Thursday, August 21, 2008

The Disadvantages of an Elite Education

Thanks to my fellow RJC senior, Jolene Tan for sharing this article.

You can have the link at

Full quotation below.

The Disadvantages of an Elite Education
Our best universities have forgotten that the reason they exist is to
make minds, not careers

By William Deresiewicz

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.

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.

I'm not talking about curricula or the culture wars, the closing or
opening of the American mind, political correctness, canon formation,
or what have you. 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. With so many resources devoted to the business of elite
academics and so many people scrambling for the limited space at the
top of the ladder, it is worth asking what exactly it is you get in
the end—what it is we all get, because the elite students of today, as
their institutions never tire of reminding them, are the leaders of

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 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. 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.

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 learned to
give that little nod of understanding, that slightly sympathetic "Oh,"
when people told me they went to a less prestigious college. (If I'd
gone to Harvard, I would have learned to say "in Boston" when I was
asked where I went to school—the Cambridge version of noblesse
oblige.) 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.

I also never learned that there are 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.

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.

The second disadvantage, implicit in what I've been saying, is that an
elite education inculcates a false sense of self-worth. Getting to an
elite college, being at an elite college, and going on from an elite
college—all involve numerical rankings: SAT, GPA, GRE. You learn to
think of yourself in terms of those numbers. They come to signify not
only your fate, but your identity; not only your identity, but your
value. It's been said that what those tests really measure is your
ability to take tests, but even if they measure something real, it is
only a small slice of the real. The problem begins when students are
encouraged to forget this truth, when academic excellence becomes
excellence in some absolute sense, when "better at X" becomes simply

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.

At Yale, and no doubt at other places, the message is reinforced in
embarrassingly literal terms. The physical form of the university—its
quads and residential colleges, with their Gothic stone façades and
wrought-iron portals—is constituted by the locked gate set into the
encircling wall. Everyone carries around an ID card that determines
which gates they can enter. The gate, in other words, is a kind of
governing metaphor—because the social form of the university, as is
true of every elite school, is constituted the same way. Elite
colleges are walled domains guarded by locked gates, with admission
granted only to the elect. The aptitude with which students absorb
this lesson is demonstrated by the avidity with which they erect still
more gates within those gates, special realms of ever-greater
exclusivity—at Yale, the famous secret societies, or as they should
probably be called, the open-secret societies, since true secrecy
would defeat their purpose. There's no point in excluding people
unless they know they've been excluded.

One of the great errors of an elite education, then, is that it
teaches you to think that measures of intelligence and academic
achievement are measures of value in some moral or metaphysical sense.
But they're not. Graduates of elite schools are not more valuable than
stupid people, or talentless people, or even lazy people. Their pain
does not hurt more. Their souls do not weigh more. If I were
religious, I would say, God does not love them more. The political
implications should be clear. As John Ruskin told an older elite,
grabbing what you can get isn't any less wicked when you grab it with
the power of your brains than with the power of your fists. "Work must
always be," Ruskin says, "and captains of work must always be....[But]
there is a wide difference between being captains...of work, and
taking the profits of it."

The political implications don't stop there. An elite education not
only ushers you into the upper classes; it trains you for the life you
will lead once you get there. I didn't understand this until I began
comparing my experience, and even more, my students' experience, with
the experience of a friend of mine who went to Cleveland State. There
are due dates and attendance requirements at places like Yale, but no
one takes them very seriously. Extensions are available for the
asking; threats to deduct credit for missed classes are rarely, if
ever, carried out. In other words, students at places like Yale get an
endless string of second chances. Not so at places like Cleveland
State. My friend once got a D in a class in which she'd been running
an A because she was coming off a waitressing shift and had to hand in
her term paper an hour late.

That may be an extreme example, but it is unthinkable at an elite
school. Just as unthinkably, she had no one to appeal to. Students at
places like Cleveland State, unlike those at places like Yale, don't
have a platoon of advisers and tutors and deans to write out excuses
for late work, give them extra help when they need it, pick them up
when they fall down. They get their education wholesale, from an
indifferent bureaucracy; it's not handed to them in individually
wrapped packages by smiling clerks. There are few, if any,
opportunities for the kind of contacts I saw my students get
routinely—classes with visiting power brokers, dinners with foreign
dignitaries. There are also few, if any, of the kind of special funds
that, at places like Yale, are available in profusion: travel
stipends, research fellowships, performance grants. Each year, my
department at Yale awards dozens of cash prizes for everything from
freshman essays to senior projects. This year, those awards came to
more than $90,000—in just one department.

