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Poison Ivy League: The dangers of a world-class education

The American Ivy League universities are accused of churning out automatons, whose principal task is securing a lucrative career. But is Oxbridge just as bad?

Excellent Sheep: the Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life
William Deresiewicz
Simon & Schuster, 256pp, £9.99

Every January, an email pings into the in-box of 14,000 clever, high-achieving, hopeful but vulnerable 17-year-olds telling them that their Oxford application has ended in failure. As master of an Oxford college, I have seen both the hurt caused by rejection and the euphoria among the 20 per cent of applicants who are admitted. All of them, successful and unsuccessful, are freighted with A stars. It is a big moment in their lives – too big, because, for all its virtues, and there are many, I often wish Oxbridge counted for less. It is sad if you feel getting in will be the greatest achievement of your life and even sadder if you feel that not getting in is an unmitigated catastrophe. There are many other fine places to study and your life options don’t close at 18.

But if William Deresiewicz’s withering and dyspeptic description of the education provided by elite American universities applied to Oxford, these teenage “winners” should be pitied, not congratulated. He paints a Gothic picture of Harvard, Yale, the rest of the Ivy league, and many other reputable colleges in the US, where horrible academic neglect, rampant materialism and insufferable smugness combine to leave their students in an educational and moral wasteland. Deresiewicz would have us believe that these world-famous universities churn out spiritually impoverished automatons whose principal task is to proceed to remunerative careers that will in turn secure future donations to perpetuate the institutions they have only just about survived.

Deresiewicz is writing as an ex-insider: he was a professor in the English department at Yale for ten years until 2008. That year, he published the essay “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and became something of a messiah, or at least father confessor, for many who yearn for desirable things in academic life: indeed, in all life. Because Dere­siewicz is not concerned to attack Ivy League education only; rather, he pummels away at contemporary materialism and its myriad spiritual discontents and seeks to provide us, as advertised on the front cover, with “the way to a meaningful life”.

It is, to put it mildly, an ambitious undertaking. There are clarion calls for larger things and smaller things – for a more equal America, for civic engagement, less aggressive middle-class parenting, a more confident belief in the value of the humanities, a greater emphasis on teaching, tougher grading, more intellectual experimentation and risk-taking by students, greater respect for those in low-paid jobs – and much else. It is a passionate and quite often moving plea for the promotion of a more just America, and for reformed elite universities where students will emerge with greater maturity and wider definitions of happiness.

The argument is fuelled by his own story as the son of a pushy, educated, academically successful Jewish immigrant father who yearned for his son to make economically sensible academic choices. Young William fell in line and endured a miserable life as a biology and psychology student, before he finally found graduate school, Jane Austen and intellectual exhilaration. Many who read Excellent Sheep will feel pangs of anxiety and guilt about pressing down too hard on their own offspring in the interests of respectability and safety. But, and it is a big but, Deresiewicz’s fizzing anger far too often gets the better of his arguments and he runs amok. The attacks become crude, and ultimately unconvincing.

He wants us to believe that elite students are crushed and moulded by their parents, teachers or peers (or all of the above) into dull conformists lusting after material success. That sounds woeful. But elsewhere he endorses this rather more subtle view of one of his many correspondents: “Colleges are producing a large number of very smart, completely confused graduates. Kids who have ample horsepower, an incredible work ethic and no idea what to do next.” This hardly seems a disastrous state of affairs. Why, after all, should 22-year-olds be fully intellectually mature? Or have any fixed idea about the rest of their professional life? Some of their doubt arises precisely because they are trying to balance the attractions of a lucrative first job with other possibilities that pay less and might, or might not, offer more. I do not see this as surprising – still less morally bad.

Deresiewicz’s central targets may be the adults who run the top-notch universities but he talks a lot about students and his attitude to his “excellent sheep” is riddled with very broad generalisations, veering from reluctant admiration to hostility. At various points they are “smart and talented”. But they endure toxic levels of fear and emptiness, they don’t have time for relationships, they lack intellectual passion, they have too much of a sense of entitlement and they are timid and bland and lost. They want to do as little as possible (even though on the next page “they work incredibly hard”). Too few of them are sufficiently brilliant and restless – with a suggestion that it was once better. The students, described in sum as “32 flavours of vanilla”, are not so much objects of his sympathy as receptacles for his anxieties about social mobility and class.

Even those who do not rush off to well-paid jobs seem to leave Deresiewicz cold. Several times he attacks Teach for America (the forerunner of our own Teach First scheme) and the motives of those who sign up for it. Teach for America is “a sterling example of service both as résumé building and ruling-class messianism”. This may be true for some who choose TfA, but for others there are different motives of various kinds, many of them far from impure. His distaste about what he sees as the harvesting of credentials transmutes into unreasonable anger and constant suspicion.

