Columns

Dorris ’15: The Ivy League lament

By
Opinions Columnist
Monday, September 15, 2014

I remember my first technology career fair. There was a girl who couldn’t stop laughing. As resumes were scattered and business cards compared, the artists were separated from the analysts, the social workers from the computer programmers.

Soon the laughter turned to tears.

Apparently not a single firm was interested in her humanities degree or her four months WWOOFing in the south of France. She lamented why she came to this school at all. Her friend asked her how she got in.

So the discussion turned to class.

Perhaps money can’t buy class, but it can probably buy admission into one of America’s most fetishized institutions. Especially if you’re a legacy student.

That’s what former Yale professor William Deresiewicz argues, in his recent viral New Republic article, “Don’t send your kid to the Ivy League.”

With the subtitle, “The nation’s top colleges are turning our kids into zombies,” the article’s premise is nothing new — perhaps just another solipsistic example of a privileged insider drawing attention to his Ivy League degree by seemingly waving it off. A bizarre social practice New York Magazine’s Maureen O’Connor calls “elite populism.” But Deresiewicz is right in many respects — the Ivy League is no longer a meritocracy. And really, it never was. It’s a bastion of privilege and wealth, a place where the nation’s elite learn how to act rich by networking with other rich kids from 105 different countries, all under the fuzzword of “diversity.”

Brown itself is a place where the same Occupy College Hill first-years that once used sleeping bags to cradle handles of vodka now dust off their Prada for banking interviews on Wall Street.

But that type of latte liberalism has another name. And I’d call that youth. I’d call that rich youth. Rich youth who have a lot of resources but are lost in a culture where everything is devoured in analgesia but nothing goes away. It’s easy to blame schools like Brown — which Deresiewicz calls careerist “machines.” Yet when it comes to writing about the Ivy League, the only truly vanguard move, from what I can tell, would be to show how unremarkably similar it is to other institutions of higher education: not a paroxysm of guilt, or pride, or denial, but a recognition that this place exacerbates income inequality by encouraging the creation of children who are trained to compete in the expensive college admission sport — no different than any other American university.

If you decide to skip the article, the most compelling part is Deresiewicz’s discussion on mental health: that a large-scale survey of college first-years found self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to the lowest levels in 25 years. But if we just look at Brown Main’s Green — manicured grass freckled with hammocks and tightropes and barefooted students that constellate around goblet drums and meditation gurus — the fact that so much suffering can be swallowed into a green screen of bliss must mean something else: that the problems of higher education cannot be pinned on the Ivy League because they’ll affect us even after we leave this place. The main anxiety of the essay reminds me of that movie “Speed”: We are moving very fast toward nothing in particular, only fueled by the fear that if we drop below 50 miles per hour, our destinies will detonate.

It’s the essence of modernity. It’s the fact that even in a place with the world’s best resources, so many of us can be severely depressed. It’s the fact that so many of us escape to New York City only to end up working in coffee shops, that we learn to name-drop books like “Kafka on the Shore” in these coffee shops instead of actually reading them. In this culture of extracurriculars and LinkedIn profiles, we have become self-absorbed, self-destructive and, frankly, not productive.

But we can’t blame this on the Ivy League. There’s an entire genre of essays that remind Americans of all ages to slow down, that admonish the glorification of busyness while simultaneously fetishizing it. But racing through life is no longer just a cause of stress. It’s something we just can’t live without.

In a place like Brown’s Main Green, festooned with long gabled roofs and fluted columns that seem archaic, ironic even, modernity should not be confused with modernism. It’s not a stylistic period, and it’s not going away. Just look at other top-tier schools like Stanford, which is not in the Ivy League. From a plane it looks like an incubator surrounded by playing fields — huge, efficient, irresistibly modern.

Perhaps Deresiewicz’s biggest lament is that no, Yale cannot save us from modernity. Neither can Harvard nor Princeton nor Brown. The Ivy League cannot force the modern world out. No university can.

Instead of recommending parents not send their children to the Ivy League, I’d argue that the better advice would be to not send your kid to college at all. There’s an entire genre of articles dedicated to the futility of higher education, how the worst kind of wasted mind is an Ivy League mind. And four years can feel like a long time.

