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Author Topic: Are Elite Schools TOO Elite?  (Read 662 times)

O.

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Are Elite Schools TOO Elite?
« on: July 25, 2008, 09:10:29 AM »
http://www.theamericanscholar.org/su08/elite-deresiewicz.html

I'll quote a few excerpts from this dashing article and let you discuss them.  Here's one with particular relevance to LSD:

"The second disadvantage, implicit in what I’ve been saying, is that an elite education inculcates a false sense of self-worth. Getting to an elite college, being at an elite college, and going on from an elite college—all involve numerical rankings: SAT, GPA, GRE. You learn to think of yourself in terms of those numbers. They come to signify not only your fate, but your identity; not only your identity, but your value. It’s been said that what those tests really measure is your ability to take tests, but even if they measure something real, it is only a small slice of the real. The problem begins when students are encouraged to forget this truth, when academic excellence becomes excellence in some absolute sense, when “better at X” becomes simply “better.”

Also another gem:

"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. Witness the last two Democratic presidential nominees, Al Gore and John Kerry: one each from Harvard and Yale, both earnest, decent, intelligent men, both utterly incapable of communicating with the larger electorate."

O.

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Re: Are Elite Schools TOO Elite?
« Reply #1 on: July 25, 2008, 09:44:19 AM »
Fine.  I'll start.

I was dismayed by the article's suggestion that there is "nobility" to some working-class jobs like a teacher, an attitude that reflects a latent guilt complex about being an upper-class professor.  When he suggests that you can live comfortably as a teacher or banana boat operator, he's correct insofar he compares that comfort to a teacher in, say, a third-world country -- the notion of relative versus absolute provery -- but I don't think that it's all that comfortable.  The reality is that some teachers have salaries that can't keep up with inflation; others are at the whim of creditors and their home equity; and, as any teacher would tell you, the work and pay aren't always that great.

I think there's been a push to create some working-class people out of these "elite" schools, in order to further the idea that it's not beneath a Yalie to teach third-graders, so long as it makes a "difference."   ::)  The truth is that these elite schools kids have no monopoly on excellent education, and that the teachers they produce, by the logic of this author, are usually unable to relate to average folks, like John Kerry can't relate to them.  (Would you want Kerry to teach your son history?)

In effect, I think it's another way to create prestige: the illusion that it's prestigious to do these jobs (see: the ironic prestige of TFA, which should be a decidely unprestigious program that's loaded with working folks).  A State School graduate that teaches history isn't prestigious, while your ho-hum Yalie turns the classroom into a world of difference, a way of charging the new generation with values.  I think that's a bullocks way to look at things.

Anywoo, that's one point the article made.  I thought there were many other excellent onces, all of which are relevant to LSD.

Kirk Lazarus

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Re: Are Elite Schools TOO Elite?
« Reply #2 on: July 25, 2008, 10:16:13 AM »
The writer is a moron - and just from the two gems quoted in the thread.

First, he overstates his case with Kerry and Gore. He ignores the possibility that decades in the Senate may have been a reason why Kerry and Gore could no longer communicate with regular people through certain mediums. He ignores two other recent prominent politicians/ivy grads who are known as some of the best communicators with "regular" people (Bill Clinton and Obama).

Second, I don't know why he limits himself to the "elite" schools when talking about numerical rankings. Almost all of the colleges and universities exclude individuals based on these numerical rankings. I do not believe for a second that Ivy kids tend to think of themselves in terms of their numerical rankings unless that ranking is a means to an end. For example, when applying to law school, I cared very much about my LSAT/GPA. Now I never think about it. Nobody at Yale ever talks about their undergraduate GPA or LSAT score. In fact, we're so far removed from thinking about numerical indicators of ability that we don't even have grades. And this is becoming more and more common in the Ivy league law schools. To the extent that kids at elite colleges care about their grades in high school and their SAT score relative to peers at less prestigious schools, it is probably because they are 18, 19 years old and have an overly proud sense of accomplishment; not because the school itself teaches them to think like that. Indeed, elite schools regularly admit kids with "bad" numbers to reinforce the notion that achievement is not all numerical. The author glosses over that point and barely acknowledges it.

Third, no one cares about elite colleges and universities anymore. Sure saying you go to Harvard sounds good, but I doubt it really has any practical competitive benefit anymore. Say you went to Harvard for undergrad and Emory for law school. A kid who went to Emory for undergrad and Harvard for law school has just jumped over you completely. And so has every other kid in elite law schools. The same for business and other disciplines.

Fourth, from that perspective it is hard to see an argument that four years of an elite education is going to shape someone's life so completely that they would not be able to relate to the rest of the populace. Sure, there are Ivy grads that can't interact with the rest of the populace, but this is true of some grads from ANY college or university. The reality is that in America, a college education is still a rare credential and it does put most of those grads on a higher socio-economic ladder than high school grads or dropouts.

