Monthly Archives: July 2014

A Critique of the Critique of the Ivies

Folks all around the internets have been applauding this TNR essay by William Deresiewicz on what is, apparently, the soul-killing, inegalitarian “education” offered by our elite institutions.  There’s a lot of nice stuff in there – even a shout-out to “obscure” religious colleges that might provide a better education than the Ivies.  (Hey, bud who’s obscure?  We end up in the papers at least every few years so weirdly countercultural!)  But, honestly, as a piece of argumentation, it’s a bit of a mess.

He starts off with what seems now like a familiar lament regarding the ridiculous kinds of things people need to get into elite colleges – perfect test scores, unbelievable (in the literal sense, I think) kinds of volunteer work, and so on – and then quickly turns to the problem that the education many students get at elite schools leaves a great deal to be desired.

I taught many wonderful young people during my years in the Ivy Leaguebright, 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.

He then goes on to assert – presumably the evidence for many of his assertions are in his forthcoming book for which this serves largely as a teaser – that our elite schools largely serve as vehicles for the reproduction of class privilege and that we ought to (a) work to dismantle the ways the elite schools privilege those with monetary privileges and (b) make public higher education free (just like K-12 education).

Well, that’s nice and all, but it’s a bit of a let-down, isn’t it?  I mean, we get all that soul-killing stuff up front and what we get out of it is the promise to do to higher education what we’ve done to secondary schools over the past four decades or so.  I’m sure the University of Virginia will be awesome once the teachers’ unions get their hands on it.

Let me suggest that there’s a deeper problem and it’s with what he (and many other folks) think the point of college is.  Here’s his view:

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.

Learning how to think is only the beginning, though. There’s something in particular you need to think about: building a self. The notion may sound strange. “We’ve taught them,” David Foster Wallace once said, “that a self is something you just have.” But 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 beinga 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.

The problem here isn’t that he supposes college is about helping you become a better thinker–and we should all be thankful that he doesn’t offer us the insipid rhetoric of “critical thinking”–but that he inverts the relationship between, we might say, virtue and reason.  Suppose we think that “thinking” is a kind of stand-in for “reason” and “self” is a stand-in for living well, or virtue.  When he complains that elite schools teach students how to think only in instrumental terms, I wonder if he realizes that even the way he has set up his sense of what college is for follows along the same path.  In his view, we develop our (instrumental) reason so that we can develop (or “find” in the more common parlance) our “self” apart from that which has been handed down to us – family, tradition, community, religion, etc.  That’s what colleges already do, most of them, anyway.

Elite universities don’t fail at education because they’re too easy or don’t have the right mix of classes, ethnicities, etc.  They fail at education because they misunderstand what education is really all about and the truth is that unless they recognize that education is ultimately about human flourishing, their discontents will keep writing books and essays lamenting their failure.

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A series on the Founding

The John Jay Institute is hosting a series on the Founding and the Declaration, featuring an essay by Joseph Postell about whether the Founders relied on reason OR tradition and experience. Smartly, he finds it’s not an either/or. I try to bolster his case.

http://www.canonandculture.com/false-choices-americas-philosopher-on-reason-tradition-and-experience/

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