Entitled Little Shits

Everyone is talking about William Deresiewicz’s article in the New Republic about the crap that is the Ivy League college degree.

 These enviable youngsters appear to be the winners in the race we have made of childhood. But the reality is very different, as I have witnessed in many of my own students and heard from the hundreds of young people whom I have spoken with on campuses or who have written to me over the last few years. Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.

Response by Dan Drezner..


41 thoughts on “Entitled Little Shits

  1. A friend says that Deresiewicz has been whining about the Ivies ever since he didn’t get tenure at Yale.

    My crowd at Cornell was a bit low key, but that was almost 30 years ago. My point of reference now is Brown students, with whom I have a bit more interaction over the past few years (babysitters, mainly; my husband also hires them as student employees). For the most part, they just seem to be intellectually curious (and yes, privileged) people, passionate about whatever they’re passionate about. Our longest-serving babysitter now works for a women’s health organization (not Planned Parenthood, but clinic-based and pro-abortion rights); she wrote her senior thesis in women’s studies (but a literature thesis, iirc).

    As an aside, someone on my parenting e-mail list is taking her high-achieving son on the college visit tour this summer, and they’ve been to a bunch of Ivies and highly rated universities. They didn’t much like Johns Hopkins and loved UMd. Everything else seems to be in the middle, but they haven’t been to Cornell yet. 😉

  2. Love the phrase “entitled little shits,” (wonder where I can work it into my next convo) but otherwise found the article to be nothing but link-bait irrational ranting.

    1. This.

      Also, like Drezner I’d love to hear some actual evidence that these much lower ranked schools teach students to ‘think’ better. The Ivy grads I know can think pretty well by and large. Though I guess it could be that my admittedly less impressive education was similarly defective.

  3. This is a pretty dumb essay based on a few quotes from undergrads and some mildly interesting statistics. There are plenty of entitled kids at my state university, too – smart kids, dumb kids, athletes, artsy types – that’s just life. And there are plenty of nice kids who are timid and worried about the future – that’s the recession at work.

  4. Yes, the ivy (and its ilk) bound students I know are clever, curious, interesting people. Possibly The education they get there might squeeze their personalities dry, but that didn’t happen to their parents generation. The ivy graduates I know, are on the whole, interesting people. Of course so are many ofthe non-ivy graduates I know, so I don’t particularly see ivy educated as being a predictor of anything very interesting.

    I do think the race to the ivies contributes to the stress and anxiety and choices of childhood. But, I don’t think the winners ofthe race are the ones who suffer most. Seems more likely that those who had to twist themselves to join the race are those who will be more damaged. The challenge for parents is to support your children in who they are.

    1. “I do think the race to the ivies contributes to the stress and anxiety and choices of childhood. But, I don’t think the winners ofthe race are the ones who suffer most. Seems more likely that those who had to twist themselves to join the race are those who will be more damaged.”


      One of the options that I think about for our rising 7th grader is something like CalTech/MIT/Carnegie Mellon (along with the obvious options like UT Austin and Texas A & M), but if she had to tie herself in knots to get there or wasn’t at least an average student at that level, it would probably be miserable. I have a female 2nd cousin who wound up at one of those famous technical schools and she found the math/science competition so daunting that she bailed on her original major and did political science instead. I heard all of that through the family grapevine, so I’m not sure exactly what derailed her (was it over-ambitious affirmative action, trying too hard to get into an inappropriate institution and winding up with a bad fit, or just lack of self confidence in the midst of all those geeky boys?).

      My husband taught at a very selective (but not Ivy) school and we lived there in residence for a number of years. I got to see a lot of the undergraduates (through programming and as babysitters) and I don’t really think those students were “entitled.” Well-prepared, yes, ambitious, yes, ridiculously over-scheduled with college extracurriculars, yes, too grade conscious, yes, but not “entitled.” We used to joke that “Students at X University will do anything for a good grade–even do the work.” Kids on campus were so into their extracurriculars and their internships that it was rather a mystery how they managed to do an adequate job on their academics, but they did generally do them, fitting them into their already very busy schedules.

