William Deresiewicz: Excellent Sheep

If you get a position with some authority you are, by definition, a leader. And service, if anything, is even worse. Service is supposed to be about making the world a better place or helping people who are less fortunate, but because it’s done for the resume, it really just becomes about yourself.

.. How would you summarize the values transmitted through the elite education system?

I would summarize the values by quoting Tony Hayward, the famous CEO of BP. In the middle of this giant environmental disaster he said, “I want to get my life back.” He had been promised certain rewards and now had this horrible experience of actually having to take responsibility for something, and feel bad. So those are the values that the system is transmitting: self-aggrandizement, being in service to yourself, a good life defined exclusively in terms of conventional markers of success (wealth and status), no real commitment to education or learning, to thinking, and no real commitment to making the world a better place. And I think we see that in the last 50 years, the meritocracy has created a world that’s getting better and better for the meritocracy and worse and worse for everyone else.

.. Studying the humanities is about giving yourself the opportunity to engage in acts of self reflection, seeking answers to the kinds of questions you ask yourself not in a specialized capacity—but in the general capacity of being a human being, as a citizen.

.. But I would say, aside from all the personal, intellectual, spiritual benefits of self-awareness—I can’t believe we even have to argue this—the main point is to know yourself so you know what you want in the world. You can decide, what is the best work for me, what is the best career for me, what are the rewards that I really want. And maybe you’ll end up saying that I do need a certain level of wealth, but you will know it because you will have come to know yourself. And you will be acting on your own initiative instead of having unconsciously absorbed the messages that have been instilled in you unconsciously.

.. Aside from the classes themselves, the fact that we’ve created a system where kids are constantly busy, and have no time for solitude or reflection, is going to take its toll

Don’t Dismiss the Humanities. Dismiss the University

These paeans to the humanities and the self-congratulatory comments they draw from the staid professional class are a superb illustration of why studying anything within the walls of an institution is not a good idea. These places do not create human beings. What they create is a cosseted cadre of milquetoast crawlers, devoid of all passion and verve, who grow wet about the eyes when contemplating the miserable lot of humanity, then sidestep the shambling hobo on their way to work, gaze averted.

Young people! If all you desire from this life is a safe and comfortable shelter from which you can practice compassion at a remove, by all means take to the university. By the time you reach middle age, you can look back with a self-satisfied air and tell your fellow New York Times readers how enriched your life has been, how your wonderful offspring are now following in your footsteps and are poised to clinch that rewarding career. Meantime, the masterworks on your walls are submerged in sea water and the depraved hordes, heretofore an abstraction, have become a terrifying corporeality.

Read, read, to see the wounds in yourself and others. But if you are to salve the wounds, you must be in the world; you must be with the people, live as they live, feel as they feel, one among equals. We need no more thinkers perched atop their gilded boughs, watching with dismay as humanity marches over the cliff. To be an aesthete may be gratifying, but it is nothing like being a human.

David Brooks: The Organization Kid

“They are disconcertingly comfortable with authority. That’s the most common complaint the faculty has of Princeton students. They’re eager to please, eager to jump through whatever hoops the faculty puts in front of them, eager to conform.”

.. Part of this is just Princeton. It has always been the preppiest of the Ivy League schools. It has earned a reputation for sending more graduates into consulting and investment banking than into academia or the arts. 


In short, at the top of the meritocratic ladder we have in America a generation of students who are extraordinarily bright, morally earnest, and incredibly industrious. They like to study and socialize in groups. They create and join organizations with great enthusiasm. They are responsible, safety-conscious, and mature. They feel no compelling need to rebel—not even a hint of one. They not only defer to authority; they admire it. “Alienation” is a word one almost never hears from them. They regard the universe as beneficent, orderly, and meaningful. At the schools and colleges where the next leadership class is being bred, one finds not angry revolutionaries, despondent slackers, or dark cynics but the Organization Kid.

