William Deresiewicz elaborates on his critique of the Ivy League and higher education.
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I’m Alexander Heffner, your host on The Open Mind.
From Benjamin Franklin’s colonial-era lament of the snobbish class…to the Education of Henry Adams and William F. Buckley’s God and Man at Yale to one Harvard dean’s 2006 critique of “excellence without a soul,” gadflies within elite higher education have long challenged their institutions—and argued for corrective steps forward.
There is a new chapter in this rich history. Embellishing on his popular American Scholar essay “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” scholar William Deresiewicz has entered the fray anew with Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.
The current system, our guest today writes, is “exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead. For full disclosure: in a USA News & World article I wrote during my own time at Harvard, I was critical of what I perceived to be the school’s laser-focus on careerism over community engagement.
Thus, I’m familiar both with Deresiewicz’s argument and the pushback. And while I’m generally sympathetic, I’m going to demand more answers around solutions today.
Yes, these institutions can be complicit in churching out soul-less automatons, but I want to ask our guest if there’s anyway to resolve this problem, if our schools, these ivy league institutions and our schools generally continue to serve the masses? And welcome.
DERESIEWICZ: Thanks, thanks for having me on.
DERESIEWICZ: First of all there’s nothing wrong with colleges preparing people for a career, preparing people for professions. But if we talk about the selective college system in particular and the Ivy Leagues especially, we’ve evolved a system that serves the upper middle class, the upper class, the elite … I mean the … basically the meritocracy has figured out how to perpetuate itself.
And it does so through the system of elite education. So I would argue, I do argue that those colleges and the kinds of childhoods and adolescences that their admissions policies create are, are, are … as, as you quoted me saying … they are perpetuating inequality rather than acting at they once did to mitigate it.
HEFFNER: So how do you reverse that trend?
DERESIEWICZ: Well, I think they, they could start by changing their admissions policies. As they once did. And we can talk about that a little more in a second … that there’s a history to this.
But really I say, that the real problem is that we’ve reached a situation where 10 or 12 schools, the Ivy League and Stanford and a few others … have become the only schools that people feel they can send their kids to in order to give them the best shot in life. And what we really need to do is to revive our commitment … I think you’re going to love this … revive our commitment to public higher education. Low or no cost. High quality public higher education. And I have a new slogan that I thought of too late to put in the book. And it’s inspired by China’s slogan of 100 Harvards. You may know that the Chinese government said that “We’re going to build 100 Harvards”. We need to build a hundred Berkeleys with the asterisk that I mean Berkeley as it existed before the 1980’s when it didn’t charge tuition. And if you have a hundred Berkeley’s instead of having 10,000 spots that all of American high school students were competing for, maybe you would have two, three, four hundred thousand spots.
HEFFNER: But do you really differentiate between the modes of learning at those respective schools? At about … I know you said “pre-1980”, so is that the caveat that …
DERESIEWICZ: Well, it’s the caveat because, because Berkeley was free. The UC system was free.
HEFFNER: But I’m talking beyond free, beyond the tuition exemption of freedom, I’m talking about these huge lecture classes.
HEFFNER: In the …
DERESIEWICZ: Okay … so … I’m sorry to interrupt you …
HEFFNER: Fair enough.
DERESIEWICZ: Yeah. That’s okay. Again, to me the main problem actually starts before kids get to college and colleges start to teach them. The main problem is the admissions process and the kinds of people it produces … to use the title of my book, which came from a student at Yale “Excellent Sheep” … they’re incredibly good at being students, but they’re not at all good at thinking for themselves and especially thinking about what they want to do with their lives. So that’s the first problem and if we had a hundred Berkeleys people wouldn’t have to scramble and have these insane high school experiences that created that. Right? So then what happens once they get to college?
Yeah. The other problem with elite universities is that they’re universities first and colleges second. Which means they prioritize research and they are great research institutions, they’re the best in the world. I have no complaints about that.
But the mission … the college mission, teaching undergraduates … I won’t even say it’s secondary. It’s really not … professors have no incentive to spend one second more on teaching than they absolutely have to. And one of the ways they do that at a place like Harvard is to have big lecture courses.
So I think the really good model is the liberal arts college model which doesn’t have to be an elite private model, there are a lot of honors colleges at public universities now where it’s a teaching-first-model in small seminar style classes.
