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“Twenty Questions” with William Deresiewicz

9.25.14

William Deresiewicz (left) and his host, Mahindra Humanities Center director Homi K. Bhabha

William Deresiewicz (left) and his host, Mahindra Humanities Center director Homi K. Bhabha

Photograph by Jon Chase/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

On Monday night, a chattering crowd packed Paine Hall to watch William Deresiewicz, author of the controversial new book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, address his complaints about the Ivy League. The writer joined a “20 Questions” panel moderated by Homi K. Bhabha, director of the Mahindra Humanities Center; the questioners were professor of English Amanda Claybaugh, senior Nathaniel Donahue ’15, Fawwaz Habbal, executive dean for education and research in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS), Rakesh Khurana, dean of Harvard College, alumna Camille Owens ’13, and Diana Sorensen, dean for the arts and humanities in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS).

Deresiewicz made headlines this summer after an excerpt from his book, entitled “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” appeared in The New Republic. He is a product of the Ivy League himself: he has three degrees from Columbia and taught English at Yale for 10 years before being denied tenure in 2008. That spring, he famously “did a daylong sprint in the Yale admissions committee,” during which he found fault with how admissions officers assessed prospective students. “So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success,” the author cried in his excerpt. “The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential.”

In his New Republic article, Deresiewicz wrote that Ivy League schools and their peer institutions do little to foster a value system in their undergraduates. Rather, they “manufacture 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.” The wealthy bankers and consultants who hang coveted diplomas in their Park Avenue apartments may not have “souls,” to borrow the term Deresiewicz uses to classify the goal of his intended value system, but they do have financial security, if only because they are “excellent sheep.”

After the audience, which was growing louder by the minute, had straggled into the auditorium, Bhabha shushed the crowd. In his introduction, he noted that their guest’s arguments belong to a “long and debated genre” in which “subjectivism should not always be confused with solipsism.” Although he conceded that their speaker had “stirred a hornet’s nest” in his accusations that the college-admissions process favored either wealthy students or those who could easily be ushered into lucrative careers, Bhabha said he hoped that he, his colleagues, and Deresiewicz could someday “work and teach together to provide our students with a wide range of truth enhancement.”

That said, Bhabha made clear he intended to run the potentially inflammatory discussion with an iron fist. Deresiewicz would have 20 minutes to discuss his book, and then each panelist would be allowed one “provocative question.” An assistant with a microphone would then facilitate questions from the audience. If the debate became too lively, Bhabha cautioned, he would have to borrow tactics from the elimination round of a popular cooking reality TV show; the offending speaker would be “chopped!”

Deresiewicz began by noting that it was “heartening to see” that the crowd consisted of more “grown-ups” than students. Though he admitted he did not have many kind words with which to compliment his host institution, he conceded that “Harvard has often been at the forefront of reform in higher education” since the days of President Charles William Eliot in the late nineteenth century.

His first article criticizing “elite” institutions, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” appeared in The American Scholar six years ago, he noted, adding, “Almost immediately, there was a giant echo back to me from the world.” Students from selective schools “started to invite me to speak to them.” These talks with students made him realize that in order to put his ideas into action, he “needed to develop a ‘yes’ to go along with…the things I was saying ‘no’ to.” In response to the immediate backlash to his New Republic cover story this past summer, Deresiewicz said much of the criticism “was not, ‘Of course, you get a good education in the Ivy League.’ The response was, ‘No one wants a real education any more, don’t be a sucker…there’s no room in modernity.’”

Deresiewicz then read a lengthy excerpt by n+1 founder Mark Greif ’97 that examined the process and reasons behind developing the soul. One sentence in particular seemed to punctuate his feelings on the Ivy League: “What matters in a book is what you need, not where the library is found.” In his closing words, he stated diplomatically that while his critics have argued that today's liberal-arts colleges are as open, diverse, and available as they have ever been, he denies that this kind of education has ever been a “special privilege of the aristocracy,” and asserts that colleges have actually moved away from their ideal structures and functions. “My ultimate hope,” he concluded, “is that [this kind of education] becomes recognized as a right of citizenship, and that we make the commitment to ensure that right is available to all.”

Bhabha then opened the session to questions. Amanda Claybaugh went first, asking Deresiewicz how he intended to make “a soul through education,” and whether he thought an institution like Harvard should “operate on a regime of ‘No soul left behind,’” a phrase that left the audience cheering. He responded that there are institutions in the United States that successfully provide students with a value system. “It’s about modeling it...and admissions policies that encourage the admission of students that are interested in doing it.”

Nathaniel Donahue, a social studies concentrator, then asked what advice Deresiewicz would take from the successes and failures of the for-profit educational model, which Donahue cited as having high proportions of female and minority students. The author rejected that question entirely, pithily noting, “It’s not clear to me that there’s much to learn from them, it’s sad to say.”

When SEAS’s Fawwaz Habbal asked how Deresiewicz would address the fact that larger institutions provide more research opportunities for undergraduates, the latter replied that small liberal-arts colleges have great research facilities, too. The dean responded that Harvard is a liberal-arts college itself. “Harvard is not a liberal-arts college,” Deresiewicz rejoined, also noting, “We are not going to solve the problem [raised in his book] by simply turning out technocrats.” “It’s not just about the kid in the corner, writing poetry, blah blah blah,” he continued, to chuckles from the crowd. “We need people with a broad education to solve problems,” not just people who specialize in one field, whom he terms technocratic “high-IQ morons.”

