Parents and high-school students take note: A controversial article misses the point
By Rachel ToorThe Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, From the issued date August 15, 2008
My friend Carl, an academic, likes to say that he would never let his kids go to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton because those colleges turn people into jerks. A recent, much-discussed essay in The American Scholar by William Deresiewicz, “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” seems to provide fodder for his argument. Deresiewicz claims that his background (as a student at Columbia and a former associate professor of English at Yale) rendered him incapable of a few minutes of small talk with the plumber who came to fix his pipes. He didn’t know how to converse with “someone like him,” a short, fat person with a goatee, BoSox cap and accompanying accent, and “unguessable” values and “mysterious” language. Deresiewicz stops just shy of complaining about butt cracks.
The plumber-averse author goes on to rehearse a familiar set of arguments about the entitlements, anti-intellectualism, and careerism of students in the Ivy League and its peer institutions. An elite education “inculcates a false sense of self-worth,” he says. It fools you into thinking that academic success means something, and it takes away “the opportunity not to be rich.
With the ongoing admissions frenzy, I, too, have been wondering if people really know what they’re aspiring to. Certainly for less-affluent students, a name-brand college provides access to the power elite. But the costs can include rifts within families and scarring blows to self-confidence. Sure, when you arrive, you’re told you’re the cream of the crop. But you feel like skim milk. Most students, no matter their achievements, think they’re admissions mistakes. They pad insecurities in a blanket of bravado. For legacies, or development admits, a sense of having to prove oneself can lead to a passion to excel or to indecorous behavior. Kids from North Dakota may as well hang a sign that says “geographical distribution” around their neck. Football players — well, they know the score.
Who feels at home in a place like Yale, where your roommate has already published a novel and the person down the hall performed on Broadway? How do you explain that now, when you turn on the television or open a newspaper, you see someone you went to college with? It sounds like bragging.
People who didn’t attend elite schools want to hear about the dummies. They point to certain Yale alumni in high government positions to say, See? These places are overrated. That’s probably true, but unless you were there, it’s hard to know in which ways.
What Deresiewicz gets wrong is that, as a faculty member, he didn’t know what it was like to be a student at Yale, where, I would argue, much of the intellectual exchange and competition goes on in the dining hall or the dorm rooms, not in the classrooms. Students know who the scholars are and revere them. They pay attention to who writes the books, but tend to talk about the authors most often to their friends.
They do, however, look for adults to connect with. An acquaintance told me that he had felt most at home at Yale with the librarians behind the checkout desk. When I was an undergraduate at Yale, in my work-study job in the French department, I photocopied for Paul de Man and talked about boy problems with the administrative assistants, who took me to their homes for dinner and a dose of normalcy.
Even those whom Calvin Trillin, 50 years later still trying to make sense of his experience at Yale, calls the “package people” — the ones whose family names grace grocery-store products — are struggling to fit in. No one feels sorry for Richie Rich, but the truth is, those entitled students have their own battles and often emerge wounded. For years I denied that; my own class rage was nurtured at Yale. When I later worked in admissions at Duke University, I resented the kids whose parents bought their way in — until I got to know them. I began to sympathize when I listened to their stories and stopped assuming I knew who they were. At elite universities, students from vastly different backgrounds are thrown together. On the surface, it looks like the world is their pearl-studded oyster. In reality, the experience can be bruising. Those of us who are taught to value critical thinking can get schooled out of a capacity for empathy. In conversations with academics, I am often struck by how little generosity of spirit informs the critique of their students.
Just as Deresiewicz never bothered to try to see under the cap of his plumber, neither, it seems to me, did he know his Yalies. At elite colleges, the student parking lots may be filled with precision German automobiles while faculty members drive Hondas. They believe that they are the products of the meritocracy and complain that their students are pampered and coddled, too much alike, and insufficiently intellectual. Class rage rules.
What if parents understood that the people who teach their children disdain them and what they assume to be their values — whether the sons of plumbers or the daughters of captains of industry? Would folks paying $50,000 a year be happy to find out that the most important person in their kid’s college career might be a groundskeeper or one of the cafeteria ladies, not a Nobel laureate? One of the ironies of elite-college admissions is that with all eyes on the prize, no one looks closely at the object of desire, the actual elite-college experience.
From working in admissions, I know that Deresiewicz’s assertion that “diversity is almost entirely a matter of ethnicity and race” is an overstatement. The class picture is far more complicated than he makes it seem. Kids from families who make less than $60,000 now can go to Harvard free. More lower-income, first-generation, and traditionally disadvantaged applicants are getting in, while the children of the wealthy continue to fill slots and plump endowments. In time, class-based affirmative action may become more effective, if not more visible, and the middle may continue to be squeezed out. Social Balkanization will become even more entrenched. When package people share dorm rooms with the financially aided, the latter may end up wearing borrowed Prada, but the differences remain. And the people who are teaching them may not notice.
The mainstream media have made much of the dangers of the “tenured radicals,” the political disparity between faculty members and their students (although recently The New York Times assured us that the old lefties are aging out). We’ve gotten better at talking about race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality on campuses, but we’re still stuck when it comes to money. There are multiculti organizations, women’s centers, and race-specific places to go. Can you imagine a forum where students and faculty members meet to talk about their own class issues?
It’s unseemly to ask for sympathy for having survived Yale, but the truth is, I’m still recovering from my experience there. Perhaps only the self-deprecating sense of humor of a Calvin Trillin can get across to the non-Ivied public what it was like without sounding boastful about answered prayers.
There are disadvantages to an elite education; I’m just not sure that they’re the ones that Deresiewicz mentions. When I meet someone who went to Yale, I search for the haunted recognition beyond the Boola Boola. But no one wants to reopen old wounds. When pushed, some of my friends confess that Yale made them feel rotten and insecure, and they continue to judge themselves against the extraordinary achievements of their classmates. Others claim they have spent their lives disappointed to never again find such a rich intellectual environment.
I teach at a regional comprehensive university. While I have close relationships with some of my students, for most I am just a professor responsible for teaching and grading them. But I know something about their lives.
Their lives are hard. Many understand that education is a privilege and not a right. Most are sacrificing a lot to be the first in their family to graduate. They work 20 to 40 hours a week to pay for college, and often have to take years off to be able to afford to continue. There are many “nontraditional” students, so the younger ones don’t need university staff members to be life mentors; they have their classmates. Many of my students have children. Many are married. Some may even be plumbers. I work hard to understand what their lives are like because I know that I can make a difference. I strive to see them for not only who they are, but who they can be, and I try not to make assumptions about them that lead me to view — and teach — them in limiting ways.
It’s a chestnut of academe that students get in the way of the faculty’s “real” work, and an even more tired move to complain about the questionable work ethic and values of students. Deresiewicz’s essay, beautifully written and critically smart, flattens the variety of his students’ lives into the kinds of generalizations we try to nudge first-year composition students out of making. When I asked a student now at Yale what he thought of the essay, he said that he agreed with a lot of it, but he felt that it was “sour grapes.” I’d love for Yale to send copies to newly admitted students as a kind of informed consent: This is what the people who will be teaching your classes think of you. Still wanna come?
The difference between having a college degree and not having one is far greater than where you go to college. But where you go can determine, to a large extent, who you become. Some of us become jerks. And others spend our lives trying to figure out what it meant to have been there — and how to get over it.
Rachel Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. Her latest book, Personal Record: A Love Affair With Running, will be published this fall by the University of Nebraska Press.