Ivy Bashing, Part II: The Search for Meaning

tumblr_n6rzpcsMk41st5lhmo1_Deresiewicz’s second criticism in his New Republic article is that millennials are not all that curious or interested in the search for meaning. I am not sure exactly how this would be measured, but one place to start would be looking at the UCLA longitudinal study of first-year college student attitudes.  This study has surveyed entering college students for nearly 50 years.

One of the questions asked is basically, “Why are you going to college?”  The answers have been surprisingly consistent over time, with jobs and economic success being high on the list, but “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” was “essential” or “very important” for 44.8% of freshmen in 2013, 39.3% in 2003, 44.6% in 1993 and 44.1% in 1983, about the time Deresiewicz entered college.  Also in fall of 2013, 70% of freshmen thought a “very important reason for going to college” was to gain an “appreciation of ideas” and 80% wanted to learn “more about things that interest me.” While one might hope a higher percentage of freshmen were interested in finding meaning in college, the percentage is not insignificant, and it has not changed from the end of the baby boom to the era of the millennials.

I do think that Deresiewicz’s throwaway line about third or fourth tier religious colleges being better at encouraging the search for meaning than their Ivy counterparts might actually be onto something important, though maybe not in the way the author had in mind.  As millennials, or anyone, searches for meaning in life, the natural place to start is with what our predecessors might have discovered about these questions over the centuries.

The elite schools—and higher education more generally—are usually quite comfortable with using the humanities in general and philosophy in particular as a starting point for questions of meaning (though I think it is also fair to say that the post-modern emphasis in the humanities today is deeply skeptical of making judgments about meaning and values).  The, “I’m OK, you’re OK,” or “Who am I to judge?” ethos can discourage students from making ethical and moral judgments, believing there is no “Truth” with a capital T and that most, if not all, differences are cultural and socially determined.

It is here that institutions based on a religious tradition can serve most students well.  Be they Catholic, Protestant or Jewish, these institutions provide two important things that secular schools (both public and private) lack:

1.  A willingness, and even eagerness, to take on questions of meaning.

2.  A starting point for the conversation (which is not, of course, necessarily the ending point).

Most religious traditions are built on truth claims or foundational beliefs which are theological in nature but often also have implications for ethical behavior or moral choices.  Most religiously based institutions require students, as part of their general education requirements, to explore both the truth claims of the school’s religious tradition (a religion or theology requirement) and the ethical tenets that are part of that tradition (an ethics requirement).  In addition to this academic engagement with meaning, these institutions will usually have non-academic programming like spirituality groups or religious services that are led by men and women who are committed to the schools’ religious tradition.

At Catholic institutions, these leaders would often be priests and sisters.  At Saint John’s we are especially lucky to have monks from of our Benedictine community living in many of our residence halls where they are available to students and modeling how one might live a life committed to the Catholic faith and Benedictine tradition.

These opportunities at religiously grounded institutions provide students with an easy entrée and supportive ethos for exploring questions of meaning.  Of course this is not to suggest that secular institutions prevent or are free from this kind of exploration.  Wherever there are young people growing toward adulthood, questions of meaning will arise as part of being human, but I don’t think it is a stretch to suggest that some environments are more conducive to the search for meaning than others.

Finally, it should be noted that when done well, religious institutions should encourage exploration that challenges students to find their own meaning and to make that search an integral part of their life and being.

There is not a “right” answer in the human search for meaning and while it may be the case that a religious starting point can encourage the search, the way an individual lives out his or her own meaning over a lifetime, even within a single faith tradition or no tradition at all, is as varied as our students.

So regardless of the academic institutions they choose to attend, there is no reason to believe that millennials are any less curious or interested in meaning than their predecessors were.  Unless one believes that something fundamental about human nature has changed in recent generations, the search for meaning seems to be an integral part of the human condition.

By |September 15th, 2014|Categories: Higher Education||0 Comments

Ivy Bashing, Part I: Risk Aversion

1194944_97232850This entry might fall under the category of biting the hand that feeds you.  William Deresiewicz is an Ivy League graduate (three times over) and spent ten years teaching at Yale.  He has written an article for The New Republic that has gotten lots of press called, “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League.”  It is a condensed version of a book he has written called Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.

He has two primary criticisms of his Ivy League students, whom he ungenerously and condescendingly characterizes as “out-of-touch, entitled little sh**(s).”  First, he claims that they have been programmed to do everything right to ensure their place at an elite institution, and it has made them completely risk averse to the point that they are afraid to risk failure at anything.

