Disadvantages of an Elite Education
While elite schools confer many advantages on their graduates, they also wall them off from normal people and create an entitled, out-of-touch elite.
Michael Innes has generated an interesting Twitter discussion about “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” an archival piece at The American Scholar by William Deresiewicz, a literary critic and former Yale English professor, arguing that, while the Ivies and their elite cousins confer many advantages on their graduates, they also wall them off from normal people and create an entitled, out-of-touch elite. As a product of decidedly non-elite institutions working to put my daughters on an elite path, much of it rings true.
He begins with an anecdote:
It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League degrees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. “Ivy retardation,” a friend of mine calls this. I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn’t talk to the man who was standing in my own house.
While this seems plausible on first read, I’m actually a bit dubious that this is the norm. Many people who have chosen a life of books, myself included, have a tendency to be socially awkward. And, while I have no trouble making small talk with the plumber, handyman, and exterminator, there are doubtless subcultures in the country that I’d have difficulty relating to.
Still, I know plenty of rich kids who went to great schools and they don’t strike me as any more removed from society than the average professor I ran into at UT-Chattanooga or Troy State. When talking to people from very different walks of life, most of them do the same thing I do: talk about sports, current events, kids, the weather, or other cross-cutting topics.
The larger, point, though, hits the mark:
As two dozen years at Yale and Columbia have shown me, elite colleges relentlessly encourage their students to flatter themselves for being there, and for what being there can do for them. The advantages of an elite education are indeed undeniable. You learn to think, at least in certain ways, and you make the contacts needed to launch yourself into a life rich in all of society’s most cherished rewards. To consider that while some opportunities are being created, others are being cancelled and that while some abilities are being developed, others are being crippled is, within this context, not only outrageous, but inconceivable.
I’m not talking about curricula or the culture wars, the closing or opening of the American mind, political correctness, canon formation, or what have you. I’m talking about the whole system in which these skirmishes play out. Not just the Ivy League and its peer institutions, but also the mechanisms that get you there in the first place: the private and affluent public “feeder” schools, the ever-growing parastructure of tutors and test-prep courses and enrichment programs, the whole admissions frenzy and everything that leads up to and away from it. The message, as always, is the medium. Before, after, and around the elite college classroom, a constellation of values is ceaselessly inculcated. As globalization sharpens economic insecurity, we are increasingly committing ourselves—as students, as parents, as a society—to a vast apparatus of educational advantage. With so many resources devoted to the business of elite academics and so many people scrambling for the limited space at the top of the ladder, it is worth asking what exactly it is you get in the end—what it is we all get, because the elite students of today, as their institutions never tire of reminding them, are the leaders of tomorrow.
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.
My parents not only didn’t go to college, it never even occurred to them that they could go to college.* And, while it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t go to college, I was completely clueless. I had vague notions that I had the aptitude for great schools but my high school guidance counselors were in the same boat as I was, having no real understanding of any schools more elite than Alabama or Auburn. Even when I applied for PhD programs in my mid-20s after a stint in the Army, I didn’t really comprehend the implications of my choices. I understood that Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and a couple of other schools were great, but figured they weren’t going to take someone with a masters from a regional school in Alabama. And I figured that, aside from that handful of schools, a PhD was a PhD. So, applying from Germany, I put in for only one school, the University of Alabama, and got accepted. Even then, I was only going if they awarded me an assistantship; there was no way I was going to forgo several years of paid work and give them money on top of it.
Through a combination of hard work, dumb luck, and timing I’ve managed to put myself in a situation where my kids are in a different world. They’ll have access to better schools, have choices much less constrained by cost, and have the benefit not only of my knowledge of the system but a network of people who have experience with elite schools. And, yes, that also means that we’re already having to make educational decisions for our 2-year-old, who’ll be starting pre-school in September.
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.
The closest thing in my personal experience to the “you are special” indoctrination is the year and a half I spent at West Point. While admission was largely meritocratic and more economically diverse that our brethren at the Ivies, the notion that we were an elite vanguard was inculcated in us from the earliest days. (Rather odd in hindsight, since they also spend the first year doing their best to make cadets feel inadequate.) Not only were we a cut above our civilian college brethren but the Army and the country were depending on us to guard its virtue. While academy graduates were a small part of the officer corps, we would be like a drop of ink in a barrel of water, changing the character of the whole Army.
Even though I nearly drowned in that environment and wound up finishing at a podunk regional school for financial reasons, it took me a couple of years to fully shake off the notion that, simply having been selected to go to West Point, that I was special. So, I can certainly see how someone who spends years in that sort of environment–and years in select schools competing to get there–would have an enormous sense of entitlement.
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.
Again, I don’t know that this is peculiar to the Ivies. I saw the same condescension Deresiewicz describes at Alabama. Jocks look down on nerds. Beautiful people sneer at the unattractive. Smart kids think they’re better than dumb ones. Is this more true at Harvard than, say, the University of Virginia? Maybe. But it’s a matter of degree, not kind.
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.
There is nothing wrong with taking pride in one’s intellect or knowledge. There is something wrong with the smugness and self-congratulation that elite schools connive at from the moment the fat envelopes come in the mail. From orientation to graduation, the message is implicit in every tone of voice and tilt of the head, every old-school tradition, every article in the student paper, every speech from the dean. The message is: You have arrived. Welcome to the club. And the corollary is equally clear: You deserve everything your presence here is going to enable you to get. When people say that students at elite schools have a strong sense of entitlement, they mean that those students think they deserve more than other people because their SAT scores are higher.
There’s actually something to this. And, while we’re leaning to putting our girls in private school for a whole host of reasons, we both went to public school and have some trepidation of isolating them from kids outside their social background.
An elite education not only ushers you into the upper classes; it trains you for the life you will lead once you get there. I didn’t understand this until I began comparing my experience, and even more, my students’ experience, with the experience of a friend of mine who went to Cleveland State. There are due dates and attendance requirements at places like Yale, but no one takes them very seriously. Extensions are available for the asking; threats to deduct credit for missed classes are rarely, if ever, carried out. In other words, 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.
That may be an extreme example, but it is unthinkable at an elite school. Just as unthinkably, she had no one to appeal to. Students at places like Cleveland State, unlike those at places like Yale, don’t have a platoon of advisers and tutors and deans to write out excuses for late work, give them extra help when they need it, pick them up when they fall down. They get their education wholesale, from an indifferent bureaucracy; it’s not handed to them in individually wrapped packages by smiling clerks.
This is somewhat overstated. Even at Troy State, there were advisors and deans and department heads. And students actually did on occasion appeal grades or complain about policies. But, yes, many of us did in fact severely penalize students for missing deadlines and otherwise demand that they do their work or suffer the consequences.
There are few, if any, opportunities for the kind of contacts I saw my students get routinely—classes with visiting power brokers, dinners with foreign dignitaries. There are also few, if any, of the kind of special funds that, at places like Yale, are available in profusion: travel stipends, research fellowships, performance grants. Each year, my department at Yale awards dozens of cash prizes for everything from freshman essays to senior projects. This year, those awards came to more than $90,000—in just one department.
This is absolutely true. Indeed, at Troy, it was a giant chore for even faculty to get funding to attend conferences and the like; there was next to no money for students. And, no, there were no dinners with the powerful; I was in DC and in my 40s before I did that sort of thing.
Related to this is a subject I’ve written about a few times before: Kids from these schools are much, much more likely to serve one or more unpaid internships with major companies or nonprofits. Not only can kids at Podunk U generally not afford to do it–most spend the summer working to earn money, not spending money to work–but they don’t have the slightest clue that they’re even supposed to do that. So, the elite school kid not only has the benefit of a more prestigious degree but they have the resume and connections that come with being inside the club.
In short, the way students are treated in college trains them for the social position they will occupy once they get out. At schools like Cleveland State, they’re being trained for positions somewhere in the middle of the class system, in the depths of one bureaucracy or another. They’re being conditioned for lives with few second chances, no extensions, little support, narrow opportunity—lives of subordination, supervision, and control, lives of deadlines, not guidelines. At places like Yale, of course, it’s the reverse. The elite like to think of themselves as belonging to a meritocracy, but that’s true only up to a point. Getting through the gate is very difficult, but once you’re in, there’s almost nothing you can do to get kicked out. Not the most abject academic failure, not the most heinous act of plagiarism, not even threatening a fellow student with bodily harm—I’ve heard of all three—will get you expelled. The feeling is that, by gosh, it just wouldn’t be fair—in other words, the self-protectiveness of the old-boy network, even if it now includes girls. Elite schools nurture excellence, but they also nurture what a former Yale graduate student I know calls “entitled mediocrity.” A is the mark of excellence; A- is the mark of entitled mediocrity. It’s another one of those metaphors, not so much a grade as a promise. It means, don’t worry, we’ll take care of you. You may not be all that good, but you’re good enough.
I’ve seen this attitude quite a bit from the kids of the elite. And it’s true that well-connected graduates of elite schools often get on the fast track right from the outset. There are people working at the White House, Congressional staff, and the Joint Chiefs with less subject matter expertise and real world experience than I had fifteen years ago. There’s simply a huge degree of path determinacy at work.
Moreover, the degree is always a trump card. I’m well past the point where anyone cares where my undergraduate degree is from. Unless I’m applying for an academic job, it’s at the bottom of my resume. But people who went to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Berkeley, and the like are still getting credit for it decades later. And it’s like a get out of jail free card: “Well, yes, he seems like a complete dumbass. But, hey, he went to Harvard! He must actually be smart!”
There’s much more to the article, some of which I agree with and some that strikes me as rant without substance. There’s a lot of political and social philosophizing that I’d have cut out of the piece had I been the editor.
Steven Metz, a state school grad with his PhD from Johns Hopkins, guesses that people with a cross-class background are more likely to adjust to cross-cultural interactions, regardless of where they went to school. And, while it may be a little self-serving, it strikes me as reasonable. I grew up in a lower-middle class family (my dad, the sole breadwinner, was an Army non-com through my sophomore year in high school in an era where military pay was lousy) and both of my grandfathers were laborers with large families. In hindsight, constant moves were broadening, too.
It’s very easy for those in the professional class to live in a bubble of their own creation and, especially, to put one around our kids. And, frankly, the incentives to do so are powerful. There has to be a balance between making providing opportunities for your kids and walling them off from reality.
*My dad ultimately got an associates and a bachelors degree, but at age 32 and 45, respectively. The social implications are completely different.