Poison Ivy, Again

For the early part of this week social media was really excited about this piece in the New Republic about social mobility and the nation’s fanciest colleges.

The Ivy League apparently has a zombie asshole problem. Attending an Ivy League (or Ivy Leage-ish Stanford, Williams, Duke, Amherst, etc.) school will ruin people, and risk turning them into “out-of-touch, entitled little shits.”

As William Deresiewicz writes:

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.

He is, I suppose, technically right. But this isn’t about fancy colleges. The author is confusing a greater American economic and philosophical problem with what happens in a few colleges.

The idea that following all of the rules, and going through the rat race of success, will make you both mindless and kind of a jerk is a familiar concern about American life. There’s more out there to learn and love and experience.

That more or less the specific, plot-based lesson of, say, The Catcher in the Rye. All of those preppy phonies and their pointless lives and useless concerns. But the reason that book is taught in public high schools in Marshalltown, Iowa, and South Central Los Angeles is that the greater message is universal: Conformity and philistinism and a life unexplored is unsatisfying. That’s not about where you went to college or even, in fact, if you went at all.

poisonIvy

America’s most selective schools do turn out a lot of zombies, but it’s probably not the schools that do that. Indeed, it’s not even clear that Harvard produces a greater percentage of zombies than the nearby, and less selective, University of Massachusetts.

The writer points out that America’s top colleges are full of “toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression.” Well, so are America’s Walmarts. It’s not our system of elite education that does this; it’s our whole system. That’s how employment works, too.

What to do?

Instead of service [volunteering in the Amazon or teaching English as a second language], how about service work? That’ll really give you insight into other people. How about waiting tables so that you can see how hard it is, physically and mentally? You really aren’t as smart as everyone has been telling you; you’re only smarter in a certain way. There are smart people who do not go to a prestigious college, or to any college—often precisely for reasons of class. There are smart people who are not “smart.”

Oh, stop. This is confusing a public struggle with a private one. Yes, it’s true that many relatively affluent children no longer have the experience working summer jobs in factories that many college students did 20 or 30 years ago, but that’s a result of changes in the American economy.

Furthermore, while an experience on the admissions committee (the author did “a daylong stint on the Yale admissions committee”), and interviews with very recent graduates, might tell an observer one thing, just looking at the alumni magazines will tell you something thing else. The top schools produce lots of “out-of-touch, entitled little shits,” but they also produce lots of ordinary people, dentists and lawyers, and a fair number of artists and nonconformists. Zombies? Well, only as far as America’s professional adults as a whole are zombies.

Zach Schonfeld over at Newsweek points out that 46 out of 91 [of TNR’s editorial] staffers hold undergraduate or graduate degrees (or both) from an Ivy League institution.

This something we often face here at this magazine when the College Guide comes out in the fall: Well, readers ask, where did you go to college? Where would you send your kids?

The Monthly‘s best colleges, of course, are the best colleges in terms of their services to the country, not “what is the fanciest place to send your kid.” And, to be honest, most editorial staff at magazines of ideas went to fancy colleges too. At the Monthly, back when I was on full staff and I worked seriously on the last college guide, alma maters of the editorial team included Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, Columbia, and Yale.

TNR is attempting to undermine the standard assumption that fancy college produce a lot of great people. The author is pretending to say, oh no, look we’ve done real investigative journalism and discovered that the Ivy League sucks. Send your kids to less selective school.

Yeah, I’ll believe that when Chris Hughes (Harvard) has a child who matriculates at SUNY Brockport or editor Franklin Foer (Columbia) has a child who graduates from the University of the District of Columbia.

Come on, we know how this works. Sure, there are zombies at top schools, but there’s aren’t more zombies at top schools. The zombies are everywhere.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer