William Deresiewicz, former Yale faculty member and author of “Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life,” discussed his critical claims on higher education with a panel of Harvard faculty members and students on Monday evening. He also sat down with The Crimson, answering questions about his views on the liberal arts, the college admissions process, and what advice he would give to Harvard students.
The Harvard Crimson: Have you met hostility in touring these colleges, especially the ones that you’ve criticized in your work? Do you meet people who are very open to these ideas?
William Deresiewicz: I don’t get hostility, especially given the kind of h ostility that I’ve gotten in print.... Once I actually get in a room with people, they ask me tough questions, but I would not describe it as hostile. They’re often quite responsive to what I have to say.... I think that people start to realize that I’m human, and that I see them as human, and that my interest in all these issues—interest isn’t strong enough of a word—really comes from a place of caring about these students. In fact, the whole book came about because students responded to me with their own concerns.
THC: You’ve talked to a lot of students about their experiences in applying to and attending college. Have you noticed anything unique about Harvard students, anything that makes them different in mindset or the troubles that they have?
WD: No. I really don’t. I don’t want to make anything up. I would say that I hear very similar things, maybe sometimes that the stress is greater because the expectations are higher, or maybe because some of the negative aspects, like competitiveness or pressure, are more intense here.
THC: It seems that you think that liberal arts can be achieved as a proper college experience, without the negative side effects that you say have inculcated within students at elite institutions. Harvard College prides itself as a liberal arts college; what would you say is corrupting the school’s liberal arts setting?
WD: Not every liberal arts college is great; some are quite appalling, as I’ve discovered. Part of the problem is that the term ‘liberal arts’ has come to mean a number of different things. Strictly speaking, it refers to the humanities, the social sciences, and the sciences, understood as discipline for knowledge as a pursuit for its own sake, not for a vocational purpose....
You study the field of knowledge for the sake of learning how knowledge is created, and maybe making more of your own. Which is where the institution’s mission as a research university meets its undergraduate mission as a teaching college: learning from professors who are [creating that knowledge]. Harvard, as a research institution, is certainly a great place—maybe the greatest place. But liberal arts means something a little different when we talk about undergraduate education..... It has to do with an attitude about what your education is for.... The more students treat their education as vocational and use the structure of the liberal arts education for vocational purposes, the less the school is about the liberal arts experience and the more it becomes about something else. I see that happening at a lot of schools.
THC: One of the solutions that you present in your book is an overhaul to the college admissions process, primarily by weighting factors like SAT scores and extra-curricular involvement to level the field for students in lower socioeconomic classes. It seems, though, that you argue that there are characteristics about applicants that aren’t captured at all by these quantitative measurements. How would you reform the admissions process to take these things into account?
WD: It’s moments like this when I’m cornered that I like to say that my business is complaining, not answers, which I’ve stolen from someone else. I realize that admissions is a difficult technical problem. I don’t think that it should be that hard to set principles for what we’re looking for. It is difficult to ask: how do you actually put that into practice, and how do you put it into practice in need to be ten times bigger than they are. Admittedly, they probably cost a lot of money to run, but we may just need to to devote more manpower. It would cost a lot of money, but the decisions that these offices are reaching seem to be so consequential that I almost feel like society should demand a better [process]. But, of course, my primary solution [to this problem] is public higher education, where we don’t have to worry about evaluating 400,000 kids for 10,000 slots. We could have 400,000 kids and 200,000 slots.”
THC: Is there anything that you’d like to convey to Harvard students, in particular?
WD: First of all, I want them to know that I don’t hate them, and I don’t blame them for most of this. I blame the adults that have created the system.... People have said to me over and over that you can get a great education at school X, but you have to work for it or you have to fight for it. You have to resist a lot of the forces that are pushing you in certain directions—pushing you to compete, pushing you to do a million different things, pushing to think of yourself and your education in a certain way. You have to resist all that peer, parental, and social pressure. If you do that, this could be a wonderful place to get an education. You don’t have a transfer. But you do have to fight the institution.
—Staff writer Alexander H. Patel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter @alexhpatel.
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5Q: William Deresiewicz