Petri: Stop sending your kids to Ivy League schools

A college student walks across campus. A college student walks across campus. Photo Credit: AP

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You need to stop sending your kids to Ivy League schools.

In brief, according to an article in the New Republic by William Deresiewicz, who taught at Yale for 10 years, the students who are sent there are conformist, over-privileged overachievers. They emerge from homogeneous backgrounds and grow up to be elitist little twits. (He also went to an Ivy League school, but he is different now.) They overcame a little diversity, mainly not socioeconomic, to get in. In fact, Ivy League applicants' biggest hardship was having so little hardship in their lives that they had to hire people to take them on bus trips during the summer so they would have things to write college essays about.

When they get in, they learn nothing because they are too terrified of failure to study things they do not already know. They develop the firm conviction that, if you march to the beat of a different drummer, you are doing something wrong. We are all listening to this drummer for a reason. Your drummer must be screwing up.

When they get out, they are obsessed with status and give society less than they might have. Or something. The point is that the education is not value-added. If anything, it is value-subtracted. It produces conformist, unimaginative people who are desperate for approval.

And, well, I don't disagree. Of course I don't. I don't know how. Besides, if I disagreed, you might not like me, and I want you to like me! That means more than anything in the world! I can fax you some of my high school report cards if that would sway you! If you cannot tell from the foregoing, I went to an Ivy League school. I didn't learn very much, but I drank a lot.

I remember freshman year, talking with my peers about our deepest fears. "I'm afraid," someone said, "that I won't ever be able to become a great writer because my childhood was too happy." Everyone nodded. There was a silence.

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"My mom died," said someone else.

"Lucky!" we said. "That must have made a great application essay! I had to fly all the way to Bhutan and build houses for half an hour." Later we all became investment bankers. There was a moral in that somewhere.

So the question becomes: If we're serious about this, how do we go about fixing it? The simplest way is not to send your kids to Ivy League schools. Not that "we" stop sending kids to Ivy League schools. Or that "one" stops sending them there. Or that "you" (everyone else) stops sending them. It is that you - you in particular - do that.

And that's the problem.

Of course, everyone agrees that the most efficient way of producing good human beings who aren't elitist twits is to break down the system.

But for every person who has read the New Republic article and knows that the Ivy League schools are elitist twit factories, there are thousands upon thousands who haven't. If everyone would just read the article and agree on what to do, we could proceed. Not even everyone! Just all the Concerned Parents who are currently embroiled in the helicopter derby whose only conclusion is admission into an elite institution, the parents who hover over their children, shredding stray seagulls in their rotor blades.

The trick is that you have to get everyone to agree. It's a prisoner's dilemma of sorts, and the stakes are your children's prospects. If some people don't get the memo, their kids will get into Ivy League schools in your kids' place, and all the employers who did not read the article will keep assuming that going to an Ivy League school is a mark of quality and hire them instead. It is no use enclosing copies of the New Republic with your child's investment banking applications and scrawling, "He didn't go to Yale because Yale would have done him a disservice!" at the bottom of his résumé. First off, that is creepy. Second off, it is unconvincing.

Besides, it seems so unfair, as Mitt Romney's dad probably used to lament. I worked my whole life to overcome adversity and earn a comfortable place for my children, and now you tell me that is the worst thing I could have done? If I'd known I was just supposed to dunk them straight back into adversity, I wouldn't have bothered with this American Dream business in the first place.

Still, if that's what we've agreed to do, it's fine. We just have to make sure we're all on board.

Soon, the conversation from Suburban to Suburban will be much different. "Hello, Gail," Florence will say at the country club. "Trip is working at McDonald's this summer and reading Emerson to himself. What's your daughter doing?" Gail will shrink a little into her Adirondack chair. "Well," she will hedge, "Campbell is - she's going to Columbia, actually." Florence will nod in sympathy. "Some kids take longer to find themselves," she will say. "But we all have to march to our own drummer." "Oh, absolutely," Gail will say. "I only hope you're right." But, fortunately, there are still a few people who haven't read the article.

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The point is: You need to stop sending your kids to Ivy League schools. You first. I'll watch and see what happens.

Petri writes the ComPost blog at www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost.

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