An Attack on the Ivy League Is an Attack on Meritocracy Itself

Yishai Schwartz:

illiam Deresiewicz’s New Republic cover story, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” has made a stir for his indictment of elite universities as bastions of inequality and intellectual indolence. Less discussed, however, is his claim that the Ivy League’s “narrow conception of what constitutes a valid life: affluence, credentials, prestige” has become a larger cultural problem, infecting American society in general. Generations of students, Deresiewicz argues, are having their souls sucked out of them as they strive to conform to these institutions’ narrow model of the good life. So he doesn’t just attack the conduct of Ivy League colleges; he assails the entire premise of an educational meritocracy. But in doing so, Deresiewicz ignores the values of that meritocracy and displays an unjustified optimism about what might take its place.

In Deresiewicz’s hands, the word “meritocracy” becomes a canard, as he condemns the Ivy League for creating a perverse incentive-structure and credential rat-race that prevents students from “building a soul.” According to Deresiewicz, the Ivy League’s cutthroat social competition and superficial standards for success drive students (and potential applicants) in artificial, anti-intellectual, and anti-contemplative directions. Because of the Ivy League, Deresiewicz explains, high school students spend their time in SAT prep instead of reading poetry, and rather than doing meaningful volunteer-work in their local soup kitchen, they run off to Africa for college essay–driven service trips. But Deresiewicz’s critique is half caricature and half wishful thinking. He ignores the ways in which these universities do promote precisely those values and behaviors that are critical to what Deresiewicz labels “the soul.”