Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Snobs vs. the Ivy League (or, The Question of Bill Deresiewicz'sCharacter)

There is nothing a snobbish Ivy Leaguer likes better than putting down the Ivy League. It's an easy way to signal that you are above your own Ivy League school and the privilege it confers -- all a big humbug that your superior perspective sees right through -- while holding on to every last scrap of that privilege. It allows you to position yourself as not only 1. better than people who didn't get into Harvard, Princeton, or Yale, but 2. the benevolent champion of those little people who didn't get in and also 3. better than everyone else who did get into your school and who, unlike you, need to take the place seriously. It's a time-honored game for the insider's insiders, and William Deresiewicz plays it like an old hand in the latest New Republic, with an article titled "Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League."

Even the title of that article is disingenuous. William Deresiewicz has never studied or worked outside the Ivy League. He has three degrees from Columbia. He taught for ten years at Yale. Public colleges, and the students at public colleges, are merely rhetorically convenient symbols for him. He displays no understanding of, and no curiosity about, what those places and people are actually like.

Is going to an Ivy League school worth it? Unless you are already a person of enormous inherited privilege, the question is disingenuous. Of course it is. This question is like the popular media question, "Is going to college worth it?" No one asking that question honestly believes that they would have been better off not going to college; they would not be writing in whatever magazine is asking the question this week if they had not gone to college. And none of them would be willing for their own children not to go to college. Asking the question is an act of dishonesty. The writer is at the very least deceiving him- or herself.

Deresiewicz argues that one should turn down admission to an Ivy League school and go to a public university, where you will build superior character. So, if you get into Harvard you should go to the University of Massachusetts instead. Let me say, as a proud alumnus of both Harvard and U. Mass.: don't be ridiculous.

And yes, I learned to think at Harvard. Of course. Were some of my classmates careerists who resisted genuine introspection? Yes, surely a few. But no institution teaches students to love thinking. Only another person can teach you that. The Harvard I went to abounded with such people.

I should certainly not turned down Harvard when I was 17 and gone to U.Mass instead. That would have been crazy. And anyone telling a young person in my position to do that isn't striking a blow against elitism. They're just trying to keep less-privileged people out of the elite.

I said yes to Harvard for a simple reason: I could not afford not to. I grew up comfortably middle-class. But we certainly weren't the upper middle class. (One of my parents was a high school teacher, the other  police lieutenant.) I could not turn down a break like getting into Harvard. I could not count on getting another break like that again. Anyone who tells a kid like me to turn down Harvard is doing that kid wrong.

Any 18-year-old who gets a chance to go to school with people smarter than she or he is should take that opportunity. Knowing that nearly all of your classmates know interesting things that you don't is a gift that only a fool would refuse. I am grateful that I was given that opportunity; there is no stronger expression of entitlement than ingratitude.

I have three university degrees: two from world-famous universities and one from a state school. I have spent the last ten years teaching in a public university. I think it's fair to say that I have seen both sides of this question. And I am absolutely committed to public education. In fact, what makes me angriest about Deresiewicz is the way his phony, patronizing praise for public universities helps paper over the crisis that public schools are in.  Public universities have been bleeding support for years, with our resources falling further and further behind those of the wealthy private colleges, and Deresiewicz knows it. The endless budget problems interfere, inevitably, with the education we can provide our students. Disguising that basic and terrible fact is a bad thing.

Let me confess here that this is personal. In an earlier article on this theme, Deresiewicz claimed that students were better off going to the university where I teach than they are going to Yale. He named us specifically and repeatedly. We have wonderful students and I am proud of them, but telling people to turn down Yale for us is insane. But still more insane was Deresiewicz's reason: you see, when Yale students struggle, they have enormous resources to help them: a small but well-trained army tutors and counselors. My students don't have that. We have some tutors and some counselors but when our students hit trouble (and my students as a group have far, far more troubles than Yale students), they are mostly on their own. Deresiewicz feels that this is a great thing. You see, it builds character. Isn't it better to be at a poor school, struggling?

I don't feel great about that. I long for the resources I used to be able to call in to help Stanford undergrads when they were in trouble. When my students get in trouble, I don't have those people to call, and that is a terrible, terrible feeling.

My students need that help and they don't get it. Deresiewicz applauds that. In fact, Deresiewicz, avowed anti-elitist, applauds struggling poor kids not getting help. That itself is outrageous. But Deresiewicz's cheap rhetorical ploy had real-world effects at my school, because it served as an excuse for not providing any of that help that our students need. When Bill Deresiewicz says it's great that my students don't get help, he does my students wrong. It will take me a long time to forgive him.

