12 Aug 2008

Differing Perspectives on Elite Education

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Rachel Toor (Br ’84) responds to William Deresiewicz’s recent widely-read article on the Disadvantages of Elite Education.

She thinks Deresiewicz gets it wrong because he only taught at Yale. He didn’t go there.

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.

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. …

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?

I didn’t feel overawed by the people I met at Yale personally. In fact, I thought I was in my own personal heaven, reveling in the opportunity to meet so many extraordinarily talented people. But even an egomaniac like me did feel the difference between a provincial background with limited educational opportunity like my own and the kind of college preparation people got at places like Andover and Hotchkiss or Scarsdale High School.

Years later, I read Crossing the Line, the WWII memoir of Yale professor Alvin B. Kernan, followed by his memoir of his academic career, In Plato’s Cave. I hadn’t taken any courses from Kernan, but many people I knew did, and his name was very familiar to me.

I found the academic memoir illuminating. Yale was a very different experience viewed from the everyday working life perspective of the junior faculty member laboriously climbing the academic ladder and commuting to campus from some modest house in a middle class suburb.

I suppose I should not have been totally surprised, particularly on the basis of personal acquaintance with Yale professors who clearly felt the same way, to find that Kernan envied and detested Yale students. From his outsider’s perspective, we were all insiders. He did not recognize the difference between the scholarship student from the working class mill town and the captain of the polo team.

To an associate professor, scraping by to make ends meet and worrying about his chances of ever receiving tenure, all Yale undergraduates seemed like carefree gilded youth, drifting happily between the Fence Club and a Senior Society tomb, having a fine time at college, before moving on to an already-reserved place at the Masters of the Universe table.

Of course, that stereotype was preposterously untrue in the 1960s and the 1970s. I doubt it fit a substantial percentage of the population of 1920s undergraduate Yale either. But some of the faculty really did think that way, and for those, delivering a bad grade seemed sweet revenge. One could see them gloating over every opportunity.

I know what she meant about friendships with the working staff, too. There was a sweet old lady who commonly occupied the entrance desk at Sterling Library, charged with scrutinizing identity cards for access to the library stacks. She always delivered a friendly greeting to me, in the manner of someone you knew and smiled at daily in your hometown. That kind of less-than-Olympian human contact could be peculiarly comforting to young men far from home.


Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.


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