In which I cry a river

Many years ago, I was sitting in a friend's apartment on the Upper West Side. I recall nothing about the conversation other than that I was there with several good friends, one of whom was in the middle of discussing going somewhere or another. By way of describing many of the people she encountered upon arrival at wherever it was she had gone, she said that they seemed like "state school student"-types, or something very similar. This was, of course, because she had assumed all of us had gone to elite private (likely Ivy League) schools, and would thus understand her shorthand to mean "meatheads." When I politely coughed and mentioned that I had gone to a state school, there was a beat or two of awkward silence, after which she said, "Well, you know what I mean" and continued with her anecdote.

Perhaps you can tell that the memory still rankles? Now, my experience isn't entirely apposite, as the particular program I entered was a selective one, which I chose over the chance to attend an elite private university. However, after having had made that choice, for years afterward I had a horrible sense of inferiority when faced with students who had gone to "better" schools. When I visited my brother at the prestigious private school he chose for undergrad, I wandered around and mused that this was a real university, and these were real students. Lest this post degenerate into an extended exercise in pointless whinging, I should state that after years of working with and befriending numerous Ivy League alumni, my sense of inferiority has abated. I figure, if I keep ending up in the same social and professional circles as Harvard grads, either I'm doing something right or the brand is irreparably damaged.

Where was I going with this? My mind is still in a bit of a whirl after being on call all weekend during the Snoutbreak, and dealing with innumerable calls along the lines of "Oh, my GOD!! My baby has a fever and you must save her and why are you not calling a chopper to whisk her to Boston this instant?!?!?" Makes one kind of addled, and glad to come out the other side. Anyhow, I think I was going to mention this article from The American Scholar. It's over a year old, but I only just now read it.

It's titled "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education," and it essentially makes the case that elite universities are factories of conformity, which churn out grads who are adept at entering the upper echelons of the political and professional world, but not at thinking with intellectual rigor or curiosity. Before I get to the merits of the article as a whole, I would like to share my favorite paragraph:
What about people who aren’t bright in any sense? I have a friend who went to an Ivy League college after graduating from a typically mediocre public high school. One of the values of going to such a school, she once said, is that it teaches you to relate to stupid people. Some people are smart in the elite-college way, some are smart in other ways, and some aren’t smart at all. It should be embarrassing not to know how to talk to any of them, if only because talking to people is the only real way of knowing them. Elite institutions are supposed to provide a humanistic education, but the first principle of humanism is Terence’s: “nothing human is alien to me.” The first disadvantage of an elite education is how very much of the human it alienates you from.
I went to a public high school that, while recognized for its quality both on the state and national levels, was not a feeder school for the Ivies. I don't know if that qualifies it as "mediocre." But I glory in the knowledge that my having attended it may have aided in my ability to relate to the stupid. Indeed, heretofore I had no idea that I was so gifted by comparison to those deprived souls who had attended the best schools from the get-go. Thanks, Professor Deresiewicz! (The good professor starts the article with an anecdote about having a plumber in his house, and having no idea how to talk with him! I would love to read an article from the converse perspective, detailing the travails of a poor plumber who is forced to endure some egghead professor's awkward attempts at small talk.)

I think there is much about the article that rings true. I suspect that many students do conform to an expected norm in order to get into the country's top schools, and once there experience similar pressures to succeed in the right kind of way on the path to the right kind of career. That being said, I think Professor Deresiewicz paints with a broad brush from a limited perspective. Just because the campus he surveys isn't littered with hippies or punks or "gender queers" doesn't mean that there isn't the contemporary equivalent to be seen, and this probably says more about American society right now than it does about the Ivies. (Be sure to let me know if I've missed a resurgence of gender queerness.) I suspect that there is no shortage of students who are driven by intellectual curiosity of the sort he feels universities ought to be cultivating.

The one area where I agree most resoundingly with Prof D is with regard to economic diversity at the top American schools. He writes:
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 largely—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.
One of the best solutions I have heard for the problem of affirmative action is moving away from a race-based approach, and moving toward a class-based one. A great many black and Latino people would still benefit, but it would create more meaningful diversity and direct the help more effectively toward those who need it most.

I am curious to know what other people think of Professor Deresiewicz's article. In fact, a certain couple of co-bloggers may feel compelled to weigh in! Are elite universities really conformity assembly lines? Is there still intellectual life there? Should I get over any lingering sense of inferiority? I'm all ears.


  1. it seems that Prof. D. fancies himself a Malcolm Gladwell disciple.

  2. This may not exactly fit what you are expecting as a reply, but . Many years ago (when I was very young) I was at Sporters, a crowded Boston bar. I bumped into someone and being the gentleman I am, I offered apologies and a hello. I was warmly greeted with a "heddo", how-do-you-do, to which I responded "vedy" nicely thank you to which they replied, "Oh your one of us". No I said, I have a vedy bad code. Oh how I loved the Harvard lads. :)