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The Disadvantages of an Elite Education

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William Deresiewicz, a Yale English prof for the last 10 years, has written a downright haunting essay in The American Scholar on the many ways that elite colleges fall short. He charges that elite colleges:

1) "Teach students to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class."

2) Inculcate a false sense of self-worth ("Getting to an elite college, being at an elite college, and going on from an elite college—all involve numerical rankings: SAT, GPA, GRE. You learn to think of yourself in terms of those numbers. They come to signify not only your fate, but your identity; not only your identity, but your value.")

3) Initiate the winners into a club that's almost impossible to get booted out of once you're in ("Here, too, college reflects the way things work in the adult world (unless it’s the other way around). For the elite, there’s always another extension—a bailout, a pardon, a stint in rehab—always plenty of contacts and special stipends—the country club, the conference, the year-end bonus, the dividend.").

The most "damning disadvantage," he writes, is the anti-intellectualism that is encouraged by rewarding "hoop jumpers" and "teacher pleasers:"

"But if you’re afraid to fail, you’re afraid to take risks, which begins to explain the final and most damning disadvantage of an elite education: that it is profoundly anti-intellectual. This will seem counterintuitive. Aren’t kids at elite schools the smartest ones around, at least in the narrow academic sense? Don’t they work harder than anyone else—indeed, harder than any previous generation? They are. They do. But being an intellectual is not the same as being smart. Being an intellectual means more than doing your homework.

If so few kids come to college understanding this, it is no wonder. They are products of a system that rarely asked them to think about something bigger than the next assignment. 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.

Being an intellectual means, first of all, being passionate about ideas—and not just for the duration of a semester, for the sake of pleasing the teacher, or for getting a good grade. A friend who teaches at the University of Connecticut once complained to me that his students don’t think for themselves. Well, I said, Yale students think for themselves, but only because they know we want them to. I’ve had many wonderful students at Yale and Columbia, bright, thoughtful, creative kids whom it’s been a pleasure to talk with and learn from. But most of them have seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them. Only a small minority have seen their education as part of a larger intellectual journey, have approached the work of the mind with a pilgrim soul. These few have tended to feel like freaks, not least because they get so little support from the university itself. Places like Yale, as one of them put it to me, are not conducive to searchers.

Being an intellectual begins with thinking your way outside of your assumptions and the system that enforces them. But students who get into elite schools are precisely the ones who have best learned to work within the system, so it’s almost impossible for them to see outside it, to see that it’s even there. Long before they got to college, they turned themselves into world-class hoop-jumpers and teacher-pleasers, getting A’s in every class no matter how boring they found the teacher or how pointless the subject, racking up eight or 10 extracurricular activities no matter what else they wanted to do with their time. Paradoxically, the situation may be better at second-tier schools and, in particular, again, at liberal arts colleges than at the most prestigious universities. Some students end up at second-tier schools because they’re exactly like students at Harvard or Yale, only less gifted or driven. But others end up there because they have a more independent spirit. They didn’t get straight A’s because they couldn’t be bothered to give everything in every class. They concentrated on the ones that meant the most to them or on a single strong extracurricular passion or on projects that had nothing to do with school or even with looking good on a college application. Maybe they just sat in their room, reading a lot and writing in their journal. These are the kinds of kids who are likely, once they get to college, to be more interested in the human spirit than in school spirit, and to think about leaving college bearing questions, not resumés.

The world that produced John Kerry and George Bush is indeed giving us our next generation of leaders. The kid who’s loading up on AP courses junior year or editing three campus publications while double-majoring, the kid whom everyone wants at their college or law school but no one wants in their classroom, the kid who doesn’t have a minute to breathe, let alone think, will soon be running a corporation or an institution or a government. She will have many achievements but little experience, great success but no vision. The disadvantage of an elite education is that it’s given us the elite we have, and the elite we’re going to have."

Does this square with anyone else's teaching and learning experiences?
13 Comments

It seems that William Deresiewicz exaggerates the polarity, though much of his description rings true.

I went to Yale for undergrad and grad. A lot of students were "content to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them." But there were also many "independent spirits," who tended to live off campus, take time off, and pursue unconventional programs of study.

