Sep 10, 2014

    Moral morass plagues elite US varsities today

    THIS summer, The New Republic published the most-read article in that magazine's history. It was an essay by William Deresiewicz, drawn from his new book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation Of The American Elite And The Way To A Meaningful Life.

    Everyone is born with a mind, he writes, but it is only through introspection, observation, connecting the head and the heart, making meaning of experience and finding an organising purpose that you build a unique individual self.

    This process, he argues, often begins in college, the interval of freedom when a person is away from both family and career. During that interval, the young person can throw himself with reckless abandon at other people and learn from them.

    Through this process, a student is able, in the words of Mark Lilla, a professor at Columbia, to discover "just what it is that's worth wanting".

    Deresiewicz argues that most students do not get to experience this in elite colleges today.

    Universities, he says, have been absorbed into the commercial ethos. Instead of being intervals of freedom, they are breeding grounds for advancement.

    Students are too busy jumping through the next hurdle in the resume race to figure out what they really want. The system pressures them to be excellent, but excellent sheep.

    Stephen Pinker, the great psychology professor at Harvard, wrote the most comprehensive response to Deresiewicz. "Perhaps, I am emblematic of everything that is wrong with elite American education, but I have no idea how to get my students to build a self or become a soul. It isn't taught in graduate school, and in the hundreds of faculty appointments and promotions I have participated in, we've never evaluated a candidate on how well he or she could accomplish it."

    Professor Pinker suggested the university's job is cognitive. Young people should know how to write clearly and reason statistically. They should acquire specific knowledge: The history of the planet, how the body works, how cultures differ, and so on.

    What we have before us then, is three distinct purposes for a university: The commercial purpose (starting a career), Prof Pinker's cognitive purpose (acquiring information and learning how to think) and Deresiewicz's moral purpose (building an integrated self).

    Over a century ago, most university administrators and faculty members would have said the moral purpose is the most important.

    Today, people at these elite institutions have the same moral aspirations. Everybody knows the meritocratic system has lost its mind. Everybody - administrators, admissions officers, faculty and students - knows that the pressures of the resume race are out of control.

    But people in authority no longer feel compelled to define how they think moral, emotional and spiritual growth happens, beyond a few pablum words that no one could disagree with and a few vague references to community service.

    The reason they don't is simple. They don't think it's their place, or, as Prof Pinker put it, they don't think they know.

    The result is that the elite universities are strong at delivering their commercial mission. They are pretty strong in developing their cognitive mission.

    But when it comes to the sort of growth Deresiewicz is talking about - everyone is on their own.

    An admissions officer might bias her criteria slightly away from the Resume God and towards the quirky kid. A student may privately wrestle with taking a summer camp job instead of an emotionally vacuous but resume-padding internship.

    But these struggles are informal, isolated and semi-articulate.

    I'd say Deresiewicz significantly overstates the amount of moral decay at elite universities. But at least he reminds us what a moral education looks like. That is largely abandoned ground.