But what about character? What about elitism and snobbery? It is true that elite schools are full of students who are already from various elites. That is the nature of the beast. But, whether Deresiewicz realizes it or not, the class system is alive and well among the students at public universities. Rich students and poor students have very different experiences at those places, to the ultimate detriment of both. Skim the annual lists of famous party schools: it's not the kids who need to work for their tuition money who are throwing those parties. Drinking your way through school while studying the absolute minimum is one of the oldest ways for students to express their wealth and privilege, and it is now perversely easier to get away with that game at Flagship State than at one of the Ivies.

I cannot deny that elite universities have more than their healthy share of the arrogant, the entitled, and the egotistical. No one who has spent time at one of those places could deny that. There are a lot of big egos at Harvard and at Stanford both. But my experience of the world is that there are some arrogant and entitled people everywhere. Those people don't always base their sense of superiority on going to a fancy school, or on any educational achievement or talent. In fact, many people who feel superior to others don't base their conviction of superiority on anything that anyone else can detect. Arrogance and entitlement are their own reasons. And if you want to prevent a bright teenager from becoming an arrogant jerk, sending her to a school where there are always three smarter people in the room is not a bad idea. Most of what I know about humility I learned at Harvard.

Deresiewicz wants to discuss character, and I don't want to impugn his. My spouse knows him from her own Yale days, and speaks well of him as a teacher. I am certainly willing to hope that his character is better than his essay makes it appear. 

So let's make it personal, Bill. You speak of character. Why not apply for a teaching job outside the Ivy League? If you believe in the mission public education, why not be part of that mission? Romanticizing my students' poverty is not good for them, and not healthy for you either. But you have the tools to help fight their disadvantage. It is not an easy job. It is much harder, in most ways, than teaching at Yale. And it will sorely test your spirit, because teaching a full range of college students means that at least a few of your students will not succeed, no matter what you do, because things outside school prevent them. Knowing that you cannot get them all through is a bitter thing. Knowing that another budget cut is coming, sooner or later, is hard on the spirit. But you wanted to build character, didn't you? You can use the privileges that you have been given to help those who have been shut out. Ranting about how awful Yale is helps no one, and it is a waste of your talents. Our country is full of less privileged schools, with less privileged students. Get a job at one. It is a chance to do something good, and something useful, in the real world.

Cross-posted from Dagblog 


Susan said...

I cannot agree more that there is nothing romantic and character building about teaching at an underfunded public university. When we hire faculty who have been at Ivies, they are in shock for the first year about our lack of resources.

Kirsten Wood said...

My own reaction was exactly as Susan describes. And when I first went back to my doctoral institution to visit, I was in shock all over again.

Alexander Anderson said...

Comparing Harvard and UMass isn't the same, at all, as comparing (say) Harvard and Iowa. For a lot of people Iowa really is a better choice, where you can get a nearly equivalent education as the Ivies for a fraction of the price and without the ridiculous social and cultural pressures that you have at Harvard.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Thank you for your comment, AA.

But, respectfully: either play the college-reputation game or don't. If you want to say Iowa educates its students nearly as well as the Ivies, despite the Ivies' much superior reputations, that's fine. If you want to say Iowa is a much better school than U.Mass, I have to admit that Iowa has a better reputation. But you can't have it both ways.

On the other hand, your claim about a "fraction of the price" is not actually true when when one looks at what students actually pay after financial aid. At best, Harvard is slightly more expensive than Iowa is for a middle-class student.

Collegecalc.org isn't perfect, and isn't completely up to date, but it's useful for quick-and-dirty comparisons. In 2010-11 the average net cost for an Iowa resident at the U Iowa was $14,245:


The average net cost for Harvard undergrads in the same year was $18,277:

The net cost for Iowa is technically a fraction of the net cost for Harvard. But that fraction is around 7/9ths. And of course, middle-class out-of-state students pay far more at Iowa than they would at Harvard. (But 13/9ths is also technically a fraction.)

Public university tuitions have been rising sharply for decades now, and just keep climbing; the increase is much faster than the real price increase at private colleges. That is the real educational issue for America to confront, not Deresiewicz's angst about who gets the 1500 seats at New Haven next fall.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Oops. Here's the link for that net Harvard cost: