• September 16, 2014

What Ails Elite Education?

Debating Deresiewicz’s ‘Excellent Sheep’

Excellent Sheep Review

Gretchen Ertl, The New York Times, REDUX

Even before it was published this week, William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (Free Press) was stirring controversy. (It helped that an excerpt appeared on the cover of The New Republic under the headline "Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League.") Deresiewicz, a former English professor at Yale University, is not optimistic about elite colleges—or the students they educate.

The Chronicle Review asked Harry R. Lewis, a professor of computer science at Harvard University, former dean of Harvard College, and the author of Excellence Without a Soul (PublicAffairs, 2007), and Deresiewicz to discuss Excellent Sheep.

Bill (if I may),

On pretty much every page of Excellent Sheep, I found something you got right—and also something you got wrong. I think you are too hard on students, for example, and not hard enough on faculty. (Full disclosure is in order: I have been on Harvard’s Admission Committee for years, and my wife works in that office. Of course I am speaking only for myself here.) You say professors could do wonderful things for students but don’t, because they have the wrong incentives—to do research instead of to teach and mentor. True, but what kind of excuse is that for tenured faculty, if they are at the root of such a scourge on American society?

While I'm often critical of today's elite students, my real criticism is directed at those who made them who they are: the rest of us.

"Excellence" appears, in different forms, in the titles of both our books. I meant it in a positive sense; I think American universities produce excellent results, in both people and ideas. On the human side it’s an incomplete form of excellence—not enough arete—but the research university is the greatest structure ever created for free thought, discovery, and creation. The competition for excellence drives that engine, for all the pathological side effects we both describe. Undergraduates can and do join that process at a high level while they are still young enough to have their eyes opened.

But you write to college students: "You want to make it to the top? There is no top. Mailer wanted to be Hemingway, Hemingway wanted to be Joyce, and Joyce was painfully aware he’d never be another Shakespeare. And so it goes in every field. I can tell you right now where you’re going to end up: somewhere in the middle, with the rest of us. Does it really matter exactly where?"

This is what you mean by "democracy" instead of "meritocracy"? If you had been Mailer’s adviser at Harvard, would you really have told him to stop aspiring to be Hemingway? He might have wound up a happier man, but at what artistic price? Heaven knows we need to restore some human balance. But students need to manage the stress, not drop out from what creates it. Competition to excel benefits humanity—given the right concept of "excellence."

You trace academe’s troubles to "the Gilded Age," when colleges became engines of social stratification as wealth was created in the Industrial Revolution. But these conflicts about educational purpose in bourgeois societies are cyclical—already in prospering Athens, Socrates and Protagoras were arguing about education as soul-searching skepticism in service of personal and civic virtue, versus education as learning to get ahead in the world by giving the right answers.

Academe certainly changed in the late 19th century, but you left out the biggest part of that picture. In 1869, Harvard president Charles William Eliot declared in his inaugural address, after listing the various scholarly fields, "We would have them all, and at their best." (Perhaps the last time any Harvard president uttered a sentence of nine monosyllables.) Harvard was not the first into the new game, and having everything at its best required all the players to grow and compete.

Those forces gave birth to the modern university and to modern science, medicine, and social science to boot. But they didn’t, and don’t, entail the anonymity and soullessness we both observe. No social revolution is needed to restore humane values to educational purpose. A good start on that would be to tweak the faculty incentive structure.

While we’re waiting for that to happen, let’s goad or shame the faculty into doing their real job, turning adolescents into grown-ups. You give some good scripts for the conversations more faculty should be having with students. But you let the faculty off the hook too easily, by reassuring them that those "entitled little shits" aren’t worth even trying to inspire. Worse, your caricature of diversity as the sons of black lawyers hanging out with the sons of white lawyers tells the faculty that they don’t need to do anything special to teach a diverse population, since it’s just another crowd of privileged kids. But our classrooms have changed faster than faculty have adjusted to those changes. Some haven’t noticed, others prefer not to notice. We now are teaching ambitious, very low-income kids—not in the same numbers as in the American population, god knows, but in far greater numbers than a couple of decades ago, and they can graduate with no debt.

You’ve said that with your fancy education, you didn’t know how to talk to a plumber. Well, we are now teaching aspiring sons and daughters of plumbers, and kids from tougher backgrounds than that. They are trying to talk to us in our own weird academic dialect, and they have enough problems with the faculty without your looking right through them as though they weren’t there.

