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My mom didn’t want me to go to Yale. We only fought about it a couple times, sure, but in early April of my senior year, she wore her disapproval like a sunburn. Angry and stinging and warm. I’d sneak a glance in her direction on the drive to school every morning. Her mouth was a hard, straight line. She pursed her lips. She didn’t want me to go Yale because, in her day, she’d taken the party bus from Smith College to New Haven a few times. At mixers, she sipped punch and warded off lecherous nerds.
She also didn’t want me to go to Yale because my father’s coworker — a real snobby misogynist — was a proud Yale alumnus. I stammered and blushed too much, she thought; I wasn’t put-together or driven or hungry for success.
But I needed to prove something to someone, and so I kept telling her: Mom, it’s the best liberal arts school in the world. I just want to sit at a seminar table with the smartest young minds and a brilliant professor. I just want to learn.
Since then, I’ve wanted to ask my past self — what the fuck does that mean? The best liberal arts school in the world? Why are you parotting those stupid propaganda pamphlets? (I’ve even wanted to ask — why are you going to college at all, Jane?)
Because my past self is stuck in 2012, fighting with my mom and trying on prom dresses, I looked elsewhere for answers. It appeared that I wasn’t the only one. In 2012, Nathan Harden wrote the controversial book “Sex and God at Yale,” in which he lamented Yale’s failure to instill a moral code in its students. In 2013, high school senior Suzy Lee Weiss wrote a Wall Street Journal op-ed titled “To (All) the Colleges that Rejected Me,” lambasting the universities that turned down her application. And in July 2014, William Deresiewicz came out with the inflammatory New Republic article “Don’t Send your Kid to the Ivy League.” Professors and students and parents have responded in droves, of course.
As International Affairs Lecturer Charles Hill says, “Editors and publishers love it. To them, Yale is like catnip.”
While cats don’t ever become catnip-resistant — science! — I will say that Yale students stop noticing the headline “Yale.” In other words, I’m not writing a sensationalist critique of the University.
What follows instead is a long, winding response to the question — what kind of education does an elite liberal arts school like Yale offer? And why do we want it?
At first, I did the “research paper thing” and read a few articles about Old Yale. Written in 1701, the Yale Charter describes the University (then known as the Collegiate School) as an institution “wherein Youth may be instructed in the Arts & Sciences who through the blessing of Almighty God may be fitted for Publick employment both in Church & Civil State.”
Yale was originally a religious institution, turning the sons of the Connecticut elite into morally upstanding ministers. In the early 18th century, the faculty was academically inflexible: To them, a Yale education was a classical education and only a classical education. All students read Greek, Latin and Hebrew. Yale President Ezra Stiles eventually dialed down the requirements, and in 1790, he named Hebrew an optional area of study. In 1926, for the first time in Yale’s history, students could opt out of the daily compulsory chapel.
Then I read a few articles about New Yale. Over 300 years later, the current Yale admissions website praises our liberal arts education as one “through which students think and learn across disciplines, literally [sic] liberating or freeing the mind to its fullest potential.”
This is a pretty standard definition. The verbs “to think” and “to learn” both appear, as well as a neat little superlative and noun pairing: fullest potential. I like the word potential because it implies a great, dark well of talent hidden deep inside me. I’d love to reach my fullest potential.
Students themselves offer similar interpretations, but ones tempered by irony or self-effacement. They skirt the issue as they might a riddle or a trick question. “I think a liberal arts education is about becoming a full person,” Eli Westerman ’18 says. “It’s about excellence in mind, soul and body.” And then he laughs, a little unsure, shifting in his chair.
“It’s an education where you have access to ideas from as many spheres as possible,” Liz Jones ’15 says a few days later. And then she gives me a quizzical look, and glances down at her knees.
“I think it teaches you how to think in a different way,” Francesco Bertolini ’18 says. Then he concedes that “Fractal Geometry” hasn’t yet taught him that different way.
For authors and social critics like Deresiewicz (“Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life”) and Harden, this bashful hesitation suggests that the Ivy League is doing something wrong. Students are confused because they’re not receiving a true-blue liberal arts Education. To these cultural critics, the students’ confusion betrays an uptick in preprofessionalism and a decline in personal development.
