I’ve been reading an excellent essay in the American Scholar, The Disadvantages of an Elite Education, by William Deresiewicz. Go there and read it. Despite the implied Obama critique, I think he has hit several nails on their heads.
Many of the people whom I have met who have benefited from an education at an elite school are bright but uninteresting. And they seem to believe that they are brighter and more accomplished than they actually manage to be. As long as I am painting with a stereotypical brush, I’ll note that in my experience, this is particularly true of graduates of Harvard and Yale, and least true of graduates of Princeton and Cornell. The funny thing is that these expectations are often born out.
I didn’t really think much about the Ivy League until I came to Quinnipiac. I attended state schools, and my impression is that there is a lot in common in terms of coursework between a large public school like the University of Indiana, and a large private, like Harvard. But the attitudes that Quinnipiac students hold toward Yalies, and the reverse, has brought into sharp focus the cultural capital held by Yale.
Every couple years, Yale’s student paper publishes a sort of “safari” piece on Quinnipiac students that always manages to set a colonial tone. (The most recent is awed by the fact that in their native habitat, Quinnipiac students seem to spend–gasp!–a great deal of time studying.) I have the feeling that for most Yale students, the experience of Quinnipiac students is utterly beyond their grasp. The gap here is not between the working class and the elite. Quinnipiac students generally come from “new money,” it seems to me: their parents are almost prototypical members of the bourgeoisie, sons and daughters of successful entrepreneurs, lawyers, and stockbrokers. That Yalies consider Quinnipiac students to be heavy partiers suggests they have never visited ASU or SDSU, but there is definitely a difference in what is considered an expected workload. Some of our best students rival the abilities of some of their best students, but our average student seems unsure of why he is in college, and unsure of what he wants to do afterward. (This is new for me: ambition seems more common both among children of the working poor in Buffalo and in a different way, among children of the aristocracy.) I chafe a bit at our emphasis of professional skills, but it seems likely that Yale graduates will be working with Quinnipiac graduates, and our students will probably teaching their students the nuts and bolts of professional practice. That Yale and Quinnipiac students can find so little common ground is an indictment of both institutions.
I think the article overplays this as endemic to the Ivy League. Students at almost every university seem to feel entitled to a high-paying job upon graduation, regardless of what they actually accomplish in school, and grade inflation in our own program rivals Yale’s. But he may be right that the graduate of an Ivy League school has been told so often that he is a member of the elite that he believes this as part of his being. Unfortunately, at least until mellowed a bit after graduation, this makes many students at Ivy League schools fairly insufferable to talk to.
Of course, there are exceptions. Many of my friends are survivors of Ivy League programs, and I don’t hold it against them in the least. Some of them even deign to read my blog ;). But unfortunately, since the Ivies tend to set the cadence for “aspirant” institutions, the problems outlined in this article seem to trickle down. When this is compounded with the fact that our political leaders are disproportionately products of these schools, it seems clear that an adjustment is needed.