I went to Yale. There, I said it. It happened. I didn’t say I was a genius or particularly well informed. I just attended a competitive college. Since I’m not a Kennedy or anything, it’s a little unnerving to admit at times. Now you expect greatness. Or excellence. PLEASE STOP.
William Deresiewiczs taught at Yale for many years (not in my era, though, cuz that’s how old I am) and wrote the well-titled book, “Excellent Sheep.” I didn’t read his book, but I did read the piece he wrote for the New Republic called, “Don’t Send Your Kids To The Ivy League.” In his years of teaching undergrads at Yale he found that “most of them seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them….The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk.”
Not exactly a compliment. Younger New Yorker writer Nathan Heller took issue with this stance in the September 1st New Yorker article “Are Elite Colleges Bad For The Soul?. Heller claims we no longer live in a world where a noblesse oblige (old money) class can enjoy quoting Keats (didn’t read) or where the average competitive middle/upper class kid (new money) can discover his soul through Paradise Lost (overrated). College as a “discovery time” was never a thing except in the minds of some hippy professors in the 70’s. In Heller’s opinion, Deresiewicz is being very dated and impractical with all his whining about “opening up the soul” We must compete to survive in our global economy. If you’re not bleary eyed from how many hours you worked, you’re simply not doing it right. (I have discussed how I feel about this here).
I don’t disagree with Mr. Deresiewicz. I worked hard in high school and did what I had to do to graduate in one piece, but my parents didn’t program me for uber-success. I think they’re still blown away that I went to Yale. I made friends and socialized with relatively chill kids and waited to graduate so I could take a nap. (I took plenty of naps in college). But I met those who never loosened their grip on the reins. Must. Be. Awesome. YOU ARE A MACHINE OF SUCCESS. Except for a few alcohol and/or drug- induced expressions of rebellion (my therapist would call it “acting out)” they strode confidently down professional tracks. While I deliberated and signed up for open mics they received degrees, wrote books, and and all kinds of kick-ass Ivy League things. Eventually, I decide that I am a spare tire Yalie and that’s OK.
More than a few Yale students expressed fascination with the fact that I and my friends (I had a Berkeley posse at Yale) came from Berkeley. (People grow up there?) The future banker–ish types majored in econ, listened to rap and reggae and smoked a lot of pot. I, of course, didn’t understand what the fuss was about. My boyfriend tries to help me understand that for most young people growing up in suburban US life affords less creative or intellectual stimulation than in Berkeley. So, I can not judge. We had a early familiarity with pot, politics, socioeconomic and racial diversity and an independence unheard of in this time of kid-chauffeuring (I started taking public transit when I was 10). I grew up feeling like there weren’t any adults around. So, yes, it’s hard to feel sorry for rich kids deprived of soul. But nobody cares if the CEO has street cred or not. My favorite Ivy Leagers are the ones who own it. White. Privileged. Staying That Way. No apologies necessary.
Maybe I failed at being a “Yalie” but I loved my teachers, going to class, and the experience of coming out of a Shakespeare lecture feeling like I’ve had a religious experience. But to be honest, I had a similar experience with teachers at Berkeley High. Maybe I just loved learning or was one of those mushy people upon whom a teacher could leave an impression. I was some things that qualified me for a school like Yale, but excellent wasn’t one of them. Then again, I never stood drunk and naked next to a cow in the middle of winter and took a secret vow to reproduce my family’s class and lifestyle. (I was never in a Secret Society, but I have heard some interesting stories)
In recent years I have found myself day dreaming about what it would have been like to go to a state school. I wouldn’t have met a lot of great people, become acquainted with real pizza, slipped on ice in my Ann Taylor dress on my way to a ball in single digit temperature, or understood the meaning of the term “townies.” However, I would have had more room to explore among less excellent sheep. I might have tried things that I wasn’t good at, like acting and guitar. I might have taken time off…But then again, I might have ended up in the exact same psychic space upon graduation time: tired, lonely and lost.
I’m still not sure college matters that much in the grand scheme of life. My Yale degree has helped make up for some employment gaps, but, as it turns out, you don’t need a Yale degree to become a standup comic/playwright/blogger. I often wonder if a fancy Ivy League-ish place satisfy a parents ego more than a students’ edification.
If I had children I would want them to explore their intellectual curiosity without the oppressive piano-sized weight of achievement on their shoulders. I’m sure that a high percentage of Ivy League students have accepted an obligation set by their family with a stoic resolve. And that’s not a bad thing. However, I feel sad for anyone entrenched in his life as an investment banker if he really wanted to pursue African drumming or just build website and design music for goth films.
I used to think I was averse to a certain type of arrogance and aggression that generates excellence. Now I think though I just got tired and wanted to have more fun…which we all should.