HEFFNER: And you probably could say that to of Hunter College or the CUNY system. I mean what you’re aspiring toward I think of Berkeley as a conglomerate in the way that I think of Harvard. And that has to do with the financial element.
DERESIEWICZ: Right. I’m …
HEFFNER: The financial element, the necessity to charge the tuition and to … and to advertise the school on a promotional campaign in the way that a Harvard would. I mean there’s, there’s a different mission that pre-dates 1980 at a school like Berkeley … and that gets into this public service piece of it.
HEFFNER: And the push toward professional development over community building. And that’s, that’s a piece of your book, too.
DERESIEWICZ: That’s a big piece of my book. I mean the last chapter is, is … it kind of connects the dots between the kinds of kids we’ve been training at these schools, not for the last ten years, but for the last 50 years and the kinds of leaders we’ve had since those kids started to … let’s say for the last 30 years since the first cohort became our adult leadership class.
I think we have adult excellent sheep. And I think that’s why we see (laugh) as I think many people recognize a comprehensive failure of our leadership class. And not just in government, banks, corporations, universities themselves, non-profits.
And the really striking thing is that all of these leaders seem to be failing in broadly speaking the same way and in it’s exactly the way you would predict based on the kinds of students they had to become. They’re timid, they’re risk averse, they’re not particularly creative …
HEFFNER: I want to push …
DERESIEWICZ: … they have an enormous sense of their own entitlement …
DERESIEWICZ: … and of their own virtue and of their own right to rule.
DERESIEWICZ: This is not, this is not the kind of civic community that I would envision.
HEFFNER: Right. I, I basically agree with what you’re saying, but the timidity piece of it is why I dispute the metaphor of sheep.
HEFFNER: Why not, why not snakes? I mean you’re too … and that maybe too harsh, grant, grant me that. But I mean if you’re, if you’re really thinking about this and saying that the problem, the derivation of the problem pre-dates the matriculation of these students. It’s the norms that are facilitated by parents and schools alike, private and public, prior to their emergence on the college scene that are only exacerbated in the college or university setting.
HEFFNER: Right. If that’s what we’re, we’re talking about, the students themselves are complicit in this.
DERESIEWICZ: I absolutely agree although I don’t really talk about this in the book … I absolutely agree that part of the message that we’re giving these students is “You need to be less self-serving. You need to .” Yeah, I mean, you know colleges always say that, right. There is this rhetoric at the first speech you hear when you get there as a Freshman and the last speech you hear when you leave as a Senior about giving back, making the world a better place. But everybody knows it’s just rhetoric because everything else in the system is pushing in the opposite direction towards, you know, individual aggrandizement … in fact one of the things I’m most critical about is this word “leadership” that’s become ubiquitous on campuses.
A charitable explanation of the way to use is that it’s essentially meaningless, but what it really means is being in charge, getting to the top, and it’s all about yourself, it’s not about “Okay, now that you’re in charge, what’s the point here?”
And, of course, I would like it to mean putting others before your own interest. Other people’s interest, the general good before your own private good.
HEFFNER: I had a wonderful eighth grade teacher who taught a course on the movies and the values of movies … contemporary films primarily. And she showed us “Scent of A Woman” … I don’t know if …
DERESIEWICZ: (Laugh) Yes, I remember, it’s a prep-school movie … it’s …
HEFFNER: But it has larger applicabilities …
DERESIEWICZ: Yes, sure, sure.
HEFFNER: … to our discussion here, because there’s a road that the young student at that prep school can take, one in which he is accountable to values …
HEFFNER: … and one in which he can basically sell his soul for admission to Harvard … an offer that the Dean of his prep school makes to him … to rat out a classmate. Are those values central to what leadership should be instilling. Because what you’re saying now is they’re, they’re touting leadership but they don’t have the substance to back it up.
DERESIEWICZ: Right. Now granted that the situation in that movie is unlikely to come up in precisely those terms …
DERESIEWICZ: … but the historical piece of this … if I could just go back for a second … is that we once made precisely the kind of changes that I’m advocating when we decided that the old system of the WASP aristocracy with the prep schools that were feeder schools to the Ivy League was keeping too many people shut out and was harming the country as a whole.
And so enough leaders of that WASP aristocracy said, “We need to change things even if it harms us as a class.” I mean FDR was one of those and so was Kingman Brewster, the President of Yale in the sixties and that’s when it was changed to meritocracy …
HEFFNER: And, and that’s what Derek Bok was preaching at, at Harvard for some time in terms of the value of public service.