In his New Republic article, Deresiewicz calls Yale students — to whom he taught English for 10 years — “great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.” He pushes against the notion that top-tier universities “teach their students how to think.” In other words, Yale students can’t define a liberal arts education because they’re not getting one.
Harden takes a similar stance. To him, the University fails to deliver an effective, intellectually stimulating education, since “there is no commitment to intellectual diversity whatsoever.”
Both Deresiewicz and Harden maintained that the Ivy League lacks a diversity of background and ideology. Since this diversity is the linchpin of a liberal arts education, Yale can only offer a one-sided, partial schooling.
“How are students supposed to learn to critically examine their beliefs and viewpoints if they spend four years in an ideological echo chamber?” Harden asks.
Jones, however, takes issue with these sweeping generalizations, particularly Deresiewicz’s praise of state schools. While he claims that they offer more diversity, many of her friends at Ohio State shut themselves off from all novelty. “With so many people, it’s so much easier to segregate yourself. If you don’t have a dean who knows your name, it’s so easy to say ‘I just want to study this’ and never have anyone challenge your ideas.”
If homogeneity in the Ivy League is the issue, perhaps the solution begins in the admissions office, which faces the yearly task of selecting around 2,000 admits from an applicant pool of over 30,000. With so many hopefuls, why would Yale have any trouble constructing a diverse class?
The University itself divulges precious little information about its admissions process.
“Yale is looking to create a class of the best students from around the world with a variety of backgrounds and experiences,” Yale Dean of Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan says. “We’re looking for students who are most suited and ready for making the most of Yale’s cutting-edge resources and faculty.”
The wishes and thoughts expressed on College Confidential, “the world’s largest college forum,” are equally vague.
Scrolling through the “Yale Class of 2018 RD Discussion Thread,” I get that horrible, gnawing high-school-senior feeling again. That we’re caught in a crowd, trampling friends underfoot. That we’re reduced to “stats,” each fraction of 2400 no different from the next.
The thread is 60 pages. 888 replies. Of the 15 comments on page 55 (all from March 27, 2014) nine are variations on an original theme:
“Rejected … As expected”
“Rejected! My dream school! May my life be f____ed.”
Most of the users (and their siblings and parents, who also participate in the online discussions on behalf of their DDs and DSs — Dear Daughters and Dear Sons) seem to value the Ivies for nebulous reasons. Yale is everyone’s “dream school” or “reach school,” but not much more.
And yet, Yale philosophy professor Shelly Kagan and English professor David Bromwich don’t teach drones. Neither agrees with Deresiewicz’s claim; both are impressed by their students’ creativity and curiosity. According to Kagan, “If Deresiewicz didn’t find his students here intellectually curious and alive, caring about ideas, then I can only report that he didn’t have my students.”
Many undergraduates notice similar levels of commitment in their peers. Freshmen as well as seniors marvel at the student body’s passion and curiosity. In a survey sent to a random sample of undergraduate students by the News, only 18 percent of the 117 respondents agreed with the statement that “Yale students don’t have enough intellectual curiosity.”
“You label someone as something, and then you discover they’re a philosophy major and also pre-med. It’s amazing,” Antonia Campbell ’18 says.
Zana Davey ’15 has been impressed by her friends’ senior theses, all of which reveal “academic niches” and a real intellectual investment.
While no one denies that Yale kids are passionate, some hesitate to call those passions academic commitment. Kate Miller ’16, for one, thinks that the University doesn’t always encourage intellectual activity at a high level. She finds that students can complete their coursework without immersing themselves in their studies.
“Deep academic engagement usually requires a kind of vulnerability, and a Yale education doesn’t necessarily ask that of us.” she says.
I don’t disagree.
For a while in high school, I wanted to study astrophysics. (Back then, the universe seemed like an amazing thing.) The summer after my junior year, I went to a fancy science camp outside Santa Barbara where I learned to code and use a telescope and predict the motion of an asteroid. Once I got to Yale, of course, everything changed. I forgot about astrophysics, read Aeschylus, then Cervantes, and, somehow, in the spring of my sophomore year, wound up in ASTR 135: “Archeoastronomy.”
Turns out, the professor had also taught at my science camp. When I was seventeen, I heard him explain orbital eccentricity to a handful of teenagers. At twenty, I heard him define the scientific method to a hundred impassive college kids. Each time I entered the lecture hall, I felt a rush of shame.
