I was like so many kids today. I went off to collegelike a sleepwalker, like a zombie. College was a blank. College was the “next thing.” You went to college, you studied something, and afterward you went on to the next thing, most probably some kind of graduate school. Up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth, getting to the top—in a word, “success.” As for where you went to school, that was all about bragging rights, so of course you chose the most prestigious place that let you in. What it meant to get an education, and why you might want one—how it could help you acquire a self, or develop an independent mind, or find your way in the world—all this was off the table.
PART 1. Sheep
1. The Students
Super People, means a double major, a sport, a musical instrument, a couple of foreign languages, service work in distant corners of the globe, a few hobbies thrown in for good measure: they have mastered them all, and with an apparent effortlessness, a serene self-assurance, that leaves adults and peers alike in awe. That’s today’s elite students,
Look beneath the façade of affable confidence and seamless well-adjustment that today’s elite students have learned to project, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation.
Growing up elite means learning to value yourself in terms of the measures of success that mark your progress into and through the elite: the grades, the scores, the trophies. That is what you’re praised for; that is what you are rewarded for. Your parents brag; your teachers glow; your rivals grit their teeth. Finally, the biggest prize of all, the one that draws a line beneath your adolescence and sums you up for all the world to see: admission to the college of your dreams. Or rather, not finally—because the game, of course, does not end there. College is naturally more of the same. Now the magic terms are GPA, Phi Beta Kappa, Fulbright, MCAT, Harvard Law, Goldman Sachs. They signify not just your fate, but your identity; not just your identity, but your value. They are who you are, and what you’re worth.
You have to get that extra certification now, or what has it all been for? I even met a quadruple major once. He seemed to think it meant that he was very smart.
The question, then, is why. Greed alone is not the explanation. That’s what feels familiar; that’s what feels safe; that’s what feels like the right thing to do. Elite students are told that they can be whatever they want, but most of them end up choosing to be one of a few very similar things. Whole fields have disappeared from view: the clergy, the military, electoral politics, teaching, even academia itself, for the most part, including basic science.
The key word there is “safety.” The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them, defeats them. They have been haunted their whole lives by a fear of failure—often, in the first instance, by their parents’ fear of failure. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential.
The result is a violent aversion to risk. You have no margin for error, so you avoid the possibility that you will ever make an error. That is one of the reasons that elite education has become so inimical to learning.
2. The History
How did we get here? WASPs, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants created a whole range of institutions for themselves. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton assumed the moneyed shape of legend: the Harvard of the “Gold Coast” of private dormitories; the Yale of Stover at Yale, a famous campus novel of the time; the Princeton of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Elite colleges, where affluent young men could mingle with their peers from across the country, played a crucial role in inculcating mores, establishing connections, and certifying graduates as members of the leadership class.
Later, the Big Three were not going to let that happen to them. A whole new set of admissions criteria was developed to hold back the Semitic tide by making sure that the “right sort” of student got in: letters of recommendation, alumni interviews, the preference for athletes and “leaders,” special treatment for sons of alumni (that is, “legacies”), an emphasis on geographic distribution, and a devaluation of pure academic ability.
But already by the 1930s, forces had started to gather that would eventually destroy the old way of doing things. James B. Conant, newly installed as president of Harvard, began to take steps to raise academic standards, increase access, and tap the nation’s talent pool. To identify the bright young men who would, to be sure, only supplement the school’s existing clientele, he turned to a recently developed “psychometric” test: the SAT. The average SAT score at elite colleges before World War II was around 500, right in the middle of the distribution; by the early 1960s, it had risen to about 625. The admissions rates lower, the expectations higher, the competition fiercer, the pressure on students greater.
3. The Training
Now, athletics were thought to build character—courage and selflessness and team spirit. The arts embodied an ideal of culture. Service was designed to foster a public-minded ethos in our future leaders. Leadership itself was understood to be a form of duty. Kids do them because they know that they’re supposed to, not because they, or anybody else, actually believes in them. The process takes activities that used to be ends in themselves and reduces them to means. No wonder they have also lost their souls: athletics means no more now than physical training; music means technical proficiency; service means charity; leadership means climbing to the top.
4. The Institutions
The American university inherits the missions of two very different institutions: the English college and the German research university. The first pattern prevailed before the Civil War. Curricula centered on the classics, and the purpose of education was understood to be the formation of character. With the emergence of a modern industrial society in the last decades of the nineteenth century, that kind of pedagogy was felt to be increasingly obsolete. Then the full structure of graduate research and education began to emerge: departments organized by discipline, national professional associations, peer reviewed journals, publish-or-perish, the ladder of professorial ranks, tenure, dissertations, PhDs.
The ultimate problem lies deeper than cultural fashion or bureaucratic confusion. The foundational compromise of modern American higher education—the idea of housing a liberal arts college within a research university—has proved tube untenable. Because a single faculty exists for both, and because professors are trained and rewarded for research, the values of the university have inexorably won out over those of the college.
Professors are rewarded for research, especially at elite schools, so they want to spend as little time on their classes as they can.
