunities. I was accepted into the University of Toronto (current top Canadian university in international rankings), but chose not to attend.

As it was, I ended up going to grad school. But I might not have if I had felt that I had more post-undergrad employment opportunities.
posted by jb at 8:43 AM on August 10


Well, sure, but isn't that only because U of T is so consistently #1? My understanding was that UBC and McGill usually take #2 and #3 for public Canadian research universities, the order depending on the ranking system. Again, not that I put much faith in these rankings to measure anything particularly important in terms of academics, but I do think they correlate well with the "name-brand"-ness of a university.

Anyway, yeah, I think we basically agree - my point about the highly-ranked flagships was only that I think some of them do confer some amount of (not necessarily earned) prestige on their graduates, which can help them on the job market, not that those institutions are inherently more academically rigorous.
posted by en forme de poire at 2:11 PM on August 10


Here Are All the Ivy-Educated Zombies on the New Republic’s Masthead
Is Loudly Denouncing Your Privilege The New Privilege?, or how Deresiewicz's piece is the latest example of elite populism - "In other words, the pastime most likely to indicate a person’s membership in the Ivy League is complaining about the Ivy League in exquisite detail." Of course, Deresiewicz is selling his book on the subject. Or is his critique less about elite colleges, and more about modernity?.

Deresiwicz responds: Your Criticism of My Ivy League Takedown Further Proves My Point - or is it really that Your defense of ‘Excellent Sheep’ further proves my point, where Dan Drezner argues :
I argued a while back that the center of gravity for public intellectuals in the United States has shifted from the humanities to the social sciences: “economics has supplanted literary criticism as the ‘universal methodology’ of most public intellectuals.” As a public intellectual who comes from the humanities, I suspect that Deresiewicz is keenly aware of this trend and doesn’t like it very much. This might be a key source of his discontent for the state of America’s elite students. It’s not that they’re not thinking — it’s that they’re thinking in ways that are alien to Deresiewicz.
Maybe we should Stop Blaming Colleges for Society's Problems.

cribbed from OMNIVORE
posted by the man of twists and turns at 3:44 PM on August 19 [1 favorite]


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