- Provost's Perspective
- Published: 11 August 2014
The value of attending a so-called "elite" college is a perennial topic of conversation, and William Deresiewicz entered the fray on July 21 with a scathing and widely read New Republic opinion piece entitled "Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League."
Deresiewicz lodges a number of complaints against the Ivies: they develop technocrats rather than thinkers; their cultures encourage self-interest rather than consideration for the greater good; and their vaunted claims of diversity are, as they say in cattle country, much more sizzle than steak. But his most interesting claim is that the admissions process of the Ivy League schools (and their non-Ivy peers) select for a narrow definition of excellence. Many of the students who apply to the Ivies are extraordinarily accomplished, but they have never experienced failure and are petrified by the prospect. To survive the "Great Sort" of elite admissions, perfection is a prerequisite – perfection in the narrowest of terms.
Deresiewicz argues that this cult of perfection is corrosive for students, in whom it breeds insecurity and encourages pseudo-intellectualism. But it's also destructive to society at large. Given their limited definition of what success means, students at the Ivies apply their talents in ever-increasing numbers to conventional pursuits for which they are well compensated but that contribute little to the public good. Ivy alums may do well, but for society as a whole, Deresiwicz claims, they don't do all that much.
Although he sometimes overstates his case, Deresiewicz is right in suggesting that an overabundance of caution is a toxic byproduct of Ivy hyperselectivity. The curriculum vitas of many Ivy applicants are less a précis of their interests than a catalog of their preparations for admission. Too many students, when faced with any decision of consequence, immediately ask, "How will this look on my college application?" – a question that never leads to an ennobling answer. And all too often they make their decision, in thrall to the cult of perfection, in ways that are safe, conventional, and devoid of intellectual value.
As Provost of a college that is widely known for admitting ambitious students who are willing to drop out of high school and start college when they are as young as 14, I'm constantly reminded of what happens to students when they are given full permission and encouragement to take academic and social risks. In place of anxiety, there is confidence that comes from taking risks and having a mix of successes and failures.
And even here, where the tolerance for risk is higher than at most colleges, the prospect of failure is daunting. So, we educate students about its value throughout the learning process. From the first day, our students are taught to treat their prose not as finished work but as a step (sometimes an unsuccessful one) in the process of gaining intellectual clarity. In seminars, participants are encouraged to try out their still inchoate ideas and to critique those of their peers – and their professors. And in weekly conversations with their faculty advisors, advisees are encouraged to discuss not only their triumphs but also their trials and tribulations, academic and otherwise.
The elite universities, Deresewicz claims, are creating success-driven drones "heading meekly in the same direction." Never having experienced failure, their students are so afraid of it that they are filled with "toxic levels of fear, anxiety, depression… emptiness and aimlessness." At Simon's Rock, it is precisely our embracing of risk and the occasional failure it inevitably entails that makes our students such original thinkers. Their numerous achievements are based not on their obedience to convention but their independence from it – an independence the College enables and supports.
Peter Laipson, PhD, is Provost and Vice President of Bard College at Simon's Rock. He is also an author and professor focused on US social and cultural history.