The elite college education in America is broken. It is based on quasi-meritocratic admission system that selects applicants using tests and formal criteria that give priority to well-healed and hard working children of wealthy parents who pay for training, test preparations, and work these children so hard to excel that they become neurotic, psychotic, and miserable even if they do get into Ivy League. Consequently they become oriented to material success so they go into finance and law, rather than to do-good non-profits. Another big issue is decrease in quality of education that went away from great books and emphasis on learning how to think in order to train for less abstract practical skills like STEM. The obvious solution for author is to provide more money so more children could have access to intellect developing liberal arts education to prepare well rounded individuals and pay for this by raising taxes on 1%.
PART 1. Sheep
- The Students
The students are overworked and stressed by need to get all points checked as required for admission into top-level universities. They are highly trained in test taking, bag all required activities, and as result are over-programmed and often are at the brink of psychological meltdown. They are highly oriented to external success trappings at the expense of free development, leading to what author calls credentialism: accumulation of credits for activities person is not really interested in. These people are trained to compete and win and therefore seek external approval and appreciation over others in everything they do. Consequently they prefer careers in finance and consulting that lead to high monetary returns.
- The History
In this chapter author goes through history of development of admission process in XX century from admission based on status: WASP elite selected mainly by family status to meritocratic elite selected by ability to pass tests supplanted with high level of conformity to formal requirements however meaningful or meaningless these requirements are. It also touches such issue as university ranking and strives for top selectivity numbers. The short characteristic of resulting product of higher education became the name of this book: excellent sheep.
- The Training
The training students are going through is increasingly result oriented with objective to produce highly compensated lawyers and doctors, in process suppressing natural inclinations of individuals. Consequently it produces high level of stress and unhappiness.
- The Institutions
Author traces all these problems to historical change in education that occurred at the end of XIX century when top universities start moving away from English model of education designed mainly for financially independent elite and directed to produce widely educated ladies and gentlemen capable to lead, quite independently, their households, businesses, and government. The new direction was German model of highly specialized education designed for individuals with insignificant levels of initial wealth and directed to produce effective bureaucrats capable to successfully clime up within bureaucratic hierarchy in process obtaining wealth and power. Author designates two institutions as representing each of these modes: Liberal Arts college for English mode and Research University for German. There is continuing tension between these two modes within educational system with German mode becoming consistently more and more prevailing due, to significant extent, necessity to obtain financial return on education to repay loan and succeed. Finally author sees a negative side of dramatic expansion of high education after WWII in change of institutional approach to the students from highly humanitarian human development process to business process of producing effective money producing alumni out of raw material of a student.
PART 2. Self.
- What Is College For?
This is discussion of meaning of college education. Traditionally it was to teach a young generation “how to think”. The latest development in cost, loans, and attitudes brought a significant change. Now college is considered an investment and the meaning of college become to get good financial return on money paid for the college.
- Inventing Your Life
Here author provides a more meaningful suggestion on how to use college years: invent one’s life. It includes first of all developing good knowledge of self and defining, based on this knowledge, what direction in life to take. The second is developing ability to act even if it includes risk of failure. Overall this is the most important thing if one to avoid work that he/she hates and live good, enjoyable life.
All colleges claim to turn people into leaders and all look for students with “leadership potential”. Author somewhat rebel against this idea and suggests that it would be more important to train citizens, while leadership is secondary at best.
PART 3. Schools
- Great Books
This is a very interesting critic of contemporary movements of college education away from liberal art to practical areas of STEM. I think author makes a good sense when he writes about limited application of technological and practical knowledge compared with knowledge of how to think, how to build argument, and how communicate that supposed to come from liberal arts and great books. He also stresses that there is nothing antithetical between these areas of knowledge, they supplement each other, but basics of effective thinking and communications should come from humanities.
- Spirit Guides
This chapter is about another important part of college education that is dramatically diminishing lately: direct communication with teacher and mentoring of young people. The current environment with its dramatic increase of number of students and shifting of actual teaching from professors to assistants and adjuncts, mentoring becoming a lot more difficult, while with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) just plain impossible turning education from process of formation of personality into process of knowledge transfer.
- Your Guide to the Rankings
This small chapter is about general meaningless of ranking by some formal parameters that can easily be and are manipulated. Obviously there are material differences between colleges at different level in quality of teachers and not less important of students, but within group of colleges at the same level differences are not significant. Author actually expresses preference for second tier colleges.
PART 4. Society.
- Welcome to the Club
In this chapter author going a bit out of main theme of this book to contemplate about overall state of American society with its growing inequality, decrease in intergenerational class mobility, and other negative trends. He especially concerned with elite colleges cultivating conscious perception of its students of their own intellectual superiority. Interestingly enough he also provides some information about comparatively much higher grade-inflation in elite schools. This information put under question if these best and brightest are really that smart or they just benefited from mammy and daddy alumni status, wealth, connections, and/or skin color to get into elite colleges and then just glide on through life coddled in super safety super net of their status getting rewards without any proportion to achievement and getting their failure swept under the rug every time they need it.
- The Self-Overcoming of the Hereditary Meritocracy
In final chapter author expresses his opinion about what needs to be done to overcome hereditary meritocracy. He starts with expressing disbelieve in genetic character of intelligence based on statement that people like Charles Murray are bad, without even discussing data provided in Murray’s books. Much more reasonable is his statement about “Meritocratic” elite suffering epidemics of Ivy Retardation when people like Romney or Obama just plainly incapable to make emotional connection with regular people. When he makes case for change he give an interesting quote from Baltzell’s “The Protestant Establishment”: “History is graveyard of classes which have preferred caste privilege to leadership”. Author’s suggestions for remedy: change educational system to mitigate the class system through changing admission process making it based on class affirmative actions, weight SAT by socioeconomic factors, stop consider failures in applicant history as disqualifying, and a few other changes. As it could be expected big on his list is increase in direct taxes to expand high quality education for everybody and these taxes should be paid by 1%.
The final word however is that “the elite purchased self-perpetuation at the price of their children happiness” because they make elite education condition of prosperity and force their children to work too hard to obtain this education resulting in misery and psychological disorders.
MY TAKE ON IT:
This book is pretty good as eyewitness evidence for conditions of elite college education that builds meritocracy not on the merits of real live actions, but on the merits of testing, meeting formal requirements, and supreme value of conformism in search of good place in hierarchy of government or big corporations. I went though experience of college education in USA at the level of executive business school that had somewhat different dynamics, but from what I saw the narrative of this book rings the bell. I think that most important point here is that education for development of intellect significantly pushed out by education for obtaining top-notch credentials. The former is good for living in free market society when superior thinking and decision making abilities provide superior material and psychological returns, while latter is good for living in big government / big corporation environment where completely different skills set is required for prosperity that is good for success in office politics, but not that good for psychological well being. Unfortunately author’s leftist solution of big taxes for more liberal arts does not sound reasonable or plausible, not the least because higher public expense on education proved to be a failure many times over.