Last month, I wrote about how William Deresiewicz’s article in The New Republic failed to recognize important differences among students attending top-tier universities, since Deresiewicz assumes the worst of students’ intentions and fails to note the diversity in their interests.
Even if he is accurate in portraying the mentality of the average Ivy League student, his critique is not unique to Ivy League students. While some top-tier students may be lured by money and power, students at public schools pursue majors in business, finance and pre-professional majors most Ivy Leagues don’t even offer. Why are they exempt from his criticism?
In fact, this desire to seek “affluence, credentials, prestige” – all predefined notions of success — is an issue that stems far beyond public schools as well: It’s present all around us. Growing up in an environment with fictional TV shows idolizing the rich , “30 Richest Under 30” reports and constant media coverage about the powerful, it’s difficult for any student — not just Ivy League students — to separate “success” from the fame and fortune that our culture has deemed success to be.
It’s unfair to blame top-tier universities and their students for this supposed zombie mentality without taking into consideration society’s role in cultivating this behavior.
What this means is that Deresiewicz’s criticisms — no matter how much merit they may hold — are not criticisms of an Ivy League education, but are rather indictments of our society as a whole.
Because of this, the solutions Deresiewicz proposes in his article are wholly inadequate, as they focus on student decisions and university policies instead of addressing the larger picture. Though Deresiewicz does claim that his ultimate solution would be to raise students “to care about something other than ‘success’ in the very narrow terms in which it’s come to be defined,” his article provides no indication of how he would achieve such a lofty, highly improbable goal, nor does he provide private universities and corporations with any incentives to change their policies, making his ideas largely unusable in the real world.
One main solution he often touts is making Ivy Leagues irrelevant through low-cost, high-quality public universities. Yet though he claims that “there are still very good public universities in every region of the country … [where] the student body is usually genuinely diverse,” he also states in the same article that “public institutions are not much better than private ones … 40 percent of first-year students at the most selective state campuses came from families with incomes of more than $100,000.” By simultaneously believing that socioeconomic diversity is critical while holding contradictory views about the diversity available at good public schools, he essentially restricts students from going to both good private schools as well as good public schools. So where are students expected to go?
Other solutions that Deresiewicz proposes have similar issues. His notion that “SAT scores should be weighted to account for socioeconomic factors” is unrealistic since any weighting metric will be equally arbitrary; having colleges impose “a limit on the number of extracurriculars that kids can list” is not only something that colleges already do but is inherently arbitrary as well — what number do we consider an “appropriate” amount of extracurriculars, and how does this prevent students from resume-stuffing nonetheless?
“[Colleges] ought to place more value on … service jobs,” Deresiewicz continues. Yet though this physical and mental labor is valuable, he disregards the fact that having colleges put more value on these jobs will this will simply cause the same students to stuff their resumes with those jobs instead. Moreover, asking colleges to “refuse to be impressed by any opportunity that was enabled by parental wealth” would entail ignoring a vast amount of accomplishments (whether athletic, academic or service) since most of these activities require competition, travel or club fees that parents support, regardless of the fact that these activities also require tremendous talent, perseverance and determination — valuable traits that showcase a student’s true passion. And with the lines so fuzzy between what is achieved through family connections and what is achieved through hard work, it’s impossible to create objective guidelines for when to count or discount a student’s accomplishments.
Deresiewicz needs to realize that all the criticism he has of top schools is, unfortunately, not a critique of the schools themselves: It is a critique of our society as a whole. His solutions do not properly account for this truth and, as a result, would fail to solve the issues he mentions and change the system in a meaningful way.
Contact Kimberly Tan at kwtan ‘at’ stanford.edu