But I can’t stop thinking about the girl who couldn’t stop laughing.

Perhaps she realized the absurdity of higher education — that while she was reading Nietzsche, others were learning Python, and that four years is not a very long time at all. But like ivy, she could grow only where there was room for her. So she laughed at the world. She laughed at the world that thought the Van Wickle Gates kept her caged in, when she knew, at least for a little while, they kept the rest of the world out.

William Deresiewicz, author of the book “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite,” will speak at the McCormack Family Theater Monday, Sept. 15 at 6 p.m. 

Cara Dorris ’15 can be reached at cara_dorris@brown.edu or @caradorris.

 

Editors’ Note, 9/16/2014 at 11:33 p.m.: A previous version of this column contained a few passages that were overly similar to a New Yorker piece published this summer on the same topic. Those passages have been modified to remove the resemblance, and we have determined that the similarities were inadvertent. The integrity of our attribution is of utmost importance to The Herald, and we are taking steps to ensure that no such mistakes happen in the future.

13 Comments

  1. A good policy for others, but surely not good enough for you, Cara-who-is-still-here.

  2. Incredibly mature and well-written.

  3. “Don’t go to college” says woman starting career with Ivy League degree.

    If that isn’t the epitome if Ivy privilege…

    • The article isn’t saying “don’t go to college.” Instead it says by telling parents not to send their kids to the Ivy League, Deresiewicz might as well have told them to not send their kids to college at all. Because “The Ivy League lament” is that the Ivy League is not unique – it’s flawed, yes, but no more flawed than any other American university.

      • I might need to take more English courses (or Cara needs to take fewer), but the line reads “I’d argue that the better advice would be to not send your kid to college at all.” No qualifiers, no “might as well,” nothing to indicate the author herself doesn’t endorse the view.

  4. Wait, Deresiewicz was serious? He wasn’t merely saying the right things to get people to buy his book? He wasn’t trying to touch a nerve? He wasn’t trying to get ivy league students to write reactions to his book in the opinion section of the University newspaper in order to get free advertising? Astonishing! $$$$

  5. Tom Bale '63 says:

    It is fun reading both Blake and Dorris. They take me back many years ago to think about my time at Brown. The Van Wickle Gates as metaphor, keeping us in or the “rest of the world out”? Cara forgot about the two smaller side gates through which anyone can freely enter or leave the campus. For me this was the reality of my life at Brown. It gave me the context to find myself, but not the direction. I had to discover that for myself.

  6. “Like ivy, she could grow only where there was room for her. So she laughed at the world. She laughed at the world that thought the Van Wickle Gates kept her caged in, when she knew, at least for a little while, they kept the rest of the world out.”

    i’m so sick of this topic, but Dorris writes beautifully.

  7. As a student, the only fault on behalf of the Ivy League is perhaps admitting the do-nothing navel-gazers of which you speak that create such an impression. Only a fool wouldn’t be able to see the enormous benefits 4 years at Brown ending in a degree can do for him. Perhaps such people shouldn’t be admitted in favor of more thoughtful, ambitious students.

  8. One of the best op-eds I’ve read here in a long time. 🙂

  9. i don’t have time to navel gaze about the ‘futilities of higher education,’ and the reduction of higher education to reading nieztsche completely misses my experience as a first generation black woman who is now an engineer. rich youth are not the only people who populate the ivy league, higher education, and an op-ed like this and the essays it references, for all their richness in word, exhibits a real paucity of observation.

  10. I think you hit the nail on the head when you boil it down to modernity. Honestly there needs to be a greater discussion on the effects and characteristics of modernity.

    Overall, a truly poignant piece that resonated with me and I suspect with resonate with many of my friends…

  11. brookestone18 says:

    I love this Cara! And I didn’t stop reading the article..it really drew me in though I may be a bit too un-ivy to understand a lot of the book titles etc. Love how you add your own creative touch to the end. I’m trying to put more mindfulness into my life and your reference to “Speed” shows just that-that I like the rest of the world am trying to race through not really appreciating and taking in each moment. Perhaps you have taken a lot from your own education at an Ivy League. It really shows through here. You’ve seen through a lot of the facade that Ivy League’s portray.

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