Our friend Lynne pointed out this interesting article from The American Scholar about the problem of elite schools. I particularly liked this section, since it’s so rare we actually talk about class in this culture:

Elite schools pride themselves on their diversity, but that diversity is almost entirely a matter of ethnicity and race. With respect to class, these schools are largely—indeed increasingly—homogeneous. Visit any elite campus in our great nation and you can thrill to the heartwarming spectacle of the children of white businesspeople and professionals studying and playing alongside the children of black, Asian, and Latino businesspeople and professionals. At the same time, because these schools tend to cultivate liberal attitudes, they leave their students in the paradoxical position of wanting to advocate on behalf of the working class while being unable to hold a simple conversation with anyone in it.

He goes on to talk about types of smartness, the goal of liberal arts, and the uses of solitude.

20 Replies to “Snooty-Pants”

  1. Very interesting.

    This article does a very good job of explaining why I would never — under any circumstances – send my children to a private school. My small town, public school education may not have done the best job of preparing me academically for Stanford, but it was clear to me very early on that few of my fellow students understood *anything* about how the real world worked.

  2. This article explains in a nutshell why my attempt to go to college was a miserable failure. I was young, and my parents were well educated, mostly as a result of their own efforts. I thought college was going to be about education and enlightenment. I thought I would be helped/taught to think more gooder. 🙂

    Wrong. It was concentrated indoctrination intended to reinforce an elitist notion of what it meant to be learned. And, as I discovered when I worked in higher education, the more you paid, the more rigid the program. I believe that a large part of the problem is purely the result of the current tenure model, which has produced a large corps of the most singularly privileged individuals who have ever lived being allowed to set intellectual agendas for millions of young people without any oversight to speak of.

    And before you right-wing assholes sound off about how I’ve skewered the left, this isn’t a left/right problem. There are plenty of right-wing morons in our colleges, too.

    Face it: if you can’t be fired, and your entire existence as a professional is predicated on behaving in ways that will allow you to have a job from which you cannot be fired, you are going to have a very warped view of the world, and that view is going to make it impossible, literally impossible for you to understand people who live in a world where people can be fired for driving the wrong car or having the wrong shoes.

    Unlike nearly everyone I know these days, I can talk to my plumber. By our society’s formal standards, however, I’m literally uneducated. I think I’ll go write a treatise about saw tooth structure & design and the subsequent effects on western architecture. Then I’ll see if I can get it published somewhere. I’m guessing not.

  3. Having a up close ad personal look at young men and women who are products of elite private schools here on Long island, and also of public schools in affluent districts, I can tell you they are not prepared to live in the real world.
    One young man, who just graduated from a very prestigious 4 year school, is working a private detective, his job consists of sitting in his car spying on people to see if they are actualy disabled. 4 years of school to sit in a car and watch for some poor slump to put down her crutches ?????
    The thing that upsets me the most about this person is the fact that as his parents had always provided him with a car, and maintained it, he, when he got his own car, drove it till it stopped, ran out of oil, engine destroyed. Has no common native smarts at all, could not even use a plunger on his stopped up toilet, called a plumber !
    EEEGAWDS, we are raising a generation of folks who have no common sense.
    Everyone has to go to college, no child left behind, are we insuring that only the stupid people will be left to take up the trades we need to live ?. I think it takes way more brain to wire a house, or install a bathroom that it does to sit in a car spying on people.
    Please some body, start teaching your kids to live in the world and take care of themselves.
    Rant for today.

  4. So, what does this say about an upwardly mobile, middle-to-lower-class Latina, who attended an Ivy League college?

    Maybe going to Wisconsin would’ve been a good idea? That I was a spoiled brat to begin with? That I was Just Plain Fucking Lucky that I ended up where I did?

    (The latter two are most likely true, alas.)

    I will cop to being stupid in many things, though. And I certainly don’t go around shoving my Dartmouth diploma in everyone’s face. Now, that’s the epitome of idiocy.

