Higher Ed

Inside and Outed

Ideal Elite College Students: "Excellent Sheep"

SMW, October 12, 2017 7:55 PM

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Had a conversation today that made me think how important the message of this post resonates, a classic . . .  --- CJ


"Everybody knows the meritocratic system has lost its mind.
Everybody -
administrators, admissions officers,
faculty and students -
knows that the pressures of the resume race
are out of control.
"
- David Brooks, Becoming a Real Person

Ivy College Admissions: The Take-Down (Continued)

DSC_0163-1_2.jpgby C.J. Westerberg

David Brooks riffs about the role of higher education this week in an article titled Becoming a Real Person.  In it, he brings to the mainstream a very controversial article by William Deresiewicz making the rounds in education circles titled, Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League. The nation's top colleges are turning our kids into zombies, along with a targeted response by Harvard's Steven Pinker. This post will help you jump into the conversation if you  missed either article, along with numerous links below. 

An excerpt from the Deresiewicz piece:  "Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they're doing but with no idea why they're doing it."
 

This excerpt is from the Brooks article, Becoming via The NYTimes

This summer, The New Republic published the most read article in that magazine's history. It was an essay by William Deresiewicz, drawn from his new book, "Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life."

Deresiewicz offers a vision of what it takes to move from adolescence to adulthood. Everyone is born with a mind, he writes, but it is only through introspection, observation, connecting the head and the heart, making meaning of experience and finding an organizing purpose that you build a unique individual self.

This process, he argues, often begins in college, the interval of freedom when a person is away from both family and career. During that interval, the young person can throw himself with reckless abandon at other people and learn from them.

Some of these people are authors who have written great books. Some are professors who can teach intellectual rigor. Some are students who can share work that is intrinsically rewarding.

Through this process, a student is able, in the words of Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia, to discover "just what it is that's worth wanting."

Deresiewicz argues that most students do not get to experience this in elite colleges today. Universities, he says, have been absorbed into the commercial ethos. Instead of being intervals of freedom, they are breeding grounds for advancement. Students are too busy jumping through the next hurdle in the resume race to figure out what they really want. They are too frantic tasting everything on the smorgasbord to have life-altering encounters. They have a terror of closing off options. They have been inculcated with a lust for prestige and a fear of doing things that may put their status at risk.

The system pressures them to be excellent, but excellent sheep.

This article gets spicier with a solution offered by  . . .

Steven Pinker, the great psychology professor at Harvard, wrote the most comprehensive response to Deresiewicz. "Perhaps I am emblematic of everything that is wrong with elite American education, but I have no idea how to get my students to build a self or become a soul. It isn't taught in graduate school, and in the hundreds of faculty appointments and promotions I have participated in, we've never evaluated a candidate on how well he or she could accomplish it."

Sounds curiously dis-engaged - especially coming from "the great psychology professor" at Harvard - or realistic depending on your perspective or present state of mind. Or, maybe you only agree with certain aspects of Pinker's response such as how cognitive goals should be an essential mission of higher education:

Pinker suggests the university's job is cognitive. Young people should know how to write clearly and reason statistically. They should acquire specific knowledge: the history of the planet, how the body works, how cultures differ, etc.

Hard to argue with the value of these essentials. But then, Pinker's singular solution for finding top cognitive talent? Read on:

The way to select students into the elite colleges is not through any mysterious peering into applicants' souls, Pinker continues. Students should be selected on the basis of standardized test scores:the S.A.T.'s. If colleges admitted kids with the highest scores and companies hired applicants with the highest scores, Pinker writes, "many of the perversities of the current system would vanish overnight."

Oh my. I'm not sure how to even respond to cognitive ability and talent being reduced to an SAT score. Brooks continues by framing the three-way discussion:

What we have before us then, is three distinct purposes for a university: the commercial purpose (starting a career), Pinker's cognitive purpose (acquiring information and learning how to think) and Deresiewicz's moral purpose (building an integrated self).

Read Brooks' conclusion and the entire piece here.

blog comments powered by Disqus
Indeed, knowledge that one will be judged on some criterion of "creativeness" or "originality" tends to narrow the scope of what one can produce (leading to products that are then judged as relatively conventional); in contrast, the absence of an evaluation seems to liberate creativity.
Howard Gardner, Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard Graduate School,from Creating Minds: An Anatomy of Creativity as Seen Through the Lives of Freud, Einstein, Picasso, Stravinsky, Eliot, Graham, and Gandhi
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