On Elite Education

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.

4 thoughts on “On Elite Education

  1. Well, with $100,000 in debt, I presume that the disadvantaged folks aren’t gonna have much chance to pursue any career that doesn’t pay right away. I think it’s great that a number of schools are moving away from student loans to flat-out grants.

    Of course, the larger question is, how many disadvantaged students, after watching their families struggle financially, choose majors in an attempt to ensure that they won’t find themselves in a similar situation? How many folks forgo that dance major for a degree that might look better on a law school application (or might result in an immediate job after graduation)?

  2. If students are graduating from the elite schools with $100K in debt, something went wrong. Those schools are all need-blind and promise to meet your demonstrated need, and loan amounts were capped even before the shift away from them. Financial aid doesn’t come up with calculations that demand $25K/year in loans, ESPECIALLY not for students from families with no money.

    I was a scholarship kid at an elite school. I came out with $13K in loans.

    Also, the point about going to elite schools is that the law school will accept the dance major, because they know you can’t get through NameOfIvy without the writing and argumentation skills required in law.

  3. The “$100K in student loans from an elite liberal arts education” idea was current when I was in school, 20 years ago; whether or not it was true then, it influenced my selection of a university. As I pointed out, I’m aware that this is no longer the case in many places, and appreciate the change.

    My suggestion about the dance major was based on (admittedly anecdotal) experience — I have to wonder how many dance majors (as opposed to the more practical 🙂 English or philosophy majors) actually get into law school.

    I wish I had a real answer to the question asking in the original post, though. I mean, those who’ve never had money, may, as a point of pride, eschew the rat race for something more socially redeeming once they’ve achieved some measure of security. But having some family money or connections makes it that much easier to dabble in good causes and duck back out again later without being ghettoized. Sadly, the plural of anecdote isn’t data.

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