Students at places like Cleveland State also don't get A-'s just for
doing the work. There's been a lot of handwringing lately over grade
inflation, and it is a scandal, but the most scandalous thing about it
is how uneven it's been. Forty years ago, the average GPA at both
public and private universities was about 2.6, still close to the
traditional B-/C+ curve. Since then, it's gone up everywhere, but not
by anything like the same amount. The average gpa at public
universities is now about 3.0, a B; at private universities it's about
3.3, just short of a B+. And at most Ivy League schools, it's closer
to 3.4. But there are always students who don't do the work, or who
are taking a class far outside their field (for fun or to fulfill a
requirement), or who aren't up to standard to begin with (athletes,
legacies). At a school like Yale, students who come to class and work
hard expect nothing less than an A-. And most of the time, they get

In short, the way students are treated in college trains them for the
social position they will occupy once they get out. At schools like
Cleveland State, they're being trained for positions somewhere in the
middle of the class system, in the depths of one bureaucracy or
another. They're being conditioned for lives with few second chances,
no extensions, little support, narrow opportunity—lives of
subordination, supervision, and control, lives of deadlines, not
guidelines. At places like Yale, of course, it's the reverse. 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.

Here, too, college reflects the way things work in the adult world
(unless it's the other way around). For the elite, there's always
another extension—a bailout, a pardon, a stint in rehab—always plenty
of contacts and special stipends—the country club, the conference, the
year-end bonus, the dividend. If Al Gore and John Kerry represent one
of the characteristic products of an elite education, George W. Bush
represents another. It's no coincidence that our current president,
the apotheosis of entitled mediocrity, went to Yale. Entitled
mediocrity is indeed the operating principle of his administration,
but as Enron and WorldCom and the other scandals of the dot-com
meltdown demonstrated, it's also the operating principle of corporate
America. The fat salaries paid to underperforming CEOs are an adult
version of the A-. Anyone who remembers the injured sanctimony with
which Kenneth Lay greeted the notion that he should be held
accountable for his actions will understand the mentality in
question—the belief that once you're in the club, you've got a
God-given right to stay in the club. But you don't need to remember
Ken Lay, because the whole dynamic played out again last year in the
case of Scooter Libby, another Yale man.

If one of the disadvantages of an elite education is the temptation it
offers to mediocrity, another is the temptation it offers to security.
When parents explain why they work so hard to give their children the
best possible education, they invariably say it is because of the
opportunities it opens up. But what of the opportunities it shuts
down? An elite education gives you the chance to be rich—which is,
after all, what we're talking about—but it takes away the chance not
to be. Yet the opportunity not to be rich is one of the greatest
opportunities with which young Americans have been blessed. We live in
a society that is itself so wealthy that it can afford to provide a
decent living to whole classes of people who in other countries exist
(or in earlier times existed) on the brink of poverty or, at least, of
indignity. You can live comfortably in the United States as a
schoolteacher, or a community organizer, or a civil rights lawyer, or
an artist—that is, by any reasonable definition of comfort. You have
to live in an ordinary house instead of an apartment in Manhattan or a
mansion in L.A.; you have to drive a Honda instead of a BMW or a
Hummer; you have to vacation in Florida instead of Barbados or Paris,
but what are such losses when set against the opportunity to do work
you believe in, work you're suited for, work you love, every day of
your life?

Yet it is precisely that opportunity that an elite education takes
away. How can I be a schoolteacher—wouldn't that be a waste of my
expensive education? Wouldn't I be squandering the opportunities my
parents worked so hard to provide? What will my friends think? How
will I face my classmates at our 20th reunion, when they're all rich
lawyers or important people in New York? And the question that lies
behind all these: Isn't it beneath me? So a whole universe of
possibility closes, and you miss your true calling.