I had a bit of both in me. I was not conventional but did not find a lot of happiness in pure rebellion, either. I resisted certain structures but also gained a lot from them in the end. I was passionate about ideas and also valued the knowledge and wisdom of my teachers. I did want to please some of them, not because I was a teacher-pleaser, but because I admired them. I did not always please them or follow their advice. But I did write that dissertation (on Gogol) and it was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

If I could go back, I would seek even more structure with even more independence. I would probably major in classical languages and literature, take electives in many subjects, work hard, and take time for thinking, friendship, and independent projects. There need not be a dichotomy between achievement and rich experience. Maybe one or the other will take precedence at one time or another. But over the long term, both are possible and compatible, and each can exist within the other.

As an alum of an "elite" liberal arts college, I found the repeated references to 'elite education' or 'elite schools/colleges/institutions' incredibly annoying - Deresiewicz may be talking about an *Ivy League* education or elite *universities* but he is definitely not talking about all elite institutions, in general. While elite colleges certainly share some of the issues that are mentioned in the article (like grade inflation and a tendency to be more conformist than innovative), liberal arts schools (with their much stronger emphasis on teaching) are more likely to attract faculty who are able to stimulate independent thinking, as well as students who want that type of challenge.

Diana - Whoa - Gogol is hard core! I also felt that the article exaggerated some points in order to get the message across, but much of it rang true for me. Not all, but a solid group, of the undergrads now seem much more focused on putting together the right CV for working at a bank or getting into the right law school than getting something meaningful out of their courses.

Also amazing is the institutional coddling that only happens at elite schools (Jennifer, I don't know if this happens at liberal arts schools as well). Cheating, copying papers off the internet verbatim, setting things on fire - kids *never* get kicked out for good at the elite schools, even if they are "convicted" of these offenses. Even the institutions that talk big about their honor codes only suspend students caught cheating for one year, and then they can come back unscathed.

Jennifer - There is definitely a different group that selects into liberal arts schools, so point well taken. And also, he is just talking about the average behavior. Even at his own institution, there are many students who just don't fit into this picture. What I found most compelling about the article were the parts that focused on the role of the institution in creating these "disadvantages."

Diana - Whoa - Gogol is hard core! I also felt that the article exaggerated some points in order to get the message across, but much of it rang true for me. Not all, but a solid group, of the undergrads now seem much more focused on putting together the right CV for working at a bank or getting into the right law school than getting something meaningful out of their courses.

Also amazing is the institutional coddling that only happens at elite schools (Jennifer, I don't know if this happens at liberal arts schools as well). Cheating, copying papers off the internet verbatim, setting things on fire - kids *never* get kicked out for good at the elite schools, even if they are "convicted" of these offenses. Even the institutions that talk big about their honor codes only suspend students caught cheating for one year, and then they can come back unscathed.

Jennifer - There is definitely a different group that selects into liberal arts schools, so point well taken. And also, he is just talking about the average behavior. Even at his own institution, there are many students who just don't fit into this picture. What I found most compelling was the indictment of the institutions for inducing some of these problems.

wow... I haven't read the article and will grant that there are kernels of truth in this post and, presumably, the article that accompanies it, but overall, I'd have to say I strongly disagree. I went to an elite, but not Ivy, university, and while there were probably people there as described in #1 & 2, I remember that many of us were a little bashful about saying where we went to school because of the reaction we'd get from others... certainly didn't think our education placed us somehow above others and unwilling to talk to those who went to less elite schools or whatnot. Then again, my friends were hippies and activists, so maybe I was not average, lol. Overall I think I met a group uniquely rigorous and creative in thought, eager to explore the world & universe both academically and experientially, and, in many cases, determined to have a career that was both fulfilling and meaningful in some larger sense (sometimes to a fault). There was a bit of a sense of "collecting" experiences or achievements at times - among my world-traveler, grant-getting friends, experience definitely trumped strict academic achievement - but I think beneath that lay a very real desire to know the world, which meant taking risks of many kinds, including intellectual.

I entered as someone who did all the reading but had forgotten how to enjoy it for its own sake, and left having regained a sense of taking time to understand and appreciate (even at the cost of not finishing everything). Let's not forget that even among elite students, true critical thinking takes time to develop... I remember being in classes and appreciating those few students who could truly question a text when most of us were still just analyzing it. Looking back, I'd attribute the rarity of these students less to a failure of the system and more to a developmental growth of thinking, since most people got there in the end.

I do see #3 at work in a reverse way in teaching all the time: my school in the bronx is very different in rules and requirements than the middle school I attended, in part because most of us in my middle school had several layers of safety nets below us, conferred by privilege, while my students could fall once - experimenting with drugs/alcohol, teen pregnancy, wrong crowd, etc. - and find they have no safety nets whatsoever. I've said it a million times, and it makes for a very different school & home/parenting culture - far more restrictive, I think.

