My friends, I have just read one of the dopiest essays I have ever seen in my life (and regular readers of this blog know that’s really saying something.) It is called “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education: Our Best Universities Have Forgotten that the Reason They Exist is to Make Minds, Not Careers,” and was published in The American Scholar. It’s author is William Deresiewicz, who, we are told, English at Yale University from 1998-2008. It is the latest representative of a tiresome genre: “You Ivy Leaguers think you’re soooooo smart. But you’re really just a bunch of spoiled rich kids!”


Deresiewicz’s crude stereotyping and frequently inane statements will require more than one blog post to unpack. So let’s get started.

Now, I happen to know a few things about Ivy Leaguers. I attended Brown for undergraduate school and Dartmouth for graduate school. My brother graduated from Columbia, both undergraduate and Law. I went to high school in the shadow of Princeton University. So I can say with great confidence that the picture of Ivy League students as snobby rich kids who have had everything handed to them, who hold an unwarranted sense of entitlement, and who spend every waking moment of every day cataloging the ways in which they are superiour to the common horde, is, like all stereotypes, mostly nonsense. Such people exist, certainly, but they do not represent the center of gravity.

Now let’s see how Deresiewicz tells it:

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 degrees, 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.

That’s the opening paragraph. Anyone optimistic the article is going to improve?

First, for the record, I recently had a plumber in my house (he installed a new bathtub faucet for me) and I had no trouble at all making small talk with him.

That aside, have you fully savored the irony of an article that is going to excoriate Ivy League students for being full of themselves opening with a description of a plumber that treats him like some sort of Martian? I mean, really, for take your breath away condescension that paragraph is difficult to top.

And of what, exactly, do the Ivy League schools stand accused here? Are they supposed to offer courses in talking to plumbers? I would note that small talk is a two way street. Was the plumber effortlessly maintaining his end of the conversation, only to be foiled by Deresiewicz’s inability to do likewise? We are all products of our stations in life. Of course it is sometimes difficult to relate to someone whose experiences differ greatly from our own.

Moving on:

It’s not surprising that it took me so long to discover the extent of my miseducation, because the last thing an elite education will teach you is its own inadequacy. As two dozen years at Yale and Columbia have shown me, elite colleges relentlessly encourage their students to flatter themselves for being there, and for what being there can do for them. The advantages of an elite education are indeed undeniable. You learn to think, at least in certain ways, and you make the contacts needed to launch yourself into a life rich in all of society’s most cherished rewards. To consider that while some opportunities are being created, others are being cancelled and that while some abilities are being developed, others are being crippled is, within this context, not only outrageous, but inconceivable.

This certainly was not my experience, though here there may be a real difference between Brown and Yale. Brown, you see, is constantly having to explain why they are usually ranked last in the Ivy League in those miserable U.S. News listings. Gives them a bit of a complex. Add to that the fact that among Ivy League schools Brown is the place for hippies and creative types, and it might add up to a different atmosphere.

That said, I don’t recall ever being encouraged to flatter myself just for being there. Usually we were exhorted to get involved in community service, and the lion’s share of the students did. Most of the students I knew at Brown worked their tails off in their courses, and had two dozen other things going on the side. Liberal guilt was far more common than a sense of entitlement. The libraries were not exactly empty on Staurday nights. The culture was constantly reminding us of the unbelievable opportunities we had been given, and of the need to take advantage of them.

Anyway, back to Deresiewicz. It goes without saying that pursuing one opportunity entails not pursuing others. It likewise goes without saying that four years of college represent only the barest beginnings of one education. But I can’t wait to hear how an Ivy League education actually cripples you.

Skipping ahead:

The first disadvantage of an elite education, as I learned in my kitchen that day, is that it makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you. Elite schools pride themselves on their diversity, but that diversity is almost entirely a matter of ethnicity and race. With respect to class, these schools are largelly–indeed increasingly–homogeneous. Visit any elite campus in our great nation and you can thrill to the heartwarming spectacle of the children of white businesspeople and professionals studying and playing alongside the children of black, Asian, and Latino businesspeople and professionals. At the same time, because these schools tend to cultivate liberal attitudes, they leave their students in the paradoxical position of wanting to advocate on behalf of the working class while being unable to hold a simple conversation with anyone in it. Witness the last two Democratic presidential nominees, Al Gore and John Kerry: one each from Harvard and Yale, both earnest, decent, intelligent men, both utterly incapable of communicating with the larger electorate.

