College Admissions and the Commodification of Experience

When ivy dies.

When ivy dies.

The academic social-media-o-sphere has been abuzz for the past couple of weeks with discussion of William Deresiewicz’s piece in the New Republic entitled “Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League.”  The piece was an obvious piece of clickbait (as Salon put it in their subheading, “it’s all such excellent sport: graduating from great colleges, then creating click-bait telling other people not to”), but it raised some issues that are important in higher education circles, especially in the context of the mounting so-called “war on college” that is increasingly coming from both ends of the political spectrum.  Deresiewicz’s basic thesis is that “elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.”  In other words, the hyper-competitive world of hyper-elite American higher education is creating achievement robots rather than thoughtful people, and providing credentials rather than education.  The elite system has so thoroughly lost its way, Deresiewicz argues, that parents should, gasp, send their children to public universities. This thesis is (purposely?) provocative, and unsurprisingly, it has generated a lot of responses, which mostly seem either to mock Deresiewicz for cluelessness (here and here), defend the Ivy League (here and here), or use his piece as a jumping-off place for other, related observations about the state of the academy (here and here).    My favorite take so far has to be Maureen O’Connor’s The New Privilege: Loudly Denouncing Your Privilege, but what jumped out at me most, given my scholarly interests, is how the modern college admission industrial complex has worked to commodify the experiences of high school and college students, a process that, I argue, has been underway since the early 19th century.  The critical passage in Deresiewicz’s piece is this one:

Experience itself has been reduced to instrumental function, via the college essay. From learning to commodify your experiences for the application, the next step has been to seek out experiences in order to have them to commodify. The New York Times reports that there is now a thriving sector devoted to producing essay-ready summers, but what strikes one is the superficiality of the activities involved: a month traveling around Italy studying the Renaissance, “a whole day” with a band of renegade artists. A whole day!

Experience for sale.

Experience for sale.

Although the modern market for consumable experiences is obviously broader and more sophisticated than that of the early republic, the idea that businesses could make money selling experiences to an ambitious bourgeoisie in search of cultural and social capital is fundamentally similar.  If today’s Ivy League hopefuls are spending their parents’ wealth purchasing meaningful “volunteer” experiences in Central America, then their predecessors sought the scenic delights of Niagara Falls so that they could write home to friends and family about their fashionably sublime experiences contemplating the Falls.   And like the admissions prospects who boast of “opportunities … enabled by parental wealth,” members of the early nineteenth century aspiring middle class spent money making themselves in their experiences.  Check out this 1856 ad for the New Maid of the Mist (they were already on a “new” Maid of the Mist in 1856!), a steamboat that carried tourists through the Niagara gorge and “afford[ed] the tourist sublime and comprehensive views of all the points of interest on the trip.”   This advertisement worked in 1856 because its audience understood the cultural significance of the sublime, because they had been exposed to a generation of print that taught them that Niagara was the place to go to experience the sublime, and because the steamboat operators offered that experience for sale, in a discrete, prepackaged unit, easily accessed by omnibus from the hotels.  Plus ça change.

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