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robertogreco : grandiosity   1

William Deresiewicz on the Ivy League, Mental Illness, and the Meaning of Life - The Atlantic
"Davis: You’ve observed that Ivy League students have an internal struggle with both “grandiosity and depression.” Can you explain this further?

Deresiewicz: Alice Miller wrote about this 30-plus years ago in the classic The Drama of the Gifted Child, but I had to experience it to see it for myself. The grandiosity is that sense of “you’re the greatest, you’re the best, you’re the brightest.” This kind of praise and reinforcement all the time makes students feel they’re the greatest kid in the world. And I would say that this is even worse than when I was a kid. Now there’s a whole culture of parenting around this positive reinforcement.

These kids were always the best of their class, and their teachers were always praising them, inflating their ego. But it’s a false self-esteem. It’s not real self-possession, where you are measuring yourself against your own internal standards and having a sense that you’re working towards something. It’s totally conditional, and constantly has to be pumped up by the next grade, the next A, or gold star. As Miller says, what you’re really learning is that your parents’ love is conditional on this achievement. So when you fail, even a little bit, even if you just get a B on a test, or an A- on a test, the whole thing collapses. It may only collapse temporarily, but it’s a profound collapse—you feel literally worthless.

These are kids who have no ability to measure their own worth in any realistic way—either you are on top of the world, or you are worthless. And that kind of all-or-nothing mentality really pervades the whole system. It’s also why it’s Harvard or the gutter: If you don’t get into Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, it’s a disgrace. If you go to Wesleyan, you can never show your face in public again.

This is not really the only way to succeed, but this crazy definition not only of success, but of how you achieve success, doesn’t even really reflect how actually successful people achieve success. Steve Jobs is an obvious example, because he was obviously very gifted and ambitious but he took a circuitous path, and people who are very successful doing interesting things also often take circuitous paths.

This notion that you’ve got to do X, Y, and Z or else your life is over makes you end up as a high-functioning sheep. You end up being the kind of leader that I talk about in the last section of the book. You get to the top, or you get near the top, but you don’t actually do anything interesting there—you just sort of fulfill your function in the organization. You don’t initiate or create.

Davis: That ties in with your argument that words like “leadership” and “service” have become hollow in the whole college process.

Deresiewicz: There’s a list of things that everyone knows you’re supposed to do to get into college: scores, extracurriculars, and then these two other things, “leadership” and “service.” They’ve been completely ritualized, and kids have become cynical about them because they know they just need to demonstrate them. In the case of leadership, which is supposed to be about qualities of character, self-sacrifice, initiative, and vision, it just means getting to the top, and that’s all. If you get a position with some authority you are, by definition, a leader. And service, if anything, is even worse. Service is supposed to be about making the world a better place or helping people who are less fortunate, but because it’s done for the resume, it really just becomes about yourself.

Davis: You argue that society transmits its values through education. How would you summarize the values transmitted through the elite-education system?

Deresiewicz: I would summarize the values by quoting Tony Hayward, the famous CEO of BP. In the middle of this giant environmental disaster he said, “I want to get my life back.” He had been promised certain rewards and now had this horrible experience of actually having to take responsibility for something, and feel bad. So those are the values that the system is transmitting: self-aggrandizement, being in service to yourself, a good life defined exclusively in terms of conventional markers of success (wealth and status), no real commitment to education or learning, to thinking, and no real commitment to making the world a better place. And I think we see that in the last 50 years, the meritocracy has created a world that’s getting better and better for the meritocracy and worse and worse for everyone else.

Davis: What kinds of values do you think education should be passing on?

Deresiewicz: Ultimately, colleges have inherited the spiritual mission of churches. As religious beliefs have declined with the rise of science, especially among educated people, people started to turn elsewhere to ask the big questions: What does life mean? What is the world about? People turned to works of art, to literature, music, theater, philosophy, which were in turn brought into college curricula."



"Davis: Gaining self-knowledge isn’t a simple or predictable process. Are there certain things that can only be learned outside the classroom?

Deresiewicz: There are certainly limits to formal institutional education. As you say, gaining self-knowledge is going to happen when it’s going to happen. But it’s certainly not going to happen if kids don’t have the tools to do it. So that’s the first thing that an education can do—help kids develop the means of reflection, and then, maybe it’ll happen the next year, or the next summer. A book you read in 12th grade or as a sophomore in college might suddenly click five years later. So yes, it happens throughout your life. But you’ve got to start, and I think you’ve got to start when you’re young. Developmentally, adolescence and the early 20s are precisely the time to ask these questions because you are engaged in making the transition from childhood certainty to adult conviction.

Aside from the classes themselves, the fact that we’ve created a system where kids are constantly busy, and have no time for solitude or reflection, is going to take its toll. We need to create a situation where kids feel like they don’t have to be “on” all the time. Given the chance, adolescents tend to engage in very intense conversation, and a lot of life learning happens laterally, happens peer to peer. But if they’re constantly busy, there’s literally no time. It’s crazy. We’ve taken adolescence away from adolescents. School must not take away your opportunities to self-reflect on your own.

When I taught humanities classes, I never talked about self-reflection, and I never invited students to talk about their feelings or their backgrounds or their experiences. I would sometimes do it with students one on one, if they wanted to, but it’s an indirect process. The books are designed to make you think about your life. You can just talk about Achilles, or Elizabeth Bennett, it doesn’t matter if you leave the personal stuff out of the conversation. The books do the work of getting the soul in motion.

One good thing that they do at Lawrence University is have a course where freshmen can read great books and at the same time think about what an education is for. You don’t have to talk too personally there, but at least you’re still preparing yourself to understand your college education in an appropriate way."



"I’ve continued to struggle with the psychological stuff—the cycle of grandiosity and depression, the constant comparisons. Once it gets implanted, you will always struggle with it, and you just get better, hopefully, at dealing with it. But the take home message is that everyone has to liberate themselves from this system. Education should be an act of liberation. We need to make a better system but ultimately everybody has to claim their freedom for themselves."
williamderesiewicz  education  culture  psychology  meritocracy  ivyleague  highered  highereducation  schools  selfworth  success  achievement  assessment  society  values  self-aggrandizement  meaning  meaningmaking  purpose  life  living  deschooling  unschooling  grandiosity  depression  laurencassanidavis 
december 2015 by robertogreco

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