      1. “Kids on campus were so into their extracurriculars and their internships that it was rather a mystery how they managed to do an adequate job on their academics, but they did generally do them, fitting them into their already very busy schedules.”

        My passion was the newspaper, where I was a sports editor. I spent easily 40+ hours a week at the newspaper (we put out issues M-F) and I worked a work-study job because otherwise I had no money for Diet Cokes at the AM/PM at 1 am. I chose classes where I could attend class or skip if I had to, and write two papers, a 10-pager in the middle of the class and a 20-pager at the end. Exams? Ha. I did all the reading (mainly because I love to read). My schedule was: Wake up at 10 am. Take classes between 11:30 and 3:30. Get to the newspaper offices by 4 or 5. Stay there till 1 or 2. Go home and sleep till 10 am. Repeat, except for weekends when I’d work at the library (my work-study job) or, during the winter, go to basketball and hockey games (never was a big fan of football or lacrosse).

        It was a great life, to be honest. Was I stressed a lot? Yes, but a lot of that was because of personal flaws (procrastination, being broke, general immaturity, college-age drama).

      2. I worked at the newspaper briefly, but not very hard at all. They paid me. Not much, but it wasn’t nothing. The editors were there all the time and got paid better. Probably more than work-study wages.

      3. We didn’t get paid, but editors got something called “shares.” Came out to a few hundred dollars once a year? Can’t remember. Maybe I got $800 one year?

      4. I think I got $10 a story. I was pretty half-assed about the whole thing, because drinking and grades came first, but I’d usually get two stories a week.

      5. Every year they’d put out an obscene April 1st joke issue. The editors seemed to enjoy contemplating complaints they’d get so when they didn’t get enough, I went over to the ad department and borrowed the phone to call some in.

      6. I wrote for the school newspaper, too, but nobody paid me any money. I didn’t even know that other college newspapers paid their staff. Now, I’m pissed off. I worked part time in the cafeteria in the dishroom. The worst was pancake mornings. Maple syrup. Yuck.

      7. The Daily Nebraskan was a bit unique in that it was student run and not part of the J school. I don’t know if it still pays what with the decline in ad revenue for all of print media.

  5. I’ve read an advance copy of the book, and it’s a combination of shrewd but one-sided observation, quotes from students (but not enough of them!), and facts and factoids from earlier click-bate (The Tiger Mom; Caitlin Flanagan; the Times piece on women at Penn who have no time for romance). There are some great denunciations of the Ivy League, like Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen, which rests on a huge amount of research, and from which my own school, Princeton, comes off worst of HYP in many ways. For a book that calls for dismantling the current Ivy League and returning to real humanism–i.e. making students read deeply–it’s pretty superficial. As to privilege, Paying for the Party, which was discussed here some time ago, makes clear that state flagships can be just as ridden with it as any private university. Sigh.

  6. I think the basic issue isn’t that students today are less curious — it’s that they are more risk-averse — BECAUSE THEY HAVE TO BE IN THIS ECONOMY. In my own life, I’ve met the occasional guy who spent his junior year in India, dropped out and hung around various gurus etc. for a number of years, went back to college, finished brilliantly and was accepted into the foreign service. There was a legendary guy at my college in Oxford who was never there because he was hanging out with the rebels in Kandahar — He eventually became some kind of journalist, not surprisingly.

