Higher education does not exclusively define humanity

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William Deresiewicz ruffled feathers in the higher education world when he criticized the priorities of contemporary universities, specifically calling out Ivy League institutions, in his article in the New Republic. Fueling further fires with his book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite, Deresiewicz has been criticized for denouncing the meritocracy without providing an alternative, overstating the actions of a select few and fundamentally misunderstanding the plight of the middle class trying to get the most for their money.

But in an interview on NPR’s On Point, Deresiewicz slips in a comment overlooked by many. Hidden in a conversation of whether college should be job training or experiential, Deresiewicz says, “Colleges did used to talk about, before they started treating their students like customers, ‘hey, you’re here for another reason too, you’re here to grow up, you’re here to become an adult, to become a self’ and that means a lot more.”

This idealistic statement is in itself elitist. Though it aimed to critique the job-seeking drones of top institutions, it revealed a deeper assumption of Deresiewicz’s about society at large. Embedded in the criticism of the value of a contemporary college education, this statement entails that one must attend college to become a self, to define oneself as a person. That an individual cannot become a full person, a complete human without this journey that, with rising tuition compounded by rising costs of living, is fundamentally unattainable by a significant portion of the population.

On this note, I question Deresiewicz’s premise for critique. He criticizes higher education institutions for failing to do their job of creating real people. But to say that this is purely the job of the institution and not the responsibility of the individual is a selective view of society that ignores the population excluded from these institutions.  It is the duty of each individual to define themselves as humans, to define their self, not the job of the institution. To shift that responsibility wholly to an institution is a failure as a society in respecting the entire community. It is a failure in recognizing everyone as a self and individual that has agency and is capable of thoughtful decision-making and meaningful interactions.

While not an Ivy League institution, the University of Texas at Austin is a Tier 1 research institution deeply entrenched in the practical career based versus humanist education with the always looming seven breakthrough solutions, pushed by more conservative officials, which looks to give students more power but, according to critics, would undermine the research that they say makes the university great. In his State of the University Address last week, President Powers emphasized the need to balance these two agendas, preparing students for the real world while also allowing “ them to work on esoteric problems that may have no short-term practical payoff … because we think those students will be more creative and innovative in the future.”

The age one usually spends in college are transformative years, regardless of whether one pursues higher education. A university can help in fostering self discovery by exposure to new experiences, but Deresiewicz overemphasizes the connection between individual development and the university as an exclusive relationship. As a liberal arts student, I appreciate the critical thinking I have been taught, and I believe my education will continue to influence both my life and career decisions. I would not be the same person without my education, but I wholly reject the idea that I would be any less of a self without it, or that individuals without the perfect self-defining education would be merely sheep in our money-driven world.

Haight is an associate editor.