Carl Rosin, a superb high school English teacher who has written guest posts for this blog, visited me last week and alerted me to William Deresiewicz’s recent book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Apparently Deresiewicz believes that people who attend the ivy league schools are obsessed careerists who don’t take advantage of the soul-exploring that a liberal arts education should help foster. Here’s a passage from the book:
The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”
While I think books like this usefully prompt educators to reflect upon the enterprise, too many of them feature dubious generalizations about students. Usually, it seems, they are written by college professors complaining that their students don’t behave like them. Seldom do they acknowledge the complex inner lives of their students or the variety of responses to education that are possible.
The book, for instance, doesn’t do justice to Carl, who attended Harvard and who is challenging high school students in exciting ways. Recently he won a national award for how he teaches his students philosophy. Nor does it do justice to my own education at Carleton College, which is not an ivy league school but does show up in top ten lists of liberal arts colleges. My teachers challenged us to question orthodoxy wherever we found it and And while I embraced this challenge, others did not but made their own paths through their education.
The difference between my generation and students today is that we didn’t exit college tens of thousands of dollars in debt. The economy was still growing in the early 1970’s and those of us born into privilege assumed that we would eventually find good jobs in our futures. The assumption went so deep that we didn’t even think about it. Or at least some of us didn’t think about it: I’m loathe to generalize even about my class.
Today’s students face a much more forbidding environment so it would be surprising if they didn’t see their education differently. But that being said, I still have a wide range of students. Some are tracked toward medical school from the beginning and others, despite the forbidding economic realities, want to explore the world more and end up joining the Peace Corps or teaching abroad before they settle down. Or they go to graduate school, not for jobs but because they feel their minds are just starting to take off and they want to continue the process.
And I don’t even want to generalize about my pre-med students. While a few may be “science jocks,” others embrace the literature I teach as a chance to learn new things about themselves and the world. Even if they lockstep their way through medical school, I like to think that their experience with these authors will help them enter more fully the lives of their patients.
To be sure, St. Mary’s College of Maryland is not an ivy league school. Nevertheless, I’d be surprised if there weren’t a comparable range of students in the ivies.
The New Yorker’s Nathan Heller makes a similar point in his own review of Deresiewicz’s book:
For a couple of hours every week, students are theirs [the teachers’] in the classroom to challenge and entrance. Then the clock strikes, and the kids flock back into the madness of their lives. Did the new material reach them? Will the lesson be washed from their minds? Who knows. They heard it. Life will take care of the rest.
That’s what I see as well.