Second, he argues that they have such an instrumental/vocational conception of education that they have no interest in or ability to search for meaning (“building a self”) as part of their education.  (David Brooks made a somewhat similar observation, couched less critically, in his recent Aspen Institute talk when he said his Yale students lack the language to talk about moral dilemmas.  Deresiewicz argues, on the basis of no evidence that he presents, that, “Religious colleges—even obscure, regional schools that no one has ever heard of on the coasts—often do a much better job in that respect.”

Beyond the criticisms of students, the author then dips into some casual social analysis as he ends the article by drawing a tenuous link between his criticisms and the perpetuation of the current economic hierarchy and the growing income inequality.  “The time has come, not simply to reform that system top to bottom, but to plot our exit to another kind of society altogether.  The education system has to act to mitigate the class system, not reproduce it.”  It comes across as warmed over Marxism.

I am interested in whether Deresiewicz’s characterizations of millennials* are accurate, even if not really all that damning.

Desckwietz’s focus is on Ivy League students (and presumably their elite school peers at places like Stanford, Williams, Duke and Chicago who are not technically Ivy Leaguers).  It is a fair question to ask whether they are atypical among their millennial peers.  I would like to look at millennials more generally, as I think Deresiewicz’s students have more in common with students at CSB and SJU than separates them, but I acknowledge this is debatable.

Are students risk averse?  Maybe.  Again, this question merits a deeper look at the data, but it is true that both students and their parents approach the college decision with a decidedly vocational emphasis that seems to be stronger now than it was a decade ago.  This attitude is understandable given the recent recession and the period of tepid economic growth that continues today.  It might also reflect the high cost of investing in education (though it is still an investment that has a very good ROI).  However, school choices have not trended toward the vocational.  Liberal arts schools, those consciously emphasizing breadth over vocational depth, continue to attract their share of students.  In MN the number of students enrolling at Minnesota Private College Council schools, many of whom are liberal arts oriented, has been stable or growing.

What about their post-college choices? Desckeiwtz is quite critical of the fact that many of his students end up pursuing careers in finance or consulting, as opposed to doing more non-traditional things.  Again, I suspect this is driven by changes in the economy and the growth of financial services and consulting as employers.  Also, I do not see any evidence that the country is becoming less entrepreneurial, and two of the most well-known tech entrepreneurs, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, Ivy dropouts both, seemed to be rather risk loving, as well as Ivy graduate Sheryl Sandberg.  Of course these three data points are anecdotal.  Measuring entrepreneurial activity or spirit would be a harder task.  Are fewer millennials pursing things like Deresiewicz did, a Ph.D. and an academic career?  Yes, again as jobs in those fields, especially in the humanities, become more scarce.

In short, it seems at least as likely that millennial behavior and choices are a function of changed and changing economic incentives than they are a result of a stunted, narrow upbringing designed to reproduce the ruling class.

A New Republic rebuttal of Deresiewicz’s article makes a similar point:

 The recent reduction in job security, working conditions, prestige, and salary for the professions he cites as neglected by Ivy Leaguers—clergy, professors, social workers, teachers and scientists—accompanied by the rapid inflation in the same for Wall Street would be an alternate explanation.

Millennials are not “excellent sheep” but rather homo economicus, rationally responding to incentives as humans have throughout history.

In my next post I’ll examine the issue of undergraduate intellectual curiosity and the search for meaning.


*Millennials are generally defined at the generation born from the 1980s to the early 2000s.

By |September 8th, 2014|Categories: Uncategorized||0 Comments

The Atlantic Asks, “Is College Doomed?” Answer: No. Next Question?

170px-Nymphenburg-Statue-Minerva-1Another month, another story of the imminent demise of higher education in the United States.  The September issue of The Atlantic has a cover story that asks if college is doomed.  The article features the Minerva Project and profiles its founder and CEO “the 39-year-old entrepreneur Ben Nelson, [who] aims to replace (or, when he is feeling less aggressive, ‘reform’) the modern liberal-arts college.”

Minerva has a different business model than many other online options like Coursera or Udacity or Capella.  It acknowledges the benefits of having some kind of residential experience as Minerva has “administrative offices and a dorm in San Francisco, and it plans to open locations in at least six other major world cities.”   But, “Nelson thinks he can reinvent higher education by stripping it down to its essence, eliminating lectures and tenure along with football games, ivy-covered buildings, and research libraries.”  Like many of the other online experiments, Nelson and his team think that technology will fundamentally change the nature of the undergraduate experience.

