25 June 2010

Pruning the Ivy: Why I don't believe in the tyranny of elite universities

I’ve met plenty of arrogant, entitled people—and I make no apology for my cordial detestation of them—in the decade I’ve spent at two Ivy League universities (Princeton, Columbia). When people generalize about the Ivy League as an institution, it seems to me, they’re actually expressing their perceptions, right and wrong, of the people who have attended Ivy League universities. But when you consider the fact that there are nasty people in every walk of life and in every organization, blaming elite universities for having a percentage of unpleasant people is unfair. It cannot be an admissions office’s job to figure out whether someone is a nice person or not.

The conversation about the role of elite universities in American life yields no middle ground. On one side are the people who honestly believe that the universities in the Ivy League (eight old, private institutions on the East Coast that happened to have football teams in the 1930s) are the points of a golden compass keeping America on its bearings and producing the only people really worth talking to. The other side argues that the leafy campuses are bastions of privilege and represent the worst of our society, the preserve of a self-perpetuating elite that is responsible for American arrogance abroad, the collapse of our financial system at home and general mediocrity. Many of the fiercest critics themselves went to an Ivy League university and were horrified by some of their boorish classmates.

One of these disaffected Ivy Leaguers is William Deresiewicz (Harvard, Yale), who addresses the cracks in the gothic facades in the summer 2008 issue of The American Scholar. He makes a noble effort, but his analysis suffers because of his devotion to the thesis that all malfeasance on the part of the elite can be traced to their faulty educations, specifically that arrogance is somehow part of the curriculum.

Though his logic is wooly, Deresiewicz is a writer I admire (crisp prose, vivid descriptions). I say that with some trepidation because Shashi Tharoor, the last “writer I admire” to be featured here, was engulfed in a spectacularly embarrassing and possibly career-ending scandal just weeks after I professed my undying admiration for him.

The problem is that behind Deresiewicz’s well-honed prose is the fundamental argument, although it is never stated as such, that we don’t need an elite. Only in Cloudcuckooland does that idea hold any weight. Every society, even a tribal family unit, has people who are distinguished, who have some kind of right to be taken seriously. Someone always had to be a king or a counselor. And there has to be an institution that prepares someone to be a king or a counselor. Obviously this preparation used to be largely hereditary (the son of a king would learn how to rule by watching his father) but today we recognize that becoming a member of the elite should not be a birthright. Even though an elite is by definition self-perpetuating, for everyone’s sake, we want the elite to be porous enough so that the deserving can rise into up and the undeserving can fall out of it. Getting into a top university is the first rung in the meritocratic ladder, and even with its imperfections I cannot think of a fairer system.

What our society could not survive on the other hand is anarchy. The Tea Partiers happen to share a core belief with many Marxists (neither group is known for its keen sense of irony). For both, the ultimate political victory depends on an uprising of the (definitely non-Ivy League educated) working class, call them Joe Six-Packs or the Proletariat. They believe that a few people sponge off the productive activities of the majority and so usurp the hard-working majority’s freedom. Down with the Elites! The problem with this view is that history contradicts it: The modern popular revolution represents its participants as the salt of the earth, but revolutions, successful ones anyway, are spearheaded by disaffected elites who can marshal the frustration of the masses. The American Revolution itself was patently not a spontaneous outburst by the working class. Most of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence were lawyers and therefore the best educated people in the Colonies. In colonial India, native elites were trying to overthrow the foreign elites. Gandhi, the quintessential humble revolutionary, had in fact been a successful lawyer, as had Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India.

As for “Ivy retardation,” the idea that having an Ivy League education makes it harder to talk to certain people about certain things, why did it take Dereszewicz until his mid-30s to understand what was clear to me just days after I arrived at Princeton a starry-eyed freshman? He writes “the last thing an elite education will teach you is its own inadequacy”—but that of course is exactly why self-awareness is indispensible. You have to know that you don’t know things, and be willing to deal with that.

