July 21, 2008

SELF-REFERENCE ALERT:

The Disadvantages of an Elite Education: Our best universities have forgotten that the reason they exist is to make minds, not careers (William Deresiewicz, American Scholar)

The first disadvantage of an elite education, as I learned in my kitchen that day, is that it makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you. Elite schools pride themselves on their diversity, but that diversity is almost entirely a matter of ethnicity and race. With respect to class, these schools are largely—indeed increasingly—homogeneous. Visit any elite campus in our great nation and you can thrill to the heartwarming spectacle of the children of white businesspeople and professionals studying and playing alongside the children of black, Asian, and Latino businesspeople and professionals. At the same time, because these schools tend to cultivate liberal attitudes, they leave their students in the paradoxical position of wanting to advocate on behalf of the working class while being unable to hold a simple conversation with anyone in it. Witness the last two Democratic presidential nominees, Al Gore and John Kerry: one each from Harvard and Yale, both earnest, decent, intelligent men, both utterly incapable of communicating with the larger electorate.

But it isn’t just a matter of class. My education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class. I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me. We were “the best and the brightest,” as these places love to say, and everyone else was, well, something else: less good, less bright. I learned to give that little nod of understanding, that slightly sympathetic “Oh,” when people told me they went to a less prestigious college. (If I’d gone to Harvard, I would have learned to say “in Boston” when I was asked where I went to school—the Cambridge version of noblesse oblige.) I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to elite colleges, often precisely for reasons of class. I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to college at all.

I also never learned that there are smart people who aren’t “smart.” The existence of multiple forms of intelligence has become a commonplace, but however much elite universities like to sprinkle their incoming classes with a few actors or violinists, they select for and develop one form of intelligence: the analytic. While this is broadly true of all universities, elite schools, precisely because their students (and faculty, and administrators) possess this one form of intelligence to such a high degree, are more apt to ignore the value of others. One naturally prizes what one most possesses and what most makes for one’s advantages. But social intelligence and emotional intelligence and creative ability, to name just three other forms, are not distributed preferentially among the educational elite. The “best” are the brightest only in one narrow sense. One needs to wander away from the educational elite to begin to discover this.

What about people who aren’t bright in any sense? I have a friend who went to an Ivy League college after graduating from a typically mediocre public high school. One of the values of going to such a school, she once said, is that it teaches you to relate to stupid people. Some people are smart in the elite-college way, some are smart in other ways, and some aren’t smart at all. It should be embarrassing not to know how to talk to any of them, if only because talking to people is the only real way of knowing them. Elite institutions are supposed to provide a humanistic education, but the first principle of humanism is Terence’s: “nothing human is alien to me.” The first disadvantage of an elite education is how very much of the human it alienates you from.


Whipper-snappers these days don't even believe me when I tell them this, but my Freshman year at Colgate I had the only color tv on my floor, one of two or three in the entire dorm. For Rudolph, the Bob Hope Special (which had been filmed on campus) and the US-Finland hockey game we had 40+ people in our room. We had a hall phone--one guy with a girlfriend back home had a room phone. And one guy had a car--his Dad's old Country Squire wagon.

If you visit the campus today it looks like you're at an SUV dealer's lot.

A rather middle class institution has become a bastion for the wealthy. Where our parents were often teachers, salesmen, cops, etc., theirs are almost all doctors, lawyers and businesspeople.

And one of the ways the change in class composition really manifests itself is in the way they treat--or try to avoid treating--staff, security, local tradesmen, etc. They seem to think anyone who isn't in class with them--fellow student or prof--is pretty much a servant. It's like they're the Eloi, surrounded by Morlocks.

Posted by Orrin Judd at July 21, 2008 5:13 PM

Bruno loves to whine about public education, but the universities have got themselves the perfect racket. They claim with no evidence that increases in basic science research funding provide massive economic benefit, and advocate for breathtaking increases in funding for NSF, NIH, etc., by preposterously and shamelessly (and most importantly, falsely) claiming that we're falling behind other countries in these areas. They take a nice fraction of this increased funding as overhead, vastly increasing their own endowments. They convince the public that their kids HAVE to have a degree from a prestigious research institution to succeed in life, driving up the demand (and hence tuition), and then they get Congress to increase access to student loans, thereby driving up demand (and hence tuition) even more. Students pay far more than is sensible, faculty who can bring in the big research grants make far more than ever, grad students & postdocs still make slave wages based on the lure of hitting that jackpot someday, and bureaucrats who can keep track of all that new money and think of all sorts of ways to spend it have more justification for their worthless existence.

Posted by: b at July 21, 2008 6:34 PM

And then the loan companies get congress to insulate them from risk by making the loans non-dischargeable thereby vastly increasing the number of loans and the price of education...

Posted by: Benny at July 21, 2008 7:05 PM

Pretty much the same time frame and the same experience. No one in my dorm had a color TV, and if I remember correctly, the ancient black-and-white n the lounge only got VHF channels. We could have a dozen people gathered in one guy's room watching his 5inch Panasonic's screen because it could get old movies or games on channel 32. And after WGN went off the air at 02:00, there was nothing to watch at all.

And there were a couple of people who had private phones installed, but the rest of us relied on the payphones in the hallways. If the phone was ringing, it was considered polite to answer and bang on the door of the person the call was for, especially if you wanted the same service in return. But that still didn't stop the occasional pickup with "Cook County Morgue" or "Church of Christ, Christ's not in right now, can I take a message?"

