Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Downsides of elite education

As elite universities become more and more like enormous corporations, as the competition to get into them becomes more and more frenzied, and as one of their unspoken purposes -- namely, the production of alumni who will have the money and loyalty to give substantial sums to their alma maters -- becomes more and more central in the calculations of the people who run these institutions, what is being lost?

Quite a lot, William Deresiewicz argues in this piece in the current issue of The American Scholar. He doesn't cite William James, but one of his claims is that elite universities are admitting and nurturing fewer and fewer of what James called "undisciplinables," those who have the desire and capacity for genuine intellectual independence.

Leftists have long believed, with considerable justification, that one of the major purposes (if not the major purpose) of elite education is to reproduce social and economic hierarchies. (Actually, many conservatives also believe this, but they celebrate rather than deplore it.) Would you expect to find this argument in The American Scholar, which is published, I believe, by Phi Beta Kappa? Probably not, yet Deresiewicz makes it: he writes that "the
best place to cultivate [the life of the mind] is not within an educational system whose real purpose is to reproduce the class system."

After an admittedly quick reading of Deresiewicz' piece, I agreed with some parts more than others, but it is a good complement to "In the Basement of the Ivory Tower," the Atlantic essay I mentioned earlier (see "Liberal arts, con and pro," below). And finally, a nod to the blog Easily Distracted, which is where I ran across the Deresiewicz article.

No comments: