Deresiewicz: Halfway There

By , 3 August, 2008, No Comment

The current issue of American Scholar (aka Geek Magazine) has this fascinating essay by William Deresiewicz about “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” Read the whole thing if you have time on your hands, but here’s the cliff notes version.

1. elite schools breed smart people who will go on to be successful but not be able to converse with or show compassion for those less smart/successful than them, i.e. their own plumber
2. elite schools breed smart people who think intelligence is the only virtue in life
3. elite schools train smart people to think they (and their children) deserve success, i.e. grade inflation and the inherited meritocracy
4. elite schools encourage smart people to take safe paths in life, where they know they will succeed, rather than to take risks
5. elite schools are hotbeds of social conformity

I’ll dismiss the first and last points right off the bat. If Deresiewicz feels socially inept and unoriginal, I assure you that no single educational institution is to blame for making him that way. But points 2-4 struck me as dead on, faults that I myself plead guilty to sometimes and consider among my chief weaknesses.

I discussed the essay with several friends, and found that most of them hated it. Not always, however, because they thought he was wrong about the existence of grade inflation or the pressure to choose the straight and narrow career. Rather, after much long debate, my conversations with friends wound up with them saying “So what?” As in, so what if we expect success in exchange for our intelligence–don’t we deserve that?

The problem with this essay is that Deresiewicz exposed all these qualities of an elite education but didn’t really explain why they are disadvantages.

My own answer to friends is that you deserve success when you achieve it–you proved it by getting there. That’s not a particular nice or fair worldview, I realize, but societally, it’s the kind of ethic you have to have to innovate. Leaders are intelligent people who kept proving themselves even after a solid SAT score and an Ivy degree “entitled” them to sit on their laurels. If our best and brightest get complacent, this country’s leadership days are numbered. Somewhere in the midst of his overdone prose, I think that’s what Prof. Deresiewicz meant to say.

Related Posts
Leave a Reply