PART 2. Self
5. What Is College For?
Of course, money matters: jobs matter, financial security matters, national prosperity matters. The question is, are they the only things that matter? Life is more than a job; jobs are more than a paycheck; and a country is more than its wealth. Education is more than the acquisition of marketable skills, and you are more than your ability to contribute to your employer’s bottom line or the nation’s GDP, no matter what the rhetoric of politicians or executives would have you think.
College is to teach you to think. The point was not to replace his students ‘opinions with his own. The point was to bring his charges into the unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and endlessly fertile condition of doubt. He was teaching them not what to think but how. You want some people in your life whose job it is to tell you when you’re wrong.
True liberal education requires that the student’s whole life be radically changed. what is the good life and how should I live it? You won’t be damned to go through life at second hand, thinking other people’s thoughts and dreaming other people’s dreams. Interesting is not accomplished. Interesting is not “impressive.” What makes you interesting is reading, thinking, slowing down, having long conversations, and creating a rich inner life for yourself.
Education’s what’s left over,” goes the common jeer, “after you’ve forgotten everything you’ve learned. Most of what you come across in college will inevitably fade from memory. What’s left over, precisely, is you.
6. Inventing Your Life
You can’t be happy if you don’t know what you’re working for. To find yourself, you first must free yourself. You won’t be able to recognize the things you really care about until you have released your grip on all the things that you’ve been taught to care about.
So how do you find your vocation—or as people like to say today, your passion? That can be the hardest question that young people face, especially after being trained to think exclusively in terms of the next immediate goal. There are no easy answers, but here are a few suggestions. Do for work what you do spontaneously—or did spontaneously, back when you were younger, before all the spontaneity got beaten out of you. Do what you would choose to do anyway, even if you didn’t get rewarded for it. Do the thing that you can immerse yourself inside for hours at a time.
To invent your life, you need to overcome that thing the system is so good at inculcating: fear of failure. Never to have failed is a sign not of merit but fragility; it means your fears have kept you from doing or becoming what you might have. “Fail better, “Samuel Beckett famously wrote. If your standards are as high as they should be, you will fail again and again.
Status is a funny thing. Money gets you stuff, at least. Status doesn’t get you much except the knowledge that you have it. And while money may not make you happy, it is easy to imagine someone who decides they have enough. With status, you can never have enough. It is comparative, and competitive, by its very nature. It doesn’t just not make you happy: it actively makes you unhappy. You want to make it to the top? There is no top. However high you climb, there is always somebody above you. Instead of success, make the work itself the goal.
The Bible doesn’t say that money is the root of all evil; it says that love of money is. The world is not fair, even though it should be. As for kids who really are from lower-income families, of course the tensions are much greater, the margin for error incomparably smaller. And there are other factors, too. To be the first to go to college at all, perhaps, much less to a prestigious one; to have the chance to be the one through whom your family rises into the middle class or beyond; to be able to give your parents a comfortable retirement—such considerations put an entirely different kind of pressure on your choices. I will say only this, as others have before me: don’t sell your options short. But if you grow up with less, you are much better able to deal with having less. That is itself a kind of freedom.
Of all the questions students ask me, the most common is also the hardest. It is some version of “So what should I do?”: where should I go to school? what should I study? which direction should I go in afterward? Take time off. Take time off to slow down, to give yourself perspective, to break the cycle of incessant achievement, to get away from constant supervision, to see that there’s a world outside of school, to develop skills and explore capacities you haven’t had a chance to cultivate.
By the same token, however, you needn’t think in terms of choosing once and for all. Don’t try to figure out what you want to do with the rest of your life. You’re going to be a very different person in two or three years, and that person will have his own ideas. All you can really figure out is what you want to do right now.
“We are preparing young men and women to become leaders and change the world for the better,” said the president of Princeton at a recent commencement. What he means is nothing more than getting to the top. Making partner at a major law firm, or running a department at a leading hospital, or becoming a senator or chief executive or college president.
That is the great question about bureaucracies. Why are the best people so often mired in the middle, while nonentities become the leaders? Because what gets you up the ladder isn’t excellence; it is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you.
Leadership had meaning once, among America’s elite. Leadership meant duty, honor, courage, toughness, graciousness, selflessness.
For what goes for inventing your life goes equally for leadership. The crucial elements are courage and imagination. The crucial task is to create a self: something there that, when the world pushes against you, can push back.
PART 3. Schools
8. Great Books
Creating a self, inventing a life, developing an independent mind: it all sounds rather daunting. How exactly is college supposed to help? By deploying that most powerful of instructional technologies: a liberal arts education, centered on the humanities, conducted in small classrooms by dedicated teachers. This is not a cheap or “innovative” enterprise, but it is still, and will be for the imaginable future, an indispensable one.
What are the liberal arts? They are those disciplines in which the pursuit of knowledge is conducted for its own sake. You don’t acquire information; you debate it. How do we know it is true? You learn, in other words, that there is no “information,” strictly speaking; there are only arguments. Increasingly, anything you learn is going to become obsolete within a decade,” says Larry Summers, the former secretary of the Treasury and president of Harvard. “The most important kind of learning is about how to learn.
