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.
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.
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.