Saturday, July 26, 2014

Euphemistic humility

Thank you, thank you, Doctor Cleveland*:

There is nothing a snobbish Ivy Leaguer likes better than putting down the Ivy League. It's an easy way to signal that you are above your own Ivy League school and the privilege it confers -- all a big humbug that your superior perspective sees right through -- while holding on to every last scrap of that privilege. It allows you to position yourself as not only 1. better than people who didn't get into Harvard, Princeton, or Yale, but 2. the benevolent champion of those little people who didn't get in and also 3. better than everyone else who did get into your school and who, unlike you, need to take the place seriously.
This is more or less what I was thinking, but unable to articulate, when I read that Deresiewicz piece, but also Reihan's takedown of Stuyvesant. These essays are always a way to announce that you made whichever cut, while at the same time... just read Doctor Cleveland. It's a little different when it refers to a high school - there, the provincial nature of the concern can outweigh the rest, and most of the readership didn't even have the chance to not get into the school in question, so there's maybe more tuning-out than resentment - but the principle's the same. Whenever these debates arise, what happens is, the only people qualified to speak are those who went to whichever school (which even Doctor Cleveland can't avoid, but somehow this is much easier to take from a pseudonym, esp. one making the better argument), alums of which are already having their voices heard plenty. These articles inspire immense, intense interest from fellow alums, but not a whole heck of a lot from everyone else. Not because "everyone else" is too busy drooling in the vague direction of a Kardashian show to read The New Republic, but because reading about the fate of schools you didn't attend is never that interesting.

Which is... fine. If the graduates of schools both fancy and schmancy want to have an insular conversation about euphemistic-whichever-location, that's perfectly reasonable. But maybe classify these stories as "lifestyle" and not "education." It's not that they never delve into big-picture questions about the educational system, or that there's never any reason to look at how it goes in the top 0.0001% of any hierarchy. It's just that the bulk of this Very Important Conversation is of the small-potato variety.

*This bit was spot-on as well: "Public colleges, and the students at public colleges, are merely rhetorically convenient symbols for him."


caryatis said...

I think Doctor Cleveland is confusing criticism of the author's postulated motivation with criticism of what he's actually saying. He also seems to think it's outrageous to argue that it's best for students not to get a lot of handholding (or "help", which seems to mean counselors), while ignoring the point about grade inflation and the impossibility of getting thrown out of elite colleges.

If it's true that nonconformity and the ability to take risks are being selected against at elite colleges, it affects us all. These are the people who will end up running companies or federal courts.

Also, I thought you would have loved this line: "Colleges should refuse to be impressed by any opportunity that was enabled by parental wealth."

Andrew Stevens said...

Also, I thought you would have loved this line: "Colleges should refuse to be impressed by any opportunity that was enabled by parental wealth."

The problem with this is that every opportunity is enabled by parental wealth. Such a criterion would mean that less than 5% of admissions to Harvard or Yale would be American.

Occasionally people of Doctor Cleveland's background (growing up "comfortably middle class") will commiserate with me about my own relatively hardscrabble background (my mother had no money at all when she was raising me). But this just shows lack of a global perspective. Financially, we were better off than at least 80% of the world's population when I was growing up.

Even today, after forty years of astonishing growth in global living standards, I'm sure there are still kids in sub-Saharan Africa who are every bit as smart as I am who will live and die doing subsistence farming with minimal education. (Though this too is changing for the better.)

Miss Self-Important said...

Heh, I wrote an entire article about this genre of Ivy League put-downs once. But I do think it's quite legitimate to criticize elite schools for their internal failings, especially if you have some stake in their functioning. But it's usually not a national crisis.

Phoebe said...


I was neither agreeing nor disagreeing with Deresiewicz, but rather pointing out that... I'm not to worried about it either way. I have no Ivy affiliations, and my eyes tend to glaze over a bit when the future of the Ivies is debated.

"If it's true that nonconformity and the ability to take risks are being selected against at elite colleges, it affects us all. These are the people who will end up running companies or federal courts."

Yes - as I said, it's not that it doesn't matter *at all* who goes to Harvard. My point is that we hear so, so, so much about this, out of proportion with how much it matters, because it's fun to talk about for the people who talk about it.

Plus, insofar as it is of universal significance how elite schools operate, we get the problem of, only those who attended get to weigh in. Anyone who didn't have an Ivy pedigree who said the Ivies are a disaster a) would be seen as not knowing about this, but more importantly b) would be viewed as resentful at having gone to Haverford not Harvard, Penn State not Penn. We're not looking at a serious, general conversation, but rather snippets of one interspersed with a whole lot of navel-gazing. Again, there's nothing wrong with navel-gazing, but it shouldn't be treated as something other than what it is.

Re: the "parental wealth" line... there's what Andrew Stevens says, but also, it would be really tough to do this. I assume what's meant is stuff like, paying to volunteer abroad, etc. But the idea with meritocracy is sorting out who made the most of what they had. At the very least, schools need to decide *which* of their rich applicants to take. And the one who made the most of a fancy background should get in ahead of the one who made nothing of it, presumably.


Nothing wrong with it! The only problem is when the future of the Ivies is declared the issue of the day, and those who can't summon much interest are deemed uninformed. Either it's of universal interest, and everyone's weighing in, or it's by definition only to be discussed by insiders, in which case outsiders can safely ignore the bulk of the conversation.

Andrew Stevens said...

I definitely agree with Phoebe here. I considered weighing in on the subject on MSI's blog, but then realized A) I didn't really have much to say and B) I honestly don't care.

It is an historical oddity that the last four Presidents have had Ivy League degrees (actually just Harvard and Yale). This probably has something to do with the Supreme Court being packed with people who all went to Harvard or Yale as well. The Ivies have always been overrepresented, but they've been particularly overrepresented in the top echelons of education and government lately. This leads to the usual handwringing from people who are inclined to extrapolate every present trend into infinity, but this too shall pass.

Heewon said...

Sorry I'm kind of late to the comment game here, but I wanted to thank you for the Doctor Cleveland article--I was also somewhat puzzled by the whole concept of turning down a place at these schools, and he articulates it in a nice no-BS way.

I guess I have a fairly different perspective of the value of an education at "elite" schools. I think the real worth is the people you meet and the connections you form, both in and after school. The friends I met in college (Dartmouth) are some of the smartest, most creative, most passionate people I've ever met. And the benefits of going there have continued and probably will for the length of whatever career I have. Alums from my undergrad are fiercely loyal to other graduates of the school and extremely dedicated to helping each other out. You just can't get that having gone to a large, impersonal public school, and I'm enormously grateful for having lifetime access to that network.

You can certainly get an education anywhere and in any form, all the way down to pulling a Good Will Hunting and teaching yourself from books, doing a true independent study. That really builds character, cleaning the toilets used by entitled little shits, as Deresiewicz calls people like me.

The kind of education Deresiewicz touts is a luxury. The American liberal arts education is modeled after the Oxbridge-type system designed for the sons of the English idle rich, who were financially set for the rest of their lives from the moment they were conceived. Of course they could spend years analyzing some obscure 15th-century German philosopher--they could afford to not gain any useful skills. It's the complete opposite for today's American college students, who are riddled with tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of dollars in debt, EVEN IF they go to a public school (and from which they then have much lower job prospects). College just has a different purpose for modern-day American students who want to get jobs after graduating, and that should be recognized.