—Harry

Harry,

I think our differences are largely ones of emphasis, and I have no desire, in any case, to enter into spurious conflict with the author of Excellence Without a Soul, a book that illuminated so much for me and confirmed so many of my observations. (It only recently occurred to me how similar our titles are. That alone should indicate the extent of our concurrence.)

In terms of the faculty, I am perfectly happy to assail the tenured professoriate, which has largely abrogated its responsibility toward everything except itself. But you yourself, later in your statement, speak of tweaking faculty incentives. The problem is the professoriate, but it is also those who oversee them (many of whom, granted, are professors themselves, or at least used to be). As someone who never got tenure and remains in touch with many people who are still struggling up the ladder, I’m perhaps more vividly aware than you of how those incentives shape academics’ choices during the first, at least, 15 years of their careers (counting from the beginning of graduate school). Once you’ve been socialized that way for that long, it’s hard to change. It’s also hard to start to learn how to teach that late in the game.

The real problem is that professors aren't interested in reaching any kids.

As for the kids, I don’t think you characterize my description of them fairly. I say, in the very first pages of the book, that while I’m often critical of today’s elite students, my real criticism is directed at those who made them who they are: the rest of us. I also make a large point of saying that most of the kids who go to highly selective schools start out as neither Wall-Street-ready robots nor (the rare exceptions) rebel intellectuals. Most of them are somewhere in the middle. The system has taught them to be cynical about their education, to view it as a game to be mastered. But with the natural longings of youth, they are also looking, underneath, for something more. I certainly never for one moment suggest that they aren’t worthy of inspiring. A great deal of what I say implies the exact opposite.

Speaking of "somewhere in the middle," you’re certainly right that students should aspire to excellence, and that we should encourage them to do so. But the question, as you suggest, is what does excellence mean—and also, I would add, what does aspiration mean? Remember what your colleague Helen Vendler wrote not long ago (I refer to this in the book) that current admissions practices, which select for people who are good at everything but not necessarily passionate about anything (because if they were truly passionate, they wouldn’t care about being good at everything) are unlikely to produce another T.S. Eliot. We’re teaching our kids that excellence means getting an A and that the purpose of aspiration is to accumulate credentials and achieve status. Mailer may have wanted to compete with Hemingway, but he never would’ve written a decent page if he hadn’t been driven by an inner sense of artistic vocation: an almost religious understanding that the ultimate perfection can never be attained and has nothing to do with how the person next to you is doing.

You also mischaracterize my history of the American academy. I don’t say that the problems started in the Gilded Age. The problems that I focus on started with the shift to meritocracy, which was completed in the 1960s. I’m not going to go through the whole argument here. Obviously, meritocracy was progressive at the time. It is no longer so today.

Which brings me to your last point about how our students have changed. I’m going to have to disagree with you on that, though I think our perspectives owe something to the fact that you are a computer scientist and I was an English professor—disciplines that draw in different demographics. The proportion of lower-income students may be higher at Harvard than 20 years ago (I’d like to see statistics about that; does Harvard actually disclose them?), but it is a documented fact that in the system as a whole, the top 100- or 200-plus most selective schools, it is very low and getting lower.

In 2007, Harvard capped tuition at 10 percent of income for families earning up to $180,000. Still, 40 percent of kids are continuing to pay full fare. $180,000 puts you in the 94th percentile of households, which means that at least 40 percent of Harvard students come from the top 6 percent. The upper class pays full tuition; the upper middle class receives financial aid. How many students are left once we take out those two groups? Whatever the number is, they are very far from the norm.

You end by seeming to suggest that the problem with teaching at places like Harvard and Yale is that professors don’t know how to reach those kids. As we both know, the real problem is that professors aren’t interested in reaching any kids.

—Bill

Bill,

I agree that the ultimate problem is of institutional direction and priorities, as that is what creates the faculty incentive-and-reward structure. That’s why I came down so hard on Harvard’s president and governing board in my book. I’m less convinced than you are that the faculty can’t offer much moral resistance once they’ve been "socialized" into the system, as you put it, but you’re right that we may be looking at different parts of the same elephant. Departmental cultures—disciplinary cultures really, since we measure ourselves against our peers at other institutions—are strikingly different. I remember as dean meeting with departmental administrators to learn about undergraduate education, because I thought they could give me a sense of texture I was unlikely to get from the faculty. The undergraduate administrator in one large social-science department told me that her job was to keep the students away from the faculty. You wouldn’t get that answer in my part of the university, in part because it’s easier for our students to make a genuine contribution to our research.

My star pupils Gates and Zuckerberg went to two of the best secondary schools in America before they came to Harvard and refused to drive between the lines.

