Want to fix the Ivy League? Stop talking about them

By Simon Brown / Columnist

Americans hold strong feelings about a whole range of athletic divisions, conferences and leagues. None of these sources, however, engender discussion quite as earnest as the Ivy League. This may be because most Americans don’t realize that their membership in this association is actually all the “Ancient Eight” universities have in common.

The actual term “Ivy League” has entered our national discourse as a synonym for scholarly achievement. William Deresiewicz’s recently published and widely read article “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” played into this cultural fixation by lambasting Ivy League universities for failing their historic obligation to “teach you to think.” 

The fundamental problem lies not in Ivy League curricula or administration, but in the undue attention Americans pay to these few, arbitrary institutions. If we want a real change in educational practice, we should examine the places that educate most of our young people: community colleges and state universities. 

As a member of one of these underfunded and undiscussed institutions, I observe that the problems Deresiewicz identifies with the Ivy League are not too far from those of their public counterparts. 

In his articles and new book, Deresiewicz criticizes the Ivy Leagues for their unimaginative criteria for admission and their cultural and academic emphasis on careerism. He recalls his own time on the Yale admissions board, closely scrutinizing the extra-curriculars and service trips of each hopeful candidate. Quoting Ezra Klein, a former columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, Deresiewicz cites the high proportion of Ivy graduates working in high-turnover positions on Wall Street as proof that these universities produce “kids who have ample mental horsepower, an incredible work ethic and no idea what to do next.”

Deresiewicz’s critique is well-placed and timely. The priority on career placement within our universities stifles student creativity, critical thinking and the self-transformation traditionally associated with a collegiate liberal arts education. There is something unsettling about his critique, though: Why does this only pose a problem for the Ivy Leagues?

There lies a not-so-subtle implication in Deresiewicz’s critique that the Ivy Leagues shouldn’t be career-focused because the less-prestigious universities should be. He cannot resign himself of the elitist Ivy-culture, even when he criticizes it. 

He laments the lost Ivy culture, which produced critically-minded social reformers. He maintains the American preoccupation with these universities because they have historically educated the movers and shakers of the country. When the education at these institutions starts to appear deficient, it engenders a special sense of cultural urgency directed at recreating them.

This and like-minded criticisms of ‘elite education’ have a ring of circularity to them. We should be particularly concerned about the education at prestigious private colleges because our culture has always been particularly concerned about them, they say. Even when they don’t teach the most talented students and don’t provide the best education, they still carry a special weight because everyone thinks that they do.   

By focusing our energy on reforming these few universities, we are only inflating this already overvalued brand. In fact, our national preoccupation with these “best universities in the world” masks the dismally underperforming pedagogy at the community colleges and state universities that educate the vast majority of American students. As Kevin Carey recently wrote in The New York Times, we say “we have the best universities in the world” not to mean that we have the best overall higher education system, but that some of the best universities are located within our borders.

Deresiewicz’s advice for students thinking about attending the Ivys becomes quite telling. He says bluntly, “Transfer to a public university” because “the education is often impersonal but the student body is usually genuinely diverse in terms of socioeconomic background, with all of the invaluable experiential learning that implies.” 

As a student at one of those “still very good” public universities, this allows me to say two things. First, that “impersonal education” is not an unfortunate sidenote but the defining characteristic of an underfunded and ineffective system of public higher education and needs to be forcefully addressed by state and federal legislators. We should be reconsidering how that education can become more personal, transformative and critical, rather than resigning ourselves to an uncreative pedagogy and “experiential learning.”

If Deresiewicz is concerned about Ivy League students not feeling sufficiently challenged in their seminars, then he should consider a 400-person introductory lecture at a state school or community college before making any recommendations. 

Second, state universities still do not represent the racial or socioeconomic makeup of our nation. The suggestion that overwhelmingly wealthy prospective-Ivy-Leaguers come to public schools on some sort of “Grand Tour” of marginalized demographics makes little sense and obscures the deficiencies of these educational institutions that typically do serve low-income students. 

Deresiewicz and other critics of elite education provide incisive and sobering insight, but their insight is needed most urgently elsewhere. They would do well to redirect their attention, and the nation’s, to less Ivy-strewn walls.

Write to Simon at [email protected]