Sunday, July 27, 2014

Improve Yourself

Improve yourself
Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman. It is well to be a gentleman, it is well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life.

— John Henry Cardinal Newman, The Idea of a University

Last week, former Yale professor and current essayist and writer William Deriesiewicz penned a jeremiad against elite higher education in this country which not only excoriated his former employer but also all such cognate institutions of higher learning which aspire to the top of the annual listing of “best” colleges and universities put out by U.S. News & World Report. He has many criticisms to offer, including the fact that colleges like Yale do not in fact teach their students to think, but rather to be timid, anxious careerists following blindly in the well-worn ruts of privilege their parents, peers, and society have picked out for them:
Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.

Contrary to their carefully maintained public image and stated mission, Deriesiewicz also denies that these institutions’ educational curricula are as intellectually demanding or their student bodies are as truly diverse as they like to claim. Instead, he blasts them as bastions of existing privilege which train and credentialize a blinkered socioeconomic elite to reproduce itself.

Allowing for some artistic license and the exaggeration natural to a magazine article writer intent on drumming up advance sales of his book, I have to say I cannot materially disagree with Mr. Deriesiewicz. The only question I have is why it has taken him, a college professor with a decade at least in the very belly of the beast, so long to discover what everybody else has known for approximately ever.

* * *

Mr. Deriesiewicz seems shocked, shocked to discover that 250+-year-old institutions charging rack rates north of $60,000 per year to convey some tangled Latin prose on sheepskin to spotty youngsters at the end of four or more years—institutions for which the combined endowments exceed the gross national products of several small countries—should be complicit in the perpetuation and justification of entrenched socioeconomic power structures. Whence, exactly, did Mr. D think these universities’ wealth, status, and prestige come from? Whence the demand for their services? From whom?

From the dimmest reaches of time on, Most Patient and Attractive of Readers, elite educational institutions have been founded, mirabile dictu, to educate the elite: to inculcate and train the ruling class in those arts, preferences, and temperaments which would be conducive to their wielding of power and privilege (q.v. Cardinal Newman supra) and to introduce them to their peers and future colleagues in business, government, and society. In the earliest days, such institutions mostly served as high class finishing schools for the sons [sic] of the rich, as well as training grounds for a limited class of administrators and functionaries the rich relied on to manage their affairs, such as politicians, military officers, and the clergy. Over time, these institutions widened their reach beyond the landed gentry and wealthy merchants to encompass the growing ranks of the striving administrative classes, including, most importantly, the vast numbers of middle class merchants, businessmen, and professionals who would comprise the bulk of the modern market-based economy. Eventually—much later—the doors were opened to women; first as a sop to the daughters of the rich who wished to enrich their unemployed adult lives, and later to those female coequals who began to invade and swell the numbers of the workforce. Along the way, elite institutions began to admit increasing numbers of “outsiders” such as Jews, men and women of color, and other more marginal ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic groups.

But each and every time they added more groups to the circus tent, elite educational institutions remained focused firmly and irrevocably on serving the elite: legitimizing, justifying, and expanding the elite, but serving the elite nonetheless. It’s like The Preppy Handbook joked about Princeton in the 1980s: only 20% of freshmen entered as preppies, but 80% of graduating seniors exited as such. Just so, the Ivy League may admit 12 to 15% of their incoming classes from households where the student is the first person in her family to attend college, but by the time she graduates she will have been anointed—and will have fully internalized her right and privilege to become—a fully fledged member of those citizens credentialed to enter the ruling class. In addition to replenishing their ranks, this suits the elite just fine, since the meritocratic myth that at least a few outsiders can join their ranks via hard work and talent is an excellent way to keep the rest of them docile. Besides, they can always admit a small number of international students who pay full freight in order to subsidize the scholarship kids.

So Mr. Deriesiewicz’s outrage that the Ivy League helps perpetuate the dominance of elites and contributes to socioeconomic inequality seems to miss the point. That is what they have always done. That is their primary purpose.

* * *

Likewise, the ex-professor’s disappointment that so many students at elite universities demonstrate so little interest in the opportunities such institutions offer to expand their minds, take risks, and learn to connect with themselves is misplaced. Surely these are admirable goals for some, but it is the height of presumption to insist they should be the goals of every student who attends college. For in my experience, the diversity which Mr. Deriesiewicz pooh-poohs on the basis of class exists in full force when it comes to the intellectual curiosity, interests, and objectives which students bring to elite colleges. There are future businesspeople, politicians, lawyers, medical doctors, athletes, and the like at Yale and every other similar college. The portion of true scholars, future PhDs or college professors, and restless seekers after knowledge in a top flight university is not much different than that of the general population: small. Many future non-scholars do indeed take the opportunity to stretch themselves here and there, and perhaps a few reconsider their life goals upon encountering Spinoza or Cervantes, but the unfettered life of the mind is a true calling for very few.