Bhabha then turned to the dean of the College himself, Rakesh Khurana, who concisely asked Deresiewicz to say “what he missed most about being an academic.” After pausing for the thunderous applause from the audience that greeted the query, Deresiewicz replied that he missed mentoring students.

Recent graduate Camille Owens next questioned Deresiewicz on how he reconciles his call for developing the soul and the self at college while simultaneously moving in the direction of leadership. He acknowledged that this contradiction was a “gap in the argument,” but said he didn’t yet have an answer that fully satisfied him. “I think that a fulfilled life generally has a commitment to something larger than yourself,” he elaborated. “I don’t preach on that ground, though. That’s all I can say.”

In the final question, Diana Sorensen challenged Deresiewicz, as a fellow literary scholar, to “unpack” a quotation from his own book. She cited a passage on page 65 of Excellent Sheep stating that “elite schools have strong incentives not to produce many seekers and thinkers,” or to push students into careers such as public service that serve the greater good but are not generally considered lucrative. Deresiewicz accused Sorensen of preempting his “analysis” by implying that Excellent Sheep asserts that universities want to focus on grooming wealthy graduates rather than public-service workers because the former are more likely to donate to their alma maters. “I’m not the first person to make these points,” he added. “About 50 percent of Ivy League graduates, depending on the school, go into finance, consulting, or law...What interests do the universities have?” 

In the heat of the debate, Bhabha broke the rules of his own game to respond to Deresiewicz. “You can’t simply say that lawyers, bankers, and financiers are entirely captured in what they do,” he asserted. “They also have a moral imagination...I don’t accept your argument at all.” 

Other panelists began to address Deresiewicz and respond to one another all across the long table. Khurana asked Deresiewicz to consider the “age of anxiety” in which students have been raised, notably the recession of 2008. “Really, nothing I’m describing began after 2008,” said the author. “Fairly, frankly unfairly, if you get out of [Harvard] with a degree, it’s going to be very hard for you not to have a comfortable life.”

Habbal queried him on his belief that students from Ivy League schools do not properly develop “souls,” while Bhabha asked why Deresiewicz judged universities to be the number-one formative experience in a person’s life. “I’m not saying that colleges can solve all of these problems,” Deresiewicz conceded. “They are, or at least used to be, set up to address these issues.” He noted that colleges are unique in their ability to educate and mold the minds of undergraduates while they are “relatively free from practical urgencies.”

Once again citing from Excellent Sheep, Sorensen asked Deresiewicz why he objected to internships, and to which types in particular he took offense. He retorted that the dean had quoted him out of context: that he supports skill-based internships during the college years, but does not advocate that students spend their gap years honing a corporate résumé.

“The soul isn’t something you have or don’t have; it’s something you develop,” he said. This argument, he noted, has even been written about by a “former dean of the College,” alluding to Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future? by Gordon McKay professor of computer science Harry Lewis. (The two academic critics enjoyed a lively debate of their own in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

After Bhabha called time on the discussions around the table, the floor was opened to questions from the audience. Most turned into comments or opinions opposing either Deresiewicz or Harvard practices, and were, as Bhabha had promised, “chopped.”

“I made this obnoxious complaint six years ago, and I thought no one would care,” Deresiewicz summed up in closing. “Instead, I got many students saying, ‘Thank you for articulating my experiences’…I don’t think they’re just passing it around [the Internet] just to laugh at me; there are too many other things to laugh about on the Internet in the last six years.” He insisted his argument was not that choosing high-paying jobs, such as in banks and law firms, is wrong, but that “how you make the choice” is a problem at elite institutions. “College ought to play an important role [in such decisions],” he finished. “It seems, in general, to have retreated from that role.”

 

As one of the students Deresiewicz addresses, I attended the event expecting to disagree with every one of his points. But as the presentation wound to a close, I found myself sympathizing with many of his arguments. I study English, and do not currently intend to pursue any of the careers Excellent Sheep lambastes graduates for choosing. I know, though, that most of the career fairs hosted by Harvard are attended by consulting and investment-banking firms, arguably making it harder for students who do not want to pursue these paths to find postgraduate employment. Having corporations come to campus, interview you on site, and promise six-figure salaries makes these “obvious” careers hard to resist. I do feel that Harvard, and especially my peers, have adequately cultivated my “soul,” but I have only a vague understanding about how I can successfully enter a career in the arts.

My objections to Deresiewicz’s arguments focus on his inflammatory and sweeping statements, which seem to be phrased to incite debate and notoriety, rather than to address exactly how he would structure universities and their classrooms to develop the “souls” of their students. I would be much more convinced if Deresiewicz produced a syllabus or, better yet, a lesson plan indicating what students would read and the sorts of questions instructors might ask to become his ideal shepherds. I worry that administrators and instructors who have the power to effect change will dismiss Deresiewicz’s more valid arguments because they are so hidden within incendiary rhetoric.

Though much of the crowd had trickled out by the end of the debate, the hall once again rang with voices after Bhabha “chopped” the last question to thank Deresiewicz and the panel for their time. Eager to speak their own minds after listening to others’ opinions for two hours, slow-moving pairs and groups eased down the staircase of Paine Hall and out into the Yard. The potential sheep had been fed by a shepherd and were chewing over the fodder as they moved along toward the green pasture of Harvard Yard.

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