The subtle snobbery of elite education


William Deresiewicz has written a book titled Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and The Way to a Meaningful Life, critiquing the education that elite universities provide, and followed up with an article in the New Republic titled Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League: The nation’s top colleges are turning our kids into zombies.

In the article he makes a controversial suggestion.

Our system of 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.

Is there anything that I can do, a lot of young people have written to ask me, to avoid becoming an out-of-touch, entitled little shit? I don’t have a satisfying answer, short of telling them to transfer to a public university. You cannot cogitate your way to sympathy with people of different backgrounds, still less to knowledge of them.

I am under no illusion that it doesn’t matter where you go to college. But there are options. There are still very good public universities in every region of the country. The education is often impersonal, but the student body is usually genuinely diverse in terms of socioeconomic background, with all of the invaluable experiential learning that implies.

U.S. News and World Report supplies the percentage of freshmen at each college who finished in the highest 10 percent of their high school class. Among the top 20 universities, the number is usually above 90 percent. I’d be wary of attending schools like that. Students determine the level of classroom discussion; they shape your values and expectations, for good and ill. It’s partly because of the students that I’d warn kids away from the Ivies and their ilk. Kids at less prestigious schools are apt to be more interesting, more curious, more open, and far less entitled and competitive.

James Marino is a professor at Cleveland State University, a public institution just down the road from my university, and he takes Deresiewicz to task for giving terrible advice and practicing a form of reverse snobbery.

There is nothing a snobbish Ivy Leaguer likes better than putting down the Ivy League. It’s an easy way to signal that you are above your own Ivy League school and the privilege it confers — all a big humbug that your superior perspective sees right through — while holding on to every last scrap of that privilege. It allows you to position yourself as not only 1. better than people who didn’t get into Harvard, Princeton, or Yale, but 2. the benevolent champion of those little people who didn’t get in and also 3. better than everyone else who did get into your school and who, unlike you, need to take the place seriously.

Is going to an Ivy League school worth it? Unless you are already a person of enormous inherited privilege, the question is disingenuous. Of course it is. This question is like the popular media question, “Is going to college worth it?” No one asking that question honestly believes that they would have been better off not going to college; they would not be writing in whatever magazine is asking the question this week if they had not gone to college. And none of them would be willing for their own children not to go to college. Asking the question is an act of dishonesty.

Deresiewicz argues that one should turn down admission to an Ivy League school and go to a public university, where you will build superior character. So, if you get into Harvard you should go to the University of Massachusetts instead. Let me say, as a proud alumnus of both Harvard and U. Mass.: don’t be ridiculous…. anyone telling a young person in my position to do that isn’t striking a blow against elitism. They’re just trying to keep less-privileged people out of the elite.

I cannot deny that elite universities have more than their healthy share of the arrogant, the entitled, and the egotistical. No one who has spent time at one of those places could deny that. There are a lot of big egos at Harvard and at Stanford both. But my experience of the world is that there are some arrogant and entitled people everywhere.

Marino makes some excellent points. The real question is not whether you should go to such a school or not. Indeed for many people of limited means, going to an elite university may actually be more affordable since they have the resources to provide more generous scholarships to offset the high sticker price. But students need to be prepared for that kind of experience.

For example, nearly all students tend to experience academic setbacks after they enter college because what is expected from them is different from high school. An academic star in high school may be just performing at an average level in college, something that can come as a blow to their egos. But if your parents have gone to college, they too will have experienced this and can prevent you from not only drawing the wrong conclusions from your setback, they know how to point you to resources to get over the hurdle. Students who are first generation college students may think that the setback is a sign that they don’t belong and become discouraged and even drop out.

But Deresiewicz also has a point when he says:

So extreme are the admission standards now that kids who manage to get into elite colleges have, by definition, never experienced anything but success. The prospect of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them. The cost of falling short, even temporarily, becomes not merely practical, but existential. The result is a violent aversion to risk. You have no margin for error, so you avoid the possibility that you will ever make an error. Once, a student at Pomona told me that she’d love to have a chance to think about the things she’s studying, only she doesn’t have the time. I asked her if she had ever considered not trying to get an A in every class. She looked at me as if I had made an indecent suggestion.