Where to begin? Al Gore, who won the popular vote in 2000 by over 500,000 votes, who has now written several bestselling books and was featured in a highly successful documentary, is utterly incapable of communicating with the larger electorate? Please. And Kerry lost the election by less than 100,000 votes in Ohio, and I’m pretty sure there were other issues in that campaign other than Kerry’s stiffness.

But just for fun let us grant Deresiewicz’s premise. Gore and Kerry were hobbled by their Ivy League educations and now can’t talk to normal people. Why does he write as if that reflects badly on Gore and Kerry?

That Gore and Kerry (and to a lesser extent Obama) are constantly criticized for being too intellectual and nuanced in their speech does not represent a hole in their educations. It represents a deficiency in the educations of the people criticizing them! The problem isn’t that they had an elite education. It’s that so many other people are given wildly deificient educations.

And what about that first sentence? Deresiewicz can’t talk to plumbers, and he thinks that is the fault of his education? And he thinks that somehow any deficiency from which he suffers must also be suffered by other Ivy Leaguers? I know a lot of Ivy Leaguers, and none of them feel hobbled in their basic conversational skills, okay? One suspects that Deresiewicz is projecting here. He’s a big snob who sees the world carefully divided into people like him on the one hand and little people on the other, so he projects that view on to the university culture out of which he emerged.

The issue of class diversity at elite schools is an important one. Deresiewicz provides no statistics to back up his claim that the Ivy League schools are becoming increasingly homogenous in that way. My impression is that all of them devote a great deal of time and money to fincanical aid and to recruiting people from disadvantaged backgrounds. It’s good PR, if nothing else. For example, when I was at Brown the school was taking a lot of heat for not having need-blind admissions. This was a major issue among the students, since the school was in the middle of a capital campaign at that time and initially did not have financial aid as a big priority.

It is not surprising that the student body of Ivy League schools come predominantly from privileged backgrounds. Even leaving aside the basic economics of affording such an education, there is the simple and undeniable fact that the sort of people most likely to be able to hack it in that environment are going to be people who come from a healthy background. The children of businesspeople and professionals are likely to be growing up in homes that value education, and in which the parents take an active interest in their child’s school work. Success at an Ivy League school requires certain skills that are more likely to be found among children of privilege. It is a national disgrace that so many poor and middle class children are stuck in failing schools, but high admission standards among Ivy League schools is not responsible for that.

Finally, there is Deresiewicz’s suggestion that it is an elite education that makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you. How absurd! Does he think that less well-educated folks find it trivial to relate to people totally different from themselves? A difficulty in seeing things from the perspecitves of other folks is pretty much a universal human thing.

If this is an example of a skill that gets crippled by and Ivy League education, then I am not impressed.

We’ve barely scratche dthe surface of all that is wrong with this essay, but we will save that for a different post.

Comments

  1. #1 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    September 25, 2008

    It’s author is William Deresiewicz, who, we are told, English at Yale University from 1998-2008

    Verb? Taught? Studied?

  2. #2 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    September 25, 2008

    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.

    I’d probably start off with some witty repartee like, “The bathroom is the second door on the left. The sink drain is dripping.”

  3. #3 Blake Stacey
    September 25, 2008

    Yes, he verbed in English at Yale University. (-:

    Frankly, I don’t care whether Deresiewicz can make small talk with his plumber — it’s pretty plain he’d have a hard time communicating anything meaningful with me, because he has nothing in that department to offer.

  4. #4 SLC
    September 25, 2008

    Al Gore and John Kerry: one each from Harvard and Yale, both earnest, decent, intelligent men, both utterly incapable of communicating with the larger electorate.

    I seem to recall that George W. Bush was a graduate of Yale and Harvard Business School (and member of Skull and Bones to boot). Doesn’t seem to fit numbnuts Deresiewiczs’ stereotype.

  5. #5 windy
    September 25, 2008

    Frasier’s version was funnier, and equally fictional.

  6. #6 Badger3k
    September 25, 2008

    Not having had an ivy league education, I am completely unable to comprehend what this post said. For some reason, it is all gibberish.

    Seriously, while people of different educational or professional backgrounds may have little in common, I’ve never had or seen any problems communicating. Different people may not always agree, so the conversation may not be the greatest, but I’ve never seen any great difficulty.