    But I wonder if those circular paths to success — versus “doing everything exactly right ever since I started Kumon when I was four” — are less possible today. Maybe, just maybe, people today are pre-professional because there aren’t any jobs, and the ones that do exist pay less and there’s more competition for those jobs. It’s not the school’s fault, nor is it he student’s fault. I think that most parents today would worry a lot more about having a kid who wants to major in art history then they might have twenty years ago. Maybe twenty years ago, art history guy or gal would have landed a good job as a teacher at a private high school whereas today he’s more likely to end up working at Starbucks. I think a kid who knows exactly how much every course he takes in college costs — per class; per week and per hour — is probably going to come across as a lot more mercenary, in for example, going to a professor’s office hours and asking directly how the guy is connected in Washington, and how helpful he can be in terms of job hunting down the road. I know that it’s now routine for students to visit the Career Center freshman year, rather than senior year, because they are already worried.

  7. The Chosen & The Price of Admission are my go-to books for critiques of elite universities.

    I think a student can still drop out and hang around with various gurus, but, only if they are going to finish brilliantly. They have to be great. I think in the olden days, that few enough people knew how to play the game that children in the know could just be “good.” Now, being in the know just gets you into the game.

    There was an analysis out there analyzing elite sports in which the authors looked at retrospective info on elite athletes and found that elite athletes were more likely to have participated in multiple sports for a longer period of time. In the article, the presumed interpretation was that focusing early (something that people are worrying about for injuries) might be an impediment to success. I had a different interpretation — that elite athletes were those who were so good when they were young that they could participate in multiple sports, join elite teams, get special exemptions to deal with conflicts, train less with greater outcomes, . . . . The others focused early because they had to — they wouldn’t make the team if they didn’t train extra hard or the team wouldn’t want them if they couldn’t come to every practice.

    I think the same logic ends up applying in other endeavors. Those Harvard-bound kids, they do a lot, because they can. They can keep up with their classes, and win debate competitions, and play basketball, and go to the dances, and . . . . It’s the kids who struggle to stay in the game with those competitors who suffer.

  8. I know a few effortless acheivers. They’re pretty stressed out, too. It takes a lot of work to appear to be effortless. And a lot of money from the parents.

    I am pretty annoyed at the risk-adverse, creativity-dead kids. I would give lectures to my students about the necessity of driving across the country in a crappy car at least once in their lives. And they were shocked. Well, I know the parents of these kids now and they are pretty boring, too. Even the party kids are boring. Their idea of crazy is jello shots on spring break at virginia beach. Oh, come on.

  9. I haven’t read the book. Maybe the answer to my basic question is in the book. But whenever I read these critiques of Ivy league schools, I wonder why I need to care about this. Ivy League colleges educate a very, very small percentage of students. Sure, they are vehicles for the rich perpetuating more rich people, but there are other avenues for making money in this country. I’m not sure why I need to care if the kids who go there are boring or not boring, smart or dumb, rich or poor. There doesn’t seem to be a large number of Harvard grads who are griping about the quality of their education or the lack of networking opportunities.

  10. “But whenever I read these critiques of Ivy league schools, I wonder why I need to care about this.”

    I think there are a few reasons why we do need to care. The first is how the race to the Ivy league skews the child learning environment. The race may not change life everywhere, but it definitely does in my local environs, and not just in the hyperlocal private school/high SES group that’s nearest me, but for the city in general. The second is that though Ivy leagers might be a small percent of students, but they are a higher percent of elites (say, a quick hand counting of colleges among my private school analysis has 25% of the men and 10% of the women having attended elite colleges — and the percent can only be higher, if I knew where everyone went to school). And what’s the stat on the Supreme court justices who wield such power over everything? Is it actually 100%? Finally, the extent to which other colleges ape the Ivy’s, or don’t ape them can have a significant effect on education overall. The race to have high profile research, extensive research facilities, star professors, the ivy college physical plant is certainly influencing the course of all education in the US.

    1. and the percent can only be higher, if I knew where everyone went to school

      I bet you already know where the ones who went to the Ivies went to school.