In the applied sciences, we see plenty of interesting kids, as well as our share of the driven test-takers who have never spared a minute out of their relentless grind to think about whither they are advancing. The "interesting" category, surprisingly perhaps, seems to cut across socioeconomic lines. There are low-income kids who have maxed out their not-very-good high schools and have arrived at college still curious because they haven’t learned all the rules of the game. (According to data on the Harvard website, 20 percent of parents have total incomes less than $65,000, and about 4 percent have incomes of less than $20,000.) And then there are kids from very good schools, who arrive with so much self-confidence that they can be naughty and mutinous (to use a term that a Harvard colleague offered recently). It is not an accident that my star pupils Gates and Zuckerberg went to two of the best secondary schools in America before they came to Harvard and refused to drive between the lines. These days, of course, some of the best-educated low-income kids also went to schools like those.

Higher education is, I think, in the grip of an "excellence" version of Goodhart’s law: When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure. Grading has been an example for a long time. The test-prep pathology is, too (though some high-school students, shockingly, learn more vocabulary and math prepping for the SATs than they learned in three years of high school). But the publish-or-perish tenure system manifests Goodhart as well. I remember the days, back in the 1970s, when Harvard started trying to make that system more objective, that is to say, less subject to the sorts of bias and cronyism that worked against women and various other auslanders. I wonder if that effort hasn’t largely failed, because everyone has adapted to the rules of the game, and the product has become dispiritingly soulless in the process of becoming only marginally more open. As I mentioned in my book, say what you will about athletic excesses; at least at my institution, human values like good character and a commitment to the welfare of students are criteria for hiring coaches but not professors. As a result, there are more of Harry Parker’s rowing alumni who think Harvard gave them a meaningful education, than there are alumni of certain majors.

So here’s my question: You have a serious animus against those you call "technocrats," a category that I guess includes most of my folks in computer science. At least in such fields, there is a pretty strong consensus about what excellent work is. And for every group of graduates who exploit technology just to make money, there are students who go on to become agents of philanthropy and social conscience—which create jobs so other people are able to make their own decisions about their priorities. (I admit it. I think creating economic opportunity for other people is a civic virtue.)

It seems to me that the process of promotion and tenure has had a particularly noxious effect on the humanities. We used to count on the humanities faculty to open students’ eyes to what it means to be human. Now that is not why humanities professors are hired, incentivized, or promoted. Their social conscience, when they feel called to exercise it, is manifested mostly in normative political posturing that is divisive and chilling to discourse on campus, and of no great civic, educational, or maturational value to students. Isn’t the so-called humanities crisis, the declining numbers of students choosing to study the humanities even at the top institutions, really part of the picture you paint in your book—of institutions that provide lots of freedom, and lots of busyness, but little support for self-understanding? (By the way, I thought your citation of Yale’s mariage de convenance with the authoritarian, censorious regime in Singapore was an unconvincing argument for the rise of liberal learning outside the U.S.)

If we can’t look to the humanities faculty to nurture the soul, no wonder we’re in trouble. We’re all part of the solution, but with all due respect, I tend to think that your folks have more to do with the problem than mine.

—Harry

Harry,

Again, I think we’ll find very little to disagree about here; whatever apparent disagreement there might be is mostly based on misunderstanding.

I was offering the "socialization" argument as an explanation, not an excuse. Believe me, reorienting the professoriate back in the direction of teaching would be one of my highest priorities for higher education. (Another would be reorienting the teaching corps back in the direction of professors: in other words, a reversal of the trend toward adjunctification.)

No argument whatsoever with the assertion that the category of "interesting" students cuts across socioeconomic lines—which makes the socioeconomic stratification at elite colleges all the more disturbing. Thank you for providing the statistics on Harvard. When I look for numbers on income distribution in the United States, I find two significantly different scales (a fact I’m at a loss to explain; perhaps you can get one of your economists on it). According to an interactive chart that appeared in The New York Times a couple of years ago, a household income of $65,000 puts you at the 61st percentile, while $20,000 puts you at the 18th percentile. According to a chart that claims to be based on information from the Census Bureau, the figures come to about the 82nd and 30th percentiles, respectively. Even taking the kinder numbers, that means that only 20 percent of your students come from, roughly, the bottom three-fifths; 4 percent from, roughly, the bottom one-fifth. That’s appalling, and pretty much in line with a 2004 study that found that 15 percent of students at the top 100-plus colleges come from the bottom half, 3 percent from the bottom quarter. (Of course, if you use the numbers that supposedly come from the Census Bureau, Harvard looks a great deal worse than even that: 20 percent from the bottom four-fifths; 4 percent from about the bottom one-third. In The Chosen, Jerome Karabel wrote that Harvard, Yale, and Princeton "are still among the least economically diverse of the nation’s major research universities.")