Being a former, current, and future paying customer of these institutions, I can personally attest they actually do a reasonably good job exposing their students to opportunities to challenge their assumptions, broaden their knowledge, and get in touch with their inner selves. They do this by requiring students to fulfill distribution requirements across disciplines, offering a staggering breadth of classes to choose from, and enabling them to interact with dozens if not hundreds of professors and other students just as smart or smarter than they are who do not believe or think the same as they do. The colleges Mr. Deriesiewicz derides are often the first places where these talented, driven children have a real opportunity to spread their wings and take the kind of risks he admires. That being said, if a kid attends Princeton with the monomaniacal goal of becoming a Goldman Sachs investment banker for life, there is nothing any university can do to make him drink deep from the font of self- or other-knowledge. This is not Princeton’s problem, either. Cherchez la mère et le père.

* * *

In fact, an alternate reading of the professor’s complaint could leave a perceptive reader with a substantially more sanguine opinion of the state of higher education in America than the one he offers. First, the mere fact that prestige magnets like Harvard and Yale—which attracted 34,295 and 29,610 applications from all over the world for 1,662 and 1,359 spots in the Classes of 2018, respectively—actually do not fill their classes entirely with the moneyed careerist offspring of high-status alumni is a positive thing. The student diversity such colleges actively promote actually means lots more “pointy” (unusually talented, not well-rounded) candidates finally get in than one might otherwise suspect. Sure, this may benefit the technocratic elite and the current socioeconomic power structure as a whole (and usually does), but tell that to Buffy Witherspoon, IV’s parents when she is declined for admission in favor of a low-income genius from Compton who wants to study Catalan poetry and neurochemistry.

Second, the fresh blood which these elite systems suck into the power structure not only legitimizes it via promoting the oversold myth of equal opportunity and meritocracy, it also strengthens it by bringing new perspectives, different backgrounds, and unconventional ambitions to the party. Sure, the ruling class co-opts its potential enemies by making them one of the club, but this is good both for the ruling class and for the revolutionaries it co-opts. This may not make the Marxists in the audience happy, but it enables socioeconomic evolution and change in ways that may, at the end of the day, be significantly more than trivial.

Finally, the staggering rise in the number of kids who go to college in America over the past few decades1 has not only made admission to the top ranked universities insanely competitive, it has also improved the quality of dozens if not hundreds of second, third, and fourth tier colleges. The colleges where top quality students can get an outstanding education—practical, theoretical, or both—are far more numerous than they used to be, simply because the demand for spaces and the quality of applicants have both risen dramatically. What parents, students, and, yes, critics like William Deriesiewicz have to realize is a bright, ambitious student has far more than seven or eight acceptable colleges to apply to nowadays. And not getting into Yale, Harvard, Stanford, or Princeton is not the life-ending tragedy the neurotically competitive parents of the private school set might think it is.

* * *

Like many academics before him, I fear Professor D has confused the mission, purpose, and legitimacy of our higher education system with the mission, purpose, and legitimacy of the ivory tower. The latter is and always has been servant to the former, not its master. And the former likes the way things are just fine, thank you.

Besides, nobody’s forcing you to apply to Harvard.

Related reading:
William Deriesiewicz, Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League: The nation’s top colleges are turning our kids into zombies (The New Republic, July 21, 2014)
Sovereign Triviality (November 19, 2011)
In the Nation’s Service (December 29, 2011)
The Standard Model (February 18, 2012)
No Country for Young Children (October 21, 2012)

1 Your Forgetful Bloggist remembers reading not long ago from a source he cannot recall that whereas approximately 48% of the high school graduates eligible for college actually attended college in 1980, by 2010 that percentage had risen to 68%. Combined with general population growth over those decades, that means the college admissions pool has increased in both size and quality spectacularly since YFB graced the leafy groves. I maintain, for what it is worth, that there is no way in hell I could get into the college which accepted me when I was a mere sprout today. Sadly, nobody who knows me personally disagrees when I say this.

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