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The Disadvantages of an Elite Education

 
 
Reply Tue 12 Aug, 2008 12:01 pm
A recent, controversial article from The American Scholar:


The Disadvantages of an Elite Education
Our best universities have forgotten that the reason they exist is to make
minds, not careers.
by WILLIAM DERESIEWICZ

It didn't dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I'd just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn't have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn't succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League degrees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. "Ivy retardation," a friend of mine calls this. I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn't talk to the man who was standing in my own house.

It's not surprising that it took me so long to discover the extent of my miseducation, because the last thing an elite education will teach you is its own inadequacy. As two dozen years at Yale and Columbia have shown me, elite colleges relentlessly encourage their students to flatter themselves for being there, and for what being there can do for them. The advantages of an elite education are indeed undeniable. You learn to think, at least in certain ways, and you make the contacts needed to launch yourself into a life rich in all of society's most cherished rewards. To consider that while some opportunities are being created, others are being cancelled and that while some abilities are being developed, others are being crippled is, within this context, not only outrageous, but inconceivable.





[See thread for continuation of text.]
 
Shapeless
 
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Reply Tue 12 Aug, 2008 12:01 pm
bildungWilliam Deresiewicz taught English at Yale University from 1998 to 2008.
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Shapeless
 
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Reply Tue 12 Aug, 2008 12:06 pm
Here's a response to Deresiewicz's article, published in a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education:



God and Jerk at Yale
Parents and high-school students take note: A controversial article misses the point.
By RACHEL TOOR

My friend Carl, an academic, likes to say that he would never let his kids go to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton because those colleges turn people into jerks. A recent, much-discussed essay in The American ScholarThe New York TimesRachel Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. Her latest book, Personal Record: A Love Affair With Running, will be published this fall by the University of Nebraska Press.
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cjhsa
 
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Reply Tue 12 Aug, 2008 12:16 pm
You hit a nerve. There is a plague here on A2K of exactly what you speak. I realized it as well after I graduated from college with an engineering degree from a fairly presitigious eastern university - the people I went to work for and with were very different from those I'd gone to school with and taught by. It took me a few years to shed that liberal elitist spell that had been partially cast on me.

Now those same folks hate me here at A2K for calling them out. But I enjoy it immensely.
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Rockhead
 
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Reply Tue 12 Aug, 2008 12:38 pm
Excellent post, Shapeless.

Brings to mind a favorite line.

There is a big difference between going to college, and getting an education...
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sozobe
 
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Reply Tue 12 Aug, 2008 12:57 pm
I agree with the rebuttal more, and was forming some of the same objections as I read the original piece.

My husband is about as pointy-headed and ivory tower as you can get, academically, but he has no problem talking to a plumber.

Education per se isn't the issue -- class (money, privilege) seem to have more to do with it.

I agree that it's better to be comfortable with the plumber than not, but the first guy seems to be making high-falutin' excuses for his lack of social graces.
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OGIONIK
 
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Reply Tue 12 Aug, 2008 01:01 pm
hi, they call me og bobby, im from the slums of las vegas.

hola!
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Shapeless
 
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Reply Tue 12 Aug, 2008 01:04 pm
sozobe wrote:
I agree that it's better to be comfortable with the plumber than not, but the first guy seems to be making high-falutin' excuses for his lack of social graces.


Agreed. Much of the problem, at least with this guy, seems to be in the ridiculous assumption that high education and ability to communicate with non-elites are naturally irreconcilable.
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OGIONIK
 
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Reply Tue 12 Aug, 2008 01:07 pm
i remember in middle school, i would read the history book in 2 weeks, and then never read t again.

i aced every test for the rest of the year...

whee!
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OGIONIK
 
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Reply Tue 12 Aug, 2008 01:10 pm
and yet, i found it nearly impossible to find support for going ino even a community college..


it might be more useful to address teachers and their mentality at poorer schools. the rich ones are cliched out.

everyone knows that.whats happening on the other side of the spectrum?
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Shapeless
 
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Reply Tue 12 Aug, 2008 01:10 pm
Rachel Toor wrote:
I teach at a regional comprehensive university. While I have close relationships with some of my students, for most I am just a professor responsible for teaching and grading them. But I know something about their lives.

Their lives are hard. Many understand that education is a privilege and not a right.


This, more than anything, is what I appreciate and applaud in Toor's take on the situation. I've ranted about the "privilege-vs.-right" model of education before, so I won't get started again here. Very Happy
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OGIONIK
 
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Reply Tue 12 Aug, 2008 01:12 pm
that is slightly disturbing to me..


i fear i wasn't being ruthless enough in my quest for money to attain an education and survive in this form of society.


i will begin correcting that mistake immediately.
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Shapeless
 
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Reply Wed 13 Aug, 2008 01:20 am
I just ran across this Wall Street Journal op-ed that isn't specifically about "elite" institutions but somehow seemed like an appropriate contribution to the thread:



For Most People, College Is a Waste of Time
By CHARLES MURRAY

Imagine that America had no system of post-secondary education, and you were a member of a task force assigned to create one from scratch. One of your colleagues submits this proposal:

First, we will set up a single goal to represent educational success, which will take four years to achieve no matter what is being taught. We will attach an economic reward to it that seldom has anything to do with what has been learned. We will urge large numbers of people who do not possess adequate ability to try to achieve the goal, wait until they have spent a lot of time and money, and then deny it to them. We will stigmatize everyone who doesn't meet the goal. We will call the goal a "BA."