DERESIEWICZ: Yeah. So, wait … so, so here’s the thing. So we, we shifted from aristocracy to meritocracy with a lot of resistance and, and it was a great public benefit. So I’m, I am not nostalgic for the aristocracy, but I … their concept of leadership actually did mean something and it meant honor and duty and integrity and self-sacrifice and leadership understood as, as the stewardship of institutions and of the country.
Like you, you were being handed the country and it was your obligation to hand it on in better shape or at least in no worse shape.
All of that is gone now and, and not just in our college system. I mean think about the notion of corporate responsibility, nobody takes that seriously any more. So yeah …
HEFFNER: And that’s maybe precisely because these universities have to operate very much like for-profit corporations. They’ve refused in many instances to defer to students sense of morality in how they invest their endowment. If you talk about how the values of the administration trickle down, there’s been pushback, but it hasn’t been accommodated by these universities in terms of divestment from … I mean that … isn’t that a, a part of this, too?
DERESIEWICZ: I hadn’t really thought bout that. Yes I think that’s true. I think they’ve come to think of themselves as corporations and they’re acting like corporations and they don’t want to be bothered with those kinds of moral considerations that students sometimes bring to them.
But, but forgive me, I think those are ultimately secondary issues. I mean where you invest your money. I mean it’s important, but it’s secondary to the fact that there doesn’t seem to be a notion of that universities could, could take social leadership as they once did and University Presidents could take social leadership … and they see themselves … I mean it’s the same issue of corporatization … but ultimately it doesn’t matter where they invest their money as long as they’re still thinking about, you know, where do I invest my money and let’s keep our balance sheet in order.
And not thinking about maybe we need to make some kind of sacrifice in that respect, for the sake of some of the higher values that we are supposed to stand for. And it’s the same thing … so it’s the same thing on the university level as it is on the individual student level. Do I make a sacrifice of material advantage for the sake of some kind of ideal that means more to me than material advantage. That thinking is not very prevalent on campuses or much of anywhere else these days.
HEFFNER: I mean that’s why I brought it up.
HEFFNER: Because that compromise, or sacrifice … if that’s not being demonstrated at the top, through the admissions process, or in the evaluation of these students at the secondary school level …
HEFFNER: Where does that …
DERESIEWICZ: You’re right, you’re absolutely right.
HEFFNER: … leave us in terms of being solution oriented.
DERESIEWICZ: There are solutions in the book …
HEFFNER: So talk about them.
DERESIEWICZ: Yes. Thanks.
DERESIEWICZ: Mostly they’re aimed at individual students … right … so the subtitle is “The Miseducation of the American Elite”, that’s the critical part … that’s the “No” and the way to a meaningful life is the “Yes”. And it’s about … what I say is “Listen students, you can’t wait for the adults to get their act together, you need to save yourself from the system, by opting out of this, you know, insane race for status and thinking about what you really want to do with your life, etc., etc.”
So that’s the major part of the, of the positive message. But, yes, I go on to say what can we do … what can the adults do, or the future adults do?
And it’s the same two pieces that we did after the war … reform the admissions process of the elite universities so we’re not selecting for conformists and maybe we’re selecting for independent minds and independent wills, you know …
DERESIEWICZ: …some moral fiber. But the more important piece again is “Let’s not … let’s make the Ivy League obsolescent or, or … by building public universities that are so strong that people no longer feel they have to go to the Ivy League.
I know this is a crazy thought, but the Ivy Leagues … they’re always, they’re always … as long as they’re private institutions, they will always have to worry about their own financial health. And as long as that’s true, they will always have to serve the upper classes above all, because that’s what their business model demands.
They’re never going to be able to let in a certain … more than a certain percentage of low income students because they need the tuition money. And they need the … they’re always going to want a large percentage of their graduates to get really rich, because they need the alumni donation money.
HEFFNER: One of the solutions right in, in your book or suggestions is … instead of a race classified or race based …
HEFFNER: … affirmative action … an economic affirmative action.
DERESIEWICZ: … affirmative action, yeah.
HEFFNER: … And, and I think that will get at your issue of moral fiber. I mean if you really think about the connectedness of hard work …
HEFFNER: … and, and conviction and belief in some of the principles that you espouse …
HEFFNER: … is, is that also a piece of why the class based affirmative action is important?
