ArticleHop: Ivy League Not Actually All That, Yale Prof Finds

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yaleSo this article has been making the rounds for about a month, but even un-breaking news is sometimes worth a read. Writing in the American Scholar, William Deresiewicz argues that this “elite” education we’re getting actually kind of sucks.

Roughly, he posits: the Ivies a) make it impossible for you to talk to people who aren’t like you; b) give you an inflated sense of your own self-worth; and c) narrow our definition of success to “achievement” and “leadership” rather than asking the “big questions.”

I guess you could characterize the piece as “controversial” — it probably served as something of a parting shot when Deresiewicz left Yale this year (although his earlier defense of professor-student erotic tension had already raised some eyebrows). But it’s nothing new. The complaints that ring true — the collapse of solitude, the tyranny of specialization — have been hashed over before, and this time come infused with the self-righteousness of a defector condemning his former regime.

Besides, at Columbia — where hating privilege is almost the only thing we have in common — isn’t the charge of anti-intellectualism already part of the canon?

So, read the piece, have your creeping disenchantment explained at length, and then watch Ivygate flip out because some washed-up academic is indirectly shitting on their existence.


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  1. well

    actually what this guy says makes a lot of sense.. our ivy league education does make it impossible to communicate with the hoi polloi.. which is exactly the point

    "they" are in the dark as to how useless our educations are, but because there's that mystique associated with not being able to comprehend our world, we are elevated by default

  2. cc09

    "Besides, at Columbia -- where hating privilege is almost the only thing we have in common -- isn't the charge of anti-intellectualism already part of the canon?"

    i agree. at least at columbia (i cant vouch for the other ivies) i feel that part of our education is deconstructing what that education and privilege is all about

    • cc07

      I disagree with that but I'll digress for a moment.

      #1 is only a problem insofar as #2 is a problem. Stay grounded and you'll get along with people just fine. If, on the other hand, you think admission to an elite school is somehow a measurement of your self-worth, then it's a problem. Unfortunately, the education-as-commodity culture that prevails today tends to reinforce those kinds of measurements. Why is US News so popular? It feeds into a desire to seek out (perhaps demand?) "the best" at every turn. That's not necessarily a good thing, especially when US News gets to decide what "the best" means.

      Anyway, I think Lydia's actually making fun of the ridiculous language of anti-privelege that pervades certain dialogues on campus. Whenever certain elements of the student body clamor about privelege, I wonder if they've ever looked in the mirror and turned the meaning of the word around. "Privelege" isn't a dirty word. The opportunity to study at Columbia is in itself a privelege in my opinsion (though Deresiewicz clearly disagrees). I don't think enough students truly grasp what that means, or seize the opportunity. For whatever reason they came to Columbia, look at some of Columbia's most generous donors and famous alumni (Michael Pupin - immigrant who didnt speak english. John Kluge - Immigrant. Alfred Lerner - son of immigrants.) They aren't scions of American dynasties- they're self-made men who took advantage of the opportunity of being at Columbia. So don't just 'demand' change. Go out there, seize opportunities, and bankroll change.

      Lastly, Hi Lydia!

    • ...  

      i agree.

      i'm pretty much convinced the most valuable ideas that i'll walk away from columbia with are not intended outcomes of the undergraduate programs. (or maybe they are..?)

  3. Ehm...  

    I can't help but feel that a person who can't speak to a plumber should look a bit deeper than his academic environment when pointing fingers for his social clumsiness.

  4. pierce  

    get yous some solitude!

  5. i just don't get  

    why i would meet people who weren't exactly like me if i went to state school.

  6. DHI

    I don't like the general idea of the "Ivy League" for that reason but if you don't make it your world it doesn't really do that.

    In particular Columbia is a lot more like a school that is in the Ivy League than "an Ivy League school." For example, many people are in a constant state of disbelief about "these kinds of things happening at an Ivy League institution." Whatever "these kinds of things" are they must not be characteristic of an Ivy League institution.

