The fakers

This rings true of my experience of the Ivy League and its uptight denizens.

A young woman from another school wrote me this about her boyfriend at Yale:

Before he started college, he spent most of his time reading and writing short stories. Three years later, he’s painfully insecure, worrying about things my public-educated friends don’t give a second thought to, like the stigma of eating lunch alone and whether he’s “networking” enough. No one but me knows he fakes being well-read by thumbing through the first and last chapters of any book he hears about and obsessively devouring reviews in lieu of the real thing. He does this not because he’s incurious, but because there’s a bigger social reward for being able to talk about books than for actually reading them.

I taught many wonderful young people during my years in the Ivy League—bright, thoughtful, creative kids whom it was a pleasure to talk with and learn from. But most of them seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them. Very few were passionate about ideas. Very few saw college as part of a larger project of intellectual discovery and development. Everyone dressed as if they were ready to be interviewed at a moment’s notice.

Look beneath the façade of seamless well-adjustment, and what you often find are toxic levels of fear, anxiety, and depression, of emptiness and aimlessness and isolation. A large-scale survey of college freshmen recently found that self-reports of emotional well-being have fallen to their lowest level in the study’s 25-year history.

So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk. You have no margin for error, so you avoid the possibility that you will ever make an error.

My freshman year, I spent a few days at Harvard and Dartmouth with a Bucknell girl whose two best friends were at those superior learning establishments. Dartmouth was exactly like Bucknell, only the girls were shorter and uglier and the temperature was colder. But Harvard… I have never, in my entire life, been around a bigger group of hapless posers.

The description of the Yale guy who reads the first and last chapters of a book rings very true. It’s become a common phenomenon online, but Harvard was the first place I encountered people who regarded having heard of something as being synonymous with knowing it. That’s why I developed the habit of asking a question or two about the contents of a book someone has mentioned because I’ve learned that many people will pretend to have read things they have not.

Seriously, if you haven’t read something, it’s no big deal. There are a lot of books out there. There are hundreds that I think I should read that I haven’t and probably never will. It’s no big deal not to have read a book… unless, of course, you’re writing a review of it.

I’ve mentioned this part before, but the most egregious example I’ve encountered was the big guy who kept telling girls about how he “played hockey for Harvard”. Unfortunately for him, I happen to be from Minnesota and I also happened to know that the Harvard hockey team was in Minneapolis that night, playing the Gophers. I think one of my friends back home was going to the game or something. I asked him if he was hurt, which he denied in a puzzled manner, and promptly fell into the trap. When pressed, he finally admitted that he played INTRAMURAL hockey. Right.

Not everyone I’ve met from an Ivy League school that isn’t Dartmouth or Brown is a lying, pretentious poser, but a surprisingly high percentage of them are. And while it may be a character flaw, I’ve discovered that there are few things more entertaining than intellectually bitchslapping the unsuspecting, insecure little bastards.

Even if I was going to send my children to an American university, and I can’t imagine I would, I wouldn’t send them to any Ivy League school.