This is a guest blog by Bill Deresiewicz, New York Times Bestelling Author of "Excellent Sheep."
“So are you saying that we’re all just, like, really excellent sheep?” Those words came out of the mouth of one of my students at Yale. For me, the last two words summed up the dilemma of elite education as it has come to exist in America. The system manufactures students who are "excellent," yes—great at jumping through the hoops that we hold up—but also "sheep": incapable of finding their own direction in life once they've gotten to the end of the hoops.
The problem centers on the admissions process, everything that students are expected to do these days—clubs, bands, projects, teams, APs, SATs, evenings, weekends, summers, coaches, tutors, “leadership,” “service”—to get into one of the very limited number of top private colleges that upper-middle-class parents have come to find acceptable for their offspring. The process not only drives them crazy and turns them into what David Brooks refers to as "achievement machines," it also leads to the severe socioeconomic stratification that exists at the institutions we have charged with the creation of our leadership class. The more hurdles, the more expensive it is to catapult your kid across them. Wealthy families, by pouring resources into their children’s educational development, start buying their way into elite colleges almost from the moment that they’re born.
What is the answer? To make elite private colleges obsolescent by returning to our commitment to low-cost, top-quality public higher education. China's slogan is "100 Harvards." Mine is "100 Berkeleys"—100 first-rate undergraduate institutions, with the proviso that I mean Berkeley as it existed before the 1980s, when it was still tuition-free. Instead of the 10,000 or so seats that smart, ambitious high school students are competing for, we need hundreds of thousands. We need to eliminate the artificial scarcity of educational resources. We need to reinvest in our mental infrastructure, just as we do in our physical infrastructure. We need to free our children from the pen we’ve put them in.