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.

Writing life

I was delighted that Lauren Apfel, the debate editor and contributing blogger at Brain, Child magazine, asked me to take part in a writer’s blog hop on process. Lauren is brilliant and incisive and has written any number of essays that I’ve admired, but I discovered her through a piece she wrote for the Guardian on how she wished she’d given her children her surname. You can read more of her work at Omnimom. It was lovely of her to ask me about my process, considering mine could best be summed up as “glacial”.

What am I writing or working on?

I just finished writing a difficult essay on agnostic theism (through a Catholic lens), my yearning for more spirituality, and how I’m navigating the grey area with my children. The piece was a twin at conception, written as a project on contrasting perspectives with Lauren Apfel, who is Jewish, but raising her children as atheists. We soon found that the territory was too complex, and took our essays in separate directions, but the process of working with someone with a different perspective was really instructive. Writing is always a learning process for me, and that was certainly true here: I was forced to examine the history and evolution of my own thinking alongside my desires for my children in ways I hadn’t, at least with such rigor, before. I’ve always been drawn to mystery and uncomfortable with strictures—but what exactly does this look like in terms of religious education of children? Where does the line between reason and belief belong, and how much is it within our power to place that line in ourselves, let alone to influence as a parent? These weren’t entirely comfortable things to answer. It’s an ongoing journey for me, but one this essay had a big hand in focusing.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I don’t know if I have a fixed genre. I started out wanting to write short literary fiction when I was in my early twenties, then I had three children very close together, and completely stopped writing for a number of years. Now I suppose I write mainly thought pieces with a personal angle on a range of subjects—creativity, belief, privacy, introversion. Often my kids are a way into the material. Sometimes they’re the entire material: I’m about to start a piece on my son’s night terrors. It is a piece about the value of instinct, really. I suppose if my work is distinct from others, it’s because it always seems to be too much of something else. Too analytical to be literary, too lyrical to be journalism, not focused enough on parenting for parenting venues…

Why do I write what I do?

The first few things I wrote after a long break were connected to my kids in some way. The period during which I wasn’t writing was one of absolute mission-engagement in terms of bringing them into the world. They fascinate me, and my own responses to them are very revealing. I suppose I also like writing about them because it feels very safe. Writing didn’t always feel this way to me; I was drawn to intimidating material when I was very young, but felt like I lacked the internal compass to tackle it. Kids have been purifying in a sense—they’ve given me a new and better lens. There’s a gentleness that I feel in myself when I write about them, an impulse to preserve and protect and explore. It’s an act of love, not a dissection.

The experience of not writing for a number of years, and immersing myself in my life, allowed for a perspective shift that has made coming back to writing satisfying. Initially I was taken with the process of ‘making meaning’, and various kinds of literary architecture. The heart was there, but I tended to circle it, getting lost in the exploration of lost-ness itself. Now I find that I can access the heart more quickly, and build out from there. I do credit parenthood with that shift.

How does my writing process work?

I would describe myself as an occasional writer only, with great periods of drift, but I’m intense about the pieces I choose to tackle. I work at home as a book publicist, and my three kids are still young, two are still preschoolers, so the idea of having a regular process is a bit of a joke, at this point. The truth is, I have too many other things that absorb and distract me, and I love to be absorbed and distracted. Every few weeks I’ll get an idea and a day to write at the same time, and something materializes. I write the brunt of my pieces fairly quickly, and then spend a lot of time picking away at the editing in the margins of my days and nights.

The talented writers I’ve chosen to invite who will blog their responses next are Lynn Lurie and Antonia Malchik.

I met Lynn Lurie in a writing workshop years ago, where we were mutually taken with each other’s stories on photography. Her latest is a forthcoming novella, Quick Kills, which focuses on a photographer, and looks at, among other things, the imprecise nature of consent. I’ve always been taken by Lynn’s ability to convey psychological states in a way that feels both raw and restrained. Along with being a writer, she’s also an attorney who volunteers as a translator and administrator on medical trips to South America that provide surgery free of charge to children. I admire her ability to extend herself in concrete and meaningful ways in the world, ways that go beyond her facility with words. And she certainly has that facility. So happy that next week she’ll be sharing her thoughts on process on her website.

