Monday, July 28, 2008

William Deresiewicz: The disadvantages of an elite education

Here [Thanks to Prof. S. Arunachalam for the e-mail alert]. I didn't quite like the broad-brush generalizations (and I'm sure many Ivy League alumni are busy preparing a critique of this article), but some points do hit home. Here's one:

The second disadvantage, implicit in what I’ve been saying, is that an elite education inculcates a false sense of self-worth. Getting to an elite college, being at an elite college, and going on from an elite college—all involve numerical rankings: SAT, GPA, GRE. You learn to think of yourself in terms of those numbers. They come to signify not only your fate, but your identity; not only your identity, but your value. It’s been said that what those tests really measure is your ability to take tests, but even if they measure something real, it is only a small slice of the real. The problem begins when students are encouraged to forget this truth, when academic excellence becomes excellence in some absolute sense, when “better at X” becomes simply “better.”

There is nothing wrong with taking pride in one’s intellect or knowledge. There is something wrong with the smugness and self-congratulation that elite schools connive at from the moment the fat envelopes come in the mail. From orientation to graduation, the message is implicit in every tone of voice and tilt of the head, every old-school tradition, every article in the student paper, every speech from the dean. The message is: You have arrived. Welcome to the club. And the corollary is equally clear: You deserve everything your presence here is going to enable you to get. When people say that students at elite schools have a strong sense of entitlement, they mean that those students think they deserve more than other people because their sat scores are higher.

Here's something about how uneven grade inflation has been in US universities:

There’s been a lot of handwringing lately over grade inflation, and it is a scandal, but the most scandalous thing about it is how uneven it’s been. Forty years ago, the average GPA at both public and private universities was about 2.6, still close to the traditional B-/C+ curve. Since then, it’s gone up everywhere, but not by anything like the same amount. The average gpa at public universities is now about 3.0, a B; at private universities it’s about 3.3, just short of a B+. And at most Ivy League schools, it’s closer to 3.4. But there are always students who don’t do the work, or who are taking a class far outside their field (for fun or to fulfill a requirement), or who aren’t up to standard to begin with (athletes, legacies). At a school like Yale, students who come to class and work hard expect nothing less than an A-. And most of the time, they get it.


  1. Anonymous said...

    There are two possible "prestige lines" in academia, one based on schools, and one based on publications. Now:

    Scene One: Ace SAT/GRE, get into one of the top schools, graduate with not much publications, but still join another top school faculty, based on your ivy league certificate and letters.

    Scene Two: Get average SAT/GRE scores, go to average school, graduate with publications in high impact journals, but join average school faculty, because the top schools consider certificates more important than publications. In other words, they don't want people with "University of XXX" walking around the holy precincts, potentially laughed at by the (rich ) entitled undergrads.

    In **some** cases, the top school folks also publish in high impact journals, in which case more power to them. But this is not always the case. The grade inflation and the incestuous hiring is the cartel route to keep the prestige image going. Kinda like the chic story -- chic is what chic people find chic.

    In general, there are two kinds of smart people: processors (do complex calculations fast -- the GRE acers) and generators (develop new and interesting ways of solving problems or looking at things -- the paper publishers). In some cases the two occur together, but not always.

    Ideally, academic hiring, both students and faculty, should seek out the last group, then the second group, and only finally the first one. Unfortunately, the order is 3,1,2 now. This has a lot to do with the funding climate and the general rat-race in academia these days -- faculty is not looking for original students, but people who can solve problems quickly. And the cycle continues.

  2. Anonymous said...

    OK -- I see you read it before my comment on your latest post. Ignore/delete it.


  3. Blue said...

    Although Deresiewicz makes several good points, he ruins his credibility in his first paragraph:

    "There [the plumber] 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."

    Seriously? Nothing about the weather, the traffic, the sports team? No self-deprecating jokes about "if I tried to fix it myself I'd flood my kitchen?" The issue isn't "Ivy League can't communicate with Plumber;" it's "Deresiewicz never learned basic social skills."

  4. Abi said...

    Anon 1: Once again, I am not in favour of broad brush generalizations. While there is much truth in what Deresiewicz says, I believe the elite universities do continue to attract their fair share (probably more than their fair share) of talented students. On any yardstick, the elite universities continue to do well; so, I am not sure that I would take the kind of cynical view you seem to believe in.

    Anon 2: Thanks for that pointer.

    Blue: Yes, I too was appalled that Deresiewicz started with that Plumber epidode. But, his article did get better after that, didn't it?