Am I proving Deresiewicz’s point by conceding that the Ivies can’t fix someone who’s already a snob? No, because their purpose is not repairing damage that has been done. An elite education can activate someone’s potential, but for it to work one has to have a basic level of self-awareness and empathy (which admittedly some, perhaps many, of my peers lacked). That’s not an Ivy League problem; it’s a human one. It is ironic that although Ivy League students are often caricatured as being incurious, I find the tradition of being inquiring about people who are different from one’s self to be stronger in elite universities than in society at large.

The problem of faulty communication that Dereszewicz describes so memorably (his inability to make small-talk with a plumber) is one that I experience all the time: But, bear with me here, it’s like racism. The root cause of racism is the survival instinct to discriminate and generalize about groups of people.
Even the most sensitive, most multicultural of us therefore necessarily commits small acts of racism all the time. We should not claim that we lack this bit of human nature (that way hypocrisy lies) but rather to correct ourselves when we fall prey to this weakness, to civilize ourselves and to live with enough self-reflection that we never do anything too awful. (For a visual presentation of the bewildering number of biases that we humans fall prey to, see this guide.) So maybe I wouldn’t have anything to say to Joe the Plumber over a beer but that doesn’t mean that he represents “the real America” and I’m a fraud. If he doesn’t make an effort to talk to me then he’s at fault, too. As I mentioned above, contrary to Deresziewicz’s experience, I felt that my education was constantly reinforcing the value of learning about people different from myself—failing to act on that would be my own fault.

The cheap-shot of the piece is diversity. Ivy League universities, as Dereszewicz freely admits, have spent years recruiting minority students but this, he argues, is in an important sense not diversity. Although there may be many more black and brown faces than before, an elite university is a rainbow coalition of the children of the managerial class and there is no economic diversity. It is true that I found some kind of atavistic class tension at Princeton. Basically poor kids felt the need to pretend to be rich and rich kids pretended to be less well off. But around the time I arrived, the admissions system had become truly need-blind because the university had begun to give grant s to students from low-income families, in some cases full scholarships. My family is comfortably middle-class (both my parents are white-collar workers) but even I received significant financial aid and paid less for my education than if I had gone to almost any private university or paid out-of-state tuition at many public universities. The Ivies are increasingly refashioning themselves as engines of social mobility rather than bastions of privilege, which they can do effectively because of their vast resources.

Despite transformations in both the universities and the world at large, perceptions of the Ivy League often reflect what for recent graduates seems like ancient history. When Donald Rumsfeld left Princeton in 1954 (no women, so few black students you could count them on your fingers), it was an entirely different place from the Princeton that I graduated from fifty-one years later. Some of my classmates may end up running the world in a few years, but they won’t run it like Rumsfeld’s generation did. (Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose is precisely the claim that Deresiewicz makes at the end of his piece.)

When the criticism of Ivy League privilege does address the quality of the students, journalistic rules about generalization go out the window. For example, Dereszewicz claims that Ivy League kids give up more easily than others. Perhaps that’s true, but his example is a student who takes taking a year to write poetry, hardly a typical experience. But the more common generalization that links the personal to the institutional is that the education is purely a means to an end. He writes,
When elite universities boast that they teach their students how to think, they mean that they teach them the analytic and rhetorical skills necessary for success in law or medicine or science or business. But a humanistic education is supposed to mean something more than that, as universities still dimly feel.
This, for the record, is exactly what David Brooks argues in “The Organization Kid” in The Atlantic Monthly in April 2001. I’m sure people were already making this argument, in Latin, in the Middle Ages. But why are success in business and the ability to think mutually exclusive? The idea that a “passion for ideas” is smothered at an Ivy League university is a silly generalization. Why assume that an institution that can create successful business leaders can’t create successful humanists? If that doesn’t make sense then allow me to introduce you to a visual artist-doctor friend of mine or a couple of scientist-musicians that I know.

There is characteristically no remedy offered in Dereszewicz’s call to arms. Allow me to humbly suggest one: That we know the limits of our humanity. Google’s corporate motto “Don’t be evil” could have an Ivy League corollary, “Don’t be a tool.”

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