This is not to say that students from elite colleges never pursue a
riskier or less lucrative course after graduation, but even when they
do, they tend to give up more quickly than others. (Let's not even
talk about the possibility of kids from privileged backgrounds not
going to college at all, or delaying matriculation for several years,
because however appropriate such choices might sometimes be, our rigid
educational mentality places them outside the universe of
possibility—the reason so many kids go sleepwalking off to college
with no idea what they're doing there.) This doesn't seem to make
sense, especially since students from elite schools tend to graduate
with less debt and are more likely to be able to float by on family
money for a while. I wasn't aware of the phenomenon myself until I
heard about it from a couple of graduate students in my department,
one from Yale, one from Harvard. They were talking about trying to
write poetry, how friends of theirs from college called it quits
within a year or two while people they know from less prestigious
schools are still at it. Why should this be? Because students from
elite schools expect success, and expect it now. They have, by
definition, never experienced anything else, and their sense of self
has been built around their ability to succeed. The idea of not being
successful terrifies them, disorients them, defeats them. They've been
driven their whole lives by a fear of failure—often, in the first
instance, by their parents' fear of failure. The first time I blew a
test, I walked out of the room feeling like I no longer knew who I
was. The second time, it was easier; I had started to learn that
failure isn't the end of the world.

But if you're afraid to fail, you're afraid to take risks, which
begins to explain the final and most damning disadvantage of an elite
education: that it is profoundly anti-intellectual. This will seem
counterintuitive. Aren't kids at elite schools the smartest ones
around, at least in the narrow academic sense? Don't they work harder
than anyone else—indeed, harder than any previous generation? They
are. They do. But being an intellectual is not the same as being
smart. Being an intellectual means more than doing your homework.

If so few kids come to college understanding this, it is no wonder.
They are products of a system that rarely asked them to think about
something bigger than the next assignment. The system forgot to teach
them, along the way to the prestige admissions and the lucrative jobs,
that the most important achievements can't be measured by a letter or
a number or a name. It forgot that the true purpose of education is to
make minds, not careers.

Being an intellectual means, first of all, being passionate about
ideas—and not just for the duration of a semester, for the sake of
pleasing the teacher, or for getting a good grade. A friend who
teaches at the University of Connecticut once complained to me that
his students don't think for themselves. Well, I said, Yale students
think for themselves, but only because they know we want them to. I've
had many wonderful students at Yale and Columbia, bright, thoughtful,
creative kids whom it's been a pleasure to talk with and learn from.
But most of them have seemed content to color within the lines that
their education had marked out for them. Only a small minority have
seen their education as part of a larger intellectual journey, have
approached the work of the mind with a pilgrim soul. These few have
tended to feel like freaks, not least because they get so little
support from the university itself. Places like Yale, as one of them
put it to me, are not conducive to searchers.

Places like Yale are simply not set up to help students ask the big
questions. I don't think there ever was a golden age of
intellectualism in the American university, but in the 19th century
students might at least have had a chance to hear such questions
raised in chapel or in the literary societies and debating clubs that
flourished on campus. Throughout much of the 20th century, with the
growth of the humanistic ideal in American colleges, students might
have encountered the big questions in the classrooms of professors
possessed of a strong sense of pedagogic mission. Teachers like that
still exist in this country, but the increasingly dire exigencies of
academic professionalization have made them all but extinct at elite
universities. Professors at top research institutions are valued
exclusively for the quality of their scholarly work; time spent on
teaching is time lost. If students want a conversion experience,
they're better off at a liberal arts college.

When elite universities boast that they teach their students how to
think, they mean that they teach them the analytic and rhetorical
skills necessary for success in law or medicine or science or
business. But a humanistic education is supposed to mean something
more than that, as universities still dimly feel. 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.

Indeed, that seems to be exactly what those schools want. 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.

It's no wonder that the few students who are passionate about ideas
find themselves feeling isolated and confused. I was talking with one
of them last year about his interest in the German Romantic idea of
bildung, the upbuilding of the soul. But, he said—he was a senior at
the time—it's hard to build your soul when everyone around you is
trying to sell theirs.

Yet there is a dimension of the intellectual life that lies above the
passion for ideas, though so thoroughly has our culture been sanitized
of it that it is hardly surprising if it was beyond the reach of even
my most alert students. Since the idea of the intellectual emerged in
the 18th century, it has had, at its core, a commitment to social
transformation. Being an intellectual means thinking your way toward a
vision of the good society and then trying to realize that vision by
speaking truth to power. It means going into spiritual exile. It means
foreswearing your allegiance, in lonely freedom, to God, to country,
and to Yale. It takes more than just intellect; it takes imagination
and courage. "I am not afraid to make a mistake," Stephen Dedalus
says, "even a great mistake, a lifelong mistake, and perhaps as long
as eternity, too."