  7. kind of odd

    isnt columbia the place where aj pascua is ridiculed for wanting to be an investment banker? i suppose i picked the better ivy - the core is fundamentally the class for the big questions and people still dress weird. yay.

  8. hmm  

    "he posits: the Ivies a) make it impossible for you to talk to people who aren't like you; b) give you an inflated sense of your own self-worth; and c) narrow our definition of success to "achievement" and "leadership" rather than asking the "big questions."

    Now switch 'Ivies' with 'Yale' and consider the source.

  9. well  

    If anything, he makes me glad I don't go to Yale. Maybe he should have transferred?

    • well

      I wonder whats up with all the columbia professors who're transferring to Yale...

      • yo...

        Who all is doing that? I haven't been paying attention.

        My brother is up at Yale, if he's sharking on my professors I gotta teach him a lesson.

        My feeling is that if these profs think Columbia sucks, we gotta just give them more cash so maybe they stay here anyway.

  10. Why are bookish  

    Ivy Leaguers so painful to be around?

    They're shelf-obsessed!

  11. Uh...

    "I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to elite colleges, often precisely for reasons of class. I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to college at all."

    The mind boggles at such utter stupidity. I fear that in this case, William Deresiewicz is the narrow-minded one.

  12. Narrow-

    minded might have been the wrong term to use. I'm merely incredulous that Wiliam Deresiewicz did not learn until after college that there exist intelligent people who did not necessarily attend an "elite" school. To me, it seems like a matter of course that there are inordinately smart people who haven't gotten an education from a top college.

  13. lucky-he-is-in-yale

    just about the academia-oriented percentage of ivy league communities.

    he forgets the other half who are less noticeable and who are not complete social prats.

  14. what bothers me

    is how he acts like he is the bearer of this great social truth to the tiny minds of the naive ivy league

  15. Stephan Schwartz  

    As an earlier poster said, the issue here is staying grounded - I know plenty of people at Columbia who "remembered" that there are smart people outside the gates.

    • I wonder

      Where the enlightened professor went to high school... maybe it isn't the college's that are doing the sheltering if he didn't think there were smart people outside his bubble.

  16. '08

    Great article, I agree with the vast majority of it. However, LBD, I'm not so sure that the fact that it may be nothing new isn't necessarily a bad thing - I still think there's a lot of worth in reiterating and popularizing an idea, even if you weren't the first to say it.

    Where I disagree with the article, however, is in the notion that the college will perhaps foster such an "Ivy retardation." In general, I think intelligent young adults are too independent minded for that, and where the problem really lies is in the selection of students. Simply put, due to our high school system, I don't believe the smartest individuals in society are necessarily those that attend the "smartest" schools. Elite, private schools have made it much easiest for those with money to purchase an elite college education...to "game the system," in a sense. Meanwhile, students in some of America's most notoriously terrible public schools may find themselves trapped in a cycle of underachievement. Granted, those that are truly gifted will always find a way to rise in society, but the fact is that there isn't the meritocratic system in high school education that there should be, and much less a social mobility in society.

    At Columbia, I found that there was more than one way to get an education, and a bit part of it was actually the people around you. If we had an education system at high school level which gave everyone more equal opportunities, I'm willing to wager we'd make major inroads into solving the problems identified by the article.

  17. Legba

    I am an occasional instructor at the University of District of Columbia and I'm seeing that on the blog where this is posted, it's mostly Columbia students commenting. I got into Columbia in 1998 and couldn't go because of money and had to go to a state school where I ended up with a pretty horrible experience of bruising bureaucracy. UDC is a commuter school that serves an overwhelmingly working-class population of color that tends to be in their late twenties and early thirties. The school is under constant attack by conservatives who try to strip its funding and the place looks like it was designed by the lowest bidder in an East German design context.

    My experience of education and the experience of the amazing, dedicated people I teach who I see struggling to make basic ends meet while educating themselves for a slightly better lot in life are diametrically opposed to the experiences of those who go to Columbia or to any Ivy League school. It's pretty shocking how unaware people who go to those places are of this dynamic.

  18. Legba

    excuse me, design contest.

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