Friday, September 26, 2008

The Elite Beast of Burden

The following three paragraphs are taken from The Disadvantages of An Elite Education by William Deresiewicz. It is from the Summer 08 issue of American Scholar.

"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. 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."

"But it isn’t just a matter of class. My education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class. I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me. We were “the best and the brightest,” as these places love to say, and everyone else was, well, something else: less good, less bright. I learned to give that little nod of understanding, that slightly sympathetic “Oh,” when people told me they went to a less prestigious college. (If I’d gone to Harvard, I would have learned to say “in Boston” when I was asked where I went to school—the Cambridge version of noblesse oblige.) I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to elite colleges, often precisely for reasons of class. I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to college at all."

* * *

"But if you’re afraid to fail, you’re afraid to take risks, which begins to explain the final and most damning disadvantage of an elite education: that it is profoundly anti-intellectual. This will seem counterintuitive. Aren’t kids at elite schools the smartest ones around, at least in the narrow academic sense? Don’t they work harder than anyone else—indeed, harder than any previous generation? They are. They do. But being an intellectual is not the same as being smart. Being an intellectual means more than doing your homework."

Deresiewicz's article is most relevant for law schools at recruiting season. After all, once someone is hired, they are typically signed up for life. The last paragraph quoted is followed by a description of elite school students that portrays them as the rough the equivalents of grade grubbing drones. My sense is that this is a relatively recent thing. At some point in time, attending an elite school could contribute to the development of real intellectual curiosity and a love for ideas. I am sure that still holds for many graduates of elite schools today but that is more a testament to their resistance to the elite education than anything else.

From my perspective, and it is an admittedly narrow one, I am surprised at how anti intellectual newer -- last 15-20 years -- elite grads are, especially the double elites. In fact, in many instances they seem to have little or no knowledge of history, philosophy, art, etc. Nor do they find much that is interesting outside of their personal niche. Instead of ideas it is about gaming the system. They may boast about getting good placements for articles not because of the substance but because of the "form" the work in is, the names dropped, and connections. Numbers of downloads is the new version of making an A. Who cares about the substance of what is downloaded? It is not about the what is intriguing or important, but numbers of lines on a resume.

I know that correlation is not the same as causation but if legal education has taken an anti intellectual turn, how can it not be traced to the backgrounds of those who dominate faculties?


2 Comments:

Anonymous Matt said...

I have to admit that when I read this article I thought it to be, frankly, bull-shit of the first order. It was, I thought, very much up there w/ Ross Douthat's extremely dumb article that launched his career where he cried about how he went to Harvard and never learned anything (including how to read the course guide, since many classes he said were not taught were regularly taught.) Here the author blames what he takes to be his shortcomings, his inability to talk with the "common man" on his education. But it seems to me that this is nothing but a personal problem. His own class anxiety is being projected here on others- rather than take responsibility he's saying, "It was those snobs at college that did it!" It's both pathetic and silly. It short, it was a dumb piece that doesn't deserve the repetition it's gotten. It would have been better served to his therapist where it belonged.

9/26/2008 2:14 PM  
Blogger Jeffrey Harrison said...

The article resonated with me because it seemed to explain the behavior, attitudes and values of some law professors. I actually did not hear much whining about his own position other than to regret the wasted time and opportunities. I do agree with one thing. I am not all that interested in an elitist playing the victim card.

9/26/2008 9:00 PM  

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