The advantages of an elite education

I really enjoyed reading William Deresiewicz’s recent essay, The Disadvantages of an Elite Education [h/t to Kris]. I encourage you all to read his piece and think about it. First, let me outline where he and I agree on two points: 1) that elite education discourages risk taking, and 2) that it threatens to distort our perception of the worth of other human beings. Then I’ll mention the many points on which we differ.

First, Deresiewicz is right to worry that an elite education pushes its recipient away from risk-taking and towards comfort and security. As he argues:

An elite education gives you the chance to be rich […] but it takes away the chance not to be. […] How can I be a schoolteacher—wouldn’t that be a waste of my expensive education? Wouldn’t I be squandering the opportunities my parents worked so hard to provide? What will my friends think? How will I face my classmates at our 20th reunion, when they’re all rich lawyers or important people in New York? And the question that lies behind all these: Isn’t it beneath me? So a whole universe of possibility closes, and you miss your true calling.

[…]

Students from elite schools expect success, and expect it now. They have, by definition, never experienced anything else, and their sense of self has been built around their ability to succeed. The idea of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them, defeats them.

I think that neatly captures the thinking of many graduating seniors I knew, at least at Harvard. It’s actually rather difficult to ignore the constant social pressure to go into banking or consulting and earn a steady, good salary. It’s tough to think more broadly about your real goals, and take some risks, when everyone around you is doing the opposite. This absolutely is a disadvantage of an elite education. Point to Deresiewicz.

Secondly, Deresiewicz says that “an elite education inculcates a false sense of self-worth” as ” ‘Better at X’ becomes simply ‘better’ ” in some larger, metaphysical sense. This is definitely something I’ve tried to be conscious about and guard against, but I can see it creeping up every now and then in my own thinking and in that of my former classmates. But I would like to point out that petty parochialism is a universal human trait. A New Yorker’s snobbery is insufferable; so, too, is a Texan’s. I think everyone tends to value most highly those traits they themselves possess, and to give those traits privileged status in judging the overall human worth of others. It’s a nasty way of treating other human beings, and we should all work to limit these inborn tendencies. Certainly elite universities could do more counteract elite snobbery. But so, too, could most other institutions in this world. Still, point Deresiewicz.

But as much as I agree with Deresiewicz’s critique thus far, I have to disagree with him on a number of other issues.

First, Deresiewicz complains about the permissive, entitled culture at elite universities:

Students at places like Yale get an endless string of second chances. Not so at places like Cleveland State. My friend once got a D in a class in which she’d been running an A because she was coming off a waitressing shift and had to hand in her term paper an hour late.

This anecdote is intended to instill a feeling of resentment towards those nasty Ivy League people who don’t have to deal with such supposed real world things like hard deadlines. One “disadvantage of an elite education”, therefore, is that elite students grow up in an entitled atmosphere. But shouldn’t we be viewing this the other way around? Not having second chances, when they’re reasonable, sucks! Getting a ‘D’ instead of an ‘A’, just because you’re an hour late turning in the term paper, sucks! It’s not like that extra hour riding the bus gave Ms. Works For Tips To Pay For School an actual advantage over other students. Hers should not be the normal human experience!

The same goes for other advantages of elite universities that Deresiewicz holds out as problems: the plentiful grants for research, travel, writing, and the arts; the “platoon of advisors and tutors”. Isn’t the real lesson here that elite institutions are a little more humane, that the elite lifestyle Deresiewicz mocks may actually be a better lifestyle, and that instead of fostering resentment of it, we should instead work to make non-elite schools and non-elite lifestyles more humane as well? Just because gramps walked 30 miles to school every day (barefoot, in the snow, and uphill both ways) doesn’t mean he’s right to criticize lazy, bus-spoiled kids these days.

Second, Deresiewicz complains that an elite education “makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you.” He illustrates with an anecdote about he had trouble talking to a plumber that came to his house. But isn’t difficulty communicating with others a common human trait? How well do Christians talk to and understand Muslims? How well do liberal, feminist women tend to talk with women in burqas? Or vice verse? When was the last time you saw a riveting conversation between a west coast granola dude with dreds and a suburban soccer mom? Let me be the first to agree that the average social IQ among Harvard undergraduates is far, far lower than the US population average. There ain’t no awkward like Harvard party awkward, cuz the Harvard party awkward don’t stop. True, these people have trouble relating to other people just like themselves, much less Joe the Plumber. But is that a result of their elite education? Are elite students really that different from the mechanic who doesn’t know how to talk to the local community college professor? Probably not. Failure to communicate is a failure common to all sorts of different identities. And it operates in both directions.

