Posted on | July 22, 2014 | 44 Comments
My hostility to elite institutions of higher education is not entirely a matter of vulgar populism. It is also based on knowledge of what sort of childhood and adolescence is necessary to compete in the admissions sweepstakes at elite private schools.
It’s not just about being “smart.” Unless your Daddy’s a millionaire alumnus, mere intelligence doesn’t matter much in terms of getting admitted to Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other such schools which annually receive many applications from kids with perfect SAT scores (before the test was changed in 2005, more than 900 students each year were “dialing toll-free,” as it’s called, referring to a perfect 800 score on each section of the SAT). No, to get into an elite school, a high SAT score is just the beginning; you’ll also need a near-perfect high-school grade-point average (GPA) and a thick stack of extracurricular activities and awards — captain of the tennis team, student-body president, first prize in the state science fair, etc.
Basically, in order to get into an elite school — unless your family is rich and your Daddy’s a senator, like Columbia alumna Megan McCain — you’re going to have to devote the first 16 or 17 years of your life to compiling the kind of credentials necessary to gain admission. You’re going to have to be a grind, an apple-polishing teacher’s pet, and your life outside the classroom is going to be so crammed full of activities (violin lessons, dance classes, and so forth) that you will have no time for anything resembling a normal childhood. And then what? Well, your folks are going to have to shell out $50,000+ a year for tuition, room and board, so that you can have the privilege of spending four years being indoctrinated by Marxists, atheists and sexual perverts, while acquiring the snobbish certainty that you are morally and intellectually superior to everyone who didn’t graduate from an elite school.
Why anyone would want that for their children, I don’t know. And neither does former Yale instructor William Deresiewicz:
“Super People,” the writer James Atlas has called them—the stereotypical ultra-high-achieving elite college students of today. A double major, a sport, a musical instrument, a couple of foreign languages, service work in distant corners of the globe, a few hobbies thrown in for good measure: They have mastered them all, and with a serene self-assurance that leaves adults and peers alike in awe. 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.
These enviable youngsters appear to be the winners in the race we have made of childhood. But the reality is very different, as I have witnessed in many of my own students and heard from the hundreds of young people whom I have spoken with on campuses or who have written to me over the last few years. Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.
When I speak of elite education, I mean prestigious institutions like Harvard or Stanford or Williams as well as the larger universe of second-tier selective schools, but I also mean everything that leads up to and away from them—the private and affluent public high schools; the ever-growing industry of tutors and consultants and test-prep courses; the admissions process itself, squatting like a dragon at the entrance to adulthood; the brand-name graduate schools and employment opportunities that come after the B.A.; and the parents and communities, largely upper-middle class, who push their children into the maw of this machine. In short, our entire system of elite education. . . .
You can read the whole thing at the New Republic. Deresiewicz’s critique of the elite schools is essentially liberal, whereas my viewpoint is conservative. I have no problem with rich people sending their overprivileged kids to elite schools. My problem is with middle-class parents who think they’re doing their kids a favor by spending money they can’t afford to send their kids to schools that teach them to emulate the fashionable attitudes of the decadent rich.
Ted Kaczynski was a Harvard graduate, you know.
UPDATE: The blogger at Booman Tribune is a wretched leftist scumbag whom I would normally never link. However (a) he is a longtime resident of Princeton, N.J., who has had the opportunity to observe young Ivy Leaguers at close range, and (b) he basically agrees with me about this:
Most of them are well-rounded, but I don’t think we should expect most of them to be well-adjusted. Mostly, they’re basket cases who are terrified of failure. They’re also so goal-oriented that they can become unglued if no one is pointing them to the next goal. And maybe there aren’t enough different goals. Med School, Law School, a job in finance. Beyond that, what? . . .
I am very aware of what I’d have to do if I want my four year old son to go to an Ivy League school, and I would consider it a form of torture to inflict that kind of regimen on him.
Exactly so. My oldest daughter is highly intelligent, has excellent study habits and graduated summa cum laude from a state university. (She worked her way through school as a Pizza Hut waitress). If I were a millionaire, I might have encouraged her to think of attending an elite school, but it simply makes no sense to put your kid through that kind of grind if you’re not rich.
What kind of parent would want their kid to be the poorest student at Yale? You want your kid to have the opportunity to be snubbed by a bunch of overprivileged brats? Are you crazy?
And here’s the worst of possibility: You put your kid through the wringer — total grindathon in high school, extra-curriculars out the wazoo, etc. — encouraging her to dream of that Ivy League acceptance letter that she’s not quite good enough to get. The psychic trauma of that rejection will haunt her forever and, having gotten her hopes up, of course, she’ll want to attend the “second-tier” private liberal arts school that does accept her, taking on outrageous student loan debt just to have that semi-elite credential.
She’ll probably major in Women’s Studies and hate you forever and, honestly, I can’t say I would blame her: You are a bad parent.
It’s better, you see, to avoid the high-pressure elitist ambitions. If your kid is truly superior, they will excel naturally, wherever they go to school. If my well-adjusted kids get rich, I hope they’ll send my grandchildren to the best university in the world.