Every now and then, a column so enflames or enrages that it provokes a veritable avalanche of responses. Yalies have certainly seen slews of columns in response to particular issues before — just look at the sex culture debate or the short-lived “Close Toads Now” movement. But nothing agitates Yalies — or all students at top colleges — quite like existential comments on the nature of those top colleges themselves.
We witnessed this phenomenon in all of its glory and horror a couple of weeks ago, after the publication of former Yale professor William Deresiewicz’s “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League.” You can say what you want about Deresiewicz — that he’s vaguely annoying, that he’s a good writer, that his last-name is pretty intimidating — but you have to admit that he knows how to spark a conversation. The Internet teemed with responses to his lengthy article, including a Yalie’s insightful piece, entitled, “I’m a Laborer’s Son. I Went to Yale. I am Not ‘Trapped in a Bubble of Privilege.’”
I’m sure many members of the Class of 2018 saw this too. These responses have a tendency to clog one’s newsfeed.
Before Deresiewicz, there was “Checking My Privilege: Character as the Basis of Privilege,” by Tal Fortgang, the hopelessly naïve and pretentious Princetonian, who apparently believed “check your privilege” meant that privileged people had no right to speak, as opposed to merely having a responsibility to qualify their speech. And before Fortgang, there was “To (All) the Colleges that Rejected Me,” by Suzy Lee Weiss, a high school senior complaining that the Ivy League misled her when it told her to “Just be yourself” in her application. Weiss’s article made some interesting points — “as long as you’re using someone else’s misfortunes to try to propel yourself into the Ivy League, you’re golden” — even as she sarcastically dismissed the idea that there was any merit to overcoming adversity. And before Weiss there were others.
The cycle is endless. After Deresiewicz, I have no doubt that someone else will come along and critique the state of top schools, and that’s fine. Yale isn’t perfect. The Ivy League isn’t perfect. The American higher educational system isn’t perfect. It should be critiqued.
The problem is that we aren’t reading these columns critically, as we should. We should read these columns with a healthy serving of salt, carefully noting where their writers come from. Deresiewicz lionizes public education, even though he’s spent his entire life in private education; Fortgang moans about privilege even while embodying it; Weiss allegedly got her piece in the Wall Street Journal because of family connections.
And we should take from these columns only what is useful. In spite of several gaping holes and appalling assumptions in his argument, Deresiewicz makes some very good points about the class-based discrimination occurring at top colleges, for example.
But Ivy Leaguers don’t take what these articles offer and shelve what they get wrong. Instead, they obsess over these articles. They write response after response, ignoring much of what has already been said, delighting in the obvious and the easy. It’s beyond exhausting. To those in the Ivy League, responding to articles about the Ivy League has become a fetish. It’s masturbatory, really.
By critiquing these columns — and oh-so-subtly mentioning their own stake in this whole debate — these Ivy Leaguers are reminding their readers or listeners that, by the way, they go to Yale (or whatever). Of course Ivy Leaguers have an important perspective, but much of the rhetoric of these responses struck me as vaguely self-promotional. “I was born in Roanoke, Virginia,” wrote high school administrator J.D. Chapman in the New Republic, in one critique. “It is not the sort of place that produces many Ivy League graduates. Only ten kids in my high school class of 500 crossed the Mason-Dixon Line for college, for example. I went to Yale.”
The sum total of these responses reminded me so vividly of those questions smarmy people ask at speeches and events. You know the ones? Where a person stands up to ask a question and prefaces it with a few minutes about himself and his interests. Their purpose is not the question. It’s self-aggrandizement.
By repeatedly engaging in this debate, by escalating this debate, by refusing to let these columns go, these Ivy Leaguers are trying to slyly tell their audience that they’re so much more self-aware than everyone else. They’re not trying to further the conversation; they’re indulging themselves and trying to make themselves sound smart in the process.
Some of the responses to Weiss, Fortgang, and Deresiewicz were interesting and insightful. But most of them were basically noise.
Some of these Ivy League critiques are interesting. Some of them are useful. Occasionally, they’re important. But they don’t deserve anywhere near the amount of attention or psychic energy we give to them.
Scott Stern a senior in Branford College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.