Sunday, April 22, 2012

Thirty-Two Flavors, All of Them Vanilla

One of Glenn Greenwald's commenters linked to this 2008 article from The American Scholar, which is worth reading all the way through.  It's a very good account of the limitations, and as the writer calls them, disadvantages of an elite education.  I agree with most of what he says, but he stumbles usefully at a couple of points.  First:
I have a friend who went to an Ivy League college after graduating from a typically mediocre public high school. One of the values of going to such a school, she once said, is that it teaches you to relate to stupid people. Some people are smart in the elite-college way, some are smart in other ways, and some aren’t smart at all. It should be embarrassing not to know how to talk to any of them, if only because talking to people is the only real way of knowing them. 
 It took me a moment to disentangle what Deresiewicz was saying here.  At first he thought that going to an Ivy League college "teaches you to relate to stupid people", but of course he meant that going to "a typically mediocre public high school" teaches you that.  (Mediocrity would be typical, just by definition.)  But I must differ with him.  Of course there are stupid people outside the Ivy League, but there are plenty of them inside it too.  I'm not just talking about people like George W. Bush, who is lazy and ignorant but not stupid.  I'm talking about the elites who surrounded and enabled him, the neocons and technocrats, who with competence and even brilliance nearly destroyed the world economy and guided the US and its cronies into some horribly destructive wars -- just as their predecessors a half-century ago conducted the Cold War and numerous wars, small and large, that did no good at all to anyone except to ruling elites.

Deresiewicz is aware of this, to some extent.
For the elite, there’s always another extension—a bailout, a pardon, a stint in rehab—always plenty of contacts and special stipends—the country club, the conference, the year-end bonus, the dividend ... The fat salaries paid to underperforming CEOs are an adult version of the A-. Anyone who remembers the injured sanctimony with which Kenneth Lay greeted the notion that he should be held accountable for his actions will understand the mentality in question—the belief that once you’re in the club, you’ve got a God-given right to stay in the club. But you don’t need to remember Ken Lay, because the whole dynamic played out again last year in the case of Scooter Libby, another Yale man.
 It's worth recalling here the experience of a working-class boy who attended another elite school: Raymond Williams, the son of a Welsh railroad worker, earned a scholarship to Cambridge University in 1939.  Later in life he wrote about what he saw there.
The class which has dominated Cambridge is given to describing itself as well-mannered, polite, sensitive. It continually contrasts itself favourably with the rougher and coarser others. When it turns to the arts, it congratulates itself, overtly, on its taste and its sensibility; speaks of its poise and tone. If I then say that what I found was an extraordinarily coarse, pushing, name-ridden group, I shall be told that I am showing class-feeling, class-envy, class-resentment. That I showed class-feeling is not in any doubt. All I would insist on is that nobody fortunate enough to grow up in a good home, in a genuinely well-mannered and sensitive community, could for a moment envy these loud, competitive and deprived people. All I did not know then was how cold that class is. That comes with experience [What I Came to Say (Hutchinson Radius, 1989), p. 6].
Another lesson to be learned from Williams's experience is that this isn't new.  Again, Deresiewicz admits as much.
I taught a class several years ago on the literature of friendship. One day we were discussing Virginia Woolf’s novel The Waves, which follows a group of friends from childhood to middle age. In high school, one of them falls in love with another boy. He thinks, “To whom can I expose the urgency of my own passion?…There is nobody—here among these grey arches, and moaning pigeons, and cheerful games and tradition and emulation, all so skilfully organised to prevent feeling alone.” A pretty good description of an elite college campus, including the part about never being allowed to feel alone.
The Waves was published in 1931, and is based partly on Woolf's (male) contemporaries, who attended elite British schools a century ago.  Things may be worse now, though I think that's debatable, but they haven't changed fundamentally.

These quibbles (and I should also notice that Deresiewicz buys into the myth of grade inflation) don't detract from the overall worth of Deresiewicz' essay.  It's best if you balance it against the perspective of people like Raymond Williams or Noam Chomsky, who view elite institutions with a much more jaundiced eye.  Deresiewicz is criticizing them from a humanities point of view: hey, management and leadership aren't the only important things -- what about introspection and the life of the mind?  Which is perfectly valid, but I don't think it goes quite deep enough; but I'm impressed that he went as deeply as he did.