The symposium includes Peter Augustine Lawler (who praises religious colleges for providing the education of the soul Deresiewicz desires), Samuel Goldman (who argues that college doesn’t matter so much), and Peter Wood of the NAS, who calls Deresiewicz a “class warrior” who targets Ivy Leaguers when the real problem at elite colleges is “postmodern secularism,” not elitism.
But the most interesting essay, I think, is by James Piereson of the Manhattan Institute, who defends the elite colleges as superior to their public counterparts, noting the overwhelming representation of the Ivy League among recent presidents and all Supreme Court justices. He reports, “All have won their positions through a competitive democratic process” and wonders, “How is it that graduates of the most ‘elite’ institutions have mastered the arts of democracy far more effectively than graduates of less selective and more ‘democratic’ institutions?” Piereson seems to think it’s because elite colleges are better. Deresiewicz argues that elite colleges have gone from aristocracy to meritocracy and now we need to try democracy. I agree with that, but I really question how much meritocracy there is. It could be that the Ivy League produces the best judges and political leaders, or it could be that we don’t really have a competitive democratic process, but one based on privilege and power where elite colleges play a key role.
Obviously, Deresiewicz’s recommendation not to go to the Ivy League colleges may be bad advice if it cuts off access to privilege. But I’ve never seen an in-depth study of what advantages elite colleges convey. I suspect that the extent of class discrimination in favor of Ivy League colleges is massive (and, sadly, probably even greater within academia than in the business world), but the evidence needs more examination.