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Some think Ivy League schools stifle innovation

Harvard University may not be the best school for innovative thinkers
Harvard University may not be the best school for innovative thinkers
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In his article “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League,” in the July 21 issue of “The New Republic,” former Yale University professor William Deresiewicz writes that he thinks Ivy League schools are making “zombies” of their students.

Deresiewicz reports that 85 % of these Ivy kids are from the top half of the "income distribution." They are also “well-rounded,” very bright, driven, and from the best families and schools around the world. The Ivies prep them for the best jobs in consulting and on Wall Street.

He suggests one big reason that the Ivy schools have created this highway to personal wealth is that they rely on the donor money that comes in part from the wealthy parents of many of the kids who make it into the exclusive, club-like enclave of the Ivy League.

Deresiewicz thinks that the pressure to gain admittance to the elite institutions creates high school students who spend most of their time studying for the A’s they need and immersing themselves in sometimes superficial extracurricular work to beef up their résumés. Furthermore, these habits and attitudes are not discouraged once the students arrive in college, resulting in undergraduates who are so caught up in their quotidian lives that they feel “zombies.”

Deresiewicz says many of them are seriously depressed and disillusioned once they get their highly prized jobs – they feel empty and without purpose in life, because they never stop to enrich themselves spiritually with lasting empathy through meaningful service to others, or engage their intellectual curiosity.

Greg Marus, whose excellent commentary on high-tech hiring practices you read recently in this column, summarizes his own four years as an undergrad at Yale as follows:

“In my experience, and something that appears to be as true in 2014 as it was in 1968: the people who are likely to leverage the greatest material success from their time in the Ivy League are the ones who are part of the “herd of independent minds”—i.e., those who are thoroughly comfortable with received opinion, and quite uncomfortable with challenging it.”

What can we do to change things? Deresiewicz and Marus both have grave doubts that much can be done. Marus says that his career in Silicon Valley has left him with increased respect for Stanford and UC-Berkeley, which evidently encourage the kind of creativity and entrepreneurship that he found only twenty long years after his Yale experience, but which for him was ultimately fulfilling.

Deresiewicz thinks we need to go further, and make a clean break from all so-called elitist schools. He says these institutions claim to create what they call leaders, but he believes that to the college elite, leadership means little more than preserving privilege.

Real leadership training, he thinks, can begin with service to all people, not just from everywhere, but from all socio-economic backgrounds: the cross-section of humanity you can get to know for the very first time at a very big public school like The Ohio State University.

An alternative solution, says Deresiewicz, is to nurture your soul and broaden your perspective by earning a degree in liberal arts from a smaller college, one devoted to perpetuating higher learning, as is Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.

Ultimately, Marus believes, it comes down to a question of values; the values of students, parents, and even the universities and society as a whole. One can but hope that all of these groups understand that material success is not a sufficient condition for happiness.

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