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This page contains all of the posts and discussion on MemeStreams referencing the following web page: The Disadvantages of an Elite Education. You can find discussions on MemeStreams as you surf the web, even if you aren't a MemeStreams member, using the Threads Bookmarklet.

The Disadvantages of an Elite Education
by possibly noteworthy at 7:09 am EDT, Jul 14, 2008

William Deresiewicz:

There’s been much talk of late about the loss of privacy, but equally calamitous is its corollary, the loss of solitude. It used to be that you couldn’t always get together with your friends even when you wanted to. Now that students are in constant electronic contact, they never have trouble finding each other. But it’s not as if their compulsive sociability is enabling them to develop deep friendships. “To whom can I expose the urgency of my own passion?”: my student was in her friend’s room writing a paper, not having a heart-to-heart. She probably didn’t have the time; indeed, other students told me they found their peers too busy for intimacy.

What happens when busyness and sociability leave no room for solitude? The ability to engage in introspection, I put it to my students that day, is the essential precondition for living an intellectual life, and the essential precondition for introspection is solitude. They took this in for a second, and then one of them said, with a dawning sense of self-awareness, “So are you saying that we’re all just, like, really excellent sheep?” Well, I don’t know. But I do know that the life of the mind is lived one mind at a time: one solitary, skeptical, resistant mind at a time. The best place to cultivate it is not within an educational system whose real purpose is to reproduce the class system.

The Disadvantages of an Elite Education
by possibly noteworthy at 7:44 pm EDT, Jul 14, 2008

In short, the way students are treated in college trains them for the social position they will occupy once they get out. At schools like Cleveland State, they’re being trained for positions somewhere in the middle of the class system, in the depths of one bureaucracy or another. They’re being conditioned for lives with few second chances, no extensions, little support, narrow opportunity—lives of subordination, supervision, and control, lives of deadlines, not guidelines. At places like Yale, of course, it’s the reverse.

From the archive:

The evidence suggests that from an executive perspective, the most desirable employees may no longer necessarily be those with proven ability and judgment, but those who can be counted on to follow orders and be good "team players."

Here the purpose of the personality tests administered by career coaches becomes clear. They are useless as measures of ability and experience, but they may be reliable indicators of those who are "cheerful, enthusiastic, and obedient." The dismal experiences of many middle-aged job seekers suggest that corporations would rather find conformists among younger workers who haven't been discarded by employers and aren't skeptical about their work.

RE: The Disadvantages of an Elite Education
by possibly noteworthy at 7:58 pm EDT, Jul 14, 2008

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? An elite education gives you the chance to be rich—which is, after all, what we’re talking about—but it takes away the chance not to be. Yet the opportunity not to be rich is one of the greatest opportunities with which young Americans have been blessed.

From the archive:

Perhaps the most powerful way in which we conspire against ourselves is the simple fact that we have jobs. We are willingly part of a world designed for the convenience of what Shakespeare called “the visible God”: money. When I say we have jobs, I mean that we find in them our home, our sense of being grounded in the world, grounded in a vast social and economic order. It is a spectacularly complex, even breathtaking, order, and it has two enormous and related problems. First, it seems to be largely responsible for the destruction of the natural world. Second, it has the strong tendency to reduce the human beings inhabiting it to two functions, working and consuming. It tends to hollow us out.

It will always suck to work for large organizations, and the larger the organization, the more it will suck.


As much as I think engineering is a dysfunctional profession, I am often shocked at how other professions seem to work.

All the [law] professors, all the judges, and most of the top lawyers all come from a handful of schools. Those schools are expensive. Astronomically expensive. Because they can be.

Law students have to assume hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to attend one of these top notch schools, and in fact many of the not so top notch schools are similarly expensive and offer the added benefit that its really difficult to get a job when you graduate because everyone is afraid to have you defending them. That debt becomes an indenture. You have to pay it off. The only way to pay it off is the get a job at a big firm.

The Disadvantages of an Elite Education
by possibly noteworthy at 8:07 pm EDT, Jul 14, 2008

The idea of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them, defeats them. They’ve been driven their whole lives by a fear of failure—often, in the first instance, by their parents’ fear of failure. The first time I blew a test, I walked out of the room feeling like I no longer knew who I was. The second time, it was easier; I had started to learn that failure isn’t the end of the world.

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.

From the archive, Ira Glass:

"Not enough gets said about the importance of abandoning crap."

"If you're not failing all the time, you're not creating a situation where you can get super-lucky."

Eric Schmidt:

Failure is an essential part of the process. "The way you say this is: 'Please fail very quickly -- so that you can try again'."

RE: The Disadvantages of an Elite Education
by possibly noteworthy at 8:10 pm EDT, Jul 14, 2008

I’ve had many wonderful students at Yale and Columbia, bright, thoughtful, creative kids whom it’s been a pleasure to talk with and learn from. But most of them have seemed content to color within the lines that their education had marked out for them. Only a small minority have seen their education as part of a larger intellectual journey, have approached the work of the mind with a pilgrim soul. These few have tended to feel like freaks, not least because they get so little support from the university itself. Places like Yale, as one of them put it to me, are not conducive to searchers.

From the archive:

"Being in the water alone, surfing, sharpens a particular kind of concentration, an ability to agree with the ocean, to react with a force that is larger than you are."

If Schnabel is a surfer in the sense of knowing how to skim existence for its wonders, he is also a surfer in the more challenging sense of wanting to see where something bigger than himself, or the unknown, will take him, even with the knowledge that he might not come back from the trip.

The Disadvantages of an Elite Education
by possibly noteworthy at 8:24 pm EDT, Jul 14, 2008

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.

From the archive:

If the children are being instructed in the pink plane, can we teach them to think in the blue plane and live in a pink-plane society?

What is to become of those of us past schooling, who are aware of these planes? Are we to dredge on with pink shades over our blue eyes? What other choice do we have, become hermits and form our own seceded blue colony?


The term “white space” implies a place set apart, physically and mentally.

Andy Hines, who studies the future of work at the Washington office of Social Technologies, a global consulting firm, said white space is “what we are looking for when we have thinking to do.”

Mark Bittman:

Living a good life requires a kind of balance, a bit of quiet. There are questions about the limits of the brain and the body, and there are parallels here to the environmental movement.

Who would say you don’t need time to think, to reflect, to be successful and productive?

I believe that there has to be a way to regularly impose some thoughtfulness, or at least calm, into modern life. Once I moved beyond the fear of being unavailable and what it might cost me, ... I felt connected to myself rather than my computer. I had time to think, and distance from normal demands. I got to stop.

Finally, going way back:

There is a connection between the idea of place and the reality of cellular telephones. It is not encouraging.

The Disadvantages of an Elite Education
by possibly noteworthy at 7:36 pm EDT, Jul 14, 2008

There is nothing wrong with taking pride in one’s intellect or knowledge. 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. And the corollary is equally clear: You deserve everything your presence here is going to enable you to get. When people say that students at elite schools have a strong sense of entitlement, they mean that those students think they deserve more than other people because their sat scores are higher.

From the archive, Tom Friedman:

Are Americans suffering from an undue sense of entitlement?

Somebody said to me the other day that the entitlