Sunday, August 10, 2008


I was browsing the magazines at Auntie's on Saturday, waiting for my daughters to pick out all of the books they wanted to buy, when I saw a headline on the front of the new American Scholar magazine: "Why Ivy Leaguers Can't Think."

It is written by William Deresiewicz, a man who taught English at Yale for ten years, and it describes not only the experiences he had at Yale, but also, in my opinion, the experiences many teachers have with high-powered achievers in their classroom.

He makes a persuasive case that the Ivy League in particular sets its students up for a life in the upper classes. He begins his article with a story of having a plumber in his house and not knowing how to talk to him. Of course, we plebians from state schools cannot relate, because this complaint seems specific to the elite. However, others of his complaints can be generalized not only to other college students, but to other high school students as well.

The author criticised the Ivy League's teaching of what my colleague has called "The Doctrine of the Infinite Last Chance," where a student is taught that every slice gets a mulligan, every game has a reset button, no act is too stupid to be unforgivable [though, I would disagree with the author and say schools have given the infinite last chance for many things, but we have reserved a few actions as unforgivable, e.g racist or sexist comments]. I have seen in my 15 years of teaching students working as hard as they can to fail, and counselors, teachers and administrators cutting corners and bending rules to get the kid the hallowed diploma.

For instance, a few years back, I had a second semester senior who had done little to nothing all semester, and I made clear to his parents, to his counselor and to him that he was failing. As graduation week arrived, he came to ask for his indulgence: he told me if he didn't pass, he wouldn't graduate, and he asked if there was anything he could do to get a passing grade.

I told him what he could do. He could take summer school and get his life together. I told him that he needed somebody like me to draw a boundary and not extend it--what better life lesson can I teach a student? The IRS is unforgiving. The power company is unforgiving. Life is often unforgiving, and I hoped this "tough love" might, just might, help him figure it out before the real world beat the lesson into him.

He left my room with a look of understanding, and I felt like a good teacher. I found out later he went to his sophomore history teacher, from whom he earned an F, and asked her what he could do to make up some work and get a passing grade. How desperate, I thought. She'll refuse him and he'll begin learning his lesson. But she did not refuse him. She gave him some bullshit project to do, and the kid graduated, and walked with his peers across the stage. That young man received an education, but not a good education; he learned the "Doctrine of the Infinite Last Chance."

* * *

The author's lament that struck me most, though, was his acknowledgment of many of his students' lack of curiosity:

...[T]he final and most damning disadvantage of an elite education: that it is profoundly anti-intellectual. This will seem counterintuitive. Aren’t kids at elite schools the smartest ones around, at least in the narrow academic sense? Don’t they work harder than anyone else—indeed, harder than any previous generation? They are. They do. But being an intellectual is not the same as being smart. Being an intellectual means more than doing your homework.

If so few kids come to college understanding this, it is no wonder. They are products of a system that rarely asked them to think about something bigger than the next assignment. The system forgot to teach them, along the way to the prestige admissions and the lucrative jobs, that the most important achievements can’t be measured by a letter or a number or a name. It forgot that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers.

Being an intellectual means, first of all, being passionate about ideas—and not just for the duration of a semester, for the sake of pleasing the teacher, or for getting a good grade. A friend who teaches at the University of Connecticut once complained to me that his students don’t think for themselves. Well, I said, Yale students think for themselves, but only because they know we want them to. I’ve had many wonderful students at Yale and Columbia, bright, thoughtful, creative kids whom it’s been a pleasure to talk with and learn from. But most of them have seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them. Only a small minority have seen their education as part of a larger intellectual journey, have approached the work of the mind with a pilgrim soul. These few have tended to feel like freaks, not least because they get so little support from the university itself. Places like Yale, as one of them put it to me, are not conducive to searchers.

To study the history of American education is to learn that it was not set up to be "conducive to searchers." This is a national, not an Ivy League, phenomenon. The author has noticed the grand failing of American schooling, but he thinks that it is a modern shift, occurring in elite schools, when in fact it has been built into our educational system from the beginning. Schools are not conducive to searchers. We need to find a way to allow the searchers to fit better into our educational system. Sure, searchers can often find a niche in drama, debate or newspaper, but that is not a system change; that is just allowing a student an oasis in a harsh desert.

Somehow, and I don't know how, we need to make schools places that nurture our searchers, and help them develop their passions, so that people don't feel like they have to drop out of school to do what they really want to do. I know that's naively optimistic, but I think it can be done. I just don't know how.


Robert Archer said...

Outstanding piece, Eric! I'd love to see you craft it slightly differently to try to get it into a widely read publication. I don't know if it would be right for the SR, but maybe for the Inlander or the WEA publication/website.

Great stuff! Thanks!

Eric said...

Thank you, Rob. That means a great deal to me, coming from a published author such as yourself.

By crafting it "slightly differently," do you mean remove the word "bullshit"?

Robert Archer said...

Oh heavens, NO! I was hoping for more curse words. The way I see it, one can never have too many curse words when speaking of public eduation.

dave starry said...

"...the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers."

This was my mantra (or words to that effect) through my college years.