You would conclude that your colleague was cruel, not to say insane. But that's the system we have in place.

Finding a better way should be easy. The BA acquired its current inflated status by accident. Advanced skills for people with brains really did get more valuable over the course of the 20th century, but the acquisition of those skills got conflated with the existing system of colleges, which had evolved the BA for completely different purposes.

Outside a handful of majors -- engineering and some of the sciences -- a bachelor's degree tells an employer nothing except that the applicant has a certain amount of intellectual ability and perseverance. Even a degree in a vocational major like business administration can mean anything from a solid base of knowledge to four years of barely remembered gut courses.

The solution is not better degrees, but no degrees. Young people entering the job market should have a known, trusted measure of their qualifications they can carry into job interviews. That measure should express what they know, not where they learned it or how long it took them. They need a certification, not a degree.

The model is the CPA exam that qualifies certified public accountants. The same test is used nationwide. It is thorough -- four sections, timed, totaling 14 hours. A passing score indicates authentic competence (the pass rate is below 50%). Actual scores are reported in addition to pass/fail, so that employers can assess where the applicant falls in the distribution of accounting competence. You may have learned accounting at an anonymous online university, but your CPA score gives you a way to show employers you're a stronger applicant than someone from an Ivy League school.

The merits of a CPA-like certification exam apply to any college major for which the BA is now used as a job qualification. To name just some of them: criminal justice, social work, public administration and the many separate majors under the headings of business, computer science and education. Such majors accounted for almost two-thirds of the bachelor's degrees conferred in 2005. For that matter, certification tests can be used for purely academic disciplines. Why not present graduate schools with certifications in microbiology or economics -- and who cares if the applicants passed the exam after studying in the local public library?

Certification tests need not undermine the incentives to get a traditional liberal-arts education. If professional and graduate schools want students who have acquired one, all they need do is require certification scores in the appropriate disciplines. Students facing such requirements are likely to get a much better liberal education than even our most elite schools require now.

Certification tests will not get rid of the problems associated with differences in intellectual ability: People with high intellectual ability will still have an edge. Graduates of prestigious colleges will still, on average, have higher certification scores than people who have taken online courses -- just because prestigious colleges attract intellectually talented applicants.

But that's irrelevant to the larger issue. Under a certification system, four years is not required, residence is not required, expensive tuitions are not required, and a degree is not required. Equal educational opportunity means, among other things, creating a society in which it's what you know that makes the difference. Substituting certifications for degrees would be a big step in that direction.

The incentives are right. Certification tests would provide all employers with valuable, trustworthy information about job applicants. They would benefit young people who cannot or do not want to attend a traditional four-year college. They would be welcomed by the growing post-secondary online educational industry, which cannot offer the halo effect of a BA from a traditional college, but can realistically promise their students good training for a certification test -- as good as they are likely to get at a traditional college, for a lot less money and in a lot less time.

Certification tests would disadvantage just one set of people: Students who have gotten into well-known traditional schools, but who are coasting through their years in college and would score poorly on a certification test. Disadvantaging them is an outcome devoutly to be wished.

No technical barriers stand in the way of evolving toward a system where certification tests would replace the BA. Hundreds of certification tests already exist, for everything from building code inspectors to advanced medical specialties. The problem is a shortage of tests that are nationally accepted, like the CPA exam.

But when so many of the players would benefit, a market opportunity exists. If a high-profile testing company such as the Educational Testing Service were to reach a strategic decision to create definitive certification tests, it could coordinate with major employers, professional groups and nontraditional universities to make its tests the gold standard. A handful of key decisions could produce a tipping effect. Imagine if Microsoft announced it would henceforth require scores on a certain battery of certification tests from all of its programming applicants. Scores on that battery would acquire instant credibility for programming job applicants throughout the industry.

An educational world based on certification tests would be a better place in many ways, but the overarching benefit is that the line between college and noncollege competencies would be blurred. Hardly any jobs would still have the BA as a requirement for a shot at being hired. Opportunities would be wider and fairer, and the stigma of not having a BA would diminish.

Most important in an increasingly class-riven America: The demonstration of competency in business administration or European history would, appropriately, take on similarities to the demonstration of competency in cooking or welding. Our obsession with the BA has created a two-tiered entry to adulthood, anointing some for admission to the club and labeling the rest as second-best.

