Saturday, August 23, 2008

The Disadvantages of an Elite Education

Deresiewicz, William. "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education." American Scholar 2008.
available online:
(The libraries subscribe in print).

"Our Best Universities Have Forgotten That the Reason They Exist is to Make Minds, Not Careers."

Submitted by R. Stuhr

Deresiewicz writes harshly about the direction he sees education moving, especially with respect to the elite (ivy league) universities. He takes to task admissions procedures, grading practices (and expectations), social elitism, the move away from humanities and sciences to more practical, career oritented areas, and, related to career orientation, the institutional desire to develop rich alumni with the ability to donate large sums of money over the goals and missions of a liberal arts education. Deresiewicz also sites the disappearance of solitude and reflection, the need for students to conform to what they see as the desires of their professors (Yale students, he writes, think for themselves but only because their professors want them to) to get that A. He points out evidence of grade inflation along with the loss of the expectation that students (faculty, alumni) not take consequences of their actions or behavior.

I feel that anything I write reduces what Mr. Deresiewicz is expressing. His writing is heartfelt and he in fact labels his essay an exhortation. This is an important article for anyone in liberal arts institutions to read and to ponder. Is his take extremist? Does it take someone pointing out the extreme situation to make others more alert to what is happening? He is writing specifically about Yale in the following quotation: "The college career office has little to say to students not interested in law, medicine, or business, and elite universities are not going to do anything to discourage the large percentage of their graduates who take their degrees to Wall Street. In fact, they’re showing them the way. 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."

And: "B
eing 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. Long before they got to college, they turned themselves into world-class hoop-jumpers and teacher-pleasers, getting A’s in every class no matter how boring they found the teacher or how pointless the subject, racking up eight or 10 extracurricular activities no matter what else they wanted to do with their time. Paradoxically, the situation may be better at second-tier schools and, in particular, again, at liberal arts colleges than at the most prestigious universities. Some students end up at second-tier schools because they’re exactly like students at Harvard or Yale, only less gifted or driven. But others end up there because they have a more independent spirit. They didn’t get straight A’s because they couldn’t be bothered to give everything in every class. They concentrated on the ones that meant the most to them or on a single strong extracurricular passion or on projects that had nothing to do with school or even with looking good on a college application. Maybe they just sat in their room, reading a lot and writing in their journal. These are the kinds of kids who are likely, once they get to college, to be more interested in the human spirit than in school spirit, and to think about leaving college bearing questions, not resum├ęs."

Deresiewicz is a regular contributor to The Nation and writes frequently for American Scholar, and The New Republic. He taught at Yale from 1998-2008.

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