Ten years ago David Brooks wrote a provocative piece, in his trademark comic sociology genre, about the lives of undergraduates at elite universities. It was called The Organization Kid, and it portrayed the average Princeton/Yale/Harvard/Stanford student as extremely bright and morally earnest but ultimately rather uninspired and herd-like conformists. Meritocratic hoop-jumpers.
It’s a piece that unfailingly stimulates a good discussion among undergraduates in some of the classes I teach here at Stanford.
Brooks’s article is at heart ambivalent about the undergraduates he describes: they’re lovely, talented, and kind, but also overly deferential and obsessed with resume-building. More recently, William Deresiewicz published an article in a similar spirit but with a significantly greater negative judgment. Deresiewicz, now a full-time writer but then an English professor at Yale, wrote in The Disadvantages of an Elite Education that,
Yale students think for themselves, but only because they know we want them to. I’ve had many wonderful students at Yale and Columbia, bright, thoughtful, creative kids whom it’s been a pleasure to talk with and learn from. But most of them have seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them.
Deresiewicz doesn’t blame the students alone for this. He also takes the university to task:
When elite universities boast that they teach their students how to think, they mean that they teach them the analytic and rhetorical skills necessary for success in law or medicine or science or business. But a humanistic education is supposed to mean something more than that, as universities still dimly feel. So when students get to college, they hear a couple of speeches telling them to ask the big questions, and when they graduate, they hear a couple more speeches telling them to ask the big questions. And in between, they spend four years taking courses that train them to ask the little questions—specialized courses, taught by specialized professors, aimed at specialized students. Although the notion of breadth is implicit in the very idea of a liberal arts education, the admissions process increasingly selects for kids who have already begun to think of themselves in specialized terms—the junior journalist, the budding astronomer, the language prodigy. We are slouching, even at elite schools, toward a glorified form of vocational training.
The article ends with one of his students asking him, ““So are you saying that we’re all just, like, really excellent sheep?”
When I teach Deresiewicz’s article to Stanford students, they bridle at his description. But I think they also recognize some of what Deresiewicz describes all around them. The hoop-jumping mentality. The instinctive deference to authority. The idea that every activity they undertake be “a growth experience.”
In a new initiative, the seniors in the Stanford Program on Ethics in Society select someone they would like to invite to campus to give a talk. The seniors in the program this year selected Deresiewicz, and I was grateful when he accepted the invitation to come to campus for a few events. The public event he’s doing is on April 12, 2011 and is entitled “Are Stanford Students Just (Really Excellent) Sheep? Flyer below. RSVP to Andrea Kuduk.