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Burn down the Ivies?
Ex-Yale prof lights the torch

William Deresiewicz spent 24 years in the Ivy League: first as a Columbia undergraduate and grad student, then on the Yale faculty. His public biographies prominently feature those accomplishments.

Now, apparently, Deresiewicz wants to save smart young people from making the same mistake.

“Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” is the headline of his cover story in this week’s New Republic. The subhead: “The nation's top colleges are turning our kids into zombies.”

The image: a crimson Harvard banner engulfed in yellow and orange flames.

Deresiewicz’s article, which has lit up Facebook and Twitter this week, is less inflammatory than the provocative packaging implies. Many of his arguments are familiar: college, he says, should be about learning to think and “building a self,” not training for a career. Students at Ivy League and Ivy-like schools are “smart and talented and driven,” but “with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.” Clinging to a “narrow conception of what constitutes a valid life: affluence, credentials, prestige,” these young people harbor “a violent aversion to risk.”

Deresiewicz lays the blame on the elite-college admissions process, which rejects nearly 95 percent of applicants, and on the herd-like mentality of students and their parents. In advice that should be familiar to this overachieving group—but may not be—he counsels that students can do as well or better at liberal arts schools that are “second-tier—not second-rate.”

Near the end of the 4,100-word essay, he arrives at what seems to be his central point: elite schools, touted as a meritocracy, in fact reinforce America’s social and economic inequality. Despite their growing diversity in race, ethnicity, religion, gender, and national origin, Ivy campuses house more rich kids than they did 30 or 40 years ago.

“The problem isn’t that there aren’t more qualified lower-income kids from which to choose,” Deresiewicz writes. “Elite private colleges will never allow their students’ economic profile to mirror that of society as a whole. They can’t afford tothey need a critical mass of full payers and they need to tend to their donor baseand it’s not even clear that they’d want to.”

Then he lays out his call to action:

The education system has to act to mitigate the class system, not reproduce it. . . . I used to think that we needed to create a world where every child had an equal chance to get to the Ivy League. I’ve come to see that what we really need is to create one where you don’t have to go to the Ivy League, or any private college, to get a first-rate education. . . .

We recognize that free, quality K–12 education is a right of citizenship. We also need to recognizeas we once did and as many countries still dothat the same is true of higher education.

After Deresiewicz was denied tenure at Yale in 2008, he left academia and became a full-time writer. He has previously examined “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” notably in an essay by that title in which he lamented that his Ivy background had not taught him how to talk to his plumber.

His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and The Way to a Meaningful Life, is due out next month. Its website bears blurbs of praise from prominent people, including Yale alums Fareed Zakaria ’86 and Emily Bazelon ’93, ’00JD.*

The New Republic article is drawing a more mixed reaction.

In the Washington Post, Daniel Drezner casts Deresiewsicz as part of a larger “War on College” before pointing out his lack of data: “this is a damning indictment, and I was looking forward to seeing the evidence to back it up and . . . and . . . there really isn't any in this essay.”

Also in the Post, Alexandra Petri validates Deresiewicz’s anecdotal portrait of “elitist twit factories” but says his solution will never work: “If some people don’t get the memo about Massive Structural Shifts in How We Are Educated, their kids will get into Ivy League schools in your kids’ place, and all the employers who did not read the article will keep assuming that going to an Ivy League school is a mark of quality and hire them instead.”

In Slate, Ben Mathis-Lilley challenges “the entire unexamined premise of Deresiewicz’s piece”: that colleges “should teach students ‘how to think’ and ‘stand outside the world for a few years.’” That ideal “could itself be seen as an elitist concept held only by those who have the luxury of being ignorant to the practical advantages of vocational education,” Mathis-Lilley observes.

Many commentators note the tension between Deresiewicz’s own Ivy League privileges and his current call for dismantling the system. Some take aim at the New Republic as well.

Reason points out that every editor of the magazine has been an Ivy League graduate except one—who was fired after a year. And Newsweek has fun documenting “All the Ivy-Educated Zombies on the New Republic’s Masthead.”

Jeremiah Quinlan ’03, Yale College’s dean of admissions, provides more serious commentary in an e-mail to the Yale Alumni Magazine. Responding to Deresiewicz’s account of his one-day stint on a Yale admissions committee in 2008, Quinlan writes:

Reviewing 31,000 applications to Yale College is a humbling experience for me and the entire admissions staff. One day on the Admissions committee, in fact, shows you very little. Sitting through the entirety of the process, however, exposes you to a breathtaking look at some of the strongest students from America and around the world—and leaves you marveling at their intellectual promise, character, resilience, resourcefulness, imagination and passion.

Colin Groundwater ’15 provided research assistance.

* This article originally identified writer Peggy Orenstein as a Yale alumna; she is a graduate of Oberlin.


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under Ivy League, William Deresiewicz, elitism, higher education


  • Glenn Tippy
    Glenn Tippy, 3:10pm July 24 2014 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Best of luck to the former professor. As a public high school graduate whose Yale roommates' parents included machine shop foreman, bank president, night janitor, army officer's widow, and tux rental shop manager, I find the professor's perspective surprisingly solipsistic. And sad.

    I at least learned that I am a part of all that I have met. And to not take things so seriously.

  • Clarence Gaines
    Clarence Gaines, 11:09am July 25 2014 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Solipsistic - SMH - Thanks for the vocabulary word, even if it doesn't apply in this case. Sad, how about enlightened.

  • Kathy Cheer
    Kathy Cheer, 4:29pm November 17 2014 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Solipsistic...without looking it up...let me think. Let's study the roots. Is that hung up in a specialized environment? No? As a former private school registrar, I know that, instilled in most parents and their kids, acceptance to an Ivy League is paramount. Hell, they've paid for private school tuition since junior high, tutoring, yoga and summer classes, the Ivy League is the ultimate Everest. After visiting first choice campuses, they await returns on 10 or so applications posted. It takes money just for the initial admissions process and the dollar layout does not stop. The letdown after an Ivy League rejection is profound, sometimes becoming the penultimate failure in an obscure novel.

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