Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto.
Last week, in an essay for the New Republic, "Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League," former Yale professor William Deresiewicz continued his assault on the values of America's top universities, drawing on a stint serving with an admissions committee.
Far from being the elite institutions of learning they pretend to be, he argued, the Ivy League has become a training ground for clever, self-involved yet biddable youngsters – "out-of-touch, entitled little shit[s]," to quote one of them – who make especially good fodder for the morally bankrupt financial sector.
The aspirants to admission are like prize animals trained to within an inch of their sanity. To be considered "well rounded" they must "have a sport" and evidence of charity work, preferably in a foreign nation or colourful locale like New Orleans; otherwise, they can be "pointy" – very good at one thing – but only if they are national or even world-class at it: Olympic-level swimmer, say, or headlining concert pianist. At the same time, an overly laden résumé, as with one that included double-digit extracurriculars and nine letters of reference – nine! – can be rejected for indicating someone is "too intense."
Dr. Deresiewicz and the New Republic masthead have been criticized for being just as Ivy-dominated as any Wall Street trading firm, but the objection is beside the point: Gumption and talent still count for more than pedigree in publishing. (Roger Hodge, former editor of Harper's, went to Sewanee; New Yorker staff writer Adam Gopnik is a McGill graduate; and so on.)
Meanwhile, anyone with even a passing familiarity with the top-tier universities of the United States will recognize the bleak justice of his portrait. For several decades these private name-brand schools have been on a rampage of return-on-investment competition that depends on the deranged desire of upper-middle-class kids – and their parents – to get in. Once in, success is presumed.
And yet, what is that success after all? What return is the investment delivering? Wealth and status, of course. But what about values, meaning or character? What about wisdom or a sense of self and life direction? Outmoded language, maybe; but once upon a time people believed that at least part of the privilege of college was to think about these very things.
Dr. Deresiewicz's suggested counter-measures include changes to bursary programs to target poverty rather than race, a limit on the number of extracurriculars on applications, and an end to the much-reviled but intractable "legacy" system, which favours children of graduates. The last is nothing more than an educational frequent-flyer program for the wealthy; it has no basis in any defensible reasoning.
Dr. Deresiewicz likewise suggests that students consider less-obvious postsecondary choices: economically diverse public universities, liberal arts schools like Reed or Oberlin, under-the-radar gems like Sewanee. But there is a category, less obvious to Americans, that he missed: North of the border.
The University of Toronto used to dub itself "the Harvard of the North," but that was both insecure and inaccurate. U of T is, instead, one the world's leading public universities; it continues to climb higher in international education rankings. The most recent surveys placed it anywhere from 16th to 20th in the world.
The rap on U of T, as against the Ivy League, has always been its size: nearly 39,000 undergraduates on the downtown campus alone. But things are changing. Next month, for example, for the eighth time in 10 years, I will teach a first-year undergraduate seminar that is capped at 25 students, part of several university-wide efforts to break down the mass of the place. Our undergraduate college system works to the same end.
Or how about McGill? Cheap by crazy U.S. tuition standards, excellent faculty, one of the continent's most interesting cities, low rents for nice apartments – it's already a cherished destination for smart Americans looking for one of the best deals in North American higher education. If the big city is too rambunctious for you, there are also first-rate liberal-arts options at King's College in Halifax, Huron College in London, or Bishop's University in Lennoxville.
Of course, Canadian institutions have all the practical problems that afflict postsecondary education everywhere: rising tuition, spiralling debt loads and yawning postgraduate unemployment. But compared with elite American universities, where only the very rich can even think of playing, the costs and risks are low enough and the payoffs high enough that many more people can aspire to college education.
It's true that a degree from one of these Canadian institutions is never going to offer the pure status conferred by the big crimson H. But maybe that's a good thing, for both the individual soul and the world at large.
Citizens of America, send your best and brightest north! I know it sounds crazy in our zero-sum world, but everybody will win. And you can always go to the Ivy League for grad school, where there's no legacy system, only grades matter and sometimes they even pay you.
Mark Kingwell is a winner of U of T's President's Teaching Award and a contributing editor of Harper's Magazine.