DERESIEWICZ: I hadn’t thought of that. I think that you are much more tuned into some of these issue of sort of civic engagement and moral fiber than, quite frankly, I have been. I think you may well be right. I also think that a big part of the problem …and I think you alluded to this in something that you quoted from the book, is just how cut off these elites are from the … from everybody else. They sort of like literally don’t know what’s going on with most of the people that they are charged to lead … right.
And if they met more of them in college (laugh) … actually they should meet more of them from, from much earlier in life, than I think that would be much less true.
HEFFNER: What are some examples of that disconnect … that, that are most prevalent in your mind?
DERESIEWICZ: Ahemm, well the public one was Mitt Romney’s comment, not about the 47%, but about … and he said this to college students … “Hey, if you’re having trouble finding a job, borrow money from your parents to start a business.”
He can’t conceive of the possibility that most people can’t borrow money from their parents because their parents don’t have enough money.
But the other one … it just happened just the other night. I was speaking at SUNY/Purchase, there was this beautiful moment … a guy from the community got up, he said “I graduated from Cornell forty years ago, and the real problem with Purchase is that they … alumni don’t give enough money … but at Cornell they give lots of money. And it’s not because their rich. I walk around Cornell today and there are lots of Chinese … that’s what he said … so I tried to give him a lecture about the difference between racial diversity and class diversity … and he didn’t buy it. And a kid from … a Purchase kid stood up and said … “My parents went to Purchase. They will never be able to retire … they’re middle class, they’ll never be able to retire … they don’t have an extra cent to give to the school. And I’m going to need to help them in their retirement. And the Cornell was like splattered against the wall. He, he had no conception that there was a class difference between a typical Purchase student and a typical Cornell student.
HEFFNER: Is need based financial aid part of this prescription?
DERESIEWICZ: Yes. I mean that could help. What people don’t realize is that even if … as this point 60% of Harvard’s students get financial aid. But most of those are, themselves, affluent. Simply because the school is so expensive that even doctors and lawyers have trouble paying for it. Yes, need based financial aid will help.
HEFFNER: And, and a need based admissions policy.
DERESIEWICZ: Yes, this would be great and the schools have been doing a little bit more, partly because Chuck Grassley threatened them a few years ago.
DERESIEWICZ: With their non-profit status. But they’re only every going to be able to go so far as long as we … as long as we’re … why are we relying on private institutions to do this? And again, we once made the commitment, we had great public universities, some of them are still pretty great. But we’ve cut their funding in half basically in the last 30 years.
We have to … because we don’t want to pay the taxes, because we don’t want to continue … just like we don’t want to continue to make the investments in our physical infrastructure, we haven’t been making the investments in our intellectual infrastructure. And we’re suffering for it.
HEFFNER: We, we’ve spoken now big picture … so let’s get inside the classroom … because you did teach at Yale …
HEFFNER: … and elsewhere. And what are, what are some of the prescriptions that you would recommend once you get into the lecture hall … I’m assuming that you still need the lecture hall because of the masses who are admitted to these schools. Unless you’re going to admit fewer people. I mean that’s just the reality, to what you’re going to create sections that are individual meetings of these lecture halls …
HEFFNER: … and hopefully have a qualified person like yourself to lead …
HEFFNER: … a, a teacher …
HEFFNER: … as opposed to someone who’s unqualified or wants to lecture in a section … a section is a smaller piece of …
DERESIEWICZ: Right. Right.
HEFFNER: … a lecture class that might meet weekly. Ah, this is, as I understand it … not only from my experience, but from anecdotal evidence, this is the way it works. There are lecture courses, and at certain schools, there are sections …
HEFFNER: … so if we’re working within that model, do we have to just tear that down … the basic framework of that?
HEFFNER: And insist that Berkeley and that Harvard primarily if not exclusively offer classes with eight to 12 people or, or maybe 15 to 20 people …
DERESIEWICZ: … 15 to 20 … yeah, yeah. Forgive me for saying this, but I think you betray your, your education at Harvard which is this intensely lecture based because you have all these star professors who, who want to lecture, who don’t want to engage … you know, in seminar style teaching, which takes a lot more time … one of the things that great about the liberal arts colleges and this is true again of the public honors colleges, is precisely that the class sizes are smaller. It takes more money. You need to build the spaces if they don’t exist already. You need to hire the professors, but lectures can sometimes be valuable when you have a really good lecturer and its supported with the kinds of discussion sections you outline.
