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An Attack on the Ivy League Is an Attack on Meritocracy Itself

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William Deresiewicz’s New Republic cover story, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” has made a stir for his indictment of elite universities as bastions of inequality and intellectual indolence. Less discussed, however, is his claim that the Ivy League’s “narrow conception of what constitutes a valid life: affluence, credentials, prestige” has become a larger cultural problem, infecting American society in general. Generations of students, Deresiewicz argues, are having their souls sucked out of them as they strive to conform to these institutions’ narrow model of the good life. So he doesn’t just attack the conduct of Ivy League colleges; he assails the entire premise of an educational meritocracy. But in doing so, Deresiewicz ignores the values of that meritocracy and displays an unjustified optimism about what might take its place.

In Deresiewicz’s hands, the word “meritocracy” becomes a canard, as he condemns the Ivy League for creating a perverse incentive-structure and credential rat-race that prevents students from “building a soul.” According to Deresiewicz, the Ivy League’s cutthroat social competition and superficial standards for success drive students (and potential applicants) in artificial, anti-intellectual, and anti-contemplative directions. Because of the Ivy League, Deresiewicz explains, high school students spend their time in SAT prep instead of reading poetry, and rather than doing meaningful volunteer-work in their local soup kitchen, they run off to Africa for college essay–driven service trips. But Deresiewicz’s critique is half caricature and half wishful thinking. He ignores the ways in which these universities do promote precisely those values and behaviors that are critical to what Deresiewicz labels “the soul.”

First, the college admissions-prep industry that Deresiewicz skewers so deservedly is not quite as all-consuming as he implies. Many of my classmates at Yale had taken an SAT prep course at some point in high school, but I can’t think of any who fit the ridiculous image of the student who made summer plans for the purpose of essay writing. My classmates undoubtedly had greater access to sports equipment, foreign travel, and music lessons than many of our peers (either because they were wealthy or because their parents made significant sacrifices), but they pursued these interests out of genuine passion, not some calculated desire to get into an Ivy League school. Surely there are a few careerist bozos out there who fit Deresiewicz’s caricature, but they are many fewer than Deresiewicz implies. And while I’m sure some business consultants used their college years to put together a sterling resume, most of those I know spent their time doing and studying what they loved—and because they went to a prestigious school with grade inflation, didn’t have to worry too much about their resume or GPA.

But let’s also acknowledge for a moment that college admissions can be an important motivator for many high school students, especially strivers, and that prestige can impact the choices of Ivy Leaguers. Most of the time, this is a positive. For many, the opportunity to attend an elite college is an incentive for taking challenging classes, for completing assignments, for studying for exams, for taking added levels of responsibility on school newspapers and sports teams. And for some others, these universities’ commitment to reading applications holistically and to accepting stellar musicians and comedians were what gave them the confidence to actively pursue their passions. What, exactly, is the matter with any of that? Isn’t the point of meritocracy that it rewards and incentivizes behavior that we find valuable?

More importantly, what would Deresiewicz’s alternative be? Does he genuinely think that the student who stays up late studying history so that she can get into Stanford is worse off because of it? Would the budding journalist really be better off ignoring high school algebra so that she could spend an extra few hours a week honing her writing? And in Deresiewicz’s more democratic alternate reality, do we honestly believe the time the average student currently spends studying for the SATs would be used to read poetry, rather than chat on Facebook or wander the mall? 

The debate, of course, isn't whether elite universities set up an incentive structure; it's whether they're incentivizing the right things. I think they are. Ivy League schools tend to reward values and ideals that Americans would do well to rally behind: clear thinking and persuasive writing, diligence and responsibility, service and leadership.

These values, by their very nature, are amorphous and difficult to pin down. It’s difficult to define, recognize, or reward leadership. And certainly, institutional structures sometimes mess up, rewarding the kid who created an unnecessary organization just so he could run it, or the seminar student who pretends to have read the assigned reading. But where institutions fail, peers usually don’t. The emptily ambitious types who are exclusively interested in “credentials and prestige” are pretty easy to spot; they don’t make many friends, and more often than not, they miss out on the “credentials and prestige” as well. In my experience, students who genuinely cared about the course material for its own sake won respect quickly. And those who had interesting ideas to contribute, or who devoted themselves seriously to the causes and organizations they cared about, were recognized and valued. At least at Yale, prestige and accolades seemed to track with those qualities universities ought to value. And if social capital played a subtle role in motivating people to embrace and embody those values, then that’s hardly a problem.

No meritocracy has ever perfectly selected for those qualities it seeks.  But when systems of merit are constructed to promote and identify talents and values we hold dear, they are a net good. And in the case of American education, the “elite” colleges have done an admirable job of creating a culture that promotes important intellectual and social virtues. Of course, Deresiewicz is right to point to areas where universities could, and should, do better: fewer legacy admissions, higher student athlete standards, more class-based affirmative action, more diverse career counseling. But these require minor corrections of course, not wholesale dismemberment of the meritocratic system. Because societies that don’t actively promote excellence in scholarship and the arts, and that don’t recognize service to community and country, will probably have less art, less scholarship, and less service. Right now, I’m not sure how much less of those things America can afford.