Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

The (Further) Disadvantages of an Elite Education

Evren's picture

After American football and its military, the United States’ higher education system is perhaps the pride of the country. More indicative of the importance of this education system is that it is the envy of the rest of the world. There are boarding schools in foreign countries solely dedicated to get their students accepted into the top tier American colleges and universities. The Ivy League colleges and their peers are factories that take in “successful” students and churn out “successful” students that are wired to have “successful” careers and lead “successful” lives. In the case of top tier institutions, success can generally be equated with wealth, which has been the American definition of success, and much of the rest of the world has adopted this definition. However, there is much scrutiny regarding higher education and the way students learn in these top tier schools. William Deresiewicz wrote a critical article (“The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” The American Scholar, summer 2008) about the education he received at an Ivy League school and the education given at another Ivy League school at which he taught. Deresiewicz discusses how receiving an elite education isolates him from people who do not have the same educational experience as him, creates a false sense of diversity, and ultimately (and ironically) inhibits intellectual growth. Deresiewicz’s concerns are valid, and additional issues, such as the incompetence of the administration of many schools and the competitiveness present in education can transform a college education from a means of learning into an obstacle course that prevents a student from achieving a satisfying education.
A satisfying education varies from student to student. For many people, a satisfying education may not be academic, but as soon as students enter high school (and often even well before then) they are told that they must go to a top tier college in order to have a successful career. Thus their non-academic educations are put on hold. Even for students who crave an academic education, the rigidity of many institutions can prevent them from achieving a satisfying education. At top tier schools a student declares a major, takes several classes in that major, and then produces a thesis that incorporates what the student learned in the classes. This is the standard procedure for almost every student from a math major to a fine arts major. This procedure leaves very little room for creativity between different subjects of study, not to mention within each subject. If every student has a unique educational goal, how can he achieve that goal from a generic system? How can she grow into an intellectual when she is fed a standard education regimen? Unfortunately, the system is not geared for learning, but for success. High paying employers, regardless of what abilities they are searching for, want a means through which they can compare prospective employees. With the ultimate goal of achieving a successful career in mind (or perhaps they are not even that foresighted) students begin competing academically at least as early as high school. Looking for an upper hand, students will often try to find out what a teacher expects of them, and work to please the teacher instead of working to learn and gain as much as they can from the class. This is possibly the least frowned-upon example of learning taking a backseat to success. In high school and college, a culture of cheating has grown to a point that people who haven’t seen it first-hand can’t believe. Cheating isn’t solely occurring within groups of students who are too lazy to do the work. It seems that most cheating occurs within groups of students who are either hoping to get into the top tier colleges or are already in the elite schools. Students are so determined to be successful that they are afraid to fail, and as a result, regardless of their capabilities, they resort to cheating. In “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” Deresiewicz discusses what he calls “entitled mediocrity,” the phenomenon of lazier students in top tier schools receiving good grades for being “good enough.” Deresiewicz claims, “as Enron and WorldCom and the other scandals of the dot-com meltdown demonstrated, it’s also the operating principle of corporate America. The fat salaries paid to underperforming CEOs are an adult version of the A-. … A is the mark of excellence; A- is the mark of entitled mediocrity.” (Deresiewicz) In addition to entitled mediocrity, the competition that is a result of holding success as the ultimate goal and cheating as a means of obtaining success, has created a generation of cheaters, not thinkers, and cheaters are responsible for the economic crisis the United States has experienced over the past few years.
However, students aren’t the only cheaters affiliated with top tier colleges. In an effort to improve their reputation and ranking, administrations at colleges everywhere will look for any reason to claim their school is diverse. While Deresiewicz asserts, “elite schools pride themselves on their diversity, but that diversity is almost entirely a matter of ethnicity and race,” pseudo diversity isn’t limited to a lack of economic diversity. Diversity is a range of differing experiences, and unfortunately the experiences of most students at top tier schools are quite similar. Most minority students have had just as many opportunities as the rest of the students and are financially secure. Even students who are from poor urban or rural areas and don’t have as financially stable backgrounds who are at top tier schools got there because they received special grants at a young age and went through the same prep school education as most of their peers. While there is diversity at top tier schools, the manner in which this diversity is advertised by administrations is misleading. Deresiewicz remarks that everyone on an Ivy League campus looks the same. This exemplifies the lack of diversity that a school’s pamphlet will disregard. Diversity should be valued at colleges because a student learns most when surrounded by people unlike him. The different experiences allow students to learn from each other and grow as intellectuals by encountering unfamiliar people, cultures, or situations. However, administrations remove this diversity and replace it with pseudo diversity that leads to a college’s success in terms of rankings and alumni donations, not as an institution for learning. The administrations of top tier universities also fail to provide students with the best education possible by hiring professors based on their credentials as researchers, not teachers. Often professors see their job as conducting research and approach teaching as a secondary matter that is often a drag and time wasted that could be spent on research. A good teacher isn’t the first person to leave the class when it’s over, but many professors at Ivy League schools and other research universities leave as soon as possible. Their attitudes intimidate students, and often they are excused from teaching duties, leaving graduate students to teach. Is an Ivy League school with large classes taught by student aids really the best place to learn and become an intellectual?
Deresiewicz describes being an intellectual as “being passionate about ideas—and not just for the duration of a semester, for the sake of pleasing the teacher, or for getting a good grade.” (Deresiewicz) Similarly, I believe an intellectual is a life-long learner: someone who craves knowledge and holds wisdom and understanding in the highest regard. Top tier college institutions are suppose to produce intellectuals, but unfortunately that is not what is necessarily profitable or in the best interests of the institutions. A teacher can be the ultimate intellectual; a person highly values knowledge, wisdom, and understanding, and as a result wishes to provide others with a strong education. However, most students at elite institutions view teaching as a second tier profession. A teacher is not as successful as a doctor or a lawyer. As an example, last semester I was watching an episode of The Office in which one character applies to Cornell University in an attempt to frustrate a co-worker who attended Cornell. A peer I was watching the show with then said, “Why would you even want to go to Cornell? It’s the worst of the Ivies.” She then proceeded to argue that Haverford College has better name-recognition than Cornell, a point that I disputed. I claimed that if I were to move to New Mexico and seek a job as a teacher, my prospective employer would be more impressed if I had graduated from Cornell than from Haverford. She retorted, “Well, when you want to make some real money, important employers will hold Haverford in higher regard.” This elitist, anti-intellectual, success driven attitude exemplifies what is wrong with the culture of higher education at top tier schools. There is shortsightedness blinding students from realizing that “success” as they have been taught, doesn’t necessarily lead to a successful life. Being “successful” and having analytic intelligence, as Deresiewicz calls it, isn’t the same as being happy and having social and emotional intelligence. It is time for elite schools to read their mottos and redirect the teachings of their institutions to reflect those mottos: “Light and truth,” not “Success.”
William Deresiewicz, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” The American Scholar, Summer 2008.


Paul Grobstein's picture

"elite" education

I certainly share your concerns (and those of Deresiewicz) about shortcomings of American "elite" higher education.  What bothers me even more than their impact on students enrolled in them is a tendency to treat them as the standard to which other educational systems/institutions ought to aspire.  An interesting question is whether perhaps there is something to learn from the existing non-"elite" institutions?  Perhaps they are actually doing a better job of educating?  Maybe there is something the "elite" institutions could learn from them, and maybe some things the "elite" institutions actually do well that could also be more broadly shared?  Maybe part of the problem is the very designation of some institutions and not others as "elite'?