William Deresiewicz argued his claim that students of elite universities are growingly risk-averse, homogeneous, and career-focused with a panel of faculty members and students on Monday evening.
Hosted by Harvard’s Mahindra Humanities Center, the question-and-answer-style forum involved a panel including Dean of the College Rakesh Khurana, Divisional Dean for Arts and Humanities Diana Sorensen, and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Executive Dean for Education and Research Fawwaz Habbal, among others. The panel was moderated by Homi K. Bhabha, director of the Mahindra Center.
Deresiewicz, who received both his undergraduate and doctoral degrees from Columbia, was a faculty member at Yale until 2008, and has since worked as a writer. In his book, which is the focus of his current Ivy League campus tour, he claims that a flawed, overly quantified admissions process and a an increasingly vocation-oriented liberal arts setting—specifically within elite schools like Harvard—has produced a generation of largely scared and undirected young adults.
Students enrolled in elite universities and colleges are “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,” Deresiewicz writes in his newly-published book “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life,” which was published in August and of which an excerpt was published by the New Republic in July.
From the panel, Deresiewicz received direct, often critical questions. As Bhabha had the panel members sequentially ask Deresiewicz questions, Khurana asked the author what he “[missed] most about being an academic.”
Deresiewicz advocates for an increase in funding for public institutions of higher learning, which would arguably make college more accessible to students with lower socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as for reforming the college admissions process to be less favorable to students of higher-income families.
“My ultimate hope is that [college] becomes recognized as a right of citizenship, and that we make sure that that right is available to all," he told the audience in his opening remarks.
During the discussion, Deresiewicz criticized many in academia for being complacent with the problems that he ascribes to universities like Harvard, eliciting a response from Michael D. Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, who stood from where he was sitting in the audience.
"I want to take objection to your comment that we think everything is fine. That's not true,” Smith said when the audience was given the opportunity to ask questions of the panel. “I’ve never heard anyone on the faculty tell me that they're satisfied. It would be nice if we could have a conversation about this without the ‘we don’t care.’ That is absolutely not true. I just want to make that very clear. This is not how the faculty do it."
Ari R. Hoffman ’10, a resident tutor in Lowell House who is serving as acting Kirkland House dean this semester, said that he largely agreed with Deresiewicz's diagnosis of an institutional problem within higher learning.
“I think his critique of the University is very trenchant. I think we need more interrogation about the continued relevance and worth of what we’re doing, along with the conviction that these are fighting acts that have to be done. That posture of criticizing, while also affirming, I think, is exactly the attitude that we should take,” Hoffman said.
Khurana, who is also co-Master of Cabot House, reflected on his experience with students and asked Deresiewicz about the practical implementation of his reforms given the heavy societal and economic factors that pressure students to anticipate their careers and futures at growingly earlier points in their lives.
“Fairly or unfairly—probably unfairly—if you get out of [Harvard] with a degree, it's going to be quite difficult for you to not have a comfortable life,” Deresiewicz responded. “By every reasonable standard, the Harvard name is going to open every door that you want to open…. Harvard, because of its wealth, because of its generosity, enables students to graduate with very little debt. I think that the fears are legitimate, but highly exaggerated.”
Deresiewicz also said that, with its role in past innovations in education, Harvard could lead in reforming institutions of higher learning.
“I hope that Harvard can continue, or perhaps resume, that role of courageous innovation not just within the realms of scholarship, but in terms of the structure and social function of higher education that it needs to play, and that I don’t see a lot of institutions of higher education today really taking up,” he said.
—Staff writer Alexander H. Patel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter @alexhpatel.
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