A few observations:

1.  Cost.  The current cost for a year at Minerva is $28,000, which includes room and board.  While this is significantly lower than the sticker price of the Ivies and the selective liberal arts colleges that Minerva hopes to compete with, it may not be lower once financial aid is considered, and it is certainly not lower than the average price of many institutions, like Saint John’s and Saint Ben’s, who are not in the most selective tier.  The average comprehensive fee (tuition and room and board) paid at CSB and SJU is about $27,000-$28,000.  Many state schools are less than this.  So Minerva does not have one of the purported benefits (possibly the main one) of online education: significantly lower costs, unless your next best alternative happens to be an Ivie and you are a full pay student.

2.  Student Body.  Nelson expects about 90% of Minerva’s students to be international in the long run.  This seems to be an open admission that this model does not plan to be competitive in the US market.  So for all the talk of competing with the most selective US schools, Minerva does not really believe that a student with a choice between William or Brown or Minerva will choose Minerva.  (This expected outcome appears to run counter to Minerva’s “overtly elitist and selective” ethos.)  The market niche that Minerva seems to be targeting is the growing middle and upper middle class populations of places like China, South Korea and Brazil who want a US education for their children.  It remains to be seen whether these parents will view Minerva as a close substitute for more traditional schools.  This will probably turn on how well Minerva students do in the job market, which means that it will depend on how employers view Minerva–the same challenge that currently faces all online models.

3.  Alums.  The article notes a number of ways in which Minerva will not be like traditional institutions.  The author takes a slap at alumni connections (a bit ironic for a Harvard grad).  ”One possibility is that Minerva will fail because a college degree, for all the high-minded talk of liberal education— of lighting fires and raising thoughtful citizens—is really just a credential, or an entry point to an old-boys network that gets you your first job and your first lunch with the machers at your alumni club.”  This narrow view of alumni connections ignores the significant role of community at colleges and universities and the importance of signaling.  Alumni often provide those first jobs because they know something about the educational experiences their fellow alumni had at their alma mater.  This is an under-appreciated competitive advantage for traditional institutions that even the most successful online models will have a hard time replicating within a generation.  (This also ignores the very important philanthropic benefits provided by alumni.)

4.  The lecture strawman.  The author argues that “the key to Minerva, what sets it apart most jarringly from traditional universities, is a proprietary online platform developed to apply pedagogical practices that have been studied and vetted by” the professionals hired by Minerva.  Nelson tells other academic leaders, “Your cash cow is the lecture, and the lecture is over.  The lecture model … will be obliterated.”  The only problem is that every academic institution worthy of the name already uses blended pedagogies that may use some lectures but incorporate lots of other techniques that have been developed by educational psychologists.  Even the Ohio States and University of Minnesotas offer students a range of classroom experiences, and the small liberal arts schools make personalized learning and close relationships with faculty one of their primary selling points.  So if Minerva thinks that their online model, with faculty teaching from off-site, is going to somehow become their competitive advantage, I suspect they are sorely mistaken.

5.  Administration and other evils.  The primary argument for online education is economic.  If you get something approximating the academic quality of the traditional model, the lost extra-curriculars don’t matter much, and it all comes at a significantly lower cost.  While dumping most of the extra-curricular activities (no athletics, no arts, no debating societies), Minerva seems to acknowledge the benefits of the residential experience.  They are bringing students together to live in a dorm setting.  There are obvious benefits from this model, as traditional institutions know, but there are significant costs too, which explains why education is such an expensive proposition.  Nowhere in the article is there any reference to these costs.  Minerva will need a dean of students, people living in the residence hall, administrators to handle visas, counselors to handle student academic and mental health issues.  They will need someone to handle discipline and the inevitable sexual assault cases.  And what about career services?  All this will make Minerva much more like traditional institutions than Mr. Nelson and his academic deans might like to admit, and the administrative needs will add to the costs.  The economics begin to resemble those of the rest of higher ed, even without the ivy covered walls or the football team.

According to the article, “Nelson’s long-term goal for Minerva is to radically remake one of the most sclerotic sectors of the U.S. economy, one so shielded from the need for improvement that its biggest innovation in the past 30 years has been to double its costs and hire more administrators at higher salaries.”  He wants to “lead” American universities into a new era.  “Nelson sometimes tells his competitors, ‘Our goal is not to put you out of business; it is to lead you. It is to show you that there is a better way to do what you are doing, and for you to follow us’.”

We will see what the future brings. There may well be a niche in the diverse world of higher education for Minerva, but I think those of us in the residential, liberal arts world will be comfortable navigating the future without Mr. Nelson’s guidance.

By |September 1st, 2014|Categories: Higher Education||1 Comment