Disadvantages of an Elite Education

The Academy. (public domain from Wikimedia Commons)

The Academy. (public domain from Wikimedia Commons)

In the text I quote from below, William Deresiewicz articulates many of our ills in higher education nowadays– and inspires in a reader like me some searching questions about his extreme cynicism and demand for perfection. As a cynic, he seems to be the opposite of Louis Schmier , though he is just as thoughtful.

Whether or not you agree with D., It’s good to know people are still publishing critiques & exhortations
… this is “epideictic” rhetoric — praising and blaming to help a society think clearly about its values.

From The Disadvantages of an Elite Education

Places like Yale are simply not set up to help students ask the big questions.
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.

And what is wrong with asking little questions… do they not often lead to bigger ones? And even if you have begun to explore big questions (what is the purpose of my life?) you will still have to deal with little ones (what should I do today?).

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.

— I disagree with his idea of spiritual exile and being “independent of allegiances,” though–how can you have a “commitment toward social transformation” without making even temporary allegiances to organizations and people who also aspire toward good transformations, although imperfectly?

Of what use is an intellectual commitment to an ideal without a real commitment to a person or group of people?

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.

He critiques elitism in his essay, and yet so much of it smacks of elitism — he merely replaces one type of elitism (corporate, consumerist, scientific elitism) with another (intellectual, humanistic elitism). Elitism happens when you aspire for an ideal for yourself and your peers, while leaving others, the “unwashed masses,” to wallow in their misery and blindness.

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.”

Must everyone be perfect before being worthy of my allegiance? Where is compassion and humanity in this… Are practical aims in learning evil — then what about learning to taking care of practical human needs? Is the desire for power itself evil — then what about the power to do good? Is every organized institution evil — then what about organizations designed (although imperfectly) to search for truth or improve living conditions? Why not uplift a business or uplift a struggling university through active service as well as critique?

Any allegiance that annuls searching questions and critiques is not an allegiance with truth. Yet a true allegiance means building up the capacity for wise action, not just tearing down illusions.


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