I enjoyed William Deresiewicz’s article, “Don’t Send Your Kids to the Ivy League,” and not because I went to a large state university and not because my own teenage son has little chance of ivy league acceptance.
Yes, Deresiewicz generalizes (admits doing so) and yes, he runs the risk of appearing nostalgic (though he confesses to “sleepwalk[ing]” through his own university experience decades ago)—but there’s still much to consider here about education, learning, privilege, and, well, life.
The article resonated with me for a variety of reasons:
- I teach at an affluent suburban school with a toxic college-obsessed environment. Some of my students truly believe that the university they attend will determine their overall life fulfillment—and that “affluence, credentials, prestige” supply this fulfillment. In this equation, I, as high school teacher, become merely a rung on the ladder toward their worldly success (or, if I “give” them a B or below, an obstacle). In either case, my class holds little value for these students–it becomes a means to an end rather than a literary journey of self- and world-discovery.
- Many students at my school are so over-scheduled that I can barely assign twenty pages of reading per night. They complain constantly and enter class exhausted and cynical. You can call me part of the problem, but, in order to get into their dream schools, students choose to take an unsustainable load of rigorous courses (many of which they have no aptitude and/or passion for); to play school and club sports (hours and hours every week); to volunteer on the other side of the tracks (noblesse oblige now has useful benefits); and to participate in a crapload of extracurriculars…. All this work limits opportunities for deep reflection, for free time and mind space, for joy.
- There’s no doubt, as Deresiewicz shows, that the system is rigged for the wealthy. This sad fact drives me crazy, for some of my favorite students don’t stand a chance in the complicated, expensive, self-perpetuating twelve-year game of ivy league admissions. The system “exacerbat[es] inequality, retard[s] social mobility, perpetuat[es] privilege, and creat[es] an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead.”
- I love the author’s condemnation of this whole “return on investment” trend, and his celebration of college’s intangible purposes and rewards:
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. [...It] 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.
- And I appreciate his recommendations for improvement:
Affirmative action should be based on class instead of race, a change that many have been advocating for years. Preferences for legacies and athletes ought to be discarded. SAT scores should be weighted to account for socioeconomic factors. Colleges should put an end to résumé-stuffing by imposing a limit on the number of extracurriculars that kids can list on their applications. They ought to place more value on the kind of service jobs that lower-income students often take in high school and that high achievers almost never do. They should refuse to be impressed by any opportunity that was enabled by parental wealth.
School begins in two weeks–and I will be inundated by a frenzy of recommendation letter/college essay help requests. Of course, everyone will apply to like twenty schools and everyone will apply early, taking advantage of the Nov 1 early action/decision benefits. Sigh. Let the games begin….