Perhaps Deresiewicz’s least compelling argument is that an elite education is “profoundly anti-intellectual.” He says of elite students:

The system forgot to teach them, along the way to the prestige admissions and the lucrative jobs, that the most important achievements can’t be measured by a letter or a number or a name. It forgot that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers. […] Elite education is little more than a] glorified form of vocational training.

This couldn’t be farther from my own experience. Nor does it jive with the popular sentiment of academia as an Ivory Tower. The people I knew in college generally had no idea what careers they wanted to pursue. They could more easily be criticized of aimless, academic wandering than of over-specialization or parochial, vocational interests. These were students more in the  mold of the Renaissance Man than the pre-professional. It was extremely painful watching my fellow classmates go through the agony of specialization and making choices that closed off any opportunity whatsoever. Sure, there were the few who showed up the first day freshman year and, not having actually read anything about the place earlier, got mad that ‘business’ was not a possible major. But those were the outliers (it’s a big, diverse school). Most people I knew loved abstract ideas … probably to a fault. The whole thing about pressure to go into banking and consulting after graduation? That happens suddenly in the last year, partially as a direct result of the liberal-artsiness of our liberal arts education.

Finally, I have to take some exception with Deresiewicz for intimating that the diversity at elite universities is somehow false diversity that shouldn’t be recognized as such. Deresiewicz quips, “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.” That’s funny, and there is something to that. It was the greatest culture shock of my life showing up freshman year and watching a large group of my classmates gossiping about having come from this or that prestigious private prep school.

But it was shocking precisely because I had no experience with that world! And as it turns out, neither did many, many of my fellow classmates. When Facebook (back when it was called TheFacebook) first started taking off, one of the biggest ‘groups’ on campus was the classic “I went to a public school, bitch.” I’m not saying that Harvard was a hotbed of Horatio Alger, rags-to-riches stories. But I think that too few people realize that Harvard (and, to my knowledge, several other elite universities) has absolutely top-notch financial aid. Does your family, like the median American family, make less than $60,000 a year? Congratulations! You get to go for free. Make less than something like $150,00 a year? Then you won’t be asked to pay more than 10% of your income. Of course, there are still plenty of barriers out there for economically disadvantaged kids, but financial aid at elite universities like Harvard makes it easier to go there than to go to many state schools, and far, far easier than expensive liberal arts colleges with small endowments.

Might this, like many of these other points I’ve argued, not be yet another advantage of an elite education? I don’t want to issue a blanket defense of elite universities. There’s plenty wrong with them. But let’s not lose sight of what’s right with them.

A final aside that will interest only self-involved people who received elite educations, and bore most others: What’s with idolizing the ‘Ivy League’? I refer everyone to Wikipedia, which says right there in the first sentence: “The Ivy League is an athletic conference.” That’s right, an athletic conference. That’s it. Stanford’s not a member, yet no one would say with a straight face that (for whatever reasons, good or bad) Stanford isn’t an overall better-thought-of and more-prestigious university than Dartmouth or Brown (both of which are in the League). The point is, our actual perceptions of academic quality don’t align very well with the Ivy, non-Ivy distinction. So why do writers keep using ‘Ivy League’ as if it has actual meaning? Probably because it’s a good wedge word that reliably pushes people’s buttons and instills certain feelings in the reader. That’s not a good reason, but it’s the only reason I can think of.

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4 Responses to “The advantages of an elite education”


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  3. 3 RF October 31, 2014 at 4:09 pm

    I appreciated both Deresiewicz’s essay and your response. However, I’m not so sure that you covered the advantages of an elitist school system as much as you just countered Deresiewicz’s points with opinions. You can’t defend elitist schools’ “second chance” policies by saying “not having a second chance sucks!” Deresiewicz’s cons far outweigh your pros, in my opinion.


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