This book, in many ways, is a letter to my twenty-year-old self. It talks about the kinds of things I wish that someone had encouraged me to think about when I was going to college—such as what the point of college might be in the first place.
I was like so many kids today (and so many kids back then). I went off to college like a sleepwalker, like a zombie. College was a blank. College was the “next thing.” You went to college, you studied something, and afterward you went on to the next next thing, most probably some kind of graduate school. Up ahead were vaguely understood objectives: status, wealth, getting to the top—in a word, “success.” As for where you went to school, that was all about bragging rights, so of course you chose the most prestigious place that let you in. What it meant to actually get an education, and why you might want one—how it could help you acquire a self, or develop an independent mind, or find your way in the world—all this was off the table. Like kids today, I was processed through a system everyone around me simply took for granted.
I started college in 1981. The system, then, was in its early days, but it was already, unmistakably, a system, a set of tightly interlocking parts. When I speak in this book of elite education, I mean prestigious institutions like Harvard or Stanford or Williams as well as the larger universe of second-tier selective schools, but I also mean everything that leads up to and away from them: the private and affluent public high schools; the ever-growing industry of tutors and consultants, test-prep courses and enrichment programs; the admissions process itself, squatting like a dragon at the entrance to adulthood; the brand-name graduate schools and employment opportunities that come after the BA; and the parents and communities, largely upper middle class, who push their children into the maw of this machine. In short, our entire system of elite education.
What that system does to kids and how they can escape from it, what it does to our society and how we can dismantle it—those are the subjects of this book. I was teaching a class at Yale on the literature of friendship. One day we got around to talking about the importance of being alone. The ability to engage in introspection, I suggested, is the essential precondition for living the life of the mind, and the essential precondition for introspection is solitude. My students took this in for a second—introspection, solitude, the life of the mind, things they probably had not been asked to think about before—then one of them said, with a dawning sense of self-awareness, “So are you saying that we’re all just, like, really excellent sheep?”
All? Surely not. But after twenty-four years in the Ivy League—college at Columbia; a PhD at the same institution, including five years as a graduate instructor; and ten years, altogether, on the faculty at Yale—that was more or less how I had come to feel about it. The system manufactures students who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it. In 2008, on my way out the door, I published an essay that sketched out a few of these criticisms. Titled “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” the article appeared in the American Scholar, a small literary quarterly. At best, I thought, it might get a few thousand readers.
Instead, it started to go viral almost from the moment it came out. Within a few weeks, the piece had been viewed a hundred thousand times (with many times that number in the months and years to come). Apparently I’d touched a nerve. These were not just the grumblings of an ex-professor. As it turned out from the many emails I began to get, the vast majority from current students and recent graduates, I had evoked a widespread discontent among today’s young high achievers—a sense that the system was cheating them out of a meaningful education, instilling them with values they rejected but couldn’t somehow get beyond, and failing to equip them to construct their futures.
Since then I have spoken with students on campuses across the country, corresponded with many others, answered these young people’s questions and asked my own, and heard and read their stories. It has been an education in itself, and this book is a reflection of that ongoing dialogue. Where possible, I’ve used their words to help me talk about the issues we’ve discussed, but every page has been informed by my sense of what these kinds of students need and want to think about. A lot of books get published about higher education, but none, as far as I can tell, are speaking to students themselves—still less, listening to them.
I begin the book by discussing the system itself—one that, to put it in a nutshell, forces you to choose between learning and success. Education is the way that a society articulates its values: the way that it transmits its values. While I’m often critical of the sort of kids who populate selective schools, my real critique is aimed at the adults who’ve made them who they are—that is to say, at the rest of us. Part 2 begins to explain what students can do, as individuals, to rescue themselves from the system: what college should be for, how to find a different kind of path in life, what it means to be a genuine leader. Part 3 extends the argument, talking in detail about the purpose of a liberal arts education, the value of the humanities, and the need for dedicated teachers and small classrooms. My aim is not to tell young people where to go to school so much as why.
Part 4 returns to the larger social question. The system is charged with producing our leadership class, the so-called meritocracy—the people who run our institutions, governments, and corporations. So how has that been going? Not, it’s clear by now, too well. What we’re doing to our kids we’re ultimately doing to ourselves. The time has long since passed, I argue, to rethink, reform, and reverse the entire project of elite education.
A word on what I mean when I speak of the elite. I don’t intend the term as it is often now deployed, as a slur against liberals, intellectuals, or anyone who disagrees with Bill O’Reilly, but simply as a name for those who occupy the upper echelons of our society: conservatives as well as liberals, businesspeople as well as professionals, the upper and the upper middle classes both—the managers, the winners, the whole cohort of people who went to selective colleges and are running society for their own exclusive benefit. This book is also, implicitly, a portrait of that class, whose time to leave the stage of history has now so evidently come.