      1. Really not. Part of the story is, too, that there are plenty of state school grads who are doing the same work as those who went to the Ivy’s. The Central Washington, Idaho, . . . grads actually mention their schools more, sometimes, because they are important to their schools, the kind of people who get asked to be on the boards, unlike the ones who went to Exeter and Yale, whose competition for the board slots are the Gates and Buffets.

      2. I was just teasing. I don’t think it matters if you went to a state school, an Ivy, or a sort-of Ivy like Penn.

      3. Semi out of the blue, my mother’s late boyfriend was asked to be president of his alma mater. He didn’t really want to move back there, but he was considering it when he died.

  11. Achieving is never effortless. It always takes effort. And, being really good at something is almost always stressful, among other things, because you care about the outcome. So, I’d pretty much see high achievement as being synonymous with some degree of stress. What one hopes for is “good” stress that helps you accomplish your own goals (with success being defined in terms of producing what it is you want to produce). Being able to thrive under stress is part of the cluster of personality traits that I suspect is associated with elite levels of achievement.

    I think it would be an indictment if people were unhappy, in the sense that they would make other choices, if they could. But the pediatric surgeon, who has a high level of stress, well, she probably also has a high level of satisfaction with her life choices.

  12. What’s left out in the initial article, too, is the number of students receiving significant amounts of financial aid and/or holding down jobs to support themselves. It’s not a tiny number. Are these kids also entitled little shits? More so than the wealthy kids who attend state colleges?

  13. I think what pushes my buttons about articles like this one is when I perceive a crossing over into denigrating achievement itself and not its confounds. Highly achieving people do not have to be boring, or mean, or cheaters. I know plenty who are none of those things. It is possible to do good and well and to be humble and creative, too. Maybe not easy, but possible. When we heap condemnation on achievement itself, I worry that we encourage those who want to be good too to hide or undermine their own achievement, leaving the field free for the bad guys.

    1. “It allows you to position yourself as not only 1. better than people who didn’t get into Harvard, Princeton, or Yale, but 2. the benevolent champion of those little people who didn’t get in and also 3. better than everyone else who did get into your school and who, unlike you, need to take the place seriously”

      Fabulous, and an important point to make. So is the rest of the article. I do not agree that every 17 year old should chose Yale over their state flagship (though probably everyone should chose it over Cleveland State), but it is not advice to give to most students.

  14. I’m collecting my thoughts for a cogent response.

    In some ways, the original essay is badly dated. I can’t remember any parent talking about their child deciding to drop out to “find himself.” They might consider a Gap Year. In our town, parents are very concerned about education. However, it seems to break down into engineering school for boys (and some girls), and nursing school for girls. Northeastern fits the current ethos. It’s distinctly counter-cultural to tell people you don’t know what your rising college freshman wants to major in. So I don’t think the idea of college as a time away from worldly cares would find widespread acceptance.

    There are some good ideas. My stomach dropped when he stated that a kid with 5-6 extracurriculars was not impressing admissions. Limiting the number of extracurriculars one can report on the application to 4 or 5 would help a great deal. Too many students are doing too much, some are going without sleep, solely with the aim of impressing colleges. I think MIT has already limited the slots to report extracurriculars on their application?

    At any rate, many kids are doing too much to find time to read. And the whole overseas community service racket has problems. It takes backbone for teenagers to follow undocumented intellectual interests.

    1. “There are some good ideas. My stomach dropped when he stated that a kid with 5-6 extracurriculars was not impressing admissions. Limiting the number of extracurriculars one can report on the application to 4 or 5 would help a great deal. Too many students are doing too much, some are going without sleep, solely with the aim of impressing colleges. I think MIT has already limited the slots to report extracurriculars on their application?”

      That’s reasonable. Nobody has 5+ all-consuming passions that are totally different.

  15. Common App has ten slots. What is disconcerting is that you only have three sentences to sum up what you and your family may have spent thousands of hours and thousands of dollars on. It’s apparently common for people to use the space on the common app just to say “see my blog at THIS ADDRESS” or “See more of my work/my portfolio here” and then pay a web designer to make a page for more information. (This is why so many people hire college consultants. Who knew?)