“A lot of things could be changed about the distributional requirements,” Jones says. She’s sympathetic to students who are interested in quantitative skills but not pursuing a science degree. Jones adds, shaking her head, that “The only science that’s available to them are these guts.”
Miller agrees—to her, the sacrifice of depth for breadth is often deleterious to Yale students. A broad education can be a scattered education. “That’s a paradox,” she says. “You’re supposed to take a wide range of classes according to the standards of the discipline, and that’s virtually impossible.”
In fact, she goes on to offer an alternate definition of the liberal arts. She pauses, collects her thoughts, takes a breath and says: “a liberal arts education is just the performance of a liberal arts education.”
Imagine this: the year is 2020 and you’re at a cocktail party downtown. The girl with pink hair and a nice hovercraft comments on President Hillary Clinton’s recent speech. In response, you say something clever about power and oppression, alluding to Machiavelli’s Prince. Then the cyborg nearby comments on the Medicis, and banking in Renaissance Europe. And the cyborg’s wife brings up the chemical properties of poison that killed Catherine de Medici. Everyone laughs appreciately. Their spacesuits crinkle like bags of chips.
These (past, present and future) cocktail parties can be a sort of culmination, the endpoint of all-nighters and crying fits and color-coded notes. After all, here you are among other young professionals, chatting idly about art and history and current events. You got educated to act educated.
Of all the critiques leveled at the Ivy League, this one seems to ring the truest. 71% surveyed agreed that Yale students are excessively concerned about their image and/or career.
But a wide, shallow pool of knowledge offers certain comforts — especially in an era of economic uncertainty, when making a choice feels like slamming a door.
In his 22 years at Yale, Hill has certainly noticed a rise in such academic caution, which sometimes reveals itself in preprofessionalism. (By definition, a liberal arts education is intended to provide general knowledge rather than professional or technical skills.) “What has happened in our society has been a smothering effect,” he says. More and more, undergraduates endure social and familial pressures to enter and conquer the job market as quickly as possible. They have received excessive guidance, which creates “a sense of uniformity from which students cannot escape.”
Bromwich and Kagan have also noticed this change — Bromwich describes it as a constellation of tendencies: “to be highly organized, to keep a careful count of one’s skills, attainments, and extracurricular assets, to prize ‘results’ over adventure.” According to the professors, these habits betray a growing anxiety about future prospects and life after graduation.
In describing her last year at Yale so far, Davey draws a comparison. She’s been thinking about the difference between high school and college, she says.
“Senior year of high school, you probably know you’re going to college. But now, graduating from college, everyone is on a different timeline.”
In other words, undergraduates in a single age cohort begin to move at different rates: this discrepancy leads to insecurity. Students who haven’t found jobs encounter students who have signed on with corporate firms, and they suddenly feel that they’re out of the loop.
As Andrew Giambrone ’14 puts it, senior year is “a sort of mad dash to have figured out as soon as possible what you’re doing after graduation.”
And yet, while both Deresiewicz and Harden attack this anxiety, they don’t acknowledge that this problem extends beyond Ivy League gates. Yale students feel social and familial pressures just as students do in state schools and catholic schools, institutions which Deresiewicz considers superior to elite universities.
Hill says, “These are national matters.”
In his New Yorker essay “What College Can’t Do,” Joshua Rothman reaches a similar conclusion. He parses Deresiewicz’s claims with intellectual generosity and critical remove, and still asserts that the Ivy League is not the culprit. Modernity is the culprit. “The fact that you can feel soulless in such an intellectual paradise suggests that the problem is bigger than college,” he writes.
All the professors I consulted agree: this preprofessionalism, this busyness, this fear, is simply a cultural phenomenon, rather than a malicious attempt on the University’s part to crush our souls. It’s economic anxiety in an economically shaky time. Pure and simple.
In general, really, Yale students and professors pull apart Deresiewicz’s argument without breaking a sweat. Kagan is candid — “Had he submitted the essay to me for a class, I would have failed it.”
“It was my first week at work,” Giambrone recalls reading the article in late July. “I remember being kind of incensed by it: it didn’t resonate with my experience as a Yale student at all.”