Oh, and how can anyone not read the last paragraph of that article and not thing of Mr.Hope and Change? No wonder He's such a big hit on campuses.

bureaucrats who can keep track of all that new money and think of all sorts of ways to spend it have more justification for their worthless existence.

You mean, like His Wife, Michelle? I wouldn't call $300, 000/yr worthless, just way overpaid.

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at July 21, 2008 7:08 PM

No color TV? Are you guys old or something?

Posted by: Matt Murphy at July 21, 2008 7:35 PM

Nothing costs more than it used to.

Posted by: John at July 21, 2008 8:00 PM

On a database consulting gig I learned that student loans are not forgiven even in bankruptcy. The debt tracks you for life, even after retirement - they will garnish your Social Security or your pension check. If the parents co-signed they are also on the hook.

The big player is SLM Corporation ("Sallie Mae"). SLM's collection procedures would make Tony Soprano blush.

Posted by: Gideon7 at July 21, 2008 10:06 PM

I prefer "Rant" to "Whine", but if that adjective suits you, who am I to argue?

Aside from that difference in opinion, your brilliant exposition of the facts pretty much proves my point.

K-12 embodies an "educational apartheid" where by the rich are fleeced by paying far too much for a mediocre education, and the Universities have their own little scam (as you point out).

I find it ironic that OJ still posts all this excellent stuff that proves my point(s), and then lauds the ding-bat soccer moms idol-worship of public schools.

I stand by my view that public education is the most corrupt industry in America, and this article proves my point. They waste scads of money like lambs led to the slaughter.

Posted by: Bruno at July 21, 2008 10:06 PM

I had trouble getting past that description of Kerry and Gore as "earnest, decent", but the rest was interesting after I jumped that hurdle.

Posted by: Jim Miller at July 21, 2008 10:39 PM

Corruption, scams, bilking schemes, waste, etc...is hardly a polite way to refer to our host's new "third way" economic system.

Lets' show some respect folks.

Posted by: Perry at July 21, 2008 10:54 PM

If you set up savings accounts for kids and made them draw them down to pay for college they wouldn't. Thus the genius of the Third Way.

Posted by: oj at July 21, 2008 10:58 PM

I used to work at the University of Chicago before my current gig in Iraq. All that has been said is so true, but the one thing not really mentioned is that for most students an elite education is a horrible education. $100K of debt to get a $30K job.

The other funny thing is how the staff takes on the same elitist attitude.

Posted by: Dreadnought at July 22, 2008 2:05 AM

One thing that ought to be noted, and this author hints at it, is that people can be educated while going to a second-tier college or even no college at all. If you are just interested in being an educated person and sampling "the best that has been thought and said," as it were, you might as well avoid the insane tuition costs and learn how to educate yourself. Because if you're serious about it, odds are that your own efforts will beat anything the Ivies can give you.

You don't have to come from an elite college, or from an elite background, or have "intellectual" parents or even friends in order to do this. You can, if you are so inclined, do it yourself. Lots of historical figures, from Shakespeare to Abraham Lincoln, have done this. I think most of us have met or known people who have done it. And meanwhile, the nightly news reports are filled with talking heads from "elite" schools whose reasoning is so hollow and shallow as to be breathtaking.

These words, by the way, are excellent:

Some people are smart in the elite-college way, some are smart in other ways, and some aren’t smart at all. It should be embarrassing not to know how to talk to any of them, if only because talking to people is the only real way of knowing them. Elite institutions are supposed to provide a humanistic education, but the first principle of humanism is Terence’s: “nothing human is alien to me.” The first disadvantage of an elite education is how very much of the human it alienates you from. [...]

One of the great errors of an elite education, then, is that it teaches you to think that measures of intelligence and academic achievement are measures of value in some moral or metaphysical sense. But they’re not. Graduates of elite schools are not more valuable than stupid people, or talentless people, or even lazy people. Their pain does not hurt more. Their souls do not weigh more. If I were religious, I would say, God does not love them more. The political implications should be clear. As John Ruskin told an older elite, grabbing what you can get isn’t any less wicked when you grab it with the power of your brains than with the power of your fists.

Bingo. Give this guy credit: He may have grown up in an elite family but he has not settled for the easy formulas.

Posted by: Matt Murphy at July 22, 2008 3:58 AM

I think the real problem is cost. What other product inflates at close to 10 percent a year, decade after decade? Perversely, colleges with lower tuitions are seen to be subpar. So universities keep jacking up tuitions to create a sense of country club exclusivity to excite the status conscious wealthy. I went to an elite university in the 1980s and can honestly say it wasn't worth the cost. That's not to say it wasn't a good education. It was just overpriced. I'd never send my children, even if I could afford the cost, to a school that costs nearly $200,000 for 4 years.

Posted by: jaytee at July 22, 2008 11:09 AM

Two things:

1. Television, in college? I went to college in New Orleans (Loyola) in the 1980's and we had no time for television. We were too busy drinking 5-6 nights a week. Unless it is a sporting event, college is NOT made for television. I caught up on television in law school. I believe I watched something like 5 seasons of Cheers in the span of one month because it was on three times a day due to syndication.

2. I was recently reminded of the quote from the movie Ghostbusters in explaining life as a university faculty member:

Personally, I liked the University; they gave us money and facilities, we didn’t have to produce anything. You’ve never been out of college. You don’t know what it’s like out there. I’ve worked in the private sector–they expect results.

I've worked in a university setting for the past 15 years and the overabundance of student loans is the thing that is driving the inflated price of higher education.

Posted by: pchuck at July 22, 2008 11:09 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus
« WORSE?: | Main | SOMEONE ELSE HOPING OBAMA IS JFK: »