Swimming In An Elite Academic Pond

Author William Deresiewicz used to teach at Yale University

Author William Deresiewicz used to teach at Yale University

Schools end up with, and even deserve, the students that their admissions process is designed to select, and surely the schools have the right to do that. Admissions officers describe their job as engineering a particular community, and that’s precisely accurate. But like the drunk who looks for his car keys under the street lamp because that’s where the light is shining, this book dedicates precious little word count to those schools, some of them even among the elite, that do select for a very different kind of kid than the caricature he describes. If he wonders where the quirky, passionate weirdos tend to go, they’re doing just fine at places like the University of Chicago, Bard, Reed, St. John’s Annapolis, and other institutions where learning for learning’s sake is alive and well, and where grades are relatively un-inflated (Chicago) or come only in the form of substantial written evaluations (Reed).

For example, I’d love for him to have spent a week with the undergraduates who design and compete in the annual Scavenger Hunt at Chicago. As one of them recently remarked in a profile in the New Yorker.

“I think people gravitate toward ScavHunt because that weird thing that made us nerds in high school is exactly what makes us valuable here.” The college’s undergraduate application has included essay prompts such as “Find x,” “Don’t write about reverse psychology,” and “What does Play-Doh have to do with Plato?” The last question was lifted from the list of the 2011 Scavenger Hunt.


Does anyone doubt that those kinds of application essay questions produce a very different student body than an Ivy League admissions process concerned in large part, as Deresiewicz argues compellingly, with “leadership”? (That word means different things to different people, but he accurately describes what it means in the world of Ivy League admissions. I talk to applicants about it in terms of impact and initiative.) If you’re looking for the kids who sit around trying to figure out how to construct a laptop charger using only materials available in the 16th century (16 points), or how to make “a José Lerma-style paper bust of a famous poet to keep Walt Whitman company” (also 16 points), there they are, hiding in plain sight. (If you’re curious, here’s the Scav Hunt list for 2014.)  [Link: http://scavhunt.uchicago.edu/list2014_2final.pdf]

Doers and thinkers can live happily in the same person, but elite colleges often gravitate more towards one over the other, depending on their institutional priorities and cultures. May a thousand different flowers bloom. The student who will thrive at Harvard is different from the student who will thrive at Chicago who is different from the student who will thrive at MIT or West Point or Deep Springs or in the UT Austin Plan II Honors Program. It’s a big country, with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to our diversity of higher education offerings. It’s no accident that Steve Jobs founded his Apple empire only after dabbling in calligraphy at Reed, and he probably would have been miserable at Harvard. Where’s the problem?

If a former Ivy League professor wishes he had been teaching a different tribe of students, perhaps he just needed to move to another institution, where he could have focused more on teaching than on research, and where he could have hung out with more passionate weirdos. Although he is quick to accuse Yale students of what he calls “credentialism,” was it his own credentialism that kept him teaching at Yale? I don’t know, but it’s possible he was stuck in his own Ivy League bubble, even as he was diagnosing it.


Of course, he is right to observe that schools don’t have to be quite so insular. Recently I observed part of an academic bootcamp at Yale, taught by a rock star of a professor for veterans transitioning out of the military and into college. They certainly didn’t look like typical Yale students – close cropped hair, and so many tattoos! But there was another noticeable difference. As they were working their way through a close reading of Isaiah Berlin’s concepts of liberty, the professor told them that they were more intellectually engaged and curious than his regular Yale students.

That makes sense. If as a student you haven’t swum in elite academic ponds before, you’re less likely to take the experience for granted. That shouldn’t be surprising, and seems more a function of human nature than something that’s wrong with this generation of college students or with the Ivies. Still, with a few exceptions, our elite universities could do much more to bring in students with non-traditional backgrounds and life experiences, as Deresiewicz points out. Elite schools can be quite clubby.