And, CA, I don't think it is exactly persuasive that a duke grad can't relate to 15, 16 and 17 year olds in a high school. I mean, what normal grown person do you know that can relate to high schoolers?

All this to say, I think the author does not do a very good job providing a persuasive account (other than limited anectdotal evidence) of how an ivy grad is that much different than a grad of any other college.
YLS c/o 2009

O.

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Re: Are Elite Schools TOO Elite?
« Reply #3 on: July 25, 2008, 10:28:41 AM »
You make some fantastic points, but I would like to debate you on a few of them.

The article, we must recall, comes from the perspective of an English professor, which is why he constantly harps on the introspection and the pure intellectualism and curiosity he seeks from his students.  However, he fails to show how Yale is any different from any other school: intellectual curiosity in students is very rare anywhere you go.  Most people I knew treated college as a vocational exercise.  His examples about Wall Street are more reflective of the English distrust of the working world, if not academia's distrust of the working world in general.

To the extent that kids at elite colleges care about their grades in high school and their SAT score relative to peers at less prestigious schools, it is probably because they are 18, 19 years old and have an overly proud sense of accomplishment; not because the school itself teaches them to think like that.

But.  But.  I think that sense of accomplishment is what he's getting at: it starts there, and then grows.  The 18 year-old is proud of how he beat his classmates at the GPA/LSAT combo game, then proud of how he scored an A in Calc, then proud of his Harvard degree, then proud . . . .

And, yes, no grades is still grades.  Instead of fighting over for that A, I think that even Yalies fight over jobs at McKinsey, Wachtell, and CoA.  It's a different sense of competition, which reinforces the end-game result as the victory, rather than the means (i.e., the grades).

O.

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Re: Are Elite Schools TOO Elite?
« Reply #4 on: July 25, 2008, 10:37:32 AM »
Third, no one cares about elite colleges and universities anymore. Sure saying you go to Harvard sounds good, but I doubt it really has any practical competitive benefit anymore. Say you went to Harvard for undergrad and Emory for law school. A kid who went to Emory for undergrad and Harvard for law school has just jumped over you completely. And so has every other kid in elite law schools. The same for business and other disciplines.

This is wrong.  When I graduated from a non-elite college, I scrambled for work and ended up in an industry that didn't interest me in the least.  That was part of the impetus for professional school.  I know it's anecdotal evidence, but many of my classmates were in the same boat.

The Harvard UG will have a good chance at landing places on Wall Street, Management Consulting, Paralegal work at top firms (where the benefits and pay are good), and a variety of other spots in publishing and business.  Engineering is no different, since I don't see many unemployed MIT grads in my line of work; in fact, someone advertised their MIT status only a week ago on a street corner in NYC.  Do you think that same man would have written, "Unemployed MIT grad" if it didn't show his status and talents?  Whether the Harvard/MIT/Yale UG student marticulates at a lower-ranked LS is beside the discussion.  Of course, that would limit his or her options.

O.

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Re: Are Elite Schools TOO Elite?
« Reply #5 on: July 25, 2008, 10:40:02 AM »
Fourth, from that perspective it is hard to see an argument that four years of an elite education is going to shape someone's life so completely that they would not be able to relate to the rest of the populace.

This is where I agree with you, as evidenced my by earlier comments.  This man is a professor, not a four-year graduate of an elite school.  He's been in the Ivory Tower for all of his working life, which is why he can't relate to his plumber.  It has nothing to do with your average elite graduate.

In fact, I would say that English is part of the problem.  Most of the English grad students I know are completely unable to relate to working stiffs, regardless of where they study.

dischord

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Re: Are Elite Schools TOO Elite?
« Reply #6 on: July 25, 2008, 12:27:09 PM »
Fourth, from that perspective it is hard to see an argument that four years of an elite education is going to shape someone's life so completely that they would not be able to relate to the rest of the populace.

This is where I agree with you, as evidenced my by earlier comments.  This man is a professor, not a four-year graduate of an elite school.  He's been in the Ivory Tower for all of his working life, which is why he can't relate to his plumber.  It has nothing to do with your average elite graduate.
In fact, I would say that English is part of the problem.  Most of the English grad students I know are completely unable to relate to working stiffs, regardless of where they study.

Four years at an elite undergrad won't magically transform someone, but that's because people who go to these schools were like this in the first place and the culture the author describes just reifies these characteristics.  I mean, a kid gets into an elite UG because he has already separated himself in some way from his peers -- he's already decided that instead of spending ALL of his time playing video games, he'd rather read Dostoevsky or work on physics or practice piano.  Having gone to an "elite" UG, a common characteristic of my classmates no matter what their socioeconomic/racial background, was that they felt alienated from their peers in some way even if they were still able to maintain social relationships with people who didn't achieve as highly.   

ETA: What's up, Wally. Btw, you don't need to reiterate your position that my undergrad is especially full of freaks  ;).
At least I can f-ing think.