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Revisiting Deresiewicz, Part II: Toward a productive conversation

(SAM GIRVIN/The Stanford Daily)

Last week, I sat down with William Deresiewicz to discuss the essay he wrote this summer, “Don’t Send your Kid to the Ivy League,” and his new book, “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.” In Part I of Revisiting Deresiewicz, I examined many of the criticisms Mr. Deresiewicz has faced. In this column, I frame the interview in terms of Deresiewicz’s productive and substantive points.

One of the strongest criticisms of “Don’t Send your Kid to the Ivy League” is that the solutions it presents are incomplete and arbitrary. But the larger argument about higher education should not be discredited simply because a few proposed solutions have flaws. As Mr. Deresiewicz said, “The fact that it’s hard to imagine a better system doesn’t mean we should stick with the one that we have.” On this we can all agree. So when you get away from these nitty-gritty details and think more concretely about the big issues that he is writing about, it’s clear that there is a conversation to be had. Primarily, it is a conversation about how society should be structured and what we value.

Consider access to elite higher education. It’s no secret that minority and low income students face higher barriers to entry than the upper class.

[box type=”shadow” ]It’s interesting because the original purpose of affirmative action was to reduce inequality and to redress the historic injustice of race in America. And partly for legal reasons, well, entirely for legal reasons in the case of public universities, and I think just because of the general climate of opinion, schools had to sort of take refuge and adopt a fallback position, which is that it’s not about equality and justice – which we don’t talk about in this country very much anymore – it’s about diversity. And I agree that other forms of diversity are valuable. [W]alter Benn Michaels has a book called “The Trouble with Diversity” where he talks about this at great length that all those other forms of diversity have replaced what he and I both think is the most important, which is socio-economic status. [That is] partly for reasons of justice, for mitigating the class system, but also because, and I know I’ve gotten some pushback from African-Americans on this, I think it’s the most fundamental kind. I think it interacts in many ways with race and the one thing that I at least partly regret is that maybe affirmative action should be based on class in addition to race, not class instead of race.[/box]

Schools like Stanford have articulated “diversity of thought” as modern reasons for diversity of appearance. They also boast that they have some of the best financial aid in the country. While true, the statistics are still pretty shocking. According to the Stanford Progressive, only 15 percent of students come from families that make less than $60,000 a year, while about 50 percent come from families that make $300,000 or more. In contrast, more than half of the nation makes less than $60,000 and slightly more than 1 percent makes $300,000 or more, according to data from the 2010 census. If these statistics are surprising to you, then Deresiewicz is validated.

But not only could the university reduce income inequality by recruiting more low income applicants, it could actually achieve the diversity of thought it desires.

[box type=”shadow” ]The assumptions that class gives you, I think aren’t visible. And one of the reasons that I know they’re not visible, is that people don’t understand just how socio-economically homogenous these schools are. And if they’re constantly meeting people who came from different class backgrounds that didn’t assume the same things they assumed, that didn’t accept the same things they accepted, in conversation, they would get that, they would get that like “Wow, my mentality has really been shaped by the class that I come from.”[/box]

Beyond reducing inequality, we should be thinking about what role universities play in our culture.

[box type=”shadow” ]An essential component of American society has always been counterbalancing ideas and institutions: churches, philosophies, ideas, the whole Emersonian line on American thought and letters and colleges and universities. There have been times in our history when that balance has gotten out of whack. I think the first Gilded Age was one of them. But we need to restore that balance. And part of the danger of the current moment – and it doesn’t happen by itself, people have to write books, people have to make choices – one of the dangers of our current moment, when things have really gotten out of balance, is that many of those counterbalancing institutions have themselves been captured by the market…My point is colleges and universities have historically in the past played a countercultural role and they need to remember that.[/box]

This should also be framed in terms of universities’ role in preparing students. If you reflect on why many students are dissatisfied with the political system, it’s at least in part because our politicians are not acting in ways that we would expect of leaders. It would surprise no one to hear President Obama called cowardly or any GOPer called self-interested. So what should we expect of our leaders?

[box type=”shadow” ]It used to be understood and should be understood as a certain set of human qualities that could be exercised from the top or not from the top. And none of them involve what’s good for you…Leadership should be about honor, duty, courage, self-sacrifice, trusteeship, which – I’ve been using the word stewardship, like this country has been handed to you, this institution has been handed to you, you need to pass it along in better shape. This corporation, you need to be responsible to other people.[/box]

At Stanford, we speak a lot about leadership. However, it does seem, as Deresiewicz says, “leadership as it’s used on college campuses, it’s sort of a euphemism for personal success.” Do we have more and more student groups because of people who would rather start their own group than be a follower in another? This seems at least plausible. Leadership – or getting to the top of some organization – is instrumental to “success.”

But, the very principle of self-sacrifice, which we should expect of leaders, seems contradictory to our concept of success.

[box type=”shadow” ]It does seem to me that we have a system where – it’s exactly what you said – success seems to be correlated with sheephood. That’s obviously a big problem. And it may be, again, obviously this is just a small number of people, but I actually do believe that there are people who are not successful precisely because they refuse to be sheep. I’m not saying that’s the typical unsuccessful person, probably the typical unsuccessful person is just a slacker or dumb…After all, I say if you’re going to sort of do what is really purposeful and meaningful to you, you are probably going to have to give up a certain quantum of success. I don’t think The New Republic reprinted that, but I make a big point of that in the book.[/box]

The whole point is not to say that students should not pursue lucrative careers or that these careers can’t be meaningful. Rather, it’s to start a conversation about a tradeoff between what is typically defined as success – material and financial attainment – and what Deresiewicz calls fulfillment, but which easily could be defined as another type of success.

[box type=”shadow” ]As I just said before, if you want to pursue a life that’s more meaningful to you, you are probably going to have to give up one quantum of success, of status and wealth. But if you pursue the maximum amount of status and wealth, you are also going to have to give things up. And that’s why my original essay was called “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” because everybody knows the advantages, they are real. But nobody seems to recognize that they come at a cost.[/box]

And while surprising, neither Deresiewicz – nor this author – believes that he is in a position to tell students which type of success is better.

[box type=”shadow” ]First of all, this is not about whether you go to Wall Street. This is not actually about some choices are better than others. What I’m saying is that some ways of making your choices are better than others. And to me the problems with Wall Street etc. is why people are choosing to do that, which is often for base materialist motives or further credentialism or for lack of anything better so I might as well, and I think that’s a really bad way of going about life. I criticize TFA [Teach for America] for the same reasons, and I even say going to Brooklyn to be a Bohemian can also be a salmon run for some kinds of kids, especially kids at Yale – the artsy kids at Yale.[/box]

This is especially relevant for seniors, many of whom are going through tech, consulting and TFA recruitment this fall. Everyone should have many reasons for any choice, but as we chart our course after Stanford, it is vitally important that we consider what is meaningful to us, as individuals, and pursue the opportunities that will best fulfill that, regardless of any financial returns, prestige or “success” they may – or may not – offer.

Contact Nick Ahamed at nahamed ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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