The Disadvantages of an Elite Education

Cover of the summer 2008 issue of \"The American Scholar\"

Here’s the opening paragraph for The Disadvantages of an Elite Education, an essay published in The American Scholar and written by an English professor who taught at Yale for the past ten years:

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 dees, 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.

Immediately after reading that first paragraph, my first thought was “Isn’t that like an Ivy Leaguer? He realizes that he can’t communicate with working-class people and what does he do? He agonizes about it in a magazine written for Ivy League professors and people who make large donations to their alma mater.I’m not the only one who made that observation.

(The American Scholar describes itself as “the venerable but lively quarterly magazine of public affairs, literature, science, history, and culture published by the Phi Beta Kappa Society since 1932.” People magazine, it ain’t.)

That quibble aside, there’s a lot of interesting material in the article, not the least of which is its discussion of “entitled mediocrity”, another byproduct of Ivy League schooling and one I saw first-hand at Crazy Go Nuts University: the security offered by a “don’t worry about failing, we’ll take care of you because you’re one of us” environment.

“If Al Gore and John Kerry represent one of the characteristic products of an elite education,” says the article in reference to their inability to communicate with “the common people”, “George W. Bush represents another. It’s no coincidence that our current president, the apotheosis of entitled mediocrity, went to Yale.” Entitled mediocrity is everywhere in the worlds of business and government, from “You’re doing a heckuva job, Brownie” to the big salaries and bonuses paid to C-level executives at failing companies.

There’s some discussion about the article here, and you’re always free to put in your two cents in the comments.

8 replies on “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education”

Big, enormous, pile of crap. He’s making excuses for his own personal failings. University students are legal adults who, for the most part, make their own decisions and need to deal with the consequences. I graduated from a terribly elite undergraduate institution which I really didn’t like for very real reasons, and I still have only myself to blame or congratulate for things I may or may not have learned there, ideas or skills, because I selected my courses, chose my advisors, did or did not do my reading, did or did not have deep, challenging conversations with peers or profs, did or did not volunteer for things, etc. etc. I even chose which school to attend, my mistake! I was a legal adult. It’s your own fault if you don’t spend that time learning the things you need to know to deal with the world. Not effing Yale’s, or wherever’s. Every problem in that article can be solved by individual students making good choices. People can be guided to do these things – and they ARE – but you can’t make ’em drink.

Not only that, Wendy, but Mr. Deresiewicz apparently did not learn even one iota of humility.

But it isn’t just a matter of class. 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 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.

That’s the entire problem right there. Nothing at all to do with the education system or elite institutions. There is no undergrad course you can take to learn humility and empathy with humanity in general.

You either believe each human being has an intrinsic worth—separate from any deeds or accomplishments—or you don’t. He clearly does not.

So, in other words, unlike Queen’s students, Ivy League students aren’t wearing their “Yes, I go to [insert name of school], and yes, I am better than you” T-shirts with a sense of irony.

(At least, I hope Queen’s students had a sense of irony about that.)

I can certainly relate to the “don’t worry about failing…” bit. Joey, I don’t know if it was like this when you were there, but in recent years your and my high school (and I suspect every other private high school in the city, most of all Richie Rich Academy) has had a well-known ‘tradition’ of inflating grades sent off to OUAC and other institutions, to the point that most of the final year students didn’t give half a damn about classes. And while I won’t deny that the academic standards were fairly high, admission standards sure as hell weren’t (which is how the admission test was sold when my parents initially applied to send me there). If your family was wealthy and Italian, you would get into the school, and through the wonders of senior year grade inflation, you would get into the university of their choice. Even though I graduated in the so-called ‘double cohort’ year, the smug certainty displayed by my peers about their eventual admission to wherever they planned to go made me very cynical indeed.

Coming from an environment like that, the dense, unforgiving maze of bureaucracy that makes up the University of Toronto was actually a welcome change.

@Chris – I agree, no class can teach that. Then again, a well-rounded “smart” person knows that they need to find another way to learn it.

Do you think I am extra wicked pissed at this guy because I come from the land of dudes with goatees, Sox caps and Boston accents? 😀

The writer is absolutely correct. And, as someone who wanted to get into an Ivy but never did–and am still bitter about it–it makes me feel just that little bit better. See, the smart aren’t really smart, and the rich aren’t really happy, and …

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