Here's the reality: Everyone in every occupation starts as an apprentice. Those who are good enough become journeymen. The best become master craftsmen. This is as true of business executives and history professors as of chefs and welders. Getting rid of the BA and replacing it with evidence of competence -- treating post-secondary education as apprenticeships for everyone -- is one way to help us to recognize that common bond.



Mr. Murray is the W.H. Brady Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. This essay is adapted from his forthcoming book, "Real Education: Four Simple Truths for Bringing America's Schools Back to Reality" (Crown Forum).
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ossobuco
 
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Reply Wed 13 Aug, 2008 01:33 am
Shapeless, I plan to respond. Just not this evening.
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georgeob1
 
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Reply Wed 13 Aug, 2008 03:50 am
Shapeless,

Thanks for the provocative essays. All interesting, and all capture elements of truth. Happily each of the authors has made his/her point of view clear, either explicitly or, as in the case with Mr Murray, implicitly.

The historical object of education has been the preparation of the individual for life, of the mind, soul, and body. What that means to people has varied by place, time and social class. Without exception the actual processes in the real world - including those of "elite" schools - fall short of this broad prescription in one perspective or another. We have here seen two such descriptions of shortfalls and one defense (that of Rachel Toor) that reminds us that life presents challenges to everyone, even those who benefit from the particular norms on which selection is made among the young of any time and place.

From the perspective within which he limits his considerations of merit or value, Mr Murray is very likely right. Reliable selection of capable functionaries for fully definable functions (in a corporate world in which everything can reliably be assumed to be predictable, if not actually predicted) could almost certainly be made based on CPA like certification (if they existed) of not just accountants, but also software designers, engineers, technicians, administrators of all kinds, most lawyers, and many scientists. In that sense the BA (or BS) is indeed wasted. However, that is not the only object of education - it is, instead, the only one that Charles Murray considered in his piece.

Issues associated with often inward-looking, elite universities were plausibly described by Mr Dereciewicz. Though my experience with them is limited to just a three month post graduate management course at HBS, (I went to the Naval Academy and later Cal Tech.) the defects associated with the life-defining selection process and competition for entry into undergraduate education at elite universities, and the institutional culture that results, are all plausibly described. Many times in business I have heard the comment that in hiring a graduate of an elite university one is buying, not so much the education they provide, as the selection process for entry itself. My experience, to a large degree, confirms this observation.

In the end, both in professional success as judged by others, and in personal 'success' as judged by ourselves, we all probably know that many other factors enter the game, particularly at the extremes.

Elites of all kinds end up as defenders of one or another status quo, though they usually begin as creators of something new -- all over the span of many lives. The great leaders and innovators in our society and country are a far more heterogenious lot than the graduates of Harvard or Yale, though the latter are often a pervasive influence on public thought. (I just finished reading Gary Wills' "Lincoln at Gettysburg", a work that illustrates this point well.)

Institutions of all kinds have finite life spans, which are typically extended only by often wrenching periods of destruction and recreation. I believe that this is true of elite educatiuon in the United States, and that change is likely already underway. Frankly though, I worry far more about the dismal quality of K through 12 education in this country. THAT sorely needs a period of serious institutional destruction and recreation, starting now.
fishin
 
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Reply Wed 13 Aug, 2008 06:42 am
Shapeless wrote:
sozobe wrote:
I agree that it's better to be comfortable with the plumber than not, but the first guy seems to be making high-falutin' excuses for his lack of social graces.


Agreed. Much of the problem, at least with this guy, seems to be in the ridiculous assumption that high education and ability to communicate with non-elites are naturally irreconcilable.


I'd take it even farther than that. Why are they automatically assuming that the plumber isn't their "equeal" just because of his job? (I've worked with local electricians that are MIT grads!)

If the author is as smart as they think they are then why aren't they fixing their own plumbing?
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cjhsa
 
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Reply Wed 13 Aug, 2008 06:59 am
That said, an "A" at Harvard is still a B or less at BU....
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OGIONIK
 
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Reply Wed 13 Aug, 2008 07:38 am
i like the old way of a teacher and an apprentice...

but obviously in this timeframe they are way to many people and communities are so large that is not usually feasible..

oh wow perfect metaphor

a master craftsman who bulds things by hand

compared to an assembly line building with robots..


:/
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sozobe
 
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Reply Wed 13 Aug, 2008 07:43 am
fishin wrote:
I'd take it even farther than that. Why are they automatically assuming that the plumber isn't their "equeal" just because of his job? (I've worked with local electricians that are MIT grads!)

If the author is as smart as they think they are then why aren't they fixing their own plumbing?


Excellent points.

Re: Master/ Apprentice, that relationship does exist in some academic quarters. More so in some fields than others, but the advisor/postdoc relationship, for example, is often a very master/ apprentice sort of relationship.
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FreeDuck
 
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Reply Wed 13 Aug, 2008 09:29 am
bookmark -- just reading along
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