The Disadvantages of Elite Education

The Disadvantages of Elite Education

Posted by Aditya on Tue, 2008-06-24 10:02 in

William Deresiewicz taught at Yale University for 10 years and has written this excellent article presenting his view on some of the disadvantages of elite education. (The excerpts from this article are highlighted in bold in this post.)

According to his classification this elite education system encompasses Ivy League and its peer institutions, and the mechanisms that help one reach there: the private and affluent public ‘feeder’ schools, the tutors and test-prep courses and enrichment programs.

The points he has raised, do ring a bell even when looked in parlance of elite part of our education system. IITs/IIMs and other top engineering and business schools, are perceived to be some of the elite learning institutions of India. I have been privileged enough to have interacted with plenty of smart people who have been in these colleges (and their ‘feeder’ institutions) and can safely say, one would be able to relate many of Deresiewicz’s points with some of our elite students.

Before we delve in to them, I have to highlight one of the biggest differences between US and India. Times are changing, but still majority of people who get in to elite institutions in our country are still looking for a better and comfortable life for them and their family. These constraints do force them to do things in a certain pre-defined way and be less risk taking. I would elaborate as we go on.

The first disadvantage of an elite education, as I learned in my kitchen that day, is that it makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you.

Here is a quick test for you. Can you talk with your office security guard, your milkman, a plumber, clerk in a government office with the same aplomb as you do with your colleagues? Can you understand their viewpoint and their reasons?

As per the author, in a broader sense, the ivy tower people are unable to relate to a larger set of people. In an Indian context, it is even truer, as we have majority of people who live completely different lives than what some of us have been blessed with. In my opinion it all boils down to the level of interactions one had while growing up with different groups of people under different social structures. One can only converse/understand/relate to many, if (s)he has been exposed to the diversities in the forming years.

Preventing this alienation is very important, and one should consciously take care of this fact.

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.

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.

I don’t need to say anything about this. We all know and have seen this in action with us and people around us.

If one of the disadvantages of an elite education is the temptation it offers to mediocrity, another is the temptation it offers to security. When parents explain why they work so hard to give their children the best possible education, they invariably say it is because of the opportunities it opens up. But what of the opportunities it shuts down?

This is one aspect which is sorely overlooked by most, and it bothers me the most. As I said earlier, in India, getting in to an elite school is almost necessity to ensure a better life, but have a look around us. Doesn’t everyone look the same? Running the same race, going after the same college seats (irrespective of their interests), and going for the same jobs and most horribly settling in to the same career as all. Hell, where is your self identity, the will to do different things you really like?

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.

But being an intellectual is not the same as being smart. Being an intellectual means more than doing your homework. If so few kids come to college understanding this, it is no wonder. They 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.

Being an intellectual means, first of all, being passionate about ideas—and not just for the duration of a semester, for the sake of pleasing the teacher, or for getting a good grade.

Being an intellectual begins with thinking your way outside of your assumptions and the system that enforces them. But students who get into elite schools are precisely the ones who have best learned to work within the system, so it’s almost impossible for them to see outside it, to see that it’s even there. Long before they got to college, they turned themselves into world-class hoop-jumpers and teacher-pleasers, getting A’s in every class no matter how boring they found the teacher or how pointless the subject, racking up eight or 10 extracurricular activities no matter what else they wanted to do with their time.

Some of the most smartest people have the privilege of going to these schools. If they can just guard against falling in to a rut and avoid doing things only for the sake of their career, they can actually turn out to be real mast heads of our society.

At the end of the day, education is really for shaping us up as good people with thinking minds and benevolent hearts, being respectful to all, and the ability to charter out their own paths. This key message should not be lost.

Good One

I think the another disadvantage of "elite" education is, people forget humility and modesty. There is no respect for others and they think too high of themselves. Maybe that is why they are unable to talk to everyone.

Posted by Charu (not verified) on Thu, 2008-06-26 10:44
Starving for UPPER class

Actually, not only people from "Elite Education" come in this category but so called Software Professionals or some other better salaried professionals (does not matter how they completed their education and got job) also. Everyone wants to be in UPPER class with very high standard of life. Easiest path they follow for this is; talk to only those who are better positioned than you in society (obviously in terms of money) or whom you can use in near future to be one level up.

Posted by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 2008-07-04 15:58
Interesting piece

Interesting piece. My own experience resonates with some of the thoughts that were laid out in the article, as this is something I have tried to constantly guard myself against. Having said that, I would like to add that "everyone" should be cautious about harboring any such prejudices, whatever the premise be. In context of Indians, these false prides sometimes magnify to the extent of being petty. Given our penchant for all things "branded".

Happy blogging!

Posted by Monica (not verified) on Fri, 2008-06-27 10:24