  7. #7 llewelly
    September 25, 2008

    Chad Orzel blogged about this at Uncertain Principles months ago. His take on it was quite different from yours.

  8. #8 Blake Stacey
    September 25, 2008

    The issue of class diversity at elite schools is an important one. Deresiewicz provides no statistics to back up his claim that the Ivy League schools are becoming increasingly homogenous in that way.

    Of course he doesn’t. He backs up his big point with an anecdote, too: “I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say”, etc. Statistics and evidence have no place in the Ivy League.

    *narf*

  9. #9 Dirka Dirka
    September 25, 2008

    Let me guess: he never did an honest day’s work in his life. Think of all the crappy jobs you’ve had, starting with childhood chores, and progressing to after-school and summer jobs, and part-time jobs while in college. You come out of it able to speak to anyone.

    He blames his education for the fact that he’s a spoiled rich kid.

  10. #10 Charles Siegel
    September 25, 2008

    To be fair, I’m in the middle of grad school at an Ivy League, and I can see Deresiewicz’s point: I think I’d be completely incapable of tolerating small talk with a moron like him…wait, that’s not what he meant? Frankly, for me, education level isn’t a problem…it’s active ignorance of reality that’s a problem for talking to people, and that has nothing to do with going to an Ivy or not…

  11. #11 crf
    September 25, 2008

    Educated politicians may have a hard time communicating with the public due to less than competent reporters, working in corporate structures that try to please consumers, rather than educate them or have them question their beliefs and potentially upset them.

  12. #12 ringo
    September 25, 2008

    As someone with two degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, I’m pleased to note that I would never have trouble making smalltalk with a plumber standing in my kitchen. There wouldn’t be a plumber in my kitchen to begin with…

    (Do you have any idea how much those guys charge, compared to the cost of a snake and a couple of pipe wrenches? Sheesh).

  13. #13 Valhar2000
    September 26, 2008

    You really have to be a world-class idiot to be unable to talk to a plumber standing in your kitchen. What, does Deresiewicz think people that were not educated in Ivy League Schools are aliens? That they live in far away lands, have no mouths, and obtain sustenance from smelling flowers? Plutarch may sound good in a conversation, but he’s a bit obsolete, Master William. Just goddamn talk to the guy!

    How hard can it be? You tell the guy what’s broken, and he tells you what he’s going to do, and if it makes sense you give him the go ahead. But then maybe this is the kind of guy who can’t read the manual for his VCR to get it to stop blinking, because Ivy Leaguers are forbidden from reading things written in poor-people English.

    If ever there was a pompous arrogant imbecile…

  14. #14 chris y
    September 26, 2008

    Last time I had to call out a plumber we discussed (aside from plumbing) contemporary jazz. Neither a plumbing apprenticeship nor a PhD would have help either of us prepare for that, but you know, there’s other stuff.

  15. #15 Science Avenger
    September 26, 2008

    I’m sure Deresiewicz would have a hard time talking to a Bushman too. So? If there is a point to any of this, he’s sure failed to communicate it to me, and I’ve never been a plumber.

  16. #16 KAS
    September 26, 2008

    “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.”

    How could he have “suddenly learned” that he couldn’t communicate? Because he had an accent, a Red Sox cap or is it the presumed lack of intelligence factor? Plumbers are not dumb and they make money hand over fist– so, maybe this plumber was educated (which by the way is not the only way to procure knowledge – you can learn outside of school -it’s called a book)

    It’s exactly as you stated, this guy has a silver spoon so far up his *ss that he presumes he is above other people and perceives the world through a distorted lens.

    ~KAS

  17. #17 Valhar2000
    September 26, 2008

    Yeah! One thing is not having much in common with someone, and thus not expecting to become great friends, but for god’s sake, plumbers, stockers, cashiers and taxi drivers are still people! They watch TV and movies, they listen to music, they despair over their rowdy kids, and they enjoy sex and food. You have to be very far off the deep end to really have nothing to say to someone just because they are a plumber with a thick accent.

    Unless, of course, his problem was that he is not used to thick Boston accents. I’ve had that happen to me before, and until I got used to it communication was indeed difficult.

  18. #18 Jonathan Lubin
    September 26, 2008

    The premise of Professor Blowhole’s article is completely bogus. You don’t hire a plumber to have a small-talk conversation with him, and it’d only be delaying him from his job to detain him with one.
    When I was in Providence, I had a long-term business relationship with my plumber, marked by mutual respect and liking, but its success was not based in any way on small-talk conversations.

