OPINIONS

An open letter to Mr. Deresiewicz: We’re not all the same

In “Don’t Send Your Kids to the Ivy League,” a viral article in The New Republic last month, author William Deresiewicz seems to have one main goal – to lambast top-tier universities and the students who attend them. To him, these colleges only serve to produce students that are “anxious, timid and lost” and who are “great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”

Isn’t that to be expected? As 18 to 22-year-olds, many of us are just beginning to navigate through the world alone. We’re barely adults, yet college has thrown us into a mix of strangers, granted us with independence and responsibility, and asked us to figure our lives out. With the whirlwind of personal turmoil that inevitably ensues, are we not expected to be nervous, lost, and at times, scared?

The truth is, despite the rhetorical eloquence and provocative statements, Deresiewicz paints a far too simple picture of the average student at an elite university. He seems to think that he understands all of our experiences, interests and aspirations, yet fails to recognize that not all top-tier students succeeded solely because of parents’ wealth, are only looking to add another checkbox to a resume or are oblivious to what is beyond the “bubble of privilege” he thinks schools like Stanford foster.

“Kids at schools like Stanford think that their environment is diverse if one comes from Missouri and another from Pakistan,” he claims. “Never mind that all of their parents are doctors or bankers.”

As someone whose parents are neither doctors nor bankers, I’m a little confused. It’s undoubtedly true that many students get into top-tier colleges with parental support, but it’s also true that many get in because of genuine passion and hard work. I meet people in the latter category every day, yet somehow Deresiewicz still thinks they are rare exceptions. As Andrew Giambrone, a recent graduate and financial aid recipient from Yale explains, though, these students are not just one or two exceptions, but the 50 to 60 percent of students at top-tier schools who are on financial aid.

In addition to our socioeconomic statuses, Deresiewicz also vastly oversimplifies our interests and future aspirations. “Making partner at a major law firm or becoming a chief executive, climbing the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy” – this must be what we are all after. Anyone who aspires to do something else must be exceptions as well.

That’s a lot of exceptions. After all, my dormmate wants to devote her life teaching in an inner-city school, my high school friend at John Hopkins hopes to be a high school math teacher and my friend at Princeton wants to eventually start a sustainable coffee shop. There’s the boy who thinks math is art, the girl who writes daily poems about her life and the friends who read Latin together. And though a large portion of Stanford students do go into consulting or banking, well over 50 percent of them enter other fields, from education to the sciences to tech to policy. Where do these students fit into Deresiewicz’s equation?

Of course, a lot of my friends also do want to climb some hierarchy. But even then, they are not all just “excellent sheep,” as Deresiewicz believes. Faced with the realities of supporting families and paying off debts, many students understandably end up in careers that are known to provide financial security. Can Deresiewicz blame them? U.S. student debt surpassed the $1 trillion mark in 2012, and high-achieving, low-income students actually pay less to attend top-tier universities than their less selective counterparts. Nevertheless, Deresiewicz asks these students to attend public schools or liberal arts colleges to avoid elitism. But isn’t it elitist to assume students have the luxury to pay more to attend a school with fewer resources and to forsake jobs that promise a comfortable life?

The fact is, just because students pursue careers Deresiewicz dislikes doesn’t mean they lack passion or are simply jumping through hoops in life. They may go into finance, but it’s ultimately not their job that defines who they are. My friend in finance is one of the biggest philosophy nerds I know, and my engineer dormmate likes to sit in classes he’s not in just to soak up as much knowledge as he can. Are they any less intellectually curious because of their chosen career paths?

I don’t deny that there are serious flaws in the education system, and I agree that lots must be done to restore it to one that truly provides equality of opportunity. But Deresiewicz’s idea that top-tier universities are simply “bastions of privilege” blind to the issues facing the world today is misguided and distracts from the real issues, and he himself fails to recognize the diversity of interests, aspirations and backgrounds that students at top-tier universities have. Instead of offering a blanket criticism of these students, Deresiewicz should recognize that these students fall within a spectrum, and that many do not identify with the practices he so roundly denounces. If he does that, then we could have a more productive conversation about how to tackle some of the legitimate concerns he raises.

 

The column is part of a series regarding Deresiewicz’s article. The next article will discuss Deresiewicz’s proposed solutions and root causes of the problems he discusses.

 

Contact Kimberly Tan at kwtan@stanford.edu.

About Kimberly Tan

Kimberly Tan is an Opinions columnist at The Stanford Daily. She is currently the only freshman columnist and enjoys writing about a wide variety of topics related to social and policymaking concerns. She is originally from Saratoga, Calif. and is a prospective Economics major. In her free time, she loves chatting with friends, visiting downtown Palo Alto and reading random Wikipedia articles. She can be contacted at kwtan 'at' stanford.edu.
  • JT

    I blame a lot of Deresiewicz’s blindness to the fact that he has been in the “elite” school system his entire life. He doesn’t seem to know anything outside of it, like that it’s not just “elites” who have angst, or the fact that the makeup of these schools has changed as well. He’s just looking through rose-tinted glasses and seeing what he wants to…great piece! :D

  • Luiz Carlos

    If you read his new book, you will see his ideas in a different light. I am sure that after you read that book you will write a completely different article.

  • DNA

    Kimberly,

    I loved your article and I think you definitely bring up a lot of great points to counter Deresiewicz. While I think it is absolutely valuable to discuss some of the problems with top tier schools, I feel that we are missing the bigger picture with American education. If the biggest problem with the American education system is that too many kids are going to Stanford and Yale and then working at Bain or Goldman Sachs, I honestly fail to see how that is a problem at all. As a Stanford alum teaching in some inner city schools in Chicago, it never fails to amaze me how our schooling system is failing this particular demographic of our society.

    Tangent aside, I think the pertinent discussion regarding the top tier schools is the increasing attitude of high school students overly relying on US News and World Report and having the mentality of “Harvard-Yale-Princeton-Stanford” or bust.

  • Mitsi

    As a fellow Stanford student, I think your points are well made, and I totally agree that he shouldn’t put us all on a spectrum, but I actually disagree with your first point. Income inequality is a HUGE problem that affects many colleges (elite or otherwise), but especially schools like Stanford. And whether one receives financial aid or not is actually not a good indicator of that. For instance, those “50-60%” of students who received aid range from those who get only a couple thousand dollars of aid to full tuition of aid. And many times the cutoff to receive aid is actually pretty high compared to average household incomes in the United States. For instance, according to the Stanford financial aid website (http://financialaid.stanford.edu/undergrad/how/parent.html): “Families with incomes at higher levels (typically up to $200,000) may also qualify for assistance, especially if more than one family member is enrolled in college.” But having a household income at this level is already enough to place someone into the top 5% income level in the United States (http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2012/01/15/business/one-percent-map.html?_r=0).

    Almost 50% of Americans make less than $50,000 a year, but not even remotely close to 50% of Stanford students are from a family in that income bracket I assure you. If one disagrees with this analysis, I would suggest talking to groups like FLIP who are talk about the issues those who identify as “low income” face at a school like Stanford.