There's a great commencement speech by Ursula LeGuin (?) who said that she had to unlearn everything she learned, and learn it again... etc. Seems relevant to this discussion.

(Read kinda quickly because some of us are *still* teaching... hope this all makes sense!)

I have mixed feelings about what he says.

On the one hand I wouldn't have missed my years undergrad and grad years at Ivy League schools -- but I was admitted at a time when you didn't need to have absolutely straight A's and 10 extra-curricular activities (and I didn't have them). I wasn't exactly a "searcher," but I didn't come in with a clear career path in mind. But I learned to think, and to argue, and to trust my ability to work my way through difficult problems.

But as a parent, I see a lot of the striving for elite college admissions as something different, and less appealing. I sense a lot of kids are being pushed to jump through the right hoops, and get into the right schools, so much that they learn to value the external validation more than the education itself. And my sense is that that then leads to highly competitive careerism -- when you no longer have grades and college admissions to measure your success, you move on to salary and prestigious companies.

What I don't know is how complicit elite colleges are in this, and whether its getting worse. Hopefully the admissions offices are looking for more than hoop jumping -- but are they? I don't know.

I think it is particularly interesting to think about how TFA grows out of the environment of elite universities. It is clearly a response to the shallowness Deresiewicz describes, yet it still works cleanly within the larger context. You can step out of the corporate career path, without stepping out of it, without making a solitary decision to step into the classroom, with an early exit already scheduled, etc.

This spoke to my own high school experience (and I think to my sister's, who just graduated from the same school last week). The kids at the top of the class, very smart and extremely hard-working, went to Ivies or their rough equivalents. But they weren't usually the kids who won the science fairs or the literary contests or the debate tournaments. The academic team was a great example - the second team was made up mostly by those top students, whereas the first team were a little lower in the class but were more intellectual.

Going off from Oklahoma to get a doctorate at Rutgers was such a liberating experience for me, and I want my students to have as much opportunity as possible.

I don't know if non-historians are familiar with my mentor, Edward Thompson, author of the Making of the English Working Class and a co-founder for the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament. E.P. was the archetypical eccentric professor and when I took him out to learn baseball, Thompson had left behind his false teeth. He refused to wear gloves, saying that "mericans," even big Okie "mericans," (which was the pronouncation I had taught him) are wimps. So, we threw hardballs at each other until he taught me cricket.

E.P. had that extremely convoluted bowling style out of Monty Python, with hair and elbows and no teeth going every way. He had been taught it as a child - by Nehru.

So, when I show my kids the movie Gandhi, I am four degrees of separation aawy from history. And when I set a hard pick or take a charge on the b-ball court with my kids, they are just five degrees of separation. Middle and upper class kids need to hear stories that link history with us today. My inner city kids need it just as much.

John Thompson writes:
Going off from Oklahoma to get a doctorate at Rutgers was such a liberating experience for me, and I want my students to have as much opportunity as possible.

I think for kids looking for a breath of fresh air, elite schools often provide it -- for me there was a real sense of stretching my wings after life in a small suburban high school.

And thinking a bit more about the dynamics of Ivy League schools, it almost seems like the pre-corporate students are the "cash crop" which -- through future financial contributions -- supports the intellectual mission of the university which attracts students with very different interests.

Thanks for this post. It captures so well what has been nagging at me for a year or two now in my own graduate school teaching. Having been an outspoken student throughout my entire (public, non elite) school career, I don't understand the way that so many of my students seem fixated on "pleasing the professor" rather than sparking dynamic discussion and dialogue. (They are also remarkly concerned about whether I "like" them rather than concerned about learning.) This posting helped me identify the mis-education that many of my students at my (expensive and thus fairly elite) university must have experienced in their K-16 schools. I will share the posting and the reading with my future classes as I encourage them to present alternative viewpoints out loud and in writing.

eduwonkette: "I went to an elite, but not Ivy, university".

Maybe you just *think* it was elite--and I don't blame you for that--but the writer really means elite, in the sense that we all understand the term.

As a parent, I want my kids to go to an Ivy-League school---not because I think they will necesarily get a better education, but because, from personal experience, I know the worth of the old school tie.

On the whole I agree with the writer, but, on balance, if one can't be happy, it must be better to be unhappy at the top than be unhappy at the bottom. Bush may be a mediocrity, but he *is* the President of the USA, and, to my way of thinking, that beats being homeless or starving.

Yes, money doesn't buy happiness; so, the, may have have yours?

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