Monday, July 21, 2008

Elite Colleges: Making Minds or Careers?

What are the disadvantages of an elite, top-notch, Ivy university? William Deresiewicz frames them pretty darn well in "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education" from the current issue of The American Scholar.

Read the whole piece. Here are several tidbits that Dresiewicz pinpoints as serious disadvantages of the so-called "elite" educational institutions:
The first disadvantage of an elite education... is that it makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you. 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.
Elite colleges and universities pride themselves in opening up doors to their students. But what doors are they closing?
If one of the disadvantages of an elite education is the temptation it offers to mediocrity, another is the temptation it offers to security. 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.
I realize that I am just about to quote the whole article, so read it for yourself.

The bottom line?
The disadvantage of an elite education is that it’s given us the elite we have, and the elite we’re going to have.

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