He felt compelled to respond — on July 28, the New Republic published Giambrone’s own essay, “I’m a Laborer’s Son. I Went to Yale. I Am Not ‘Trapped in a Bubble of Privilege.’” The piece touches upon Giambrone’s socioeconomic background, as well as Yale’s generous financial aid policy. Now an editorial fellow at The Atlantic, the recent graduate writes that Deresiewicz’s “argument effaces important economic, social, and personal differences among students, conveniently neglecting the fact that elite colleges allow athletes and engineers to sit around the same seminar tables as sons of farmers and daughters of CEOs.”
Jones, who is also from a lower-income family, found glaring problems in Deresiewicz’s conclusion, in which he implores students to attend second-tier liberal arts colleges, places like Reed.
In her experience, Yale offers better financial aid than most of these other schools.
“The smaller liberal arts colleges that he mentions are the places I would never in a million years be able to go,” Jones says.
After all, the critics of the Ivy League don’t really acknowledge the privilege implicit in their own arguments: For the most part, they do not take financial aid into consideration. They assume that all prospective college students have the luxury to reject elite universities. Many people do not.
“In terms of socioeconomic stratification, the Ivies are still among the worst,” Deresiewicz says. Fifty-three percent of respondents to the News survey respondents agreed: Yale students are not exposed to enough diversity of socioeconomic backgrounds.
But even Deresiewicz concedes that Yale may indeed have a better financial aid policy than other schools. The University offers scholarships to over half of its student body, operating on a need-blind admissions policy.
Jenny Nguyen ’16 cites organizations like QuestBridge, a nonprofit program that connects low-income students to scholarship opportunities, when discussing Yale’s financial aid policy. “It’s very important to be able to ameliorate your situation,” she says. “Yale opened a lot of doors for me.”
On Sept. 24, Deresiewicz sits down to a room full of Yale kids and explains why the school is killing their souls. The spacious living room in Morse College can barely accommodate all the visitors, so some students sit on the floor. Others stand in the back. Eventually, the college master Amy Hungerford opens her french windows, and latecomers stand in the courtyard. I cannot tell if we showed up for personal edification or enlightenment or perverse pleasure. I listen to Deresiewicz as best I can, noting the jokes he lands, the calculated colloquialisms, the drastic shifts in tone.
Deresiewicz seems to establish a critical vocabulary — he doesn’t like the word “passion,” but prefers to say “purpose.” He doesn’t like the expression “find yourself,” but prefers to say “build yourself.” With these rational feints, he gives the impression he has a careful, coherent thesis in mind.
But he does not.
Instead, during his talk, he offers students an incomprehensible parable, paternalistic advice, and a set of terms he never defines. I want to be sympathetic, I do — his is a herculean task. He wants to take stock of an entire country’s educational system, one that’s been shifting and growing for hundreds of years. But the scope is too wide: Deresiewicz crams economic worries and moral imperatives and analytical skills into the blender and hopes for an argument. The result is mush.
Towards the end of the talk, he cites the New York Times article “Becoming a Real Person,” in which Jackson Institute Senior Fellow David Brooks divides a university’s goals into three categories: professional training, critical thinking and character development. With this final objective, Deresiewicz’s aim comes into focus. He thinks that Yale hasn’t been developing our characters. We need a “moral education.”
When I hear this, I feel like some dumb, proverbial weight has been lifted from my shoulders. I understand the problem.
The question was: what kind of education does an elite liberal arts school like Yale offer?
My answer is: I don’t know, but I do know this — I’m not looking for a moral education. I don’t want to consider my “purpose” or “build myself.” I am all in favor of self-knowledge and reflexivity, sure, but I didn’t come to Yale to learn how to live.
Sometimes, I’m happy enough just to think. I’m happy enough to listen in lecture and write all my papers. I don’t want to graduate with a freaky, mystical sense of “purpose.”
And so I called my mom on Tuesday and asked if I could make her a framing device in this article. She was hesitant at first, but then I said, “Mom, it’s true. You didn’t want me to go to Yale.”
“I didn’t want you to go to Yale because Yale is full of assholes,” she said. “But I am happy that you’re getting so much out of college. You seem to really love the things you do and I am happy to be wrong.”
Correction: Sept. 29
A previous version of this article stated that Jenny Nguyen ’16 benefited from QuestBridge. While she is a QuestBridge scholar, she has not financially benefited from the program.