By JAMES K. FITZPATRICK
If watching the Ivy League grads in the Obama administration and the State Department has led you to question the caliber of modern Ivy League universities, you may be onto something. (Can you picture these Valley girls and pajama boys in the same room with Vladimir Putin’s aides?)
William Deresiewicz, the author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, writing in the July edition of the New Republic (available online at www.newrepublic.com/article/118747), offers us a firsthand look into the admission process at these schools. He is convinced that it does not recruit the best and the brightest and is “turning our kids into zombies.” The title of his article: “Don’t Sent Your Kid to the Ivy League.”
Deresiewicz recently sat with the admissions team at Yale and watched them focus on the “PQs” of candidates, the subjective personal qualities that go beyond high school grades and SAT scores. He is convinced that the admissions teams mean well, but that they are overly impressed by factors generated by “an ever-growing industry of tutors and consultants and test-prep courses” that gives a major advantage to the “largely upper-middle class, who push their children into the maw of this machine.”
Just one example: He cites a New York Times article that describes a “now thriving sector devoted to producing essay-ready summers” for high school students looking to pad their college applications with “meaningful” and “different” experiences to separate themselves from the other A-students applying to the colleges most highly rated by U.S. News and World Report. What strikes one, writes Deresiewicz, is “the superficiality of the activities involved: a month traveling around Italy studying the Renaissance, a ‘whole day’ with a band of renegade artists. A whole day!”
He is similarly exasperated by the “service” component of the Ivy League admissions process. Since almost all the applicants to Ivy League schools — other than athletes, talented musicians, the children of wealthy alumni and minorities — are at the top of their high school classes academically, an impressive record of community service is looked on favorably by the admissions teams. But does it prove anything?
“Why,” asks Deresiewicz, “is it that people feel the need to go to places like Guatemala to do their projects…instead of Milwaukee or Arkansas? When students do stay in the States, why is it that so many head for New Orleans? Perhaps it’s no surprise, when kids are trained to think of service a something they are ultimately doing for themselves — that is, for their résumés. ‘Do well by doing good,’ goes the slogan. How about just doing good?”
There is another dimension to this “service” requirement by our elite universities: It is usually impossible for excellent students from poor and middle-class families to complete it. They are too busy working their part-time jobs to spend summers abroad doing “meaningful” volunteer work. “Instead of service,” asks Deresiewicz, “how about service work? That’ll really give you insight into other people. How about waiting tables so that you can see how hard it is, physically and mentally?” Doing such work would help the college prep students looking to punch their admissions tickets realize that they “really aren’t as smart as everyone has been telling you; you’re only smarter in a certain way. There are smart people who do not to go a prestigious college, or to any college….Often for reasons of class, there are smart people who are not ‘smart’.”
In addition, Deresiewicz is convinced the modern application process, which claims to be seeking diversity among its incoming freshman class, does nothing of the sort: “Visit any elite campus across our great nation, and you can thrill to the heartwarming spectacle of the children of white businesspeople and professionals studying and playing alongside the children of black, Asian, and Latino businesspeople and professionals. Kids at schools like Stanford think that their environment is diverse if one comes from Missouri and another from Pakistan, or if one plays the cello and the other lacrosse. Never mind that all of their parents are doctors or bankers.”
The result, he continues, is a system that “is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead.” The expensive process designed to gain admission to Ivy League schools becomes a “game.” The “more hurdles” there are in this game, “the more expensive it is to catapult your kid across them. Wealthy families start buying their children’s way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel (‘enrichment’ programs, to use the all-too-perfect term).”
The result? “Today, fewer than half of high-scoring students from low-income families even enroll at four-year schools.”
Is there a way out of this situation? Deresiewicz suggests that our elite colleges begin to “act to mitigate the class system, not reproduce it. Affirmative action should be based on class instead of race.” A good starting point. It would mean that the child of a black lawyer would no longer be favored over the child of a white factory worker with a higher class ranking and SAT scores.
“Colleges should put an end to résumé-stuffing by imposing a limit on the number of extracurriculars that kids can list on their applications. They ought to place more value on the kind of service jobs that lower-income students often take in high school and that high achievers almost never do. They should refuse to be impressed by any opportunity that was enabled by parental wealth.”
Will these changes be made? It is by no means certain. Those who profit from a system are not likely to end it. But if the elite universities do not make these changes, they may find themselves no longer able to sell themselves as institutions that enroll and graduate the best and the brightest. It used to be just professional populists such as Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly who would speak derisively about “pointy-headed intellectuals” and “intellectual pin-heads.”
Whether it deserves it or not, The New Republic thinks of itself as far more serious and respectable than O’Reilly and Limbaugh. That it would publish Deresiewicz’s article on what is happening at our Ivy League schools indicates that the disenchantment with them is spreading.
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