ivy retardation: why our educational ladder leads to a dead end

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Friday, December 10th, 2010

ivy retardation: why our educational ladder leads to a dead end

the american scholar

rarely am i so compelled by an article that i have to stop and immediately blog. last night, a tweet from a former coworker made me do just that (which, of course, you’re reading now). here was his tweet:

“[N]ot to be rich is one of the greatest opportunities with which young Americans have been blessed.” From @TheAmScho: http://bit.ly/IQwrZless than a minute ago via web

[**let me pause and say that my views certainly do not reflect or represent sam eifling. whereas his tweet was the launching point for my thoughts and this blog post, they may or may not connect with his intentions for tweeting it.**]

it was just a handful of months ago that i tweeted what i subsequently dubbed, “the tweet heard ’round the world”. indeed, the reverberations were powerful (both in responses of affirmation and lashing out by people toward me personally), but i still stand by my assertions. since that post, i’ve read a number of things that, at times have challenged my position, but many more things that have offered more fuel. nothing more than the aforementioned article.

you can, of course, read the article in its entirety. i certainly encourage it. it first appeared in the american scholar in the summer of 2008 and while its dated by a couple years, the value of its content is most definitely not.

the author, william deresiewicz, who is a former professor at yale and columbia, lays forth 5 disadvantages of an elite education. while he focuses on, most specifically, ivy league education, he also takes into account the entire collective of systems that have put educational/elitist blinders on our society. he writes,

[It’s] 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 tomorrow.

to broaden it one step further, i think deresiewicz would affirm that the inherent assumption here in middle class white little rock society (and certainly beyond, but here particularly) that you are doing your child a great disservice by —gasp— sticking them in public school is a fallacy, to say the least.

rather than getting on my own soapbox (which i can do easily), i thought i would present some of the salient points of his assertion. his disadvantages are as follows.

1. The first disadvantage of an elite education…is that it makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you.

2. The second disadvantage…is that an elite education inculcates a false sense of self-worth.

3. An elite education not only ushers you into the upper classes; it trains you for the life you will lead once you get there.

4. If one of the disadvantages of an elite education is the temptation it offers to mediocrity, another is the temptation it offers to security.

5. The final and most damning disadvantage of an elite education [is] that it is profoundly anti-intellectual.

while you can read the article to flesh some of these out (which is a necessity to fully understand his nuances), there are a couple particularly noteworthy points worth highlighting here (one of which speaks directly to my “tweet heard ’round the world”).

in explaining his first disadvantage (being “incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you”), he says the following about diversity (which is the primary tie-in to my “controversial” tweet):

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.

probably the point he brings out that i’m most passionate about is in relation to his 4th disadvantage (the “temptation [elite education] offers to security”). he writes,

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.

from start to finish, the article is incredibly insightful and worth a place in the larger educational conversation in a city like little rock where there is so much class and race polarity in terms of educational standards. some will immediately dismiss his points. some will, unfortunately, launch critiques (and twitter unfollows…) at me personally. some will dig their heels in with their conflicting values. my hope, though, is that his thoughts (not mind) broaden the conversation about our societal values regarding education. i certainly think they’re not only unhelpful, but, quite frankly, hurtful to many young people and our society in general.

so, go read the article. give it some open-minded and critical thought. have a conversation. what do you think?


  1. erniebufflo says:

    This is a toughy for me. On the one hand, I have been blessed with a ridiculously good education. From teaching me all sorts of things before I got to go to school, like reading, to enriching my science and math skills at home, to going down to the school to make sure I was assigned the very best teacher in each grade (you can do that), to getting me into the gifted and talented program, which was my haven and my safe place as a young nerdling, I had every advantage that parental involvement can give. Maybe not monetary- there was no paid tutoring or test prep, but there were plenty of horseback riding, art, saxophone, and tennis lessons (more and more I think I grew up in a Jane Auseten novel).

    Thanks to being very very good at the standardized testing model used by higher ed, I got scholarships to school and my parents paid nothing. I fell in love with the low-paying field of English Literature, and so here I am, slogging away, for now, not at a "elite university," but at the literal only place I can drive to right now: a pretty good state school. I can already tell that many of my peers, who went to less-good public high schools and perhaps less-good colleges, are not as well-prepared as I was. I'm not saying I'm smarter, but I'm definitely a better-trained writer and more prepared for the kind of work academia requires.

