‘Don’t send your kid to the Ivy League’

A century ago, the Ivy League universities—Harvard, Yale and Princeton—provided an education suitable for those who were born rich.  Now they provide an education suitable for those who hope to get rich.  This is not an improvement.

The old thinking was that those born into the upper ranks of society should receive an education suitable for future leaders.   The universities taught them history and the classics to give a broad understanding of the world.  They also sought to teach mental and physical discipline to build character.  College athletics were part of the character-building process, not a producer of revenue.

ivyleague.jpg_largeThe great 20th century democratic dream was that this type of education should be made available not just to the children of the elite, but to everyone who wanted it and was capable of it.   I was fortunate enough to attend college in the 1950s, when this dream was at its zenith, and I received a broad liberal education (with some gaps, due to bad choices on my part).  I can’t prove it was of economic benefit, but it enriched my life.

Now higher education has become part of the process of sorting people into winners and losers.

President Obama says everybody should have a chance to go to college in order to advance themselves economically.  But of course if everybody goes to college, then a college degree will be worth no more in economic terms than a high school diploma today.  An Ivy League degree is what economists called “positional good”—something that is valuable only because not everybody has it.

My e-mail pen pal Bill Harvey sent me a link to an article in the New Republic by William Deresiewicz about how elite education has been corrupted by the quest for success.  Here are some highlights.

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. [snip]

I taught many wonderful young people during my years in the Ivy League—bright, thoughtful, creative kids whom it was a pleasure to talk with and learn from.  But most of them seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them.

Very few were passionate about ideas.  Very few saw college as part of a larger project of intellectual discovery and development.  Everyone dressed as if they were ready to be interviewed at a moment’s notice.  [snip]

Once, a student at Pomona told me that she’d love to have a chance to think about the things she’s studying, only she doesn’t have the time.  I asked her if she had ever considered not trying to get an A in every class.  She looked at me as if I had made an indecent suggestion. [snip]

Return on investment”: that’s the phrase you often hear today when people talk about college. What no one seems to ask is what the “return” is supposed to be. Is it just about earning more money? Is the only purpose of an education to enable you to get a job? What, in short, is college for?

The first thing that college is for is to teach you to think. That doesn’t simply mean developing the mental skills particular to individual disciplines. College is an opportunity to stand outside the world for a few years, between the orthodoxy of your family and the exigencies of career, and contemplate things from a distance.

lede_art_feature_deresiewicz_cuffs_645Learning how to think is only the beginning, though. … …  It is only through the act of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique being—a soul.  The job of college is to assist you to begin to do that.  Books, ideas, works of art and thought, the pressure of the minds around you that are looking for their own answers in their own ways.

College is not the only chance to learn to think, but it is the best.  One thing is certain: If you haven’t started by the time you finish your B.A., there’s little likelihood you’ll do it later.  That is why an undergraduate experience devoted exclusively to career preparation is four years largely wasted.

I know many people who are struggling to keep their heads above water economically, and I can see how, to them, what I’m writing and what Deresiewicz has written seems like elitism.  I imagine them saying that only somebody like me, who never had any serious problem in finding a job or earning a living, has the luxury of valuing education for education’s sake.

With all due respect, I do not think this is so.  I know people who have a deeper love and understanding of literature and philosophy than I do, and who have been through more hard knocks than I have, and none of them would trade learning for money.

I think if you have a broad understanding of the world, if you have some knowledge of history, science, philosophy, literature and the Bible, you are better able face life, both the good things and the bad things, than if your perspective is limited to your personal experience..

Of course you don’t need to go to college to be educated.  A good public library in an American city provides all that is needed for self-education.  And there are sources of wisdom not found in books.   Higher education might be a detriment to acquiring wisdom if the main thing you are taught is how to win the rat race.


Click on Ivy League Schools Are Overrated. Send Your Kids Elsewhere. to read the whole article by William Deresiewicz in The New Republic.   Hat tip for the link to Bill Harvey and Steve Badrich.

Click on Is Ethical Parenting Possible? by Lisa Miller for New York magazine for an example of how the value of education has been distorted.

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4 Responses to “‘Don’t send your kid to the Ivy League’”

  1. peteybee Says:

    Oh, I don’t think that’s all true.

    For one thing, a quality college education is more than just an invisible business suit that you wear. Don’t get me wrong, that aspect of it can be life-changing and wonderful when it pops up. But there is more.

    Education is also a language-learning process. (this includes studying math, science, computers, business, history, art, music, government/politics, everything else.). So more is better. A higher level of communication ability among new workers and members of society is a genuine benefit to the world.

    Another benefit is that it keeps people out of the workforce. That’s important since the number of jobs (or working hours) per capita needed to sustain civilization, at least our civilization, seems to be declining, and until future scientists discover the concept of a shorter workweek, an extended education is a nice way to deal with this.

    The most valuable thing, though — I think that is a deep indoctrination process, which gives people who come out of an education system *faith* in the process of reason. So when you are stumped by something that cannot be explained, then rather than give up, you roll up your sleeves and get to work figuring it out, learning whatever skills you need along the way. Again, more of this is better.


  2. Charles Broming Says:

    You guys are really on the same page. I do want to note that scientists (including such social scientists as John Maynard Keynes) have touted the advantages of the shorter work week for at least 4 generations. Politicians and business people still don’t see them.


  3. philebersole Says:

    For education, time is a more important resource than money. College students nowadays have less of it than they did when I was a student.

    The students at the elite schools have little time because they are busy doing things that will look good on their CVs when they graduate.

    Average college students have little time because they’re working one or more full-time jobs in order to survive.

    There are exceptions, of course.

    If you have abundant time, you can read and study on your own. Years ago I read a book, published in 1960, called The Priceless Gift of a Rich Cultural Education by Cornelius Hirshberg, a salesman in New York City who educated himself by reading serious books going to and from work on the subway.

    He made suggestions of how to read up on various subjects, and provided lists of books.

    His book is now out of print. I’m sorry I gave my copy away.

    Of course he would have saved time by going to college and he also would have had a certificate saying he had a rich cultural education. But I think in the future, more and more people are going to have to educate themselves his way.


  4. peteybee Says:

    regarding time … that is a really good point. Also more material is now being crammed into 4-year programs, which used to sometimes be 5-year programs.


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