    I’m actually really aware of the fact that everyone I know who has a super high achieving child only has one. We have three kids and can’t afford eight thousand dollar summer programs for three kids, and it’s logistically impossible to drive three kids to three separate locations during the same time slot seven days a week. Until your kids can drive, what they are able to do is almost one hundred percent a function of how much transportation they have available, provided by mom and dad or sometimes rarely public transportation. And kids are also “donut holed” for summer programs. You can get a scholarship to the MIddlebury COllege summer language programs for kids, for CTY,etc. if you’re poor, and if you’re wealthy you can afford it, but college admissions committees seem to think that a family making 90,000 dollars a year is so incredibly super wealthy that they can afford really expensive summer programs for multiple kids. I find myself wondering again how much grandparents are paying for camps, CTY, etc. and whether this isn’t also a sort of college admissions secret weapon.

    1. Louisa: I honestly doubt that expensive summer programs are the key to college admissions. The only exceptions to this rule would be hyper-developed sports talents and (to a much lesser degree) hyper-developed musical talents. However, developing those talents is a matter of year-round, expensive cultivation. And, developing those talents closes many doors as well, something people often miss. The top athlete or top musician will have far fewer extracurriculars than others; they also will not have time to do lots of homework, nor to read for pleasure or interest.

      I don’t doubt that people who run expensive summer programs want parents to believe they make a difference; if you’ve spent mega-money on expensive summer programs, you’re also likely to believe they make a difference. I really do believe working during the summers can be a huge plus.

      Expensive summer programs tend to go hand-in-hand with parents able to pay full tuition. That makes a difference for _almost_ all colleges.


      I don’t think Deresiewicz’s articles have kept up with the times. He seems to present an image of the sheltered, highly programmed Ivy League student, who’s the top of the heap. I just don’t know many students who would make a college list consisting of “the Ivy League.” (I do admit that my kids know some students, primarily Asian, whose parents would.)

      It’s far more common for another parent to tell me, “Jane loves small, New England colleges,” or “John refuses to look at anything in New England,” or “Jackie wants a big school with a great marine biology program,” “Jimmy wants a great business program,” or for the parent to recite a list like, “BC, Villanova, Notre Dame, Georgetown.”

      So, I could imagine a student applying to Harvard, Wharton, and various large schools with solid business programs. Or an engineering student applying to Cornell, Columbia, and various large schools with solid engineering programs. Or a list consisting of MIT, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and WPI.

      The system does tilt toward the early bloomer; even kids who aren’t early bloomers are under pressure from peers (much more effective) and random adults to be “realistic,” “pragmatic,” and “focused.”

      There are some programs within colleges which may (i.e., I suspect, but haven’t been able to pin down online) be much more selective than the Ivy League. For example, what’s the admission rate for Carnegie Mellon’s computer sciences college? For Johns Hopkins’ biomedical engineering program? I’ve got a child who’s interested in science, but he’s not so hyper focused at this stage to give up all other potential science/math majors for a focused pre-professional track at 19.

      I guess, to sum up, college prestige does not seem to drive decisions. The prestige of programs within colleges might. The Ivy League students who take English classes are less narrowly focused than many of their peers.

      1. cranberry said:

        “Expensive summer programs tend to go hand-in-hand with parents able to pay full tuition. That makes a difference for _almost_ all colleges.”

        Oooh–good point.

  16. I read this original article on an ancient iPad at the beach. I can’t tell you how annoying it was to cut and paste the link to the blog post. Writing something coherent was impossible. To be truthful, technology wasn’t the only impediment. Two glasses of wine probably didn’t make things easier.

    Drumming my fingers on my desk as I decide whether or not to write something longer…. hmmmm… I might let this one go… I’ll post other people’s responses in the comment section.

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