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The Blame Game: Elite Colleges and Students’ Double Lives

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It’s been a tough summer for “elite” colleges—those eight or ten or twelve schools whose names everyone knows and about which everyone has an opinion. I suppose these schools should be pleased that their brands, or at least the collective “Ivy League” brand shared by eight of them, are so well established that when someone, especially one of their own like William Deresiewicz, takes a swipe at them, so many other heads start nodding.

The critique as I’ve read it takes up yet another strand of the anti-intellectualism that has probably been noted in American culture at least since the election of Andrew Jackson and was given a label in the 1960s by Richard Hofstadter. Colleges are just too elitist and their self-centered students too focused on goals other than the welfare of democracy—and on top of it they’re just way to expensive to be worth the effort and time and money and debt. It’s true—trust me here as a tuition-paying parent—that the cost is bordering on the insane.

I confess right here to being a product of a couple of these schools, as are a couple of my kids. So when I read the screeds against the careerism and unquestioning adherence to highly questionable values of which students at these schools are accused, I admit to getting a bit defensive. Heck, I’m pretty much just a schoolteacher, not an investment banker, and my kids seem most likely headed for not-very-remunerative niches in the world of education, so I know that not everyone at these colleges is slavering to become a hedge fund manager or a zillionaire tech entrepreneur.

But as someone who works and has been a college counselor at a Northeastern sub/urban independent school, I can see that there are plenty of things in the system of which inquiring minds ought to be critical. But I am not sure that slinging mud at Ivy League students as a body is going to provide much of a solution.

It’s the first day of faculty meetings at my school, and we’ve already heard our head’s overview of what promises to be a pretty exciting year, consolidating some recent curriculum initiatives and re-thinking some of our key spaces, functions, and practices. The goal here is to provide a better education, a better experience of learning and being, for all the kids in our relatively diverse student body. It’s about school, about pedagogy and curriculum and values, about reaching and challenging and engaging kids—all the good things we expect and for which we entered this profession.

And so our students will soon join us and proceed through the year. They will study, write, take examinations, listen, debate, collaborate, play on teams, act, make music, make art, make friends, and otherwise be adolescents experiencing all the good things to be had in a pretty rich educational environment. From our educators’ vantage point, they will be engaged in worthy work whose end is largely in itself—education in the liberal arts and in meeting the challenges of growing up. At graduation, we will look at these children and we will probably conclude that it has been a job well done.

But “the culture,” including the world of many of their families and friends, imposes on our students another agenda: to leverage every morsel of the school experience toward the very tangible goals of selective college admission and, especially since the Crash of 2008, a high-income career. We at school think that we are asking students to explore opportunities for leadership because it is a way of becoming “all one can be.” But many students in schools like ours have people who are effectively their “managers”—sometimes family members, sometimes independent counselors, sometimes “strategic” friends—for whom every leadership opportunity is résumé item that can pry open the college admission office door just a bit further.

Now, as schools we’re not naïve, and we understand that this is a part of what we do and what we are (and why we have college counseling offices, of course, and why we publish, often with a sigh at the necessity as well as some secret pride, our college-admission lists). But I really don’t believe that my colleagues here first and foremost think of ourselves as being in the business of polishing little darlings for prestigious college admission or luscious careers. We know that what we do is seen this way, and we don’t much like it.

But we do tend to acquiesce to this dualistic world, in which we practice and try to live by our ideals even as what we do is seized on and packaged and occasionally trashed by others as being part of some kind of game—what one of my own children referred to as the Beauty Pageant for college admission. We believe that a student’s transcript and letters of recommendation are true snapshots of a person, while to the rest of the world these are tickets, sometimes lucky and sometimes not. Yes, it’s a bit icky.

In a very real sense many of our students live double lives, on the one hand the developing learner and on the other the applicant-in-training. It’s perhaps no wonder that so many students who find themselves having found extreme success in the college admissions sweepstakes struggle with the reality of actually being at one of those “elite” colleges. It’s also perhaps no surprise, with all those managerial adults cheerleading their successes through childhood and high school, that so many of these students have a hard time stepping out of this double life to figure out who they really are and what they want to be.

It must also be said that there are plenty of very able and ambitious students for whom their desire to do well in class and to lead, play, act, and serve in all those extracurricular activities is 100% authentic. For more students than the critics admit, admission to a hyperselective college opens the door to wondrous, happy, deeply experienced opportunities; these kids aren’t all careerists, sheep, grade-grubbers, or empty husks.

I’ve spoken out here and elsewhere about the need for schools to do the things they say they do, and I have to say I hear most schools expressing their beliefs in learning and growing rather than attaining. But the attainment message is there, sometimes between the lines and sometimes spoken out loud because a school feels it must, and it isn’t going to go away. It takes a brave school to say it doesn’t care about these things, but the very statement is kind of its own antithesis.

But rather than make fun of or hate on the students who are victims of this double-life syndrome, whether they live it or choose to live it themselves, shouldn’t the critics perhaps be paying more attention to the messages that the media—including much of the pundit class in and out of the academy—and society at large sends to parents and kids and schools starting long before anyone has started filling out the Common Application? Isn’t the fault far more in ourselves, in the world we have created or let be created, than in the academic stars whose successes we both celebrate and, when the mean spirit moves us, deride?

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