I think you misunderstood what I mean by technocrats. I don’t mean those who work with technology, and I’m all for people who create jobs. (Though it’s also fair to point out that the tendency of information technology—often, now, by its own boast—is to eliminate jobs, not create them.) A technocrat is simply someone who approaches his or her specialty from a narrowly technical perspective: in the words of Saul Bellow, "high-IQ morons"—people lacking in "a wider thoughtfulness." In my view, the purpose of a liberal-arts education—by which I mean not only the humanities (though those especially) but also the sciences and social sciences—is precisely to instill such a wider thoughtfulness

Universities can change and they can be changed, if we make enough of a stink about their failings.

The sad fact is that there are just as many technocrats in the humanities today as there are in the sciences. Maybe more, and maybe in part for the reason you suggest (Goodhart’s law), though also for other reasons, like a long-term ideological/theoretical assault on the concept of humanism. I’m a political progressive (a fact that probably won’t surprise you at this point). As I wrote the book, I found, to my great consternation, that almost all the social commentators—or at least the recent social commentators, whom I found it useful to quote—are conservatives: Bellow, Allan Bloom, David Brooks, Ross Douthat. I would’ve loved to be able to quote more liberals, but mainstream liberalism has absolutely no interest in culture one way or the other anymore, and the political left has committed itself to multiculturalism, which rejects the category of the human in favor of a Balkanized identity politics. It will teach you how to occupy your narrow slice of the demographic pie, but not how to think about being, simply, a human being.

You are absolutely right that it is incumbent upon the humanities, in particular, to educate the whole person. My only comfort in that respect is this: I believe a lot of academics yearn for the chance to be humanists. Frank Lentricchia, one of the stars of literary theory’s heyday in the 80s and 90s, published a famous confession in which he admitted to leading a double life. He was only posing as an enemy of books, he said. "The secret me was me-the-reader." People become English majors because they love literature, not hate it. It requires years of professionalization to drive that feeling underground, but it rarely goes away completely. Talk to an English professor in private, and you are apt to find it coming out in whispers.

The situation reminds me of the Republic of San Lorenzo in Cat’s Cradle, where the practice of Bokononism is outlawed on pain of death, but everyone is a secret Bokononist. If academics stopped being afraid of sounding naïve or retrogressive, then maybe they could all surrender the pretense. Fortunately, for students, the one place that teachers are most likely to behave like humanists is in the undergraduate classroom, where they are shielded from the surveillance of their peers and the sheer thrill of reading is harder to deny.

—Bill

Bill,

What’s appalling is that so few low-income students can do college-level work anywhere. For example, in my home state, where people supposedly care about education, only 115 of 343 high schools had average total SAT scores above the "college and career ready" threshold of 1580. The lower-performing schools are, of course, disproportionately those in low-income districts. You would have to do more than redistribute admissions slots the way you want to redistribute wealth—"As far as I’m concerned, that money [the trillions accumulated by the 1 percent] belongs to the rest of us"—before you’ll have English professors at Harvard and Yale teaching Middlemarch to kids with 400 verbals.

Then there is the craziness of families sending their kids to state universities in other parts of the country, paying higher out-of-state tuitions, since their own states won’t raise taxes enough to support their own universities. So it’s easier to get in by paying more out of state than to stay in state and pay less. It’s a zero-sum game, with dollars and students nonsensically moving out of state everywhere. Democracy depends on an educated citizenry, and you’ve documented the national underinvestment.

You talk about how all this is personal with you—it’s personal with me too. I am one of the Ellis Island Lewises, the grandson of four polyglot immigrants from across continental Europe. My mother, the perfectionist, taught her Ukrainian-laborer parents the English she learned in public school before making her way to the University of Michigan to escape the desperate poverty of the Depression. I wonder if today she would have, and could have, gone out of state. My greatest-generation father, her equally ambitious but easygoing complement, used to tell me "in medio tutissimus ibis" (you’ll be safest in the middle) when he thought my mother wasn’t listening. He learned that Latin at East Boston High School, which has long been a first stop for immigrant families. It’s when I am teaching immigrants and the children of immigrants that I feel most optimistic about the future of the country—until I get mad about the stupidity of our education and immigration policies.

The admissions process incorporates a lot of factors other than academic ability, and most of them exacerbate inequality.

