Damaged By An Ivy League Education

by Robert Pondiscio
July 27th, 2008

What is “Ivy Retardation?”  As described by former Yale English professor William Deresiewicz in The American Scholar, it’s an affliction, common to products of elite schools, that renders its victims capable of carrying on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but unable to talk to a plumber in their own houses.  And that’s merely a minor symptom.

“My education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class,”  Deresiewicz writes.  “I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me. We were ‘the best and the brightest,’ as these places love to say, and everyone else was, well, something else: less good, less bright….At the same time, because these schools tend to cultivate liberal attitudes, they leave their students in the paradoxical position of wanting to advocate on behalf of the working class while being unable to hold a simple conversation with anyone in it.”

An elite education confers a false sense of self-worth on its recipients, Deresiewicz says, and worse yet, creates risk-averse students.  “If you’re afraid to fail, you’re afraid to take risks, which begins to explain the final and most damning disadvantage of an elite education: that it is profoundly anti-intellectual,” he writes. 

If so few kids come to college understanding this, it is no wonder. They are products of a system that rarely asked them to think about something bigger than the next assignment. The system forgot to teach them, along the way to the prestige admissions and the lucrative jobs, that the most important achievements can’t be measured by a letter or a number or a name. It forgot that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers.

Meet your new leaders:  “The kid who’s loading up on AP courses junior year or editing three campus publications while double-majoring, the kid whom everyone wants at their college or law school but no one wants in their classroom, the kid who doesn’t have a minute to breathe, let alone think, will soon be running a corporation or an institution or a government, Deresiewicz concludes. “She will have many achievements but little experience, great success but no vision. The disadvantage of an elite education is that it’s given us the elite we have, and the elite we’re going to have.”