Are Élite Colleges Bad for the Soul? | New Yorker

Learning is supposed to be about falling down and getting up again until you do it right. But, in an academic culture that demands constant achievement, failures seem so perilous that the best and the brightest often spend their young years in terrariums of excellence. The result is what Deresiewicz calls “a violent aversion to risk.” Even after graduation, élite students show a taste for track-based, well-paid industries like finance and consulting (which in 2010 together claimed more than a third of the jobs taken by the graduating classes of Harvard, Cornell, and Princeton). And no wonder. A striver can “get into” Goldman Sachs the way that she got into Harvard. There is no résumé submission or recruiting booth if you want to make a career as a novelist.

Reading for self-recognition is the default factory setting in most people’s minds. It is precisely the approach to literature that you don’t need to attend college to learn.

People had a tendency to want too much from a college degree, Nisbet warned:

Far more deadly to the character of the university than its exploitation in economic terms is its exploitation in psychological terms. That is, cultivation of the pernicious idea that by sending young people to universities one is teaching them to be human beings, to become citizens, to become leaders, or to find peace of mind, individuality, liberal arts, “soul,” or whatever may be in the public mind at the moment.

In other words: we’re here to tell you everything you should know about Chaucer, not to fix your life.

A chief terror of higher education for a lot of students isn’t the exams, or the term papers, or even the terribly narrow but weirdly long bunk beds. It is the choice involved in working through an uncharted terrain whose potential is reported to be limitless. That task is a microcosm of life.