30 July 2008

Link of the day: "The disadvantages of an elite education"

I recently read an essay called "The disadvantages of an elite education" written by a former Yale English professor, William Deresiewicz. The essay is a thorough and damming harangue on the Ivy League university system.

Many of the author's major points are familiar. Yale and other elite colleges are just a mill for taking the children of upper-class parents and turning out more upper-class citizens. The purpose of going to a school like Yale is to develop connections to other powerful people (Yale's Master Teas with celebrities come to mind). The students grow up to become people who can't relate to anyone who doesn't have an Ivy League degree. They are, in fact, taught that if you didn't attend an elite university, you are not worth meaningful conversation. Deresiewicz cites how at age 35, after 14 years in the Ivy League, he was unable to communicate with his plumber. Moreover, undergraduates at elite colleges are pampered and coddled to the point that they feel entitled to such treatment for the rest of their lives. The pampering naturally engenders a strong allegiance to the school brand, so that alumni donate millions and keep the system going. I'm sure there will be Ivy League alumni who take exception to these broad characterizations (and they should), but I think there is probably substantial truth to these statements.

What is my personal response to this? I went to an elite university, too, but it was an elite science and technology school. Scientists tend to be much more down-to-earth, so we avoid some of that "elitism stuff" but not all of it. In retrospect, I've noticed that quite a few of my undergraduate professors believed that their institution trained the best scientists/engineers and that other places were "lesser schools." (Yes, a professor actually said that.)

Can I talk to non-elite people? Yes. Do I feel entitled? No. I think that's a product of my family upbringing. My mom and dad always made it a point to pay attention to mail carriers, receptionists, and all the people who keep our society glued together. As for entitlement, my parents have a typical immigrant outlook which is you can always lose what you have, don't stop working. So non-entitlement was drilled into my head for years.

Deresiewicz does have some thought-provoking ideas that go beyond the usual elitism rant. These are both interesting and relevant to me.
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've always been surrounded by elite people. I grew up in an elite, highly-educated part of the country. I went to an elite undergraduate institution. I attend an Ivy League graduate school. It wasn't until I got to graduate school when I started to meet people who went to places like University of Kentucky. I found that there are many people who went to state schools who are smarter than people who went to elite schools like me. The reason is that people from "lesser" institutions have to work much harder to make up for the disadvantage of not having an elite degree. I also learned that it can be pretty intimidating for these same people to go to graduate school and find themselves surrounded by people with elite undergraduate degrees.
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... 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.
The other forms of intelligence matter more and more to me as I get older. I find that I like people best when they have more than just the standard "analytic" ability. My favorite people are the ones who can talk to both the elite and the plumber, the ones who can talk to both humanists and scientists, the ones who are both outstanding scholars and charismatic leaders, the ones who can both unravel long trains of analysis and yap some down-to-earth, practical talk.
The first disadvantage of an elite education is how very much of the human it alienates you from.
I worry about this a lot. If I spend all my time being busy and working to keep up in the rat race, I have no time to talk to my family or meet new people or even see people who are my friends. In grad school, your job is to produce work and papers, so you feel constant guilt about not working. If you're not working all the time, you feel like you don't deserve to be in grad school.
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.
It sounds really stupid, but I feel the burden of an elite education sometimes. What my parents say if I wanted to become a homemaker? (They would probably kill me.) What would my parents's friends think if I wanted to become a social worker? I know someone who got a law degree from Harvard and consequently decided she'd rather work with horses. The career track to becoming a physicist is very regimented, cut-throat, and self-absorbed. Is that really what I want? Do I want to pay my dues for 15 years and then finally have the freedom to say, do, and think what I want?
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.
The professor who supervised my master's thesis said that he had students break down in tears during his undergraduate physics lab course. I have a strong fear of failure, too, and I know it comes from my parents and the environment I grew up in. Failing is hard for me, but I'm trying to learn from it. It's hard for me not to think that failure is a reflection of my character. It's not, but I think it is. Failure in my career is a major worry, but a more subtle area where failure shows up is in my relationships. Sometimes I'm afraid to make my friend unhappy, for example, asking for their help or calling them out on behavior that made me unhappy. This is an area I'm working on -- having the courage to take risks with people and not worry about the consequences as much. If the relationship breaks, it probably wasn't a very strong one in the first place.

Of all the people I know, my mom is the one person who is terrified of failure. She hikes tall mountains to prove to herself that she's strong. As she has gotten older and her body has declined, she's turned to Buddhism as a way to find peace of mind. The whole situation seems overblown to me.
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... 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.
Exactly. But how do you stop the hoop-jumping and more importantly, the worrying about the hoop-jumping? I'm under so much pressure; saying you should stop worrying about your career is much easier said than done.

