Of course, reviewing this book must come with the obvious caveat that the writer (and quite possibly, the reader), through the very nature of his tertiary education, is one of the accused. (And in case you were wondering, Deresiewicz makes sure to mention of the “Stanford Duck Syndrome.”)
The book is divided into four parts. First, a discussion of “the system itself”; secondly, an explanation of “what students can do as individuals to…rescue themselves from the system”; thirdly, “the purpose of a liberal arts education and the value of the humanities,” and finally, a “return to the larger social question” — primarily, whether “the so-called meritocracy” does a good job producing the nation’s “leadership class” (hint: the answer is no).
As mentioned earlier, Deresiewicz’s book is broadside, and broad it is. His attacks range from the preparation for the college application process, to the college admissions committees, to the false expectations and sense of security that the universities build in their students, to the incentive structure and consequent employment of professors, to the diminishment of the humanities, and to the career opportunities (or lack thereof) that the universities encourage. It is a tour de force, but it is more like a tour de force in lecturing. A review in the New York Times noted that “even at 245 pages, it feels padded, especially with quotations from a thousand sources, I didn’t skim pages, but I wanted to. It gets self-helpy.” If one had never met or seen the author, one would not be hard-pressed to assume that he often complained about “kids these days.”
However (and this is important), any reader has to concede that Deresiewicz is at least partially right. To dismiss him categorically is to ignore too many facts. It is a fact that there is a growing number of students from elite universities who flock to consulting and finance. It is a fact that Desiewicz’s article, “Don’t send your kid to the Ivy League” became The New Republic’s most read article in its 100 years of publication. It is a fact that the humanities are diminishing at America’s universities, and it remains a possibility that something important is being lost because of that.
Deresiewicz writes well, and what he writes is potent. Part of the reason for this is that what Deresiewicz is pointing out is nothing new. The concept of amour propre — defined as self-esteem that depends on the opinion of others — was introduced by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the 18th century. It is contrasted with amour soi, “self-love”, wherein one’s opinion of oneself is defined by one’s own values and desires. Deresiewicz applies the same dichotomy to university students, arguing that the first amour leads to a hollow ideal of “success,” “leadership,” “innovation” and other clichés which have been reduced to something other than their real meaning, and that the second amour resulting in a sense of purpose and fulfilment.
In building his case, Deresiewicz leaves some glaring inconsistencies. For one, he quotes the authors of the 2011 book, Higher Education? as stating that the purpose of college is “to make you a more interesting person.” He largely agrees, noting that it is “a nice formulation, as long as we stipulate that the person to whom it is most important to be interesting is yourself, if only since that is the one with whom you have to spend the rest of your life” (again, amour soi). The problem with this is that he then proceeds to attack various forms of interesting: “Being a quadruple major does not make you interesting. Editing the college newspaper while singing in an a capella group, starting a nonprofit, and learning how to cook exotic grains — this does not make you interesting. Interesting is not accomplished. Interesting is not “impressive.” What makes you interesting is reading, thinking, slowing down, having long conversations, and creating a rich inner life for yourself.” If that seems like a double standard, that is because it is. Apparently students should be interesting to themselves, as long as they are also interesting to William Deresiewicz.
Furthermore, Deresiewicz remarks that students nowadays are “dressed as if they were ready to be interviewed at a moment’s notice.” That “everybody looks the same…no hippies, no punks, no art school types or hipsters, no butch lesbians or gender queers, no black kids in dashikis.” There are a number of things wrong with this. (For one, what kind of interviews does he have in mind?) As Nathan Heller writes in The New Yorker, “in 2014, self-differentiation takes forms other than outdated hippie and pink fashion; students dressed like that today are probably headed for a Halloween party.” Moreover, Deresiewicz takes an admiring view of the university curriculum before the 1960s modernization of the system, when he claims the university system inculcated character character. But even if we ignore the superficiality of judging by clothes, are we supposed to believe that students in the 1950s had more diverse clothing than students today?
These weaknesses detract from what is otherwise is a thought-provoking argument, one that should make readers reconsider the choices they’ve made, not just for their careers, as Deresiewicz would say, but for their lives. That the book, through its strong writing, pushes readers them to do that is its greatest strength.
Alonzo Virata, a junior studying political science, is the managing editor of Stanford Political Journal.