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Educational Elitism

Not an email this time, but instead a response to an article I recently read, The Disadvantages of an Elite Education. First, go read it.

Okay, done? Good.

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.

The author of this article is despairing over the failure of elite educational institutions to create the Ideal Citizen, instead creating the Self-Absorbed Entitled Citizen. In brief, the article itself is as out of touch as the behaviors it’s complaining about.

The opening complaint he tries to limit to his upper-class educational elite, as though it’s a specific problem to them. But just as the Ivy League graduate is unable to talk to the plumber, the plumber is unable to talk to the Ivy League graduate– it goes both ways. As likely as the Ivy Leaguer is to think of the plumber as being kinda dumb and not worth talking to, frequently the plumber thinks the Ivy Leaguer is just an ass and not worth talking to, and is just as convinced that he’s better because he’s not an intellectual elitist. There’s an inability to appreciate someone else’s values, or look beyond one’s own values, and it happens at every level. It happens at the public university I currently attend. It happens with guys in the IT world who don’t have a college degree.

The failure of character (credit to my sister for clarifying my ideas) isn’t a unique problem among his elite upper class folks, and thinking so is pretty masturbatory and out of touch in the first place. The author is trying to frame a problem as unique to the ivy league set (and, though he wants to exclude us for some reason, the Swarthmore/Amherst/Williams set*). I also get the sense that he’s nostalgic for a time that never existed, in which the elite colleges created a unique breed of graduates who were all as talented as Emerson, Woolf, Einstein, Jefferson, etc.

And the inertia of going for that high-paying business job or whatever hardly seems like a unique thing in itself– again, there’s a certain amount of inertia everywhere. Was it “easy” for me to go from college to graduate school? It was easy to make the decision to do so. It would’ve been a lot harder if I had been raised the son of a local HVAC sales & repairman who expected me to help him out and join the family business. Or the child of a family living close to the poverty line whose family expected short-term financial assistance. Or if I had been feeling pressure from my sisters and my mother to go to law school. College can help show the available options, but, in the end, there’s a lot of pressure to do what’s expected from many different sources.

Maybe some of this does look worse right now, because of some definite increased political polarization. Certainly I think there’s a problem in that people fail to assign basic respect and dignity to others outside their preferred identity and value system, but it’s not a problem that can be unilaterally solved by Yale teaching its students how to have a friendly conversation with the cleaning staff. If the student hasn’t figured that out by the time he’s reached college, there’s a deeper failure in society and education.

*Note that I do believe liberal arts colleges do deserve some additional credit, and I am a firm believer in the value of a liberal arts education. Colleges like my alma mater do provide that added value; while I don’t think that the art of critical thinking is something that should be taught only starting at the college level (here I would like to extol the educational genius of one of my high school teachers, Mr. John Reimers, a man who terrorizes all the students of Woodberry Forest, yet has shaped the minds of so many of its alumni), I do think that Swarthmore does a good job to provide continuing education in it. I don’t even believe this is necessarily rare, except insofar as excellent instructors who teach students how to learn on their own are rare.

Edit: It occurs to me I have plenty more to say about some items in this article. One in particular is the issue of grade inflation– the top schools are finally acknowledging the problem, at least, but it is a problem. It’s a problem that particularly bothers me, because my experience recently has been that frequently universities won’t just allow grade inflation, but practically require it as they attempt to build enrollment. Courses get watered down, and the quality of graduates drop. This is the Wrong Way to build a school and its reputation. I will admit, though, that it’s a different problem than at the upper tier schools, where the issue is retention numbers and (I have to assume) alumni contributions which could be affected if young Legacy Jr. fails out or has a rough time at school.

I’ve been wondering for a long time how to go about fixing the educational system generally, and as I think about it more, I’m more certain it’s not that the real problems are hard to identify. The difficulty is that the real problems are one that nobody, not parents, not teachers, not administrators, have any strong will to fix.

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