An article recently published by William Deresiewicz titled Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League has begun a worldwide conversation about the corruption of the Ivy League system, and rightly so. Initially enticed by the aggressive title and header image of a burning Harvard flag, I was impressed to find an article addressing many issues to which we all can relate.
Mr Deresiewicz speaks to the flaws in the American Ivy League system (as well as a group of prestigious others), attacking it through the presentation of two major points: that Ivy League students are becoming ‘zombies’, merely going through the motions of an education in order to succeed, and that the Ivy League system is stunting socio-economic change by fomenting an environment in which the majority is affluent. Naturally, Mr Deresiewicz’s article has been met with much adversity from ‘top tier’students and alumni who furiously defend their alma maters, referencing their own fruitful experiences in the Ivy League. Although he specifically mentions American universities, Mr Deresiewicz’s argument could also apply to elite European universities where the application system is not purely based upon scores.
Mr Deresiewicz’s experiences in the Yale office of admissions are not surprising. We know there are any number of reasons why a student may be rejected from a top tier college and that preference is given to applicants who are especially gifted in a certain field, whose families have a long-standing legacy, or who are rich potential donors. The competition for admission rises each year, and in response to this kids are forced to become the “super humans” to which Mr Deresiewicz speaks. An ideal application displays the topmost marks, shining recommendations, a memorable essay and an impressive selection of pointed extracurriculars. But these impressive extracurriculars come, quite literally, at a high cost. Only those with money can afford to send their children to the weekly music lessons, private schools and summer trips abroad that college admissions officers seem to be looking for. So, by nature of what the top American universities are looking for, the potential successful applicant pool is mostly middle class or wealthier, except for a lucky few.
I find Mr Deresiewicz’s term “zombie” to be harsh, though not entirely incorrect. He mentions a young boy who reads book reviews rather than the books themselves because among the elites being able to off-handedly reference a text is equivalent to having actually read it. While there definitely are students who have become “zombies” in this way, I know that not all Ivy League scholars are unable to handle failure, can only ‘colour within the lines’ or are driven straight into the stronghold of economics and finance. I don’t attribute “zombification” to top tier institutions but to the importance our society places upon graduation from them. Degrees from elite universities are ‘stamps of approval’. As a daughter of Bostonian academics, I would be lying if I said there was never a time when dreams of Harvard floated around in my young teenage head. Having a Harvard or Princeton ‘stamp’ on your record says you can do the work; you can achieve.
What interests to me about Mr Deresiewicz’s article and the reactions to it are how people seem to be so fixated on the “zombie” part of his argument. Since the article’s début I’ve seen many mothers post photos on Facebook of their children’s summers in foreign countries with cheeky captions such as “My child, the zombie!” in an attempt to show that what Mr Deresiewicz has to say is invalid. But they seem not to realise that the photo of their child standing on a cliff overlooking Machu Picchu proves the other half of his argument correct. From the moment top tier students arrive on campus they are given opportunities that groom them for the life of sophistication and privilege their degree and hard work are likely to bring them. Universities have become stomping grounds for the elites and Mr Deresiewicz has the data to prove it.
In a refuting article on Category Five, incoming freshman George Beall defends the University of Pennsylvania, saying: “For someone who has seen my six family members and countless friends pursue top tier schools and love the experience, you have insulted me and many, many others.” While I have many problems with Mr Beall’s response (one of them being that he hasn’t even attended UPenn as of today), the main issue is that he has ignored the second element of Mr Deresiewicz’s argument. The fact that six of Mr Beall’s family members and “countless friends” have all attended top tier universities speaks to the standardisation of today’s Ivy League applicant. Students of top tier schools marry other top tier students, live in communities full of top tier alumni and raise children who go on to attend top tier schools. Social mobility is at an all time low. Mr Beall attempts to prove that he will not be turned into a “zombie”, but in the end he too falls into a long list of smart and affluent UPenn men.
The greater issue here is to do with our society’s view of higher education, and it’s not just within the Ivy League. If you go to an elite private university, you’re labelled as a snob. If you go to a state university, you’re labelled as dumb. Neither of these are necessarily true. But righteously sending your kids elsewhere does as little to solve the problem as sending your kids to a top school. In our society there is a distinct advantage given to graduates of top universities; it is an unavoidable truth. In order to alter this truth we need a complete overhaul of what it means to pursue a higher education and a system in which economic mobility is actually possible. While selecting legacy students who are likely to donate money is an economical move for a university, admission committees must stop putting aside their high standards for them – it degrades the significance of a top education. Admitting underprivileged students, realising that they will not have had as many opportunities as the affluent applicants, will increase the socio-economic diversity of the institution. What we need is diversity as an investment in the future of education, not just the kind to be boasted for pamphlets statistics and pictures.