In the News: The Great Ivy League Debate

The war of perceptions about an Ivy League education has recently been heating up, in particular thanks to Columbia grad and former Yale professor William Deresiewicz, whose book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life recently has garnered copious attention. I don’t want to go into too much detail because (1) I haven’t read the book yet and (2) I’m a little biased against Deresiewicz, who came across as an entitled, pretentious jerk in A Jane Austen Education: How Six Novels Taught Me About Love, Friendship, and the Things That Really Matter, a book I did read.

So holding off on criticizing for a moment, I wanted to point out this engaging article by Alexander Nazaryan in Newsweek: “American Horror, Ivy League Edition.” Although I think his title is a tad hyperbolic, he brings up two other books as supporting evidence for Deresiewicz, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs and Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy by Andrew Lohse. Both are biography/memoirs about the results of an Ivy League education on real people. Now clearly Peace, Hobbs, and Lohse all had issues stemming from before their entrance into college, but it does bring into question the role colleges should play in the personal lives of their students. Is a college’s responsibility simply to teach classes and help graduates land jobs or should they be therapist and counselors, intervening in student’s choice to party it up and telling them to buckle down, to find meaning in their lives?

Everyone says that college is the best time of life so there’s a large element of societal expectation to make it that way. It’s also the first time most kids have the freedom to do what they want, though perhaps not the adult-brain to warn them of the consequences of their actions. Personally I’m a little less sympathetic to a Lohse, who chose to join a frat and succumb to its peer pressure, than to a Peace, who had a traumatic childhood that haunted him to New Haven and back. But in the end, it’s not hard to see why they made those decisions – most kids at that age don’t know what they’re doing with their lives, most don’t have a passion, so why wouldn’t they follow the crowd or take the easiest route?

I guess this is where Deresiewicz would say that colleges should be training them not to be sheep, but then you’d better have some good shepherds to show them the way (and, by the way, tell me when you find those because I’m out of college and could still use that help). To an extent, that’s an understandable and reasonable expectation, but on the cusp of adulthood, there are limits on the hand-holding that should be necessary. As almost-adults, it’s their decision what they want to do with themselves, and universities can’t be single-handedly responsible for producing passionate, successful people after 4 years, disregarding the 18 years they had no influence on their students’ lives, if the student’s choose not to go to classes, not to participate in campus life, and to be disdainful of their experience.

In the end, college is less about where you go than what you make of it. I’m not absolving the Ivy League and I don’t believe that the Ivy League is the best fit for everyone, but the same problems could be apparent in liberal arts colleges, community colleges, or in people who don’t even go to college. Like many issues, this is complex, but I think it’s pointless to point fingers at an institution like the Ivy League without examining our culture that heaps certain expectations on children’s shoulders without providing any guidance from the get-go.

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