The Trouble With Harvard


Steven Pinker in The New Republic:

The most-read article in the history of this magazine is not about war, politics, or great works of art. It’s about the admissions policies of a handful of elite universities, most prominently my employer, Harvard, which is figuratively and literally immolated on the cover.

It’s not surprising that William Deresiewicz’s “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League” has touched a nerve. Admission to the Ivies is increasingly seen as the bottleneck to a pipeline that feeds a trickle of young adults into the remaining lucrative sectors of our financialized, winner-take-all economy. And their capricious and opaque criteria have set off an arms race of credential mongering that is immiserating the teenagers and parents (in practice, mostly mothers) of the upper middle class.

Deresiewicz writes engagingly about the wacky ways of elite university admissions, and he deserves credit for opening a debate on policies which have been shrouded in Victorian daintiness and bureaucratic obfuscation. Unfortunately, his article is a poor foundation for diagnosing and treating the illness. Long on dogmatic assertion and short on objective analysis, the article is driven by a literarism which exalts bohemian authenticity over worldly success and analytical brainpower. And his grapeshot inflicts a lot of collateral damage while sparing the biggest pachyderms in the parlor.

We can begin with his defamation of the students of elite universities. Like countless graybeards before him, Deresiewicz complains that the kids today are just no good: they are stunted, meek, empty, incurious zombies; faithful drudges; excellent sheep; and, in a flourish he uses twice, “out-of-touch, entitled little shits.” I have spent my career interacting with these students, and do not recognize the targets of this purple invective. Nor does Deresiewicz present any reason to believe that the 18-year-olds of today’s Ivies are more callow or unsure of their lives than the 18-year-olds of yesterday’s Ivies, the non-Ivies, or the country at large.

More here. See also this bloggingheads discussion between William Deresiewicz and Glenn Loury.