The students who attend Ivy League schools are really more like smart sheep. That's according to William Deresiewicz, who spent nearly a quarter-century at Ivy League schools.
Deresiewicz contends that the overachievers at the nation's most elite schools are conformists, who excel at jumping through hoops without questioning why. The former Yale professor backs up his beliefs in a provocative new book called "Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life."
He insists that the superstars attending Ivy League schools and other elite institutions are so focused on being perfect that they're terrified of taking a wrong path.
"The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them," Deresiewicz wrote in a much-discussed cover story -- Don't Send Your Kid to the Ivy League -- in The New Republic magazine. "The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk. You have no margin for error, so you avoid the possibility that you will ever make an error."
This obsession with perfection is understandable when you consider the admission odds. The eight Ivy League institutions (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton and Yale) deny admission to any 18-year-old who isn't perfect by their cramped standards -- and even then, most high school valedictorian overachievers are spurned.
To get into a Harvard or Princeton, students must have experienced serial successes in their lives. Lives, I might add, that are usually overwhelmingly privileged in every sense of the word.
In his book, Deresiewicz pulls back the curtain on the ludicrously high demands that admission officers at the most elite institutions place on applicants. The moves that students make to get into an Ivy must be calculated ones, which in some privileged families start right after birth.
I was talking to a young woman recently whose roommate is a Princeton admission officer. She said the admission officer said in her travels, anxious parents ask her which preschools will boost their toddlers' chances of getting into Princeton.
The media's veneration of these elite institutions helps instill the stubborn myth that bright, ambitious students can get their golden ticket punched if they gain admission to one of schools. Consequently, students treat the admission process as a kind of lottery. They think if they apply to enough of these elite schools, they'll boost their odds of getting into at least one.
However, it doesn't work that way. Instead, the flood of applicants just creates more competition.