.. And as Howe and Strauss wrote inMillennials Rising, “Ironically, where young Boomers once turned to drugs to prompt impulses and think outside the box, today they turn to drugs to suppress their kids’ impulses and keep their behavior inside the box … Nowadays, Dennis the Menace would be on Ritalin, Charlie Brown on Prozac.”

.. Another, from the business-consulting firm KPMG, shows a picture of a pair of incredibly hip-looking middle-aged people staring warmly into the camera. The text reads “Now that you’ve made your parents proud, join KPMG and give them something to smile about.” It’s hard to imagine a recruiting poster of a few decades ago appealing to students’ desire to make their parents happy.

.. The most sophisticated people in preceding generations were formed by their struggle to break free from something. The most sophisticated people in this one aren’t.

.. Today’s elite college students don’t live in that age of rebellion and alienation. They grew up in a world in which the counterculture and the mainstream culture have merged with, and co-opted, each other. For them, it’s natural that one of the top administrators at Princeton has a poster of the Beatles albumRevolver framed on her office wall. It’s natural that hippies work at ad agencies and found organic-ice-cream companies, and that hi-tech entrepreneurs quote Dylan and wear black jeans to work. For them, it’s natural that parents should listen to Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and the Doors—just like kids. They don’t have the mental barriers that exist between, say, the establishment and rebels, between respectable society and the subversive underground. For them, all those categories are mushed together. “They work for Save the Children and Merrill Lynch and they don’t see a contradiction,” says Jeffrey Herbst, the politics professor.

.. One has to go quite far back to find another group of sophisticated students who took for granted the idea that the universe is a just and orderly place—back to a time before World War I, before modernism, before all the chaos and disruption that Virginia Woolf described. To find another age of such equanimity one has to go back to the Edwardian era and the years leading to World War I. 

.. For the most striking contrast between that elite and this one is that its members were relatively unconcerned with academic achievement but went to enormous lengths to instill character.  We, on the other hand, place enormous emphasis on achievement but are tongue-tied and hesitant when it comes to what makes for a virtuous life.

.. Needless to say, that romantic end transformed Baker from an ideal to a legend. And everyone seems to have understood immediately that he was symbolic of a dying ethos. It wasn’t just the modesty, and the grace, and the amateur spirit—it was the chivalric world view.

.. Today’s elite don’t like to think of themselves as elite. So there is no self-conscious code of chivalry. Today’s students do not inherit a concrete and articulated moral system—a set of ideals to instruct privileged men and women on how to live, how to see their duties, and how to call upon their highest efforts.

.. One sometimes has the sense that all the frantic efforts to regulate safety, to encourage academic achievement, and to keep busy are ways to compensate for missing conceptions of character and virtue. 

.. We could raise this awareness—through readings and discussions in history and philosophy and literature, by reading Plato’sGorgias, Othello, or a study of the Lincoln-Douglas debates—that the conquest of the self is part of what it means to lead a successful life.

.. Besides, he concluded, God will see you doing evil. Suddenly there was an awkward shifting of chairs and a demurral from his faculty colleague. The idea that it is possible to do wrong sitting alone in your room, even if you don’t cause another person any harm, is hard, George said, for modern Americans to comprehend fully. The problem is that this idea is at the heart of understanding what it means to be virtuous.

William Deresiewicz: Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League

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.

.. “What Wall Street figured out,” as Ezra Klein has put it, “is that colleges are producing a large number of very smart, completely confused graduates. Kids who have ample mental horsepower, an incredible work ethic and no idea what to do next.”

.. Kids at schools like Stanford think that their environment is diverse if one comes from Missouri and another from Pakistan, or if one plays the cello and the other lacrosse. Never mind that all of their parents are doctors or bankers.

.. The college admissions game is not primarily about the lower and middle classes seeking to rise, or even about the upper-middle class attempting to maintain its position. It is about determining the exact hierarchy of status within the upper-middle class itself.