Are the top colleges producing zombies?

There’s a humdinger this week from The New Republic that has sparked loud cheers and jeers, “Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League, The nation's

There’s a humdinger this week from The New Republic that has sparked loud cheers and jeers, “Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League, The nation's top colleges are turning our kids into zombies” by William Deresiewicz.

The long piece makes some complicated arguments about the unfairness of the educational meritocracy and how it perpetuates the insularity of the upper, upper class.  But Deresiewicz’s real fury is that the Ivies attract and multiply “entitled little shits” – risk-averse, insecure, credential generating bots:

“I taught many wonderful young people during my years in the Ivy League—bright, 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.

“Look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. A large-scale survey of college freshmen recently found that self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in the study’s 25-year history.

“So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk. You have no margin for error, so you avoid the possibility that you will ever make an error. Once, a student at Pomona told me that she’d love to have a chance to think about the things she’s studying, only she doesn’t have the time. I asked her if she had ever considered not trying to get an A in every class. She looked at me as if I had made an indecent suggestion.”

Ouch.  The author taught at Yale for 10 years and seems to know of what he speaks.  It is a good if bilious rant against the life-grooming perfectionism so rampant in the privileged ranks. 

The level of privilege in the privileged ranks seems to have grown to historically enormous proportions. That is what the new focus on economic inequality is all about – although I am not convinced there is all that much focus on it.  Regardless, the fact that the 1 percent is getting more and more 1 percenty is of less consequence than the fate of the rest of the country. The New York Times

had a depressing short piece on this topic that recaps a study by the Russell Sage Foundation that shows that the typical American family has lost a third of it net worth since 2003:

“The inflation-adjusted net worth for the typical household was $87,992 in 2003. Ten years later, it was only $56,335, or a 36 percent decline, according to a study financed by the Russell Sage Foundation. Those are the figures for a household at the median point in the wealth distribution — the level at which there are an equal number of households whose worth is higher and lower. But during the same period, the net worth of wealthy households increased substantially.

“The Russell Sage study also examined net worth at the 95th percentile. (For households at that level, 94 percent of the population had less wealth and 4 percent had more.) It found that for this well-do-do slice of the population, household net worth increased 14 percent over the same 10 years.”

Let me end with dessert and recommend the movie “Boyhood” by Richard Linklater.  This is a remarkable film and there is not likely to be another one like it.  Linklater took 12 years – yes, 12 years – to watch a little boy grow from six to 19 when he drives off to college.  The gifted cast gathered once a year for a couple days of filming for 12 years.

The result is stunning.  It is fiction, but the physical changes in the cast are true. The dialogue is authentic and pitch-perfect in every scene.  It is better than documentary somehow, as good a portrait of our times as there can be.

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