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?