At big public universities you just get the lecture, you don’t even get the, the section. But for the most part I think … look we all recognize that in high school … I mean every … there are no lectures in high school, it’s small classes with discussions … I mean even public high schools, to the extent that they can … do that, too.
That doesn’t stop when you get to college. I, I think the lecture model is by and large a huge mistake and it only exists because it is economically efficient.
Schools want to spend money on everything except instruction. This is historically true. Instructional costs have hardly grown at all even as pretty much all other costs, in recent years, all other costs at colleges and universities have just gone up and up and up. So they’re spending money on the football stadium, but not on instruction.
HEFFNER: If it’s unrealistic … I mean that’s the party line, “It’s unrealistic, unaffordable, just totally impractical to insist on a model that is seminar based …
HEFFNER: … as opposed to lecture based … how do you respond?
DERESIEWICZ: How are we going to do it? Okay, I would say that impracticality is a, is a dependent variable and the independent variable is political will. I would respond by saying that since 2011 and the Occupy Movement … inequality has now been finally put on the table, people have finally woken up after the, the dream of our debt fueled growth for all those years, that we need to make fundamental changes. And I think the most obvious manifestation now is what seems to be a strong and sustained movement to raise the minimum way … allied with a strong and sustained movement to unionize low income workers.
I would like to put and others have already put the issue of free-high quality higher education on the table right next to those other issues, to redress inequality.
It is going to take the unthinkable, it is going to take raising taxes. We need to do that, we are … we’re still the richest country in the world … with a few exceptions, but we’re deeply underfunded in, in our public sectors.
There’s an organization called “Redeeming America’s Promise” that was started by a former … I think Al Gore aide … that is advocating for free public higher education. Which we once had. We can do it again, if we mobilize, if we organize, if we want it badly enough. If enough people wake up to the fact that they’re getting screwed.
HEFFNER: Do you start with these honor colleges? Because that’s an interesting conundrum, too. It’ shows how the meritocracy really starts in high school and to the extent that you’re going to be exposed to a seminar environment, you have be prepared from Day One.
If you don’t steep yourself in that learning experience at the high school level, you’re not going to be admitted to an honors program which gives you access to the smaller classes. But then we go back to the fact that if that’s what’s most practical from the beginning we … and then phasing in universal seminar, are we looking towards those honors colleges at public and state schools as the example to …
DERESIEWICZ: They’re one good example. I mean they may be the best example of the beginning of what we’re talking about. But, you know, you raised … I guess I should have said this before … free public higher education, but we need to do something about K through 12.
And we need to do what we’ve known we need to do for a long time, which is we have to stop funding K through 12 primarily on the basis of local property taxes. That is so explicitly a way of reproducing privilege. And we need to do what almost every, or every other advanced country does, which is to fund it on a federal level and equalize funding. And then you will have kids who are more prepared for those public honors colleges or the private liberal arts colleges or whatever.
HEFFNER: I mean that’s a real shift.
DERESIEWICZ: Well, I’m not sure if this is what you mean, but I, I think it would be a part of the problem with the way people respond to the incentives they’ve been given is that we have a winner take all society. And if you know that you, you … or if you think that you need to be rich in order to give your kids a decent education, etc., etc., then you’re a lot more likely to, to try to do that.
Whereas if you live in a society where there are basic social provisions, you know you’re going to need to do that less. Right?
HEFFNER: What are you doing next?
DERESIEWICZ: Well, right now it’s all book, all the time. I’m going around speaking on campuses, continuing to correspond with people … you know people … this book really came out of stories …
DERESIEWICZ: … that people were telling me about their own experiences. And, and they’re continuing to do that. And I love that. I think there’s more to be said about leadership, more to be said about higher ed …
HEFFNER: Well, the sheep metaphor came from …
DERESIEWICZ: … one of my students …
HEFFNER: … one of your students in the ivy league … and we’ll trust you that that’s the best animal … for now … to equate … when considering the future of …
DERESIEWICZ: Okay. Okay.
HEFFNER: … of higher ed … I appreciate so much you’re joining us today.
DERESIEWICZ: Thanks very much for having me on.
HEFFNER: And thanks to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time…for a thoughtful excursion into the world of ideas. Until then, keep an open mind.
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