In one of the most popular pieces ever posted by The New Republic, titled “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” former Yale professor William Deresiewicz sharply criticizes the elite education offered at Ivy League and other prestigious universities for producing graduates who have become efficient cognitive machines rather than passionate and creative thinkers with a deep understanding of themselves and the world.
“Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it,” he writes.
“Is there anything that I can do, a lot of young people have written to ask me, to avoid becoming an out-of-touch, entitled little shit? I don’t have a satisfying answer, short of telling them to transfer to a public university. You cannot cogitate your way to sympathy with people of different backgrounds, still less to knowledge of them. You need to interact with them directly, and it has to be on an equal footing….”
(In fact, Deresiewicz also emphasizes that private liberal arts colleges, apart from the most selective, can still provide an education that invites students to move beyond their proven but allegedly narrow channels to success.)
Our position is not anti-Ivy League—but if Deresiewicz has a point about the class and cultural “bubble” of elite institutions, we believe that there is a middle path that offers highly-talented students a combination of rigorous, smaller classes within the context of large, truly diverse universities. Public university honors programs vary in the “elite” status conferred upon honors students, but in all cases honors students mix extensively with non-honors students, spending two-thirds to three-fourths of their class time with them, often in upper-division sections in which the majority of students are more focused and mature.
In some cases, prospective students look at public honors programs as a backup if they do not get into their dream school–an Ivy, Stanford, MIT, Chicago, Vanderbilt, etc. Aside from lower costs and somewhat less demanding entrance requirements (some are very high, however), public honors programs can also be appealing across state lines because of the tuition waivers and merit awards that many of them offer. A student in New York state, for example, can look to many excellent public honors options in warmer climates, as well as programs in New York and in neighboring states.
But again, if Deresiewicz is making a valid point with his criticisms, what some students consider as a backup choice–public honors programs–could in the long run turn out to be the best choice.
At the core of Deresiewicz’s polemic is his concern that the intense, instrumental focus on gaining admission to elite universities has forced talented students into narrow paths at increasingly early ages. By the time the students reach their dream schools (if they ever do so), many have set aside what they would have loved to learn in favor of what they have had to learn, or perhaps master is the better word. Once in place at Harvard, Yale, or MIT, according to Deresiewicz, they associate with others mostly like themselves, brilliant young people for whom thinking is not for nourishing the truest self but for what the self has been directed to do.
“But it is only through the act of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique being—a soul,” Deresiewicz writes. “The job of college is to assist you to begin to do that. Books, ideas, works of art and thought, the pressure of the minds around you that are looking for their own answers in their own ways.” [Emphasis added.]
One of the best things about the large public universities in which honors programs function is that diversity–and not only racial or gender diversity, but true class diversity—guarantees that there will be thousands of students with every perspective imaginable.
Some honors students and certainly many of their non-honors classmates are first or second generation college students who have to work at real jobs while they are going to school, or have to commute and thus deal with their parents and siblings at the same time they are being transformed by their learning.
Even if some honors students in the most selective public university programs have been as over-focused as the typical Ivy student on learning for admissions’ sake, these honors students will still spend much of their time with honors and non-honors students for whom learning has retained its edge—challenges to long-held beliefs, excitement in discovery, thrill in eventual accomplishment.
These are students who have not been jaded by years of stair-stepping their way into elite programs, but who have, out of necessity or adherence to an independent streak, taken a more circuitous and individualistic path. Having been less consumed by the college preparation grind along the way, they are more likely to be transformed by the college experience itself, a process that can be contagious. If Deresiewicz is right, they will be the students who find at least some of “their own answers in their own ways,” or, even better, find that the search for answers never ends.