There’s been a lot of discussion in the last few days of William Deresiewicz’s article in The American Scholar, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” I’m mildly annoyed by the opening of the article — I suddenly realized the shortcomings of my super-fantastic education when I couldn’t think of anything to say to my plumber? — but much of the analysis that follows strikes me as spot-on: the pressures toward producing markers of success rather than real quality of mind, the homogenizing force of “normality” despite a superficial commitment to diversity, and so forth. Despite Deresiewicz’s repeated suggestion that such pitfalls might be escaped by leaving the elite universities for the small liberal arts environment, my sense is that the problems he’s discussing are less produced by a particular type/size/structure of institution than by that institution’s self-regarding focus on somehow being — and producing — the “best.”
But what most caught my attention in the article was the section in which Deresiewicz explores the differences between his and his students’ experience of the institution of higher education and that of his friend who attended Cleveland State. There is a rather astonishing safety net underneath students at elite institutions, one that simply doesn’t exist for students at the vast majority of non-elite schools, and I’ve often felt that rather than protecting students, enabling them to take chances without fear, such safety nets often leave them ill-equipped for life in a world — a corporation, a city, whathaveyou — that simply doesn’t care if they’re struggling. On the campus of an elite institution, few choices students make have any real, substantive consequences. On the one hand, we want to give our students those four years out of time, insulated from mundane worries, so that they can think and explore — but if that insulation makes them risk-averse, or perhaps risk-unaware, have we done them a service?
The other point in the article that, perhaps unsurprisingly, resonated most strongly with me was Deresiewicz’s acknowledgment that, at his Ivy, he “learned to give that little nod of understanding, that slightly sympathetic ‘Oh,’ when people told me they went to a less prestigious college.” I’ve seen that nod, more times than I can count, not to mention any number of less polished, less polite variants ranging from mild surprise to outright shock. How can I be where I am, the look seems to say, teaching “the best and the brightest,” if I wasn’t one of them myself? Or, even worse, that my humble institutional background demonstrates that we really do inhabit a meritocracy in the academy, that even someone from a crappy third-tier state institution can go on to work at a top-ranked school. Since graduate school it’s been made clear to me, time and again, in some ways very subtle and in some ways not at all, that I either remain the scholarship kid, present largely as a marker of the academy’s collective broad-mindedness, or I am now assumed to be “one of us,” that my background must have had the same privileges and possibilities as everyone else’s.
But one thing that Deresiewicz doesn’t really explore is the presence of the scholarship kids within the very elite student populations he’s exploring, and the fact that their experience of the elite college safety net can be, as Oso Raro recently described, brutally temporary, and that for some of those students, graduation can be “more like an expulsion than a celebration, the end of a particular dream state.” Which of the privileges of their elite educations do these students get to carry with them, and which disappear? Are these students more likely, as Deresiewicz suggests the bulk of elite college students are not, to choose career paths that don’t provide traditional markers of success? Deresiewicz claims that “the way students are treated in college trains them for the social position they will occupy once they get out,” and yet the scholarship kid is very often unable to occupy that social position after college — unable to take the prestigious unpaid internship necessary to breaking into some fields, for instance. Are these students more or less likely to take risks in their career choices, to consider, for instance, the kinds of public service that Deresiewicz suggests elite students often won’t, or do pressures toward security leave them unable to do so? Where are they in this portrait of the elite of the future?
The article leaves itself open to many such questions, but that it at least creates a bit of space to question many of our assumptions about elite education is rather extraordinary.