Disadvantages of an Elite Education

There is a new essay called The Disadvantages of an Elite Education by William Deresiewicz in The American Scholar that is making the rounds in higher education discussions.  I think the subtitle of the article sums up its thesis well:

Our best universities have forgotten that the reason they exist is to make minds, not careers

He is writing primarily about elite universities, the same ones that ESN is trying to transform.  Deresiewicz was on the faculty at Yale for 10 years, so he has some background in this.

His argument has several points, but here’s one that stuck out at me.

An elite education gives you the chance to be rich—which is, after all, what we’re talking about—but it takes away the chance not to be. Yet the opportunity not to be rich is one of the greatest opportunities with which young Americans have been blessed. We live in a society that is itself so wealthy that it can afford to provide a decent living to whole classes of people who in other countries exist (or in earlier times existed) on the brink of poverty or, at least, of indignity. You can live comfortably in the United States as a schoolteacher, or a community organizer, or a civil rights lawyer, or an artist—that is, by any reasonable definition of comfort.  [snip]

Yet it is precisely that opportunity that an elite education takes away. How can I be a schoolteacher—wouldn’t that be a waste of my expensive education? Wouldn’t I be squandering the opportunities my parents worked so hard to provide? What will my friends think? How will I face my classmates at our 20th reunion, when they’re all rich lawyers or important people in New York? And the question that lies behind all these: Isn’t it beneath me? So a whole universe of possibility closes, and you miss your true calling.

I think Deresiewicz glosses over another reason why elite universities rob you of the opportunite “not to be rich”: student loans. I was accepted to Yale when I was a senior in high school, but even with financial aid, I would have need to take out something like $20,000 per year in student loans to make it work.  The University of Louisville offered me a full ride; between UofL and my master’s degree at Regent (where I also received a scholarship, and where my parents graciously paid for my thesis), I was able to complete my entire education to date with less than $10,000 total in student loans.  My senior year in high school, for some unknown reason, I was convinced that I wanted to be a high school principal (I still don’t know why), and the prospect of starting a career as a teacher with over $100,000 in student loan debt did not appeal to me.

Over at Slate.com, Meghan O’Rourke has a nice tribute to Anne of Green Gables, which has been published in a new Modern Library edition.  O’Rourke does a good job, but she starts her article playing devil’s advocate: why should Anne of Green Gables, of all things, receive this kind of treatment?

To some, this canonical promotion of a writer who would probably now be classified as a Y.A. (young adult) author might seem preposterous. To certain left-leaning cultural theorists who won’t embrace a heroine with a less-than-revolutionary CV—Anne, once the Island’s best young scholar, chooses to become a devoted wife and mother of six—the Modern Library’s decision may appear to be a reactionary cave-in to nostalgic sentimentality.

Compare this to Deresiewicz’s point about elite education: using a bright mind, or an elite education, to become something as pedestrian as a mother is, well, “wasteful,” when you could be doing the “real work” of becoming rich or “successful.”  There’s nothing wrong with being a banker, hedge fund manager, or what have you, but let’s be very careful here.  The Victorians elevated motherhood to an idol; we have lowered to a calling of last resort.  I had a feminist professor in college who liked to read aloud articles that described how much a mother would be paid if all of her jobs were added up (e.g. chaffeur, personal shopper, maid, etc.).  I think she thought she was being flattering to mothers by noting their worth.  And she was, but she was also buying into our society’s preoccupation with salary as a measure of importance.

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One thought on “Disadvantages of an Elite Education

  1. Pingback: Bookmarks about Elite

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