Look, the top research universities are the backbone of the nation—and that isn’t meant entirely as a compliment. Yes, they educate a large number of national leaders and generate a large part of the nation’s economic growth. But it’s also true that, like the human spine, they are doing lots of things for which they were never designed, because they were never designed at all. The research universities evolved from Protestant colleges and Oxbridge and German scientific laboratories and English boarding schools under the ecological influence of the Morrill Act and World War II, just as the human spine is the product of adaptations from a structure that used to be supported horizontally on four legs instead of vertically on two. (Though the students who take your advice to attend religious colleges instead of research universities may never learn about that evolution stuff.) It’s amazing what the spine can do that its ancestors didn’t, from supporting front-heavy pregnancies to the Fosbury flop, but people have to be taught how to use it or they will hurt themselves ("lift from the hips, not the waist"). It’s an imperfect mechanism and it carries its evolutionary history with it, but its versatility is superb.

I am a glass-half-full kind of guy, a reformer rather than a revolutionary. Universities can change and they can be changed, if we make enough of a stink about their failings. The power structure can be pushed and it can be moved. But they are creative and educational marvels under the best of circumstances, and no one is going to design a better structure by central planning. And be careful what you wish for—social revolutions have generally not been kind to liberal learning.

Your book has been likened to Douthat’s Privilege: Harvard and the Education of the Ruling Class and Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind but the title it reminds me of is Robert Graves’s bitter autobiography, Good-Bye To All That. Like Graves, you are taking an angry if comedic leave of your own history—your version of Graves’s traumatic trench warfare was a day in Yale admissions—and an entire old order from which you emerged. Instead of exiling yourself to Majorca, however, you are on a national exile-evangelism tour of institutions that have emulated the ones you attended and worked at. (A "you go first" sort of exile, as one wag observed.) It’s a dramatic tale, overwrought too, and not just "politically progressive" but anti-capitalist. Good luck with it; you make a lot of fair criticisms, and I hope people listen to the good parts.

—Harry

Harry,

No question that we have to bring K-12 education up to level, too. We should start by doing what almost every other developed country does: Equalize funding across districts (or even, as the best systems do, give more to poor kids, to balance inequalities) by financing primary and secondary education on a national rather than a local basis. Of course, the whole reason we do it on a local basis, through property taxes, is precisely to perpetuate the class system.

Still, you’re not going to convince me that the demographic distribution at Harvard et al. perfectly mirrors the intellectual one across the nation as a whole. I refuse to believe that 40 percent of the nation’s academic talent is concentrated in the top 6 percent of the income scale. The admissions process incorporates a lot of factors other than academic ability, and most of them exacerbate inequality. The children of donors and potential donors get special access, and so, of course, do athletes and legacies, each of whom account for 10 to 25 percent of the typical student body at selective schools. (And no, athletes as a whole do not represent an economically disadvantaged group.) "At least one-third of the students at elite universities, and at least half at liberal arts colleges," writes Daniel Golden in The Price of Admission: How America’s Ruling Class Buys Its Way into Elite Colleges, "are flagged for preferential treatment in the admissions process."

Elite private colleges will never allow their students’ economic profile to mirror that of society as a whole. They can’t afford to, and it’s not even clear that they’d want to. They need a critical mass of full payers, they need to tend to their donor base, and they need to serve their primary constituency, which is not the nation so much as the nation’s—and increasingly, the world’s—upper and upper-middle classes.

I’m not asking for a revolution. I’m only asking that we recommit ourselves to the idea of the postwar decades: low-cost, high-quality public higher education paid for by a steeply progressive tax system. I don’t want to destroy the Ivy Leagues. They are indeed indispensable as research institutions. But the notion that you have to go to one of eight or 10 or 12 or even 50 private colleges to get a proper education is insane—an artificially created scarcity of educational resources that benefits the few to the disadvantage not only of the many but of society as a whole.

This is not an anti-capitalist idea. It’s an anti-neoliberal idea. Times are tough when we can no longer distinguish between the two, when we have lost even the memory of the postwar liberal consensus, that the proper system is a mixture of private enterprise and public provision, regulation, and taxation. You do not have to be a communist to be against plutocracy, unless the Roosevelts were also communists.

I will end by observing again that there is a great deal that you and I agree upon. Neither one of us wants to tear down the universities (that privilege belongs to the MOOCists and their statehouse allies in places like Texas, Florida, and Wisconsin). We both want reforms, starting with getting the professoriate to pay attention to teaching again. But a lot of people say they want these things. The real question is whether we’re just going to keep talking about them, or whether we are actually going to do them.

—Bill

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