William Deresiewicz’s claim that elite education stunts your empathy, risk-taking, question-asking, and your general social and intellectual growth has been going around the academic blogs. In general, my take on the essay is that he identifies real issues that should be discussed, but he draws the wrong conclusions about the cause of them, presents weak evidence to back them up, and basically argues his points exceedingly ill and overlooks better points that should have been the focus of such an attack.

One thing that does not seem to have gotten enough attention is that Deresiewicz accuses the entire apparatus of elite education:

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.

This is important. He should have gone further with it. Because the problems that he identifies are not coming from spending age 18-21 at an elite school. Some key comments:

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 never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to college at all.

I also never learned that there are smart people who aren’t “smart.”

Sir, you were brought up wrong. You need to talk to your parents. I knew all those things before I finished elementary school.

Now, while there is a real issue with class segregation in this country—which Deresiewicz clumsily tries to highlight with his plumber anecdote—elite colleges are doing a much better job of fostering cross-class diversity and engagement than any of the other “feeder” steps in upper-middle-class education, as I detailed at Easily Distracted. Far from college being the place where Deresiewicz learns the inability to talk to the working-class man, it is highly likely to be the first place he ever has a conversation with children from the working class.

Deresiewicz indicts elite educations as a whole. Well, I had an elite education at a peer institution to the Ivy League, and little of what he says applies to what I observed. And he himself suggests a couple of times that liberal arts college might do a better job of overcoming these issues. But stops there. Yet clearly the real question is that if the Ivy is a qualitatively different type of elite education, then what makes it different? The problem is not elitism—Swarthmore, Williams, Amherst, Grinnell, Bowdoin, Claremont McKenna, Smith, Carleton, Middlebury, “25 New Ivies“—-are no less elite than the Ivy League. So what is really driving the problems that Deresiewicz sees?

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.

There is a lot to be said about the entrenched apparatus of corporate recruitment on elite college campuses. Deresiewicz said almost none of it. The little he did say doesn’t sound right to me—-technical fields? My elite small liberal arts college was selling the notion that you could get a Wall Street job with an English major because the corporations recognized that the true value of the education was in the writing and thinking.

Being an intellectual begins with thinking your way outside of your assumptions and the system that enforces them. But students who get into elite schools are precisely the ones who have best learned to work within the system, so it’s almost impossible for them to see outside it, to see that it’s even there.

Really? Because the students who know best how to play the system are the ones who have broken it down and analyzed how it works. Sure, the system trains teacher-pleasers. But I don’t think it’s because students don’t know what’s going on.

Deresiewicz finishes:

She will have many achievements but little experience, great success but no vision. The disadvantage of an elite education is that it’s given us the elite we have, and the elite we’re going to have.

Well, if Deresiewicz is going to toss out John Kerry and George Bush as support for his point—I give you Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America, Princeton graduate.


Be sure to read the comments at Ferule & Fescule, where the Cleveland State comparison is attacked and defended.

University Diaries has a nicely comparative approach linking to similar pieces.

Easily Distracted, Planned Obsolescence, Uncertain Principles offer more. The comments at Uncertain Principles are especially rich on what one should say to a plumber.