Of course there are elements of truth to his descriptions of university life. At Oxford, students have to work hard (certainly harder than my cohort in the mid-1970s) and there is pressure. Not everyone can cope by dosing up on caffeine and sleeping it all off during the holidays. The welfare and counselling systems are busy. A limited number of students, though almost never the most able ones, have too much presumption and assume their talent and good fortune are an expression of superior moral virtue – but it is a small minority. And most students seem capable of creating rather good relationships. When those relationships go wrong they become sad, sometimes very sad. This is because they are human and young, not because they have been annihilated by career and exam anxieties. At the end of their time as Oxford undergraduates, students are asked in anonymous and large surveys whether they would recommend the place to prospective applicants. They answer “yes” – and overwhelmingly so. Maybe this is because Oxford is that much better than Harvard, Princeton, Yale and the like. I doubt that the American top dogs are that far behind.

Yet there are differences between the American and British elite institutions and they are important. Deresiewicz, perfectly reasonably, fixes on America, but it is hard to read him, overstatement and all, without reflecting on those differences. Nowhere is this more worthwhile than on the subject of admissions. The Oxbridge undergraduate admissions debate is toxic. (Sadly, very little attention is paid to the graduate side of things.) Big-cheese politicians from all the main parties have attacked the universities, citing a range of familiar complaints – too many students from independent schools, too few from disadvantaged backgrounds, too few black Britons, too few from Wales or the north-east of England – and more.

The debate has often been painfully shorn of nuance, or even accurate facts about the way choices are made; but it is hard not to worry (and many in Oxford do seriously worry) about the nature of the intake, even if the causes lie in a host of factors that have accumulated years before any university application form is even looked at. The ones who are here are far more likely to have had their parents read to them before they entered nursery, been surrounded by books, been taken to museums, gone to good primary schools, lived in relatively prosperous areas, been well housed and nutritiously fed – and much more. I wish the many who did not benefit from all of the above could compete in large numbers on equal educational terms at 17 with the children of the meritocracy; but it is no surprise that this is a tall order. Whoever is to blame, it is certainly not Oxford students, privileged or not.

The teachers here are looking only for the best academic talent, potential, curiosity and capacity – which is not merely about what you happen to know when you are 17. Of course admissions mistakes get made, in all directions, but tutors are trying to make up their minds on academic grounds, not on the basis of extra-curricular glitz. At Yale, it all appears to be more complicated. In one of Deresiewicz’s better phrases, it is a “résumé arms race”. Prospective students need to be “well rounded”, with a host of coruscating achievements in sport, music, drama, team-building and “leadership” – not any of these, but apparently all of these. There are exemptions for some genuine cases of hardship where the superman/woman requirements are relaxed. At Oxford, an applicant from a poor background, or a school with anaemic exam results, is given special consideration throughout the admissions process, but in the final analysis nobody is offered a place unless his or her academic results and potential merit it.

Some might legitimately prefer this aspect of the American approach but there are other, less appealing reasons why some succeed. Deresiewicz cites an applicant categorised as “Lacrosse 3”: third on the coach’s wish list. And there is more than a handful of places for the children of rich donors. Each candidate is dealt with in three or four minutes by the university administration assisted by one academic. In almost all cases (unlike Oxbridge) the applicant is not interviewed. Those who berate Oxbridge, noting the seeming (and often real) greater diversity of American campuses, should reflect on the disfiguring warts of this way of doing business.

And then there is Ivy League teaching. As Deresiewicz would have it, “everything they teach is vocational now, because of the spirit in which they teach it”. There is, he says, almost no contact between tenured academics and students, and too much emphasis is placed on research and publication whether or not the work is any good.

Here he hits a nerve. The best universities in Britain, too, demand published research from their top academic staff. This is desirable, but serious-minded academics can easily find themselves torn between the differing rhythms and demands of teaching and research. Deresiewicz’s pithy summary of this dilemma is characteristically swashbuckling: “Good teaching isn’t simply undervalued; especially at elite universities, it is actively discouraged because it’s seen as raising doubts about your seriousness as a scholar.” Apparently, “religious colleges often do a much better job”. It is hard to know if this is even remotely true and Deresiewicz’s propensity to shout all the time hardly leads one to trust his judgement.

At Oxford, the tutorial system is alive, but under pressure. The vast majority of senior academics are contractually expected to teach undergraduates in very small groups and sometimes singly – and most of them do so willingly. This is not the most economically efficient way of teaching: it is, to use the modern idiom, “resource-heavy”. But when it works it is invaluable, certainly for the students. Many of the academics get something from it, too, but the juggling act required of them is hard and they are not that well rewarded for it.

In his final, political chapter Deresiewicz calls for the destruction of his largest target – the “hereditary meritocracy”. The decline of social mobility in the United States (and the UK) is a rich and important topic, and to that end he is desperate for students to be more actively engaged in American politics. But his own political analysis is feeble. The failed Democratic candidate in the 1988 US presidential election, Michael Dukakis, educated at Swarthmore and Harvard Law School (poor man), is a “high-IQ moron if ever there was one” but Barack Obama is even worse. The president behaves as if he has “no conception of competing values, interests or perspectives, no idea that society is more than just equations”.

Come off it. Governing America is not that simple. Rage and polemic have their uses, but so do rigour and a respect for complexity. Read in that light, Excellent Sheep does not make the grade.

Mark Damazer is the Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford, and a former controller of BBC Radio 4

This article appears in the 30 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, ISIS vs The World