    And even though I agree with a lot of what you say about academia, I wouldn't trade my education, because it led me to literature, which I really believe is my calling. And so I hope to get into a good school for my PhD, so I might one day have the privilege of adjunct teaching for no benefits and less pay than the administrative assistants get (I used to be the administrative assistant).

    It's just hard: academia is my happy place. One of the places I feel most myself. And it's got a lot of things wrong with it.

  2. Hardin says:

    Alright, I had to give myself a few days to think and rethink about this because every time I fashioned a response I thought it came across as too personal, at least in written form.

    A couple of thoughts though. For my money, the title of your post is too strong. Ivy "retardation"? Really? And I disagree that our educational ladder leads to a "dead end". At least in the manner I think you were trying to convey.

    I see absolutely nothing whatsoever wrong with striving to gain acceptance into universities with reputations as being among the best in the world. They almost always have those reputations because, well, they're among the best in the world. I see nothing wrong with taking enormous (but morally appropriate) pride in attending them.

    If someone is basing who they are on having gone to an elite university, then that's a problem. If they're judging others who don't go to elite schools, that's a problem. However, it's equally wrong to base who you are on where you didn't go to college, and it's equally wrong to pass judgement on those who do go to elite schools.

    This is just my personal experience, but I've known a ton of people who graduated from elite universities. Ivy League, Duke, Stanford, Vanderbilt, Georgetown, Washington University, etc. Out of all of those people, I've only known 1 who I thought was judgmental or truly arrogant about it (Notre Dame undergrad, Yale Law). However, the more I got to know him the more I understood he was just dealing with his own insecurities. Frankly, that's exactly the impression I got from the author of the article you linked to.

    I got out of the article not that elite educations are inherently bad or lead to dead ends, but that he was basing who he was as a person on attending one. I also got the distinct impression that he'd have a hard time talking to that plumber even if he attended the worst community college in the country.

  3. ryanByrd says:

    john –

    i didn't come up with the post title. it was a clever play on words that came directly from his article. it is certainly strong (which makes it a particularly compelling headline). 🙂 and yes, i do believe our educational values (i.e. education is the end-all that leads to success) is a dead end, to say the very least (and i think most sociologists would agree whole heartedly with that statement).

    i think you're doing some pretty liberal reading between the lines of his article if you think he's writing from his own insecurities. he's a highly respected literary critic who is not only a former ivy league student, but an ivy league professor. so, of all people, i think he's able to give a perspective that i we can trust (you and i certainly haven't spent quality time on an ivy league campus…which is why i'm defaulting to someone who knows what they're talking about).

    whether it's the deficiency of his article or my commentary, i think you, like some others who have responded in other forums, are missing the point to an extent. it isn't about education in and of itself. harvard and princeton and other "premiere" schools are perfectly fine in terms of math and science and literature, etc. it's about the cultural attitudes and values that are inherently bred at those types of institutions and the cultural segregation that occurs (like the false diversity he talks about). the point he makes about students constantly being told that they are the "best and the brightest" is a great and valid point about the myth of education. getting a 34 on the ACT doesn't make you the best and the brightest. in fact, it might very well (but not necessarily) make you unable to relate to others in socially viable/productive ways, which is a much greater social indicator of "value" than "book smarts".

    to your point about "passing judgment" on those who attend "elite" schools, i don't think that's what the author is attempting to do. i think he's simply describing the pitfalls of these environments (of which he has observed for decades). further, it seems to me that he is someone who wants to build up these institutions by discontinuing to breed these climates of superiority and segregation from the real world.

    continued ———>

  4. Adrian says:

    Hi! I am a junior in high scoohl and I really want to go to UPenn I also live in California so I’m also worried about the distance, but at the end of the day, it is an Ivy League scoohl and, let’s face it, saying I graduated from UPenn holds more prestige than saying the same about Washington. But in the end, the decision is truly and only yours P.S. Can you please tell me your credentials (gpa, SAT, EC’s, etc.)? I am planning to apply to UPenn Early Decision and would really appreciate the help .Thanks a lot!

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