How hard is it to get into Harvard? Only 6 per cent of applicants do. Yet hundreds of thousands of students in America have lives shaped by that statistic: The pressure, almost from birth, to acquire the foreign languages, volunteer stints, athletic accomplishments and grades that open the doors of top universities trickles down to almost every institution.
And the admissions race is now global. This week, The Times Higher Education World University Rankings were released, one of the key tools students use to identify the most prestigious schools – the ones from which a degree is a "lifelong passport" to success, in the words of the rankings' editor.
William Deresiewicz, the author of Excellent Sheep, argues that, rather than rejoice at being admitted to such institutions, this elite-in-training should run the other way. In tours to capacity lecture halls, the former Yale literature professor tells students to stop mistaking ambition for direction; and to embrace the liberal arts, self-reflection and risk. Otherwise, the anxiety and unhappiness those students feel now, after a childhood and adolescence stage-managed by their parents, will flower into midlife crises and the realization of an existence neither examined nor fulfilled.
But Dr. Deresiewicz is not a counsellor. He's a combative writer, a regular at The New Republic. The race to the top, he argues, is not just a waste of the best minds of a generation (the Ys and Zs), who are going into economics with only the smallest detours into Plato, Virginia Woolf or George Eliot; it has turned education from the great equalizer to a sharp cleaver, lacerating democracy. He spoke with The Globe and Mail from Portland, Ore., where he lives.
You tell students who are not from the elite to not sell themselves short, to pursue their dreams; but you also recognize their "margin for error is incomparably smaller." I sometimes got a sense this book is about and for poor little rich kids.
Just today I stumbled upon a piece that had said something similar: I deal with "white-people problems." And you said "poor little rich kids." I find terms like that really offensive. I say in the book that part of the problem with the way Ivy League-type institutions shape you is that they make you think that your life is more valuable than other people's – and it's not.
But by the same token, your life is not less valuable because you've had advantages that other people haven't. Just for the sake of argument, if there were a "poor little rich kid" who had pancreatic cancer, would you say, "Oh, poor little rich kid has pancreatic cancer." These people are suffering, and the fact that it's not the worst suffering in the world doesn't mean it's not real.
Are you concerned that the takeaway from the book is that the liberal arts are the best pill to soothe anxiety?
I offer the liberal arts as a way to help people become more self-directed and more self-reflective. One of the things that has been disappointing to me is that a lot of people have not been picking up on the book's political aspect.
In the last 50 pages or so, you take up the issue of class in America.
I want to talk about what the system does to society as a whole: It perpetuates the class system. One of the ways the class system is perpetuated now is by creating these insane childhoods that also cost a lot of money to administer. It's not just the kids at the Ivy League; it's all the kids who compete for these spots, and the way the admissions shape them. Their problems become everybody's problems because they become the leadership class. And ultimately, it's about how we are training a leadership class.
You have two solutions. To elite parents, you say: You have to share. And to politicians: Equalize funding for kindergarten-to-high-school; take it away from being based on a local tax base (the way it is in the States).
Well, that's not exactly what I'm saying.
Tell me what you're saying to an Ivy League parent.
To me, there isn't a sharp line between individual and collective solutions, because collective solutions are a result of individuals working together. But there are some individual solutions for the very simple reason that individuals can't wait for collective action to happen. I'm saying to kids, "You can't wait for the grownups to get their act together. You're going to college now, so how are you going to get out of a system that is running your life?"
A New Yorker piece was very succinct on that front. The kids are risk-averse, it argued, because "there's much more risk to be averse to."
Here's the problem with that argument. The system did not start six years ago. This is a system that has been developing for 50 years, ever since the meritocracy was put into place. One of the outcomes of the fact that we don't talk about class is that the privileged don't realize how privileged they are. The truth is that if you go to an Ivy League school, or even a Top 100 selective college, there isn't really that much risk in your life.
I would love it if students tried to create a compromise between what they love to do and the practicalities of earning a living. What I see all too often is that it isn't even a compromise; it's just about pursuing wealth and status, and often it's for lack of pursuing a better idea.
After years of teaching at Yale, you did not get tenure at the school. Is there a personal reason that you want to burn these institutions to the ground?
I never expected to get tenure at Yale; very few people get tenure at a top institution from a junior position. I did try and get a job in academia. I applied for 40 different jobs while in my last few years at Yale; I was hoping to get a job at a small liberal-arts college. If I was going to be angry at anyone, it would be at the colleges that didn't hire me, because that's where I thought I belonged, and that's where I thought I was credentialed to teach. I didn't have the credentials to get tenure at Yale. Excellent teaching is not rewarded. And I've seen it happen to many, many people. But you know what? Ultimately, it doesn't matter why I wrote the book; what matters is whether what I'm saying is true.
What are the stakes here? Apart from personal crises and unhappiness?
The old system took about 35 years to dismantle, from 1929 to about the mid-sixties, during which we went from a world that was exclusively dominated by white Protestant men. I'm proposing things like increasing taxes that supposedly you are not allowed to talk about because it will never happen, so why bother. But if we don't talk about them, it will never happen.
This interview has been edited and condensed.