William Deresiewicz on the disadvantages of an elite education

This is a rush transcript from "The Kelly File," September 5, 2014. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

MEGYN KELLY, HOST: Well, if you have kids in high school or if you have kids at all, you've probably thought about how to get them into a great college. My next guest says don't drive yourself crazy because where they go is not important. In fact, it might even be bad for them to go to an elite college. Bill Deresiewicz, author of Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, joins me now. Bill, so great to see you. I hope I got the last name right. I love this book.

BILL DERESIEWICZ, AUTHOR: That was pretty good.

KELLY: I love this book.


KELLY: It's fascinating. This is my Dianetics because I did not go to the elite university. And all my life after going to Syracuse and Albany, which is, you know, the Harvard of the state of New York, but I had been looking for somebody to tell me that I made the right move and I didn't need the Harvard education and you came along and did it. Explain.

DERESIEWICZ: I get it. Well, look, I mean, look where you got, right?

I mean, it didn't matter you went to those school and not the more name brand ones because ultimately what matters is who you are. You know, are you smart, talented, creative, ambitious, hard working? The problem for me with elite education and elite colleges, it has to do with what happens at the colleges, but the real problem is precisely who you be have to become in order to be the kind of kid who can get into one of these schools.

KELLY: And people should know that you know of what you speak. You have about 25 degrees from Columbia University. And then, you're a professor at Yale for many years. And now you've left all that and moved out to Oregon. But you know what you're talking about and you basically talk about how they beat the spirit out of these kids to get their resumes built so that they can get into these colleges that turn out to be this bubble of elitism, wealth and protectivism so that the children can never be told that they're wrong or that they failed.

DERESIEWICZ: Right, right. That's true. They're sort of stuffed with praise and flattery. But at the same time they themselves terrified of failure because, you know, you have to have perfect grades. You have to do everything perfectly to get into these schools. Once you're in these schools, you feel like you have to do everything perfectly to get to law school or to get a job on Wall Street or whatever it is you want to do. So part of the problem is that these kids they are very smart and they're also very ambitious, but they tend to be really risk averse, kind of timid.

KELLY: Depressed.

DERESIEWICZ: Yeah, there's this huge, sort of, mental health crisis on campus. It's especially bad among affluent high achieving kids. The people at the colleges know about it. The thing is that the kids are very good at hiding it and parents and other adults think as long as you're getting an A, you're getting As everything is fine, but everything is not necessarily fine.

KELLY: You know, what I realized on my own life because I went to -- you know, my schools were fine, but they were not Ivy League, you know, institutions. So then I went onto practice law for ten years at the Olympics of Law, a great, great firm which I love, I love the people. But I finally realized after almost ten years, Bill, that just because you're good at something doesn't mean it makes you happy. And that's what your book gets to. Just because you're getting an A and you're getting into Yale, doesn't mean it makes you happy. You say the education system and parents before that need to encourage their kids to focus on finding their passion and getting to know themselves, getting to develop themselves.

DERESIEWICZ: Yeah, that's right. You know, I'm a little wary of the word passion just because it tends to be overused. You could say passion, you could say purpose, you could say direction or meaning, whatever it is.

It has to do with figuring out what you want and not what your parents want. I mean, so much of this is driven by, you know, face it, parents wanting to have the window sticker on the back of their car or be table to brag about their kids at a cocktail party.

KELLY: Uh-huh.

DERESIEWICZ: And kids, you know, kids learn to do what the adults want them to do. And, you know, the thing that was sad as for me among the students I taught and the student I've talked to since then is they often get to the end of college and they really don't know what they want to do with their lives because there's no one holding up a hoop anymore, or they kind of look for a hoop to jump through. So these are kids who can do whatever they want. And yet, a large majority of them end up doing one of like five or six different things.

KELLY: And I know -- you also talk about how it's basically a lot of money is able to buy good S.A.T. scores, which also made me feel so much better about what happened in that junior year. You know, it was like I didn't know there was a prep class you can take until I was like 30. I was like, oh, that explains everything. Anyway, listen, I want to tell the audience that I am very interested in continuing this conversation with Bill, but it is a primetime television, we have a limited time. So I am going to tape an interview with him next as we go to commercial break.

We're going to post it at One of the things I want to ask you about, Bill, is you feel Barack Obama, you, an elitist Yale person yourself, think that Barack Obama is the poster child for the problems we're discussing which I found intriguing.

DERESIEWICZ: No, wait a second.

KELLY: I don't -- oh, we're going to continue it, but not live on the air. It's going to be posted. We're going to do it now. The audience won't see it and probably in, you know, five, 10 minutes you can go to Stay tuned. We'll be right back.

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