My friend Peter has taught introductory electromagnetism several times. The classes are bi-weekly and 90 minutes long, so he usually allows for a five minute break halfway through. He told me that when he stopped class, the students would just sit in their chairs obediently. Almost no one got up. Peter also told me about a student who emailed him at the beginning of the semester and asked for a list of assignments, saying that he needed to finish all the work early so he could presumably take care of his numerous extra-curricular activities. Unbelievable. I guess this guy is not in college for a love of learning.
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... 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.
Deresiewicz later suggests that going to a "second-tier" college or liberal arts college may be a lot better for a young person's human spirit. I imagine that the student body would be less "competitive," so you could spend less time on required work and more time on personal growth. I wonder if that's true. If I had chance to do it over again, maybe I would have opted for a liberal arts college. Still, I think I did pretty well as an undergraduate.

I remember finding out for the first time, in college, that I loved science. Before that, I had just been programmed by my parents and society to study. I treated math and science competitions as a competitive sport. Even with that heightened awareness, I found that it took a lot of work to have independent thoughts. My time was so consumed by problem sets that I traded socializing for deep intellectual thoughts. By deep thoughts, I mean that I would go through my lecture notes a second time and try to understand the bigger picture. Doing this made my studies so much more meaningful and as a nice side benefit, really impressed my teacher. No one told me to put in this extra time. I just knew in my gut that if I really loved physics, this is what I needed to do.

My teacher Bob was a big influence on me. He's the best physics teacher I've ever had, but that wasn't the only thing that impressed me. The campus newspaper published an interview with him. I learned that you shouldn't be afraid to "empower" yourself and seek allies to do things you think are important and true. I learned the principle of "it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission." It's a powerful life lesson that I still use today. Using these ideas has led me into many leadership projects. I started the tradition of having undergraduates invite a colloquium speaker once and a bimonthly happy hour in my graduate department. I also tried to start an undergraduate physics study group where we think about big ideas in physics. It was only semi-successful, but I'm glad I did it.

Of course, I don't want to rest on my laurels. I expound a little amateur philosophy on my blog now and then. I've always been interested in trying to become a better person, perhaps the bildung ("upbuilding of the soul") mentioned in the essay. Maybe when I get out of this grad school rat race, I can return to some of my "trouble-making."
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 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.
I bemoaned the trend towards universities as corporations in a post last year. It's disturbing to see Yale and Harvard throw tons of money at building new science facilities. I can't help thinking that the only purpose is to get more grant money, which will keep the wealth engine going. You may recall an infamous quote from the president of Harvard:
"One thing we all must worry about — I certainly do — is the federal support for scientific research. And are we all going to be chasing increasingly scarce dollars?" says Drew Gilpin Faust, Harvard's new president. Not that Faust seems worried about Harvard or other top-tier research schools. "They're going to be—we hope, we trust, we assume—the survivors in this race," she says. As for the many lesser universities likely to lose market share, she adds, they would be wise "to really emphasize social science or humanities and have science endeavors that are not as ambitious" as those of Harvard and its peers.
The most interesting section of Deresiewicz's essay comes at the very end, where he discusses the reactions of undergraduates in his literature classes to philosophic questions.
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?
Is this really true? If so, what a bizarre cultural phenomenon. Hmm, I'm not sure what to say to that. Being a scientist requires lots of solitude, both to get your work done and to concentrate on long trains of analysis. If anything, I have too much solitude.

However, I know a lot of people who want to live in an elite, rich community like Seattle, Boulder, the San Francisco Bay Area, Boston, or Manhattan. That's where many elite undergraduates end up. Sure, the culture there is ten times more rich than other places, but if you want to live in such a place, you must have money. And you earn that much money you have to join the elitist, careerist rat race. What's wrong with Kansas? (Pure speculation, as I've never lived in the Midwest.) I do think people need to find the courage to create and live an independent life, rather than perpetually hanging out with a crowd raised like themselves. It's not the end of the world if you don't live in San Francisco. A disclaimer here: There's nothing wrong with wanting to live in New York City or Boston. Of course, I want to live in those places, but I'm open to living somewhere else, too.

In some further analysis, Deresiewicz goes on to say:
“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?
I'm not sure that all the sociability is bad. Of course, that comes from me, a loner who doesn't socialize much. I've always had some disdain for small talk and want to leap into deep philosophical one-on-one conversations. But I've come to realize that sometimes it takes a long time to get to know someone. You have to be patient.

The busyness is a huge problem for me. If you're on an elitist career track like me, you're automatically surrounded by people who are too busy running the rat race to help you. This is why people have to go into therapy. Their friends and family are too busy and self-absorbed to help them, so they have to pay someone to listen to their problems.

That ends my quote-by-quote analysis of the essay. So, for those of us who don't want to turn into elitist zombies, what do we do? Deresiewicz discusses the problems of an elitist upbringing with incredible thoroughness, but he doesn't propose any solutions.

Travel? Read great literature? Go camping, Thoreau-style? Take up hobbies that bring you into contact with non-elitists? Protest? I'll keep thinking about it.

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