“You really aren’t as smart as everyone has been telling you; you’re only smarter in a certain way,” William Deresiewicz wrote to Ivy League students in his essay, “Don’t Send Your Kids to the Ivy League,” in The New Republic. “There are smart people who do not go to a prestigious college, or to any college — often precisely for reasons of class. There are smart people who are not ‘smart.’”
Deresiewicz’s claim — that smartness manifests itself in a variety of ways — struck home for me. As a lower-middle class student who spent this past summer painting houses to earn money for school, I have seen first hand the unique brand of intelligence which many blue-collar Americans possess. It is sometimes overlooked, but this particular sort of intelligence is always experiential and cannot be found in a college syllabus.
The summer between high school and college is, for many, a time of preparation, heightened expectations and nervous anticipation. Yet this summer, amid all the college excitement, many college-bound freshmen, Ivy-leaguers in particular, encountered a thorn in their side. This thorn was Deresiewicz’s article. Ablaze with anti-elitist fervor, Deresiewicz pulled as many punches at the Ivy League as he made good points about the nature of privilege in America today.
Deresiewicz could and should have presented his argument in a more tempered manner — but as someone whose socioeconomic status and education do not align with most conventional standards, his article spoke to many of my convictions about the place of manual labor in an education.
Mark Twain once declared, “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.” Many college students mistakenly believe in the distinction between school — the classes one takes and the bumper sticker on one’s car — and education, which is the ongoing process of mental and physical development which occurs both inside and outside a lecture hall.
The path to Yale is strewn with many pitfalls and roadblocks, but none are perhaps as dangerous to one’s education as the belief that school and education are the same thing.
This summer I worked under the tutelage of a master painter, who showed me the truth behind Deresiewicz’s statement that there are “smart people who are not ‘smart.’” As a recent graduate of a New England boarding school outside Boston, I had thoroughly convinced myself that I was intelligent. My friends and teachers had told me so, and my acceptance to Yale seemed to validate their claims.
How surprised I was, when on my first day of painting, I found that I could not get the right amount of paint onto my brush! I had mastered the five-page paper but could not lift a brush out of a bucket without causing white paint to drip everywhere.
So began a slow, embarrassing process of discovering the other things which I was not good at. When it came to placing ladders against the side of a house, I would have failed the exam. If sanding the trim of a garage were an art, I would have been the Justin Bieber of sandpaper. My self-confidence was shattered, and amid the broken pieces, I found something I had never expected to find: self-knowledge. Each of my failures served to demarcate a limit to my abilities. My past academic successes had only given me the illusion that I was limitless.
These were the lessons I learned from a summer of manual labor. That where I go to college — whether I go to college at all — says less about my intelligence than the color of my socks, which are red. Deresiewicz has received much criticism for his critique of the Ivy League from larger publications like Newsweek and The New Yorker, and even the News’ editorial board itself. Yet I would like to thank Mr. Deresiewicz for putting into words something about which I care deeply.
I enter my first year of Yale with the conviction that there are many ways to succeed. My only hope is that I never let my schooling get in the way of my education.
Finnegan Schick is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College. Contact him at email@example.com.