Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.
Monday, Feb. 26, 2024
The Observer

Writer examines elite education's effects on students

Speaking to a maximum-capacity crowd in DeBartolo Hall on Thursday evening, former Ivy League professor William Deresiewicz challenged the status quo of American higher education and the effect it has on students.

His lecture, “The Failures of the Elite Education System,” was based on his essay, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and his book, “Excellent Sheep,” which examines negative trends he had seen in his career in academia.

“When people say, ‘Where should I send my kid?’ First of all, don’t send your kid. Let your kid decide,” Deresiewicz said.

Deresiewicz said towards the end of his 10 years as a faculty member at Yale, he wrote an article titled “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” which went viral online.

“Students would write to me saying, ‘Thank you for putting what they were thinking into words,’” Deresiewicz said.

According to Deresiewicz, the elite education system has led to a culture of empty ambition where students struggle to get to the top but fail to understand why they are trying so hard. Accompanying this, Deresiewicz said, is a counterintuitive strain of anti-intellectualism. Students are too busy studying and jumping through hoops to focus and think about what they are studying, he said.

“I tapped into a hunger that so many students are feeling not just at selective colleges, but across many colleges,” Deresiewicz said.

According to Deresiewicz, these effects go beyond simple dissatisfaction with college life.

“What I didn’t realize was just how much psychic distress, how much mental illness, to be brutally frank about it, this system is causing,” Deresiewicz said.

Deresiewicz said it is still important to craft a positive vision of college education. Citing columnist David Brooks, Deresiewicz said education can be divided into three purposes: vocational, cognitive and moral. He said colleges currently focus too much on the vocational and, to a lesser extent, the cognitive. Instead, they should be focusing on the moral purpose: the cultivation of an ability to make choices and self-reflect.

Deresiewicz said he sees this purpose from a secular perspective but believes it can coexist and even complement a religious motivation, especially at a school like Notre Dame.

“This is a system that forces you to choose between fulfillment and success,” he said.

Deresiewicz said University President Emeritus Fr. Theodore Hesburgh and University of California regent Clark Kerr provide excellent examples of how college administrators should act. However, he said the paradigm of public intellectual college leader is dead, replaced by the model of business managers who treat schools like corporations and students like customers.

“The classroom and the dorm room ought to be two ends of the same experience,” he said. “The first puts ideas into your head, the second makes them part of your soul.”

Deresiewicz said college education should help answer the question, “What is the good life?” and how to live it.