Understanding the Credentialed, Uneducated Elite

Someone on Quora pointed me to a great article about elite universities: “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” by William Deresiewicz.

As a person who regularly interviews, hires, and works with people who went to elite universities, I stand on the outside looking in. On the one hand, I very much envy these graduates because they have had opportunities that I could never dream of. On the other hand, I see the unacknowledged impoverishment that many of these graduates live in the midst of. It is not an impoverishment of money, but of ideas, knowledge, and thinking ability, which is tragic considering the opportunities they have had for intellectual enrichment. That they usually have no clue about how impoverished they are makes it so much more poignant.

Deresiewicz’s article is long, and should be read in full, so here are a few excerpts to give you a taste:

It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League degrees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. “Ivy retardation,” a friend of mine calls this. I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn’t talk to the man who was standing in my own house …
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. 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.

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. This will seem counterintuitive … 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. It forgot that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers.

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.

In many ways, Deresiewicz’s essay covers a lot of the same territory that Allan Bloom trod with his book, The Closing of the American Mind, though from liberal rather than a conservative perspective–Deresiewicz thinks that being a community organizer, for example, is the same as working at a real job. Nevertheless, anyone interested in higher education in America should read all of his article.

Yet, Deresiewicz’s essay does not adequately deal with the social and political consequences of this impoverished education these elites have received. For this, we need to turn to Victor Davis Hanson and his article, “A Tottering Technocracy“. Here are some excerpts:

The financial meltdown here and in Europe revealed symptoms of the technocracy’s waning. On this side of the Atlantic, Geithner, Orszag, Summers, Austan Goolsbee, Paul Krugman, and Christina Romer apparently assumed that some academic cachet, an award bestowed by like kind, or a long-ago-granted degree should give them credibility to advocate what the tire-store owner, family dentist, or apple farmer knew from hard experience simply could not be done — borrow or print money on the theory that insular experts, without much experience in the world beyond the academy or the New York–Washington financial and government corridor, could best direct it to productive purposes.

In the devolution from global warming to climate change to climate chaos — and who knows what comes next? — a small group of self-assured professors, politicians, and well-compensated lobbyists hawked unproven theories as fact — as if they were clerics from the Dark Ages who felt their robes exempted them from needing to read or think about their religious texts. Finally, even Ivy League and Oxbridge degrees and peer-reviewed journal articles could not mask the cooked research, the fraudulent grants, and the Elmer Gantry–like proselytizing about everything from tree rings and polar-bear populations to glaciers and the Sierra snowpack.

There is an embarrassing lack of talent and imagination in the last generation of the technocrats. One banal memo about a “tea-party downgrade” or a “jihadist” takeover of the Republican party is mimicked by dozens of politicians and journalists who cannot think of any more creative phraseology. Calls for civility are the natural accompaniment to unimaginative slurring of those outside the accustomed circle. When Steven Chu exhorts us that gas prices should match European levels or assures us that California farms will blow away, should we laugh or cry? Do learned attorneys general call the nation “cowards,” refer to fellow minority members as “my people,” or really believe that they can try the self-confessed terrorist architect of 9/11 in a civilian court a few yards from the scene of his mass murder? Was Timothy Geithner really indispensable in 2009 because other technocrats swore he was?

In short, the credentialed, uneducated elite are running the world into the ground, but they refuse to admit or acknowledge that fact because they think they are smarter and know more than everyone else.

When I was in the fourth grade I was given an assignment to interview an adult who was not a relative. Since we had just moved to the town, I did not know any adults apart from my parents or teachers, so I interviewed my homeroom teacher. I asked her to tell me the most important thing I could ever learn or absorb from school. Her answer: Common sense. In her view, all of the knowledge, learning, and intelligence in the world would not do a person a bit of good if that person did not have common sense, and a person without common sense was simply a fool.

These words have been with me ever since, and when I look at these people who have graduated from elite universities I see people who have had the best opportunities one could have, but who have not had much of any experience in the real world, and who may or may not have a lick of sense. Yet, they think the are the best merely because they have a diploma that others may not have, and as a consequence are not willing to listen to others. Indeed, in many cases have even forgotten how to listen to others.

William Buckley famously said, “I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” Well, the faculty of Harvard University is effectively running the US now, and it is not pretty. We would do better choosing the President and cabinet at random out of the phone book at this point.

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3 Responses to Understanding the Credentialed, Uneducated Elite

  1. John, I continually find myself compelled to praise your work product. This is another brilliant piece. I’d like to re-post it tomorrow if you have no objections.

  2. Pingback: The Educated Fools of the Ivy League « Conservatives on Fire

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