This book piqued my interest because my son just graduated high school and is entering college. His classmates range from the "Super People" (author William Deresiewicz's phrase for the highest achievers) who are on their way to elite universities, to the more typical students who are starting their higher educations at community colleges.
In each book review I try to include a few well-written sentences that concisely illustrate an author's point of view. This book is so well written that I could have chosen just about every sentence. Here are some of the best:
The compulsive overachievement of today's elite college students-- the sense that they need to keep running as fast as they can-- is not the only thing that keeps them from forming the deeper relationships that might relieve their anguish.
Isolated from their peers, these kids are also cut off from themselves. The endless hoop-jumping... that got them into an elite college in the first place--the clubs, bands, projects, teams, APs, SATs, evenings, weekends, summers, coaches , tutors, leadership, service -- left them no time to figure out what they want out of life.
Too many students, perhaps after a year or two spent using college as a treadmill to nowhere, wake up in crisis, not knowing why they have worked so hard.
"I hate all my activities, I hate all my classes, I hated everything I did in high school, expect to hate my job, and this is just how it's going to be for the rest of my life."
The result is what we might refer to as credentialism. The purpose of life becomes the accumulation of gold stars. Hence the relentless extracurricular busyness, the neglect of learning as an end in itself, the inability to imagine doing something that you can't put on your resume...the constant sense of competition....to be played out within the same narrow conception of what constitutes a valid life: affluence, credentials, and prestige.
If those of us who went to college in the 1970s and '80s no longer recognize the admissions process, if today's elite students appear to be an alien species --Super People, perhaps, or a race of bionic hamsters
That's a pretty dreadful assessment, but Deresiewicz is a former Professor of English at Yale and member of its admissions committee, so he must have seen plenty of it first-hand.
He is surely right about those of us who went to college in the 1970s no longer recognizing the admissions process. I graduated Georgia Tech in 1979. He praises students of our era as "passionate weirdos." That certainly fit my class, although I'd prefer to call us "competent eccentrics." We were engineering nerds. I was recruited because my ACT/SAT put me in the top 2%. I had zero extracurricular activities.
Fast forward 40 years and it seems that colleges cater to "credentialed conformists." Applicants have to show that they are not only academic stars, but social butterflies involved in numerous group activities. Even the "party schools" require students to write an essay explaining why they want to be admitted. The only requirement to be admitted to the party schools of the 1970s was that you had to have tuition money and a pulse.
What caused this change from universities prizing "passionate weirdos" to "credentialed conformists?" Perhaps it has to do with these factors:
1. We have become more litigation-conscious. Companies can't afford to hire "loose cannons" who create potential legal liabilities. Nowadays people are easily offended by many words and deeds that were ignored in the past, and they are quick to hire lawyers who will seek to recover damages on their behalf. So companies value conformists who follow the book more than they used to.
2. Flattening of management. A company that had 20 branch managers 40 years ago, now has only 1 regional manager, thanks to advances in computers and Internet communication. So, if 95% of the management jobs are gone, then companies have to find discrimination-neutral ways to winnow down the pool of candidates applying for that one job. Inflating the job requirements with credentials, no matter how bogus, is one way to do it without running the risk of discrimination lawsuits.
3. Maturing of industries. A century or so ago people were allowed to practice Law even if they had no formal education. It used to be that way in fields like auto repair and computer systems development. Now that these industries have matured and there is no longer a shortage of applicants, credentialization is the most efficient way to cull the herd.
The important question is whether all this credentialing and hoop-jumping is counterproductive to success in college and in life. I don't think it necessarily is. Corporations operate on these principles. So it is not unreasonable that colleges should give the highest priority in admissions to those who are likely to perform well in corporate employment.
Credentialing and hoop-jumping only becomes counterproductive when it is forced upon people whose natures are NOT motivated by peer-group competition. This may include most nonconformist, creative-minded people who prefer to blaze their own trail through life rather than walk on someone else's.
And we must remember that credentials are not the primary currency of success. Most of the worthwhile things we obtain in life come from our souls. We prosper mostly from the goodwill we create by doing things for others without thinking "how am I going to get paid."
Layering credentials on top of that principle strengthens your credibility and amplifies your reach. But if you have a defective character then credentials will only lengthen the height from which you fall. A lot of hotshots on Wall Street who were long on credentials and short on integrity are costing their companies tens of billions of dollars in fines for defrauding the public. Those who exchanged their souls for tickets to a rat race will die neither wealthy or respected.
I recommend that students and parents should read this book as an "alarm bell" to warn themselves when they may be pushing the hoops-and-credentials envelope a bit too far. William Deresiewicz makes fundamental points that are too often perceived only at the end of life's journey:
Keep your priorities straight. Perfect your own soul first, then jump through the hoops if you feel you have to. But, really, your objective should be to induce life to jump through the hoops YOU build. Never be afraid to take the risks that success requires. Never be afraid of failure. And always do what is right. If your soul is deep and rich, your life will be deep and rich. But if you seek to cover a shallow soul with credentials, then your life won't be worth the paper those credentials are printed on.