For the eight years that George Bush and Dick Cheney were in office, Chinese people liked to joke that if you graduated from Yale, you could become President, and if you dropped out of Yale, you could be come Vice-President. This year, over 500 top students from around China will fight for about ten spots to enter Yale in 2012 because they believe Yale will bring them a successful, happy, and meaningful life.
These 500 Chinese students are just like their counterparts from the US and around the world. For practically their entire lives, they have worked hard for the sake of getting into an Ivy League school. They practice piano for two hours and swim for one hour each day. Not only can they solve the hardest of Olympic Math problems, they have also taught themselves computer programming. At Beijing #4 High School, the High School Affiliated to Fudan University, and Nanjing Foreign Languages High School, these students are always the heads of Student Unions. They’ve studied abroad at Exeter, Andover, and Hotchkiss for a year, volunteered in orphanages in Qinghai, all the while taking the most difficult classes, maintaining perfect grades, and getting SAT scores over 2300. Maybe they lack sleep and don’t have friends, maybe they’re always pushing themselves and have no sense of security, but they know that if they make it into Yale, they’ll never have to feel so sad and lonely again.
But is that really true? How important is getting into Yale, or any Ivy League, for an individual’s success? We all know what getting into Yale gets us: attention for our resumes, famous and powerful classmates and friends, and the best college education. But what is the price of all this, and how is it paid?
When I applied to Yale 18 years ago, I was just like the Chinese students applying this year. I thought admission to Yale was the solution to everything. So I took the hardest classes in my school, I memorized SAT vocabulary while riding home on the subway, I joined the soccer team, edited the school newspaper, and only got four hours of sleep a night. In the end, all this pressure and isolation was almost worth it, because Yale and I were a match made in heaven. After entering Yale, my meticulous study of abstruse works, my facing of the harshest professors, and advancement of Analytical Intelligence, these things won me much praise and accolade from my professors. After graduation in 1999, armed with my confidence in my Yale education, I felt I could conquer the world.
Now, after growing and maturing, I don’t have the certainty of those years. Yale did give me a look at a new world, but it also made me ignore something else. Yale did make me realize I could take my own path, that I could go anywhere and do anything, but it also gave me a narrow definition of success. This doomed me to failure, loneliness, and unhappiness. Yale did encourage me to seek out my dreams, but it also caused me to inwardly despise the people who helped me fulfill those dreams.
Of course, Yale is not the only reason that I am who I am and do what I do today. Yale accepts a great diversity of students. In the end, our experiences in college and life depend on our own attitudes and decisions. Much economic data shows that the school we go to doesn’t have much impact on our salary, social status, and degree of happiness. Rather, thinking back on the details, I think Yale is a self-selecting elitist institution. The scholars in charge of this school hope to replicate their own choices and opinions among their students, and because of this, there are three principles of life that they cannot teach students.
Below are those three things Yale didn’t teach me.
First, I didn’t understand that analytical minds, those that can do math and analyze the theses of books (such as discussed in Howard Gardner’s Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences), are just one type of many different intelligences. In The Rise of the Creative Class, Urban Theorist Richard Florida researched real companies and cities that innovate. He found that these groups and areas are always broad and open, and possess diversity and flexibility. They also possess people with socialization and empathetic abilities that keep them together. For this reason, Prof. Florida thinks Emotional Intelligence– the ability to decode and control the emotional atmosphere– is more important than analytical intelligence today.
Still, all that Yale understands, all that it appreciates, is analytical intelligence. Those managing Yale’s admissions pay attention to SAT and AP test scores, high school grades, and application essays. These are all manifestations of students’ analytical intelligence. Yale professors prefer a cold and cruel competitive classroom in which students attach each other’s lines of thinking and improve their own mental capabilities. This type of process does in fact strengthen the logical reasoning abilities of students, but it also weakens their emotional intelligence. At Yale, students struggle one against another to secure limited spots at the law school. For this, they fiercely refute and attack one another’s interpretations of King Lear. In this individualism and competition-filled environment, I learned how to coldly use analysis as a shield to fake my way through the hardship and pressure, the insecurity and loneliness that I felt amidst the culture of Yale. At Yale, everyone thought I was very smart, but in the real world, people actually thought I was full of myself, arrogant and aloof.