  5. helen, this is a great article. thanks to you and to lynne for posting it.

    i’m someone who went to an “elite” school (though not as elite as harvard) and only within the past few years began to understand the depth of my classism. and then of course i chose a profession in which i hadn’t been given an elite pass at all: performing arts. so it was a little weird to get the preparation and gifts that Deresiewicz describes, then find myself at zero when i started making a go as an actor. (having smith on your resume doesn’t do squat for you in the theatre world.)

    this article is really making me think. thanks.

  6. What Red said. I’m really thinking about it, too.

    I will say, though, that I do think that having Dartmouth on the diploma was a factor in my career resurrection. I’m convinced of that, so thank FSM that I did go there, I guess.

  7. Thanks Helen. Interesting post.

    I’d suggest that schools have never been about true learning, passion and intellectual excitement. They serve to give a bunch of middle class people jobs, to keep children out of the workforce, and to sort people into the slots into which society has organized itself (meaning everyone can’t go to Harvard, and be a doctor).

    John Holt wrote a whole collection of books about education. His book, “Teach Your Own” goes into a lot of detail about the failings of the public school, and how human beings learn to acquire tools to achieve success.

    Finally, Herrnstein and Murrray’s “The Bell Curve” talks a lot about how intellectually gifted people are culled from the masses, and segregated into completely separate worlds away from the majority of society. Again, a great read (if you’re able to ignore all the nonsense about racial differences).


  8. When my sister & I were in high school, there was never any question we would attend an in-state school. And when we were in school, we were obliged to work close to full-time to pay for in-state tuition. I worked 60 hours a week in summers (40 on an assembly line). These experiences were a part of our education. Ivy League educations seem to be more narrowly focused on the classroom, and grade inflation penalizes those who attend in-state schools.

  9. I am speaking about not only the young students, but the parents that ” don’t want there children wasting time working” while they are in school, they hand there kids everything, so that they can ” concentrate on there studies “. So you get a kid/young adult with no real world work experience.
    They are prepared to get a high paying job, doing the thing they studied in school, but what happens when they can’t get a job in there chosen field, I see them useless to themselves and there families living at home watching TV and playing video games at 26.
    Parents ! please make work, real hard work part of your children’s schooling.
    Sure its hard to get through school if you have to work full time, but, speaking from experience and from observing the children of friends as well as my own son’s, general contractor, and HVAC tech, I think you do your children a disservice when they never have to pay there own way by there own hard work at a job out in the world.
    Academic success is a good thing, knowing how to earn enough money to move away from home is a great thing.

    Not to say that a person cant get both, that’s my idea of an ideal situation being able to learn some street/work experience smarts and get good schooling. That’s a gift I wish we could give all out young people.

  10. In “Estimating the Payoff to Attending A More Selective College: An Application of Selection on Observables and Unobservables” (2002), Alan Krueger and Stacy Dale came to the conclusion that except for students from low-income families, the prestige of a school does not have an effect on students’ future earnings.

    That Yale graduates make a lot of money does not mean that Yale made it possible for them to make a lot of money.

    Similarly, if the author thinks Yale students are elitist, perhaps Yale is admitting elitists, not creating them.

  11. Very nicely put Lynne.

    I’m hoping that my upbringing, my realization to how socially elitist it was, my current struggle with obtaining my own much sought after education, and my respect for you keep me from ever believing that my education brings me any sort of righteous feeling of entitlement or privilege.

    Thank you for sharing this article.

  12. I feel smarter already, having read this.
    These are all standard arguments for homeschooling, as well, btw.
    Or as they say in Clever circles, UNschooling, or DEschooling.

  13. Lynne, what you know frequently awes me. Autodidacts are my heroes.

    I went to public NYC schools, including a high-end public HS, and am a graduate of CUNY. My parents each went both to public schools and to Ivy League graduate schools. I have a sibling who went to the same public schools, and then to an Ivy. I sent my children to NYC public schools through 8th grade, then one to private school who is now in a Very Good College. The other tried private school, hated it, and dropped out completely. We can, all of us, talk to everyone. I’m convinced that the mix of common and elite can work as long as the common comes first. It’s rare — very rare — for all elite-educated people to be able to deal with the infrastructure of their own lives.