  19. #19 windy
    September 26, 2008

    How could he have “suddenly learned” that he couldn’t communicate?

    Most likely, the plumber just wanted to get his job done and didn’t want to talk to him, he caught the vibe and got uncomfortable, and invented a stupid rationalization.

    Interestingly, a postdoc in the recent NatureJobs newsletter says about her experience after fieldwork in Ethiopia:

    Frightening though the cultural and language gap may be, in Ethiopia any positive action or word on my part meets with approval. Mistakes are happily overlooked. A completely different fear grips me when I meet new people in academia. I’m expected to know the people I’m meeting, know what I’m talking about and know how my research intersects with that of the stranger in front of me.

    Academics can’t even talk to each other! Panic! :)

  20. #20 ctw
    September 26, 2008

    I think “Dirka Dirka” spotted the essence of the author’s problem – he isn’t a DYI’er (as anyone who is salaried or makes less than roughly $80/hr after-tax usually should be). If you are, making small talk with tradespeople is only an adjunct to picking their brains so to avoid having to rely on them in the future.

    - Charles

  21. #21 Jeffrey Shallit
    September 26, 2008

    And obviously, George Bush can talk to plumbers because, although he attended Yale, he didn’t get an Ivy League education.

  22. #22 AnswersInGenitals
    September 26, 2008

    My degrees are from Stanford University, the “Harvard of the West” and, while I have no doubt that I could converse with a plumber on any topic he may chose, I can assure Mr. Deresiewicz that I would never deign to do so. I always let the butler or one of his underlings give direction to the trades people. One decided advantage of an Ivy League (or Stanford) education is that we have all found that after graduation our farts smelled like fresh cut violets, most pleasing to both ear and nose.

    On the other hand, now that I recall the few debates involving William F. Buckley (Yale, 1950) that I tried to understand, I think the man might just have a point.

  23. #23 James the Least
    September 28, 2008

    You people have a definite point. Ivy League educations aren’t, and haven’t been for many, many years. Educations, I mean–which is why you’re neither equipped for, nor habituated to, reasoning about higher things and find so much in common between yourselves and plumbers. You have not been educated. You have been trained, which is an entirely different thing.

    Evidently the man who wrote the book in question found some obscure, frozen-in-time corner of Ivydom where he could still eke out something resembling an actual education, because that’s what HE seems to be talking about. For the same reason that Aristotle or Plato would have had trouble finding common interest with the plumber, so does he. Ari or P wouldn’t have given a flying fig about who’s in contention for the World Series or the size of the tits on that gal down at Moe’s. They would have wanted to know in which direction the water circles as it drains out of the tub and/or whether it’s possible to be blind and yet completely unaware of it.

  24. #24 David D.G.
    September 29, 2008

    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.

    I have often had much the same experience, except that the only relevant “hole in my education” was the lack of classes in Spanish. Whenever a tradesman speaks English passably (and avoids the jargon of his profession), I have no trouble communicating with him at all.

    ~David D.G.

  25. #25 Blake Stacey
    September 30, 2008

    I think Deresiewicz is participating in a panel this Thursday at Harvard (saw a poster on my way home from boozing it up). Area residents should attend dressed in Red Sox hats, sweat-stained shirts and tool belts.

    “Next question — yes, you in the third row, waving the, ahem, wrench?”

    “Dude, you have any like fuckin’ evidence to back up your like fuckin’ assertions? ‘Cause all I hear is like fuckin’ anecdotes, and the plural of fuckin’ anecdotes ain’t fuckin’ data. Your problem ain’t that you can’t talk with your fuckin’ plumbah, it’s that you ain’t got a fuckin’ thing to say to the other people in your big fuckin’ white cock of an Ivory Towah. Fuckin-A, mush, that’s wicked fuckin’ retahded.”

    On second thought, I might be committed to drinking that evening.

  26. #26 David D.G.
    September 30, 2008

    Blake:

    Would that be before or after your effin’ hilarious appearance at the panel Q&A?

    ~David D.G.

  27. #27 windy
    September 30, 2008

    Evidently the man who wrote the book in question found some obscure, frozen-in-time corner of Ivydom where he could still eke out something resembling an actual education, because that’s what HE seems to be talking about. For the same reason that Aristotle or Plato would have had trouble finding common interest with the plumber, so does he. Ari or P wouldn’t have given a flying fig about who’s in contention for the World Series or the size of the tits on that gal down at Moe’s. They would have wanted to know in which direction the water circles as it drains out of the tub and/or whether it’s possible to be blind and yet completely unaware of it.