Second, I did not learn at Yale that life is a learning process and a journey of knowledge. Yale actually teaches students that the meaning of life is accomplishment and success– as explained by Profess or William Deresiewicz in his article in American Scholar journal, entitled “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education”. Deresiewicz explains that Yale students spend all of high school avoiding risk, filling life with small accomplishments. This type of attitude is strengthened at Yale. But in life, success always requires taking big risks, working toward big goals, things that can’t even be imagined from the perspective of a Yale graduate.
This isn’t to say that students who graduate from elite schools never have high risk, low reward pursuits. But even when they do so, they give up faster than others. This seems illogical since graduates of elite schools are often in less financial debt and more likely to be able to rely on family financial support for a period after graduation. I originally didn’t know anything about that, until one day until, two graduate students in my department– one from Yale and one from Harvard– brought something up. They were discussing writing poetry: some of their college buddies wrote poetry for a year or two, then gave it up. But they knew some individuals from schools with lesser reputaitons who were still at it. Why was this? Because students from elite universities expect success, and they expect it to come quickly. By definition, they have only ever experienced success, and their understanding of themselves is built upon their ability to achieve success. They feel terrified and lost by the thought of “failure”.
After I graduated from Yale in May of 1999, I became an English teacher at a high school in Beijing, which was a job I liked and was already good at. But as a Yale graduate, I felt the salary and level of the position was too low, so I became a reporter. When I was in the English Literature department at Yale, I loved writing essays. Still, my goal wasn’t to enjoy work, it was to be successful– this meant writing for the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, and the other famous American publications. I did alright as a teacher and as a journalist, receiving the praise of students and colleagues. I traveled around the world and met many interesting people, all while doing something I loved. I should have just felt grateful for this, but as a young graduate of Yale, I wanted immediate success. So when I couldn’t publish a book, when I couldn’t get any articles published in magazines, I fell into a deep depression. I felt endlessly lost, indignant, and bewildered by this world. William Deresiewicz had it right, “failure” made me feel terrified and lost.
I think, however, that I was so unhappy in my twenties mainly because I saw life as an individualist struggle– this way of thinking is highly pervasive in the Yale spirit and attitude. My professors, the books I bought, even the dinner conversations of my classmates convinced me that Yale students were a chosen group who would assuredly rise to the top levels of society, to lead the ignorant and crude masses. The faster this became true, the more fair and just society was. I should confidently rely on myself for success to prove how outstanding I was– and exactly for this reason, I not only became enraged and depressed, but also felt lost and alone. This is the third thing that Yale couldn’t teach me: happiness and significance don’t come from success, but from the love and support of friends and family. This is just like what’s written in David Brooks’s book The Social Animal. Even though I hadn’t made this connection in my twenties, I fortunately did start to get it in my thirties, at which point I returned to China to teach. It was a job that I had always loved, and here I knew a group of students, parents, and colleagues who held the same educational ideals.
Honestly, Yale and the Ivy Leagues have first-rate professors and students from the best sources in the world. Those fortunate enough to be admitted will definitely experience a life-changing education. But getting into an Ivy League is not a matter of life and death, and applying to these schools is in fact quite intense. So let’s sum things up.
First, there’s no powerful evidence showing that Ivy League degrees influence post-graduation salary. Researchers have found that even though there is a discrepancy between post-graduation salaries of students from Ivy Leagues and other schools, there is no discrepancy between students who went to Ivy Leagues and those who were admitted to Ivy Leagues but chose other schools. That is to say, if you are both intelligent and diligent, you can be successful regardless of what school you attend.
Second, in order to achieve success, an individual’s best education comes from the struggles and frustrations of life. In the end, it’s our attitude and decisions in life– our ability to cooperate with others, our ability to learn from mistakes, and our ability to recover from setbacks– that determine what kind of accomplishments we will have.
Finally, my personal experience tells me that an Ivy League education– because it is enamored with analytical intelligence and despises emotional intelligence, because it is isolated and disconnected from the real world, because it is too enthralled with its own reputation and renown– will at times cause students to be unable to find true success, happiness, and significance.
If I could do it all over again, I would still have taken the hardest classes in high school, still played on the soccer team, and still acted as the school newspaper editor. But I would have done them because I loved them. I would also have taken time to go out with friends and time to sleep. I wouldn’t have gotten into Yale, but I would have become a happier, healthier person.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m still happy to have gone to Yale. Every time we fail, we have to force ourselves to reconsider who we really are, and make ourselves struggle even harder to become the people we want to be. For me, Yale was one of those setbacks– but in the end, it just made me stronger, more sensible, and more loyal to myself.