I have met such students when I was teaching the large introductory physics classes, people who had never gotten anything other than A grades in high school and were suddenly confronted with that possibility in my course. It seemed to me that what was frightening to them was not the B grade as such but that they feared that they were not as smart as their families and friends thought them to be and that getting a B was the first step in revealing to the world that they were just mediocre. They were suffering from the imposter syndrome. I started giving a little talk to my first year students that while they should aim high, the first time they got a grade other than an A could be a liberating experience because it freed them from that prison of perfection.

To a certain extent, these concerns (Should I go into an elite college? Should I try to get prefect grades? ) fall into the category of ‘first world problems’, things that only people who have reached a level of economic and social comfort have the luxury to indulge in.

As I see it, the danger of elite universities is that they can take young people who might have ideals and value social justice and, simply by virtue of being in close proximity with the children of the elite for four years, transform them into elite wannabees, the kind of people who think it is perfectly acceptable to ignore or even destroy the lives of the poor as long as they personally succeed. That is what those universities need to guard against.

Comments

  1. mnb0 says

    “It seemed to me that what was frightening to them was not the B grade as such but that they feared that they were not as smart as their families and friends thought them to be and that getting a B was the first step in revealing to the world that they were just mediocre.”
    That was not my experience – I dropped out in my second year to become a teacher math and physics. No, it was the competition combined with realizing that I had zero chance of winning. That meant that after finishing my study only unattractive jobs would be left for me. Hence the motivation to work my ass off was gone.
    Indeed I warned my son – in the top 10 of an entire country, albeit one with only 550 000 inhabitants – that he would meet much smarter students in Amsterdam. He’s totally fine with it. In Paramaribo he went to an elite high school. While grateful for the good education he never thought high of the elite kids. I clearly remember his reaction after three weeks: “my classmates are dumb!” He was 16 then – typically a teen with harsh judgments.
    From my experience as a teacher I think the parents are the key. My mother had high expectations from me; I hadn’t from my son. The only time I was disappointed was when he lost interest in participating at the International Physics Olympiad; he deliberately made sure not ending in the top three during the Surinamese preliminaries. But I never pushed him.

  2. rgmani says

    Completely in agreement with James Marino. Reading the Deresiewicz article , I start to wonder what sort of world he is living in. He says

    Our system of 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

    No denying that many students have very little intellectual curiosity and sense of purpose, but I cannot fathom what in the world makes him think that this affliction is limited to students in elite universities! From what I have seen this is true of students everywhere. I know plenty of faculty in state schools, that say similar things about their students.

    Kids at less prestigious schools are apt to be more interesting, more curious, more open, and far less entitled and competitive.

    It is probably true that students at state schools are less entitled (though you have plenty of entitled jerks there as well). I guess that is in some ways a good thing. The “less competitive” part is also probably true – but that is a double edged sword. On the one hand it does make college a lot less stressful but on the other hand, a complete lack of competition can make you think you are a lot better than you actually are – leading to a rude awakening when you join the workforce.

    I also have to take issue with a statement of yours

    As I see it, the danger of elite universities is that they can take young people who might have ideals and value social justice and, simply by virtue of being in close proximity with the children of the elite for four years, transform them into elite wannabees

    I don’t think elite universities turn you into elite wannabees, I think America does. It is such a pervasive part of the culture here that most of the kids who join elite universities have these goals long before they set foot on campus. John Oliver illustrated this attitude perfectly in his segment on the wealth gap. The only thing that is needed to stop any efforts to reduce income inequality is an accusation of “class warfare.” We don’t want to cut the obscenely wealthy down to size, we want to join them!

    – RM

  3. says

    Ally Fogg just linked to this on Twitter.

    Its apposite to both the cluster fuck that is the UK Labour party leadership elections and the OP.

  4. Marshall says

    I managed to log-in by going to the freethoughtblogs.com main page. For some reason it doesn’t work on this specific blog.

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