Scientific knowledge relates to external reality, to that which lies outside our minds and makes itself available for objective observation. Humanistic knowledge relates to our experience of the world, to what reality feels like. We ask of a scientific proposition, “Is it true?”, but of a proposition in the humanities we ask, “Is it true for me?” The ultimate reason to read the classic authors, Mark Edmundson says, “is to see if they may know you better than you know yourself.”
9. Spirit Guides
If you want a good education, you need to have good teachers. Teaching is not an engineering problem. It isn’t a question of transferring a certain quantity of information from one brain to another. What they want, in other words, is mentorship. Most advisors just tell you what courses to take, a student at Brown remarked to me, but the best ones “help you to think in a different way about the choice.”
Institutions ought to keep in mind that the one product they have to offer that no one can duplicate or automate is, precisely, the liberal arts education. The only genuine solution to the crisis in the classroom is for colleges to bring back teaching to the center of their mission. We all know that students in elementary and high school learn best in small classrooms with the individualized attention of motivated teachers. It is the same in college.
10. Your Guide to the Rankings
If you want a liberal arts education, the best place to look is a liberal arts college. Such institutions have potential drawbacks: they’re small, which is not for everyone, and they’re often isolated, which is also not for everyone. They can be a little insular, a little given to self-righteousness. But if there is anywhere that teaching and the humanities are still accorded pride of place—anywhere that college is still college—it is there.
Professors at liberal arts colleges devote a larger portion of their time to teaching, are more likely to be hired and promoted at least in part because of it and are expected to make themselves available to students and to play an active role in campus life. One correspondent told me that she’d always just assumed that universities are for careerists, liberal arts colleges for people who are genuinely interested in ideas, and that seems about right.
Most of all, forget about the rankings, which drive so many bad decisions on the part of colleges and students both. Once you get there, keep your eye on the ball. You can’t just passively absorb an education. Wherever you decide to go, you must actively direct it. Look for teachers who devote themselves to their students, and don’t be shy about approaching them outside of class. Look for courses, in whatever field, that want to humanize you, not specialize you. Follow your instincts wherever they lead. Choose major that excites you: right now, about being a student. It’s been said that college is the only situation where people want to get as little of what they pay for as possible. But this is your time; this is your shot. This is your chance to become, not the person that you want to be, not the person you’ve decided that you’re going tube, but the person that you never could have dreamed of being. By far the most important factor, when you go to college, isn’t the college. It’s you.
PART 4. Society
11. Welcome to the Club
If I were asked to give the freshman convocation speech at an elite college or university, those are the kinds of things I would say. You may be smart, I’d tell the students, you may be hardworking, but what you mainly are is very lucky.
In the first weeks of September 1957, during some assembly or other, I remember the Dean of Yale College telling us that the pool of applicants from which we had been drawn was so large and so good that Yale could have recruited a class every bit as qualified as ours without offering admission to one of us. He went on to say that it was the duty of each of us over the next four years to prove that Yale had made the right choice by picking us instead of giving our place to someone else. I returned to Yale as a faculty member in 1969, and by then the change had already taken place. By then deans were telling each entering class that they were the most wonderful set of human beings who had ever entered Yale, and how wonderful it was for Yale that they had decided to attend.
The message is, you have arrived. Welcome to the club. And the corollary is equally clear: you deserve everything your presence here is going to enable you to get.
An elite education doesn’t simply fail to teach you how to talk to people who are genuinely different than you; it tells you that you shouldn’t even bother. Forget about class. The message is that anyone who didn’t go to a prestigious school is not worth wasting time with, regardless of their class.
That is why the entitlement of meritocrats is so distant from the genuine self-confidence of the old aristocracy. Entitlement is always anxious, always selfish, always shadowed by the fear of failure.
Our “leaders,” the elite, who are supposed to work for the greater good, enrich themselves at everyone else’s expense and justify their actions with the notion that they’re “better.”
12. The Self-Overcoming of the Hereditary Meritocracy
Brilliant, gifted, energetic, yes, but also anxious, greedy, bland, and risk-averse, with no courage and no vision—that is our elite today. The meritocracy is also technocracy. It can solve the problems that you put in front of it, but it cannot tell you whether they’re the right ones to be working on. It is trained to operate within the system, never to imagine that we might create a better one. It is oblivious to beliefs, values, and principles—the things the humanities teach you to think about—because it takes them so much for granted that it ceases to remember they exist. We do need experts, to be sure, but we also need them not to be in charge.
If we are to create a decent society, a just society, a wise and prosperous society, a society where children can learn for the love of learning and people can work for the love of work, then that is what we must believe. If we are to create a decent society, a just society, a wise and prosperous society, a society where children can learn for the love of learning and people can work for the love of work, then that is what we must believe. We don’t have to love our neighbors as ourselves, but we need to love our neighbor’s children as our own. We have tried aristocracy. We have tried meritocracy. Now it’s time to try democracy.
"Excellent Sheep. William Deresiewicz. Free Press. 2014"