Every now and then you will read something that just hits home. The text bristles with shards of truth, piercing your heart and mind. So it was with me as I stumbled upon an essay — The Disadvantages of an Elite Education — by William Deresiewicz, a writer, literary critic and Yale alumnus. The article offers an eloquent, biting critique of elite education (specifically Yale and Ivy League but generalisable to other countries). In my first ever post, I reflected on my years at Sydney Law School and wholeheartedly concluded that it was an experience worth having. Nevertheless, I do have strong reservations about our elitism — particularly in light of what many grads in my cohort are now doing and in light of the up-and-comers who seem more convinced than ever that doing law at Sydney is just the ticket for success in life.
Dr Deresiewicz has a lot to say about elite education, but if I had to distil down to his core points, it would be these:
1. It makes us think we’re superior people
One of the great errors of an elite education, then, is that it teaches you to think that measures of intelligence and academic achievement are measures of value in some moral or metaphysical sense. But they’re not. Graduates of elite schools are not more valuable than stupid people, or talentless people, or even lazy people. Their pain does not hurt more. Their souls do not weigh more. If I were religious, I would say, God does not love them more.
Yes, someone who gets extremely high marks in the university entrance exams might be ‘better’ than others in the very narrow sense of being more book smart. The danger is to let this mindset seep into other areas of thinking. We begin to feel entitled, that we deserve better because we’ve worked so hard and we’re so bright. If another person is not doing well it’s because s/he is lazy and dumb and they deserve less.
2. It constricts what we do with our lives
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.
Some people started off wanting to be rich and successful, so they decided on the ‘best’ course at the ‘best’ uni to maximise their shot at riches and success. Some people didn’t have a clear idea of what they wanted to do after finishing high school, but they were book smart so they did well in tests and fell in to the best course at the best uni. I am in the second category. The danger with the second group is that we know better but we still go down that path. We don’t have that ruthless streak. We are probably disdainful of those who are pushing pushing pushing for better marks, better job, better pay. But nevertheless we go through the those same motions, jump through the same hoops.
I have several theories as to why. Perhaps because we’re unsure of what we want, we take our cues from what society regards as successful. Perhaps we’re stubborn and decide to stick with the law school —> corporate route because we’ve invested so much time and effort into our degrees that we might as well do it (see: sunk cost fallacy). Or perhaps we’re so afraid of failure (see next point) that we don’t think we can go off the well-worn track, and that we’ll be perceived as such if we do so.
In any case, simply having an elite education makes it that much harder to contemplate, let alone pursue, a path that may be more suitable for us.
3. We become terrified of failure
Because students from elite schools expect success, and expect it now. They have, by definition, never experienced anything else, and their sense of self has been built around their ability to succeed. The idea of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them, defeats them. They’ve been driven their whole lives by a fear of failure—often, in the first instance, by their parents’ fear of failure.
I don’t have much to add, except to say that from personal experience this absolutely rings true. Once you’re on the ‘elite’ path, there is a great expectation and desire to perform. It may sound ridiculous, but I was terrified of getting anything less than a Distinction in my subjects. That fear pushed me forwards, and now looking back the most significant thing I got out of it was a set of pretty numbers.
4. It goes against the true spirit of education: to teach us to think
But if you’re afraid to fail, you’re afraid to take risks, which begins to explain the final and most damning disadvantage of an elite education: that it is profoundly anti-intellectual.
[The kids] are products of a system that rarely asked them to think about something bigger than the next assignment. The system forgot to teach them, along the way to the prestige admissions and the lucrative jobs, that the most important achievements can’t be measured by a letter or a number or a name. It forgot that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers.
This one is the killer. While I did comment favourably on legal education in my first post, I believe what I gained was quite particular: analytical skills. The essay also alludes to this, with elite schools placing a premium on the analytic over other valuable facets of intelligence: for example social intelligence, emotional intelligence and creative ability.
I consider myself fortunate to have had the foresight to combine my Law degree with an Arts degree which allowed me to dabble in the humanities, particularly philosophy. I was able to think, to question, to ponder. My fear is that as tertiary education becomes ever more ‘professionalised’ — lawyers, accountants, engineers, computer technicians, etc — less and less students are willing or able to pursue learning for its own sake, thinking for its own sake.
Could this just be the cry of a pompous Arts student? Maybe. I think the professionalisation of tertiary education is more a reflection of how society is transforming, rather than an indictment of the students themselves (who, after all, are responding to what society says is important). Are the Humanities dying a slow death? Now there’s something I can spend a good 1000 words on.