    If you are implying that “Ari and P” were as useless as this Deresiewicz guy apparently is, I’m sorry but that’s just stupid. Aristotle got his hands dirty, he practiced medicine and dissected cartloads of animals. Plato wouldn’t have been interested in “the size of the tits on that gal down at Moe’s” since he swung the other way. A gay guy who wanted to outlaw homosexual intercourse. If Plato’s conservative politics didn’t impress the hypothetical redneck plumber, they could always talk wrestling.

  28. #28 Larry Moran
    October 3, 2008

    I did my graduate degree at Princeton (better than Brown or Dartmouth!). :-)

    I was able to carry on a conversation with my plumber, or at least I was until I discovered she was a Montreal Canadiens fan!

    Go Leafs Go!

    P.S. Most of our initial conversation involved patient explanations of how you are supposed to solder copper joints. The idea was that I wouldn’t have had to call her in the first place if I had done it correctly. She didn’t actually say that I was stupid but I could see it in her eyes. In exchange, I taught her some biochemistry (just kidding).

  29. #29 AnswersInGenitals
    October 4, 2008

    NEWS FLASH! NEWS FLASH! Ivy league graduate apprehended while trying to attend Red Sox game!

    Boston police chief Stanley Chshjaznowvski announced at a hastily called press conference that a Mr. Reginald Smythe-Reese was arrested when he attempted to attend a Red Sox baseball game. Chshjaznowvski said that Smythe-Reese has been on the ivy league graduate watch list for quite some time and the Boston police were waiting for him to make such a move. To gain access to the stadium, Smythe-Reese cleverly camouflaged his true identity by wearing last years tuxedo. However, suspicion was raised when he was seen to be eating a foot long ball park hot-dog with a knife and fork, and those suspicions were confirmed when he was seen drinking his luke warm beer from a champagne flute. When approached by ball park security personnel, Smythe-Reese attempted to escape the premises, but Joe Shucksmam, a Riversdale truck driver, was able to totally immobilize him by engaging him in conversation. Police Chief Chshjaznowvski stated that Mr. Smythe-Reese will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.

  30. #30 Jose Gutierrez
    October 8, 2008

    I am a freshman at MIT and my girlfriend is a freshman at Harvard. Deresiewicz has some very interesting points to make in his article. I agree with you that not all students fit this stereotype, but the vast majority do. My girlfriend was in an African-American history class and the class was asked to fill in a map of Africa. Many of the Juniors and Seniors had only Egypt filled in. My girlfriend, from a town in South Texas with an 83% poverty rate and a high school classified as academically unacceptable, had nearly all of them filled in. These students know the nuances of the SAT but do not know the first thing about real life. Many of the students who get in are those that work hardest, not necessarily the most intelligent. Many lack understanding of emotional intelligence or innate intelligence to critically think.

  31. #31 Peter Raleigh
    October 8, 2008

    A lot of people – particularly well-educated liberals – have a huge problem understanding the degree to which their class and education put them out of touch with the opinions of the overwhelming majority. Do you really think it’s a coincidence that you’re an Ivy League academic who also HAPPENS to think that Obama and Biden won their debates in a landslide? It’s not just because you’re smarter or better-educated that your opinion often diverges from the opinion of the majority – it’s because you’ve been firmly entrenched in an opposite worldview, and find it difficult or impossible to break free.

    By no means is this disparity confined to the difference between Ivy League universities and other colleges – the difference between college and no college is similarly immense, and few educational institutions make serious attempts to close the gap. Like it or not, the world’s highest degree of intellectual achievement will not bring you success if you’re out of touch.

    For example – do you REALLY think that neither Al Gore NOR John Kerry suffered from being (forgive me) professorial stiffs? Did you REALLY fail to notice how hard George W. Bush worked to distance himself from the Ivy League – to come off as an aw-shucks Texan straight-shooter in tune with average Americans? Do you REALLY not recognize elitism as one of the decisive issues of this election – and of the 21st century in general?

    Try to recognize how much of a bubble we live in. Try to break out.

  32. #32 uranasshole
    October 28, 2011

    Why don’t you learn how to use proper grammar you fucking idiot?

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