The Cost of an Elite Education

A little while ago, after reading the excellent book Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz, I became mildly fixated on the cost of an elite education… and not the monetary one you’d think.

An excellent sheep

(An excellent sheep near my house)

The book review essay that ensued is up at Brain Child Magazine. You can read the complete essay on their website.

The Cost of an Elite Education
By Debra Liese

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Mitchell L. Stevens, Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites

Lacy Crawford, Early Decision: Based on a True Frenzy

William  Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life

If your teenager is granted entry to a prestigious university this spring, a few recent books on the expanding class gap in elite education can assure you of three things:  1) By the time your seventeen-year-old starts fretting about admission essays, it’s already too late (Creating a Class). 2) The final lap can be grueling, and often a mirror of modern parenting missteps (Early Decision). 3) Not winning the race may be a victory (Excellent Sheep).

Americans are partial to romantic notions about education and equal chances. Yet according to Mitchell Stevens, the author of Creating a Class, who worked for a year and a half in the admissions office of an unnamed, prestigious New England college, the appearance of class neutrality is created by exceptions and not the rule. Stevens observes that we have become a society where “terms of college admission are also the goals of ideal child rearing,” a situation that favors the affluent. As if that isn’t enough, he disabuses us of any hopeful fantasies about whether or not some prestigious schools prioritize students who can pay full tuition. Spoiler alert: they totally do.

But isn’t complicity in the perpetuation of inequality the trade-off that must be made to win at life? Not according to former Yale Professor William Deresiewicz, whose new book, Excellent Sheep, is quick to remind parents that “screwing other people’s kids” isn’t actually all that advantageous to their own. Elite students, he argues, lack the moral imagination of their public-educated counterparts; they are great at jumping through hoops, but terrible at taking real chances. He doesn’t blame the kids but a system that excels at “retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead—and even more smug about its right to its position.” It’s an intelligent and bracing critique.

Of the journalists who gave Deresiewicz’s argument sympathetic consideration, many hailed from the Ivies themselves. Will these now-enlightened folks be the last generation in their lineage to do so? Not likely. The quest for more status is culturally ingrained, even though, as he points out, “Status doesn’t get you anything except the knowledge that you have it.”

Read the rest at Brain Child Magazine.

On Excellent Sheep and Irish Twins

I have a couple of new pieces coming up in Brain, Child Magazine this winter. One is a book review essay for their annual Brain, Teen issue. It’s on the trouble with elite education, and I look at several great books, including two out just this year: Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz (you might recall this powerful piece of his in The New Republic this past summer), and Early Decision by Lacy Crawford. As someone who is a product of public education, with strong professional ties to the ivy league, the topic is one I’ve been obsessed with for some time. And in a piece set to appear on the Brain, Child blog this Thursday, I had a good time writing about the projected anxiety my “Irish twins” provoked. A must read for all of you who returned from maternity leave already pregnant. Anyone…?

It’s part of a two-perspectives feature on how age gaps impact family dynamics. And there will be a twitter party known as The Great Brain Debate on Thursday 2/5. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIrish twins face the cold, cruel world. Stick together kids, it’s harsh out there.

Being fragmented

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Earlier this week, Commonweal ran a piece I wrote on belief, disbelief, death, being young and lost, older and somewhat less lost, and trying to make sense of my kids’ religious upbringing. Belief, for me, has always seemed to start and stop and change in hiddenness, so however constructive the sorting was, writing about faith publicly was a challenging experience.

Thank you to Commonweal for the lovely treatment they gave this piece in their print magazine:

When my oldest daughter was a baby, she carried with her, from car seat to crib, My Little Golden Book About GOD. A gift from her great-grandmother, it was full of cherubic children cradling birds, nursing wounds, and gazing, dumbfounded and sweet, at a vast and star-strewn sky. Now at eight, it’s her quest to perfect “Adeste Fideles” on her guitar that obsesses her, and touches something in me, though my own belief in God is mercurial, and until she requested otherwise, I was more compelled to take my kids to play outside than to Mass.

Early on, my husband and I found vague common ground in seeing a relationship with nature as the closest thing to a true religious experience, though I never disliked church. While his Evangelical background and late-adolescent turn from its dogma left in its wake a gaping space and a lack of interest in organized faith, my own Catholic upbringing had felt like wandering a vast and fascinating museum and left me relatively unencumbered. As I passed into adulthood, I carried with me, more than a set of specific beliefs, a subtle passion and a sense of mysticism, a box with relics—an idea that things could not be easily explained.

Read the rest at Commonweal.

On Santa, belief, and the power (and pitfalls) of imagination

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My most recent post for Psychology Today is on how absurdly long I believed in Santa. It’s also on hope and imagination. And a little bit of disillusionment. 

Against all evidence and the threat of public ridicule, I believed in Santa until dangerously close to the point when sitting on his lap would have conjured more images of Lolita than wholesome holiday cheer. I wasn’t exactly deluded about reality, and my belief was less straightforward than you might think. Of course to most, even such nuanced naiveté requires no additional reportage beyond the laughably advanced age at which my fantasy finally caved.

If you were to ask my parents how they happened to end up with two Santa-obsessed daughters on the cusp of adolescence, they’d tell you that they enjoyed the many years of creativity that our Santa-belief generated. They encouraged us, at first, forging responses to our litany of questions, though largely they left us to our own devices. Each year, the world we imagined surrounding the nature of Santa became increasingly sophisticated. We erected a pulley system between our bedrooms for sending conspiratorial notes, and considered the role of magic, pondered off-season life at the Pole, and the very soul of the improbable individual around whom this whole seasonal mythology swirled. Naturally, there were ambiguous elf sightings. Continue reading

The Rich Kids of Art Class

My latest  post at Psychology Today  is on wealth disparity, arts education, and creativity:

Little Girl With Art (2)When torn between two preschools for my three-year old son, I chose the one that had beautiful wooden blocks and prominently placed easels. It was slightly more expensive than others we looked at, but doable, and every time he comes home with an ample sheet upon which the teacher has thoughtfully printed his intentions, (gems such as, “me screaming with my mouth open to go outside”), it feels like one of those little parental victories. A few years ago when his older sister was in preschool, we couldn’t have afforded the same.

Everywhere in the university town I live near and work in, parents are scrambling to buy beauty, and with it, creativity. Diversity is sought after too, of course, but mostly in the academic abstract. A wealthy town means there are art, drama, and ‘music together’ classes for toddlers, exhibits with interactive, ‘kid friendly’ features. On most days, my kids would prefer to play in the dirt than interact with these well-intended features, yet there they are, and I’m glad for it. But while the area is as abundant with creative educational opportunities as you’d expect, at many public schools that fall outside the wealthiest enclaves, enrichment and arts programs have been cut. You have to pay to play. Continue reading

Psychology Today

I’m excited to announce that in a few weeks I’ll be starting a monthly column (also called INK) for Psychology Today. I’ll be writing there about creativity, parenting, all kinds of complexity I suspect. The piece I submitted that lead to this opportunity was, ironically, on stopping writing. Looking forward to sharing that (and officially reversing that decision) in the coming weeks. At the moment I’m a bit stumped trying to find a reasonable looking headshot for this enterprise. It seems there really doesn’t exist a photo of me where I’m not cheek to cheek with at least two of my kids.

I also wanted to note that my website is looking beautiful now, thanks to my sister, an amazing photographer and designer. Thanks little sis!