Nationalize the Ivy League

We need to go further than the meritocratic reforms proposed by William Deresiewicz.

Chris Lehmann July 23, 2014

Privileged youngsters won’t save the rest of us, no matter how many lattes they make. (Shutterstock/Northfoto)

High­er edu­ca­tion in the Unit­ed States is the scape­goat of first resort for the coun­try’s lag­ging indi­ca­tors of pros­per­i­ty, indi­vid­ual achieve­ment and civ­i­liza­tion­al excellence.

And contrary to the myth that a degree from an elite college is a port of entry to access the American good life, higher learning accelerates the scourge of economic inequality.

The Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ty had it com­ing. It has pil­laged the ped­a­gogy of the lib­er­al-arts tra­di­tion in favor of cor­po­ra­tized research, trustee courtier­ship and lega­cy big-donor admis­sions. And con­trary to the myth that a degree from an elite col­lege is a port of entry to access the Amer­i­can good life, high­er learn­ing accel­er­ates the scourge of eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty. For all the resources and pious rhetoric show­ered on the Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ty as an engine of oppor­tu­ni­ty and upward mobil­i­ty, the num­bers tell a dif­fer­ent sto­ry. Nine out of 10 stu­dents enter­ing col­lege from the top quar­tile of income end up grad­u­at­ing from our insti­tu­tions of high­er learn­ing. The share from the bot­tom quar­tile who grad­u­ate? Less than 25 percent.

William Deresiewicz’s new jere­mi­ad, Excel­lent Sheep: The Mise­d­u­ca­tion of the Amer­i­can Elite and the Way to a Mean­ing­ful Life, dis­tills right down to its hyper­bol­ic sub­ti­tle the tal­is­man­ic lib­er­al faith that Amer­i­ca can be set back on the right path with enough wis­dom cribbed from the right kinds of intel­lec­tu­al leaders.

Dere­siewicz, a for­mer asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Yale, upset the Ivy League apple cart with his 2008 Amer­i­can Schol­ar essay, The Dis­ad­van­tages of an Elite Edu­ca­tion.” Our col­lege scene is deranged by one-upman­ship, both between stu­dents and uni­ver­si­ties, he com­plained. Besot­ted with the bro­mides of man­age­r­i­al group­think and the U.S. News rank­ing sys­tem, uni­ver­si­ty lead­ers have lost all sense of intel­lec­tu­al voca­tion. They don’t revere learn­ing for its own sake, Dere­siewicz lament­ed, and the striv­ing kids-in-a-hur­ry throng­ing Ivy League pre­serves too eager­ly adopt the self-con­grat­u­la­to­ry mien of their social bet­ters who run the big-tick­et Ivies. As a result, stu­dents typ­i­cal­ly cocoon them­selves in their privilege.

Hav­ing sealed his rep­u­ta­tion as a defend­er of the exam­ined life, Dere­siewicz now acts as an Oprah Win­frey for the under­grad­u­ate set. He lav­ish­es would-be stu­dents with unso­licit­ed advice, from what sort of schools to enroll in — small lib­er­al arts col­leges — to how best to spend a year away from the aca­d­e­m­ic grind — work at a part-time job,” while quar­tered in a lousy apart­ment with a bunch of friends.” If noth­ing else, Dere­siewiecz enthus­es, you’ll prob­a­bly meet the kinds of peo­ple that you’d nev­er have had a chance to otherwise.”

As such small-bore coun­sel piles up across the pages of Excel­lent Sheep, you real­ize that, for all his decla­ma­tions, Dere­siewicz remains obsessed with the fine-tun­ing of elite expe­ri­ence. Even as he pro­nounces the need not sim­ply to reform [the mer­i­to­crat­ic uni­ver­si­ty] sys­tem root and branch, but to begin to plot our exit to anoth­er form of lead­er­ship, anoth­er kind of soci­ety alto­geth­er,” Dere­siewicz is unable to wean him­self from the care and feed­ing of our self-anoint­ed intel­lec­tu­al elite, nor from the bedrock con­vic­tion that all schemes of social improve­ment must be about them. Hence Dere­siewicz informs us that anoth­er kind of soci­ety alto­geth­er” will be born from ultra-mer­i­to­crat­ic mea­sures like weight­ing SAT scores to the socioe­co­nom­ic back­grounds of test tak­ers and cap­ping the num­ber of extracur­ric­u­lar activ­i­ties stu­dents can list on col­lege appli­ca­tions. As social rev­o­lu­tions go, this is not Aux bar­ri­cades, fonc­tion­naires! (Indeed, like oth­er writ­ers on the sub­ject, Dere­siewicz fails to note that mer­i­toc­ra­cy” was coined in a satir­i­cal nov­el by the British social­ist aca­d­e­m­ic Michael Young, to dra­ma­tize how bru­tal social progress at the hands of a knowl­edge elite can be.)

So rather than tak­ing a sojourn among the work­ing class to round out a defi­cient elite life cur­ricu­lum, why not reverse the tac­it social log­ic here? Fin­ish the work begun by the GI Bill — which wreaked a sea change in access to qual­i­ty high­er edu­ca­tion via the direct method of dri­ving down its cost — and nation­al­ize Amer­i­can insti­tu­tions of high­er learn­ing, abol­ish­ing any­thing more than a nom­i­nal tuition fee. Yes, amid present con­di­tions, this is utopi­an. But it’s no less real­is­tic — and infi­nite­ly more demo­c­ra­t­ic — than the expec­ta­tion that bet­ter-trained mer­i­to­crats some­how will res­cue the rest of us.

Chris Lehmann, is edi­tor-in-chief at The Baf­fler and a for­mer man­ag­ing edi­tor of In These Times. He is the author of The Mon­ey Cult: Cap­i­tal­ism, Chris­tian­i­ty, and the Unmak­ing of the Amer­i­can Dream (Melville House, 2016).
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