Oh, go ahead. Take a chance. Send your kid to the Ivy League. The world won’t come to an end.
Your son or daughter will get a middling good education, some swell friends, a glittering credential, and improved chances of professional success and personal prosperity. There are indeed better things than those in life. One can strive to create great art or to found a new industry. But many worse ones too.
Deresiewicz is a class warrior. His key idea is, “The education system has to act to mitigate the class system, not reproduce it.” He would prefer colleges to preside over a fundamental rearrangement of the American social order. The Deresiewicz regime would abolish the “upper middle class” dream of the Ivy League and turn these institutions into a Sim City of the dis-privileged. The requisite mix would presumably be a nicely balanced collection of kids from the inner city, Appalachian coal towns made destitute by new EPA rules, hamlets bypassed by the interstate, Indian reservations sans casinos, and so on.
To be sure, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton ought to be open to individuals who, overcoming the odds, rise from any of these circumstances to show they can compete at the intellectual level demanded by such institutions. It may not be their best choice but it is a legitimate aspiration.
But it is silly to urge that colleges “rethink their conception of merit.” By Deresiewicz’s expert witness, Ivy League admissions are dominated by the effort to find academically gifted students who also have incredible determination to succeed and some imaginative capacity to market themselves. The few who best meet these requirements then become part of a community that puts an extraordinary premium on certain kinds of academic success. But such overachievers are often stunted in other areas of personal development.
No surprise there. The pursuit of a very high level of skills in any area means the neglect of others. The best ballerinas are often woefully ignorant of the Greek classics. First draft NFL picks are notoriously deficient in multivariate calculus. It’s a cruel world.
What exactly do the privileged Ivy Leaguers sacrifice? Deresiewicz’s answer: psychological health, intellectual curiosity, passion, and creativity. His Ivy Leaguers are “anxious, timid, lost,” and suffer from “toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation.”
Actually, they are suffering from postmodern secularism and a cultural over-emphasis on personal autonomy. They attend universities that have no core conception of the good other than success itself. Changing admissions criteria won’t fix that. The problem lies deeper. To upend the “class hierarchy” in America in order to fend off the discontents of such students is akin to cutting down a redwood tree to make a backscratcher.
Deresiewicz wants to cut that tree down in any case. The unhappiness of the academic overachievers is just a pretext.