Sinking into the depths of my grandma's verdant corduroy couch, softened by decades of use, I began to ponder the scientific validity of watching paint peel; can, just by observation, we humans force an inanimate object to slowly detach itself?
It was in this deep state of trance that, this past summer, I encountered William Deresiewicz's controversial piece, "Don't Send Your Kids to the Ivy Leagues." Deresiewicz argues that top-tier colleges no longer train scholars, rather they instill a set of elite principles that alienate students from the rest of society. He laments the loss of education built on learning from failures and the lack of students who truly show passion outside the classroom. To illustrate his point, Deresiewicz cites a time where he found himself unable to carry on a conversation with a plumber in his home, as he understood little about the man's background and values.
At first, I panicked. I wasn't doing enough. I somehow made it into what Deresiewicz deems an elite university, without being at the top of some niche field. Do they really only accept piccolo masters into Harvard now? I looked up the nearest music store. Closed. I guess I'm not going to medical school then.
After this initial panic attack, I took a step back, realizing the brainwashing that a cutthroat high school education has already instilled upon me. My altered mind had filtered the negatives that Deresiewicz associated with higher education, focusing instead on the competition that I would be facing at each subsequent step.
I vowed to break the cycle. I wouldn't be one of the thoroughbreds the article describes, circling an endless track of exams, interviews and extracurriculars just to hit the next career step. At the very least, I'd build my own track. I snuck out that night to explore abandoned buildings with a friend. "Take that William!" I thought, "Is this what you expect your college brats to be doing?"
Yet the next morning there I was again, answering emails and planning a concession stand, all the while wondering how to spin my work best for my resume.
I've come to believe that Deresiewicz might be right. I spent the last year enveloped by chemistry, mathematics and physics, only to realize that "What is your opinion on the various restrictions of the SN1 pathway?" is not a conversation starter with my grandma. Although social and emotional intelligence is valued among peers and in an academic discussion setting, it is not prized or cultivated by the higher education system in the same way that, say, regurgitation of a third of a textbook is.
Nevertheless I recognize Notre Dame's efforts to promote the development of sympathetic and involved individuals. Based on statistics provided by the university, about 80% of students volunteer through the Center for Social Concerns, which does not include other non-school associated opportunities, and on average 10 percent of seniors engage in one to two years of service work following their graduation. As a basis of comparison, the Office of Career Services at Harvard reports that only 4 percent of their 2013 and 2012 graduating classes went on to do volunteer work, a number that also includes those taking off a year to travel.
Unfortunately I recognize the symptoms of the higher education Stockholm Syndrome more and more by reflecting on Deresiewicz's article. I currently struggle with its deepest and most dangerous manifestation: evaluating individual acts on their viability for medical school essays.
The good news is I think I have found an antidote, and it's a touch of greed. It's taking those few days away from a summer internship, and just contemplating the deep questions of life while spread out under a tree. It's taking the best story for a college essay and cherishing the memory instead.
Yet, I am not throwing my accomplishments to the winds.I found a major that I truly enjoy. But I will learn how to swing dance at the same time. And I'll continue to spend at least a month each summer letting my grandma fatten me up or while working at underprivileged children's home in her town. This will keep my foot in the door to a life that doesn't give a damn about the next exam.