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. Paradoxically, the situation may be better at second-tier
schools and, in particular, again, at liberal arts colleges than at
the most prestigious universities. Some students end up at second-tier
schools because they're exactly like students at Harvard or Yale, only
less gifted or driven. But others end up there because they have a
more independent spirit. They didn't get straight A's because they
couldn't be bothered to give everything in every class. They
concentrated on the ones that meant the most to them or on a single
strong extracurricular passion or on projects that had nothing to do
with school or even with looking good on a college application. Maybe
they just sat in their room, reading a lot and writing in their
journal. These are the kinds of kids who are likely, once they get to
college, to be more interested in the human spirit than in school
spirit, and to think about leaving college bearing questions, not

I've been struck, during my time at Yale, by how similar everyone
looks. You hardly see any hippies or punks or art-school types, and at
a college that was known in the '80s as the Gay Ivy, few out lesbians
and no gender queers. The geeks don't look all that geeky; the
fashionable kids go in for understated elegance. Thirty-two flavors,
all of them vanilla. The most elite schools have become places of a
narrow and suffocating normalcy. Everyone feels pressure to maintain
the kind of appearance—and affect—that go with achievement. (Dress for
success, medicate for success.) I know from long experience as an
adviser that not every Yale student is appropriate and well-adjusted,
which is exactly why it worries me that so many of them act that way.
The tyranny of the normal must be very heavy in their lives. One
consequence is that those who can't get with the program (and they
tend to be students from poorer backgrounds) often polarize in the
opposite direction, flying off into extremes of disaffection and
self-destruction. But another consequence has to do with the large
majority who can get with the program.

I taught a class several years ago on the literature of friendship.
One day we were discussing Virginia Woolf's novel The Waves, which
follows a group of friends from childhood to middle age. In high
school, one of them falls in love with another boy. He thinks, "To
whom can I expose the urgency of my own passion?...There is
nobody—here among these grey arches, and moaning pigeons, and cheerful
games and tradition and emulation, all so skilfully organised to
prevent feeling alone." A pretty good description of an elite college
campus, including the part about never being allowed to feel alone.
What did my students think of this, I wanted to know? What does it
mean to go to school at a place where you're never alone? Well, one of
them said, I do feel uncomfortable sitting in my room by myself. Even
when I have to write a paper, I do it at a friend's. That same day, as
it happened, another student gave a presentation on Emerson's essay on
friendship. Emerson says, he reported, that one of the purposes of
friendship is to equip you for solitude. As I was asking my students
what they thought that meant, one of them interrupted to say, wait a
second, why do you need solitude in the first place? What can you do
by yourself that you can't do with a friend?

So there they were: one young person who had lost the capacity for
solitude and another who couldn't see the point of it. There's been
much talk of late about the loss of privacy, but equally calamitous is
its corollary, the loss of solitude. It used to be that you couldn't
always get together with your friends even when you wanted to. Now
that students are in constant electronic contact, they never have
trouble finding each other. But it's not as if their compulsive
sociability is enabling them to develop deep friendships. "To whom can
I expose the urgency of my own passion?": my student was in her
friend's room writing a paper, not having a heart-to-heart. She
probably didn't have the time; indeed, other students told me they
found their peers too busy for intimacy.

What happens when busyness and sociability leave no room for solitude?
The ability to engage in introspection, I put it to my students that
day, is the essential precondition for living an intellectual life,
and the essential precondition for introspection is solitude. They
took this in for a second, and then one of them said, with a dawning
sense of self-awareness, "So are you saying that we're all just, like,
really excellent sheep?" Well, I don't know. But I do know that the
life of the mind is lived one mind at a time: one solitary, skeptical,
resistant mind at a time. The best place to cultivate it is not within
an educational system whose real purpose is to reproduce the class

The world that produced John Kerry and George Bush is indeed giving us
our next generation of leaders. The kid who's loading up on AP courses
junior year or editing three campus publications while
double-majoring, the kid whom everyone wants at their college or law
school but no one wants in their classroom, the kid who doesn't have a
minute to breathe, let alone think, will soon be running a corporation
or an institution or a government. She will have many achievements but
little experience, great success but no vision. The disadvantage of an
elite education is that it's given us the elite we have, and the elite
we're going to have.


William Deresiewicz taught English at Yale University from 1998 to 2008.

1 comment:

Jia Mun aka Lizzie said...

can i copy this and post in my blog please? i am going to cite my sources... want to share it with my friends.

thanks! =)