  14. I grew up in upper middle class privilege(remember when there WAS an upper middle class?)on the west side of L.A. and went to middlebrow school in Denver for rich fuckups, which beat going to Vietnam to get killed in this country’s last pointless meat-grinder of a war. Oddly enough, the school was very diverse, and had an astonishing English and Religion department, although I toook art classes from their underfunded and less-than-stellar art department(I was pre-law, to please my dad….I was happy to find out pre-law didn’t mean shit). I learned a lot about literature and got acknowledged for thinking and being smart, something my westside white-bread high school never did.
    I now work in the movie industry which is like the world’s most eccentric blue-collar workplace, where MIT grads work for guys who grew up in South Central(two guys I know). My kids went to the local continuation school, which was supposed to marginalize and shame them, but the school was awesome, with tiny class sizes and a vastly superior art program to the public school.
    By the way, I think both the left and right are utterly full of shit on the subject of education;they’ve used public education as yet another campaign strw dog over and over and over until they’ve killed the patient. I envision Teddy Roosevelt coming in and giving them all a good caning.

  15. “…at the same time, because these schools tend to cultivate liberal attitudes, they leave their students in the paradoxical position of wanting to advocate on behalf of the working class while being unable to hold a simple conversation with anyone in it….”

    I know I got a hearty kick into touch for mentioning Joe Bageant’s book “Deer Hunting with Jesus” on the Forum – ouch that was sore 🙁 -but he does raise exactly the same thing.

    To be honest it’s not all that much different in the UK. It is interesting though for a UK person looking in at the US – which is supposed to be classless – that this whole thing is starting to get more headlines. The big vote for the numero uno undoubtedly gets people thinking.

  16. I have an entirely different take. While it makes a number of good points, and SOME of it is certainly true of SOME people, I think the article is basically crap — full of facile generalizations, insulting putdowns of “kids today,” and the usual assumptions of a bad writer that because certain things are true of *him* (like an inability to talk to “ordinary people”), they’re true of everybody who’s similarly situated. In fact, his caricature of what college-age kids who go to so-called elite schools are supposedly like bears little resemblance, in many ways, to any of the kids I know. Of course, this guy isn’t the first, and won’t be the last, example of a teacher who wasn’t happy someplace trashing the students there as soon as he leaves.

    I suspect that none of us would accept this kind of sloppy writing if it were on the subject of trans issues. But I don’t think the subject should make any difference.

    On another forum I sometimes post on, there was a 253-post thread about this article several months ago, for anyone who’s interested in getting a different perspective than that of the author of this article:

    My own post was #14 on the thread. One thing I couldn’t say there is that I suspect that I’m far better at talking to people now than I used to be. Many of you know why — and it has nothing to do with the kind of education I received! Imo, the ability to talk to and relate to people one meets has a lot more to do with one’s personality, and what one does with one’s life outside school, than it does with the type of school one goes to.

    Finally, I admire autodidacts too. But they do have a famous tendency to be a little too sure of their own opinions. If there’s one thing that education at an “elite school” taught me, it’s to be aware of the limitations of my own knowledge. About anything.


  17. My experience, which I know is shared by a couple of other friends who are smart but not formally educated, is that the people who tend to be the most put off by this situation are those who went to the so-called elite schools. My personal experience is that the only people who have ever insulted me or hassled me about my lack of schooling were folks whose insecurities were amplified by their having attended big-name elitist institutions like Harvard.

    If you went to Yale, for instance, and never miss an opportunity to remind people that you went there, and you’re the sort of person who can’t talk to their plumber or mechanic, then this article is about you.

    Here’s what I’ve noticed about my friends who can cross class barriers. Their houses are filled with books and tools to the maximum point of affordability, and their dress clothes have stains from fixing things. In other words, nothing is foreign to them, except an attitude that paying large sums of money for something you could get for free in a library is, like, rilly rilly smart.

    Just thought of something about my cross-class friends. They’re impossible to embarrass. If we’re out for a walk and I decide I need to lie in the gutter to take a picture or look in the storm drain, they’re perfectly fine with that. This must mean something, that they’re home in any situation. Hmmm….back to trying to get this stupid GPS talking to the phone…

    I have an education for one reason, and one reason only: my parents encouraged me to read and break things, ideally in ways that involved both. Can’t beat that, despite some scars.

    Lizzy – right on.


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