I first encountered Antonia Malchik’s work in the wonderful new online magazine, Full Grown People, where she is a regular contributor. The first essay I read of hers, Acts of Faith, which centers on her visit to her family’s homeland, St. Petersburg, is easily the most heartfelt story of either faith or its absence that I’ve encountered. Her current writing interests are focused on identity and environmental issues, two things I’m also passionate about. Antonia has been a travel writer and a journalist, and is all around fascinating. I look forward to seeing what she does next. She can be found at www.antoniamalchik.com and at her blog.

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

What’s better for you: personal or public creativity?

This post also appears on my blog at Psychology Today
Special thanks to Gabriel Roth for his insights

It’s easy to equate creative endeavors with narcissism when they’re not your own. Who hasn’t eye-rolled past their share of “shameless” self-promotion? While it isn’t always the most instructive or enjoyable pastime to read about someone else making themselves more famous, a lot of that broadcasting likely involves plenty of shame, or at least reticence, realism, and other nuanced feelings that are somehow less satisfying to imagine than delusional love-me ones. An affinity for creative expression doesn’t foretell an affinity for self-promotion—the former is, after all, often deeply personal, solitary work—but for those bent on a career tied to their creative enterprises, that aspect is a real after-the-fact requirement to be wrestled with.

Some do it more gracefully than others: The writer Gabriel Roth has a separate Twitter account called Gabriel Roth’s Ego, where he retweets praise for his recent book, “The Unknowns”, an account he keeps separate from his personal one (@gabrielroth, to date, has  over 1,700 followers to his ego’s 37).  “It totally fails as a promotional strategy,” he says. “But that’s the point: no one wants to read all the nice things people say to you.” Continue reading

It was fun to pretend, until I had kids

This is my first post on my new blog at Psychology Today:

b's first look at oceanPeople usually assume that I gave up writing during the years surrounding my kids’ births because I was too busy. I had three children in five years, after all, and worked, in a twist of fate, as a book publicist. I don’t bother to dispute this reasoning, and it has every appearance of being true. I had another reason though: I stopped wanting to pretend.

I have a memory of myself around eight carrying around a journal with a big purple flower on the cover. I’m not sure what I wrote in it. I was always reading books about girls and young women who were writers, and Emily Climbs by Lucy Maud Montgomery was my favorite. Emily was thoughtful, sensitive, and carried notebooks that she filled throughout a picturesque adolescence on Prince Edward’s Island, an upbringing that inevitably culminated in discovery and publication in early adulthood. (Why wouldn’t it?) I identified with her, with her long dark hair and skirts, seriousness, “untraditionally” beautiful face, and boys who always seemed to be in love with her, no matter how immersed in her journals she seemed. I wanted to be like her, and figured there was no reason to think I wasn’t well on my way.

For years I went on like this, entirely unconcerned about my writing’s absence, figuring that in some way that really mattered, I was a writer. I had all the right qualities after all. There was the way I liked to look at leaves, the way I was moved by small things, the way I felt swimming at night during a rainstorm. I couldn’t have explained it, but somehow my appreciation of ambiguity, my complicated desire, the sanctity of my own mind with its mystery and contradictions, seemed like plenty to justify my belief.

By the time I got to college I was confronted with the creeping realization that I had to have something more. During orientation I informed my freshman roommate that I was a writer, yet I was starting to worry about the fact that I hadn’t, to that point, written anything. Soon I had friends who filled journals or wrote stories, one ran the literary magazine, but I was still drifting through the world, my writerliness somewhere, I hoped. I couldn’t put my finger on it. Read the rest at Psychology Today.

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!