Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Elite Education: Propagating Economic Class and Producing Excellent Sheep

William Deresiewicz wrote an article on the highest of our higher education facilities back in 2008.  It was excellent then and seems even more relevant today.  It appeared in the The American Scholar with the title The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.  It opened with this lede:

“Our best universities have forgotten that the reason they exist is to make minds, not careers”

Deresiewicz contends that elite universities (read Ivy League) have become factories for producing economic success and are actually guilty of a form of anti-intellectualism.

Consider who attends elite universities:

“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.”

Acceptance to an elite school is smugly viewed as the culmination of a rigorous meritocratic process, but it is actually merely a filter through which only the advantaged can pass.

“I’m talking about the whole system in which these skirmishes play out. Not just the Ivy League and its peer institutions, but also the mechanisms that get you there in the first place: the private and affluent public “feeder” schools, the ever-growing parastructure of tutors and test-prep courses and enrichment programs, the whole admissions frenzy and everything that leads up to and away from it. The message, as always, is the medium. Before, after, and around the elite college classroom, a constellation of values is ceaselessly inculcated. As globalization sharpens economic insecurity, we are increasingly committing ourselves—as students, as parents, as a society—to a vast apparatus of educational advantage.”

Arrival at an elite school also produces a misleading sense of entitlement and self-worth.

“There is nothing wrong with taking pride in one’s intellect or knowledge. There is something wrong with the smugness and self-congratulation that elite schools connive at from the moment the fat envelopes come in the mail. From orientation to graduation, the message is implicit in every tone of voice and tilt of the head, every old-school tradition, every article in the student paper, every speech from the dean. The message is: You have arrived. Welcome to the club. And the corollary is equally clear: You deserve everything your presence here is going to enable you to get. When people say that students at elite schools have a strong sense of entitlement, they mean that those students think they deserve more than other people because their SAT scores are higher.”
“The elite like to think of themselves as belonging to a meritocracy, but that’s true only up to a point. Getting through the gate is very difficult, but once you’re in, there’s almost nothing you can do to get kicked out. Not the most abject academic failure, not the most heinous act of plagiarism, not even threatening a fellow student with bodily harm—I’ve heard of all three—will get you expelled. The feeling is that, by gosh, it just wouldn’t be fair—in other words, the self-protectiveness of the old-boy network, even if it now includes girls. Elite schools nurture excellence, but they also nurture what a former Yale graduate student I know calls “entitled mediocrity.” A is the mark of excellence; A- is the mark of entitled mediocrity. It’s another one of those metaphors, not so much a grade as a promise. It means, don’t worry, we’ll take care of you. You may not be all that good, but you’re good enough.”

The elite schools are corporations with a business plan that requires the propagation of class and wealth.

“There’s a reason elite schools speak of training leaders, not thinkers—holders of power, not its critics. An independent mind is independent of all allegiances, and elite schools, which get a large percentage of their budget from alumni giving, are strongly invested in fostering institutional loyalty. As another friend, a third-generation Yalie, says, the purpose of Yale College is to manufacture Yale alumni. Of course, for the system to work, those alumni need money. At Yale, the long-term drift of students away from majors in the humanities and basic sciences toward more practical ones like computer science and economics has been abetted by administrative indifference. The college career office has little to say to students not interested in law, medicine, or business, and elite universities are not going to do anything to discourage the large percentage of their graduates who take their degrees to Wall Street. In fact, they’re showing them the way. The liberal arts university is becoming the corporate university, its center of gravity shifting to technical fields where scholarly expertise can be parlayed into lucrative business opportunities.”

 The need to produce those “destined for success” results in a narrow focus on specific skill and knowledge attainment at the cost of eliminating any possibility for intellectual adventure.  Rather than creating an environment in which a student can “find himself,” elite universities expect incoming students to show signs that they have already defined a path forward for themselves.

“So when students get to college, they hear a couple of speeches telling them to ask the big questions, and when they graduate, they hear a couple more speeches telling them to ask the big questions. And in between, they spend four years taking courses that train them to ask the little questions—specialized courses, taught by specialized professors, aimed at specialized students. Although the notion of breadth is implicit in the very idea of a liberal arts education, the admissions process increasingly selects for kids who have already begun to think of themselves in specialized terms—the junior journalist, the budding astronomer, the language prodigy. We are slouching, even at elite schools, toward a glorified form of vocational training.”

The elite schools intend to train leaders as opposed to thinkers.  Or, as Deresiewicz puts it: ‘holders of power, not its critics.  And what characteristics can one expect from these future leaders?

“Being an intellectual begins with thinking your way outside of your assumptions and the system that enforces them. But students who get into elite schools are precisely the ones who have best learned to work within the system, so it’s almost impossible for them to see outside it, to see that it’s even there. Long before they got to college, they turned themselves into world-class hoop-jumpers and teacher-pleasers, getting A’s in every class no matter how boring they found the teacher or how pointless the subject, racking up eight or 10 extracurricular activities no matter what else they wanted to do with their time.”

Deresiewicz worries that the narrowness of focus required to reach an elite school, coupled with the narrowness of focus provided by the elite school, creates professionals who have difficulty relating to people and subjects that reside outside of their cone of knowledge.  In his words, elite education can create “smart people who aren’t ‘smart’.”

“The existence of multiple forms of intelligence has become a commonplace, but however much elite universities like to sprinkle their incoming classes with a few actors or violinists, they select for and develop one form of intelligence: the analytic. While this is broadly true of all universities, elite schools, precisely because their students (and faculty, and administrators) possess this one form of intelligence to such a high degree, are more apt to ignore the value of others. One naturally prizes what one most possesses and what most makes for one’s advantages. But social intelligence and emotional intelligence and creative ability, to name just three other forms, are not distributed preferentially among the educational elite. The “best” are the brightest only in one narrow sense. One needs to wander away from the educational elite to begin to discover this.”

Deresiewicz’s article must have been sufficiently popular to encourage him to expand the topic into a book.  He was discussing his views on intellectual development with his class one day and a perceptive student offered this comment:

“So are you saying that we’re all just, like, really excellent sheep?”

The phrase suggested the title: Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.  It is due to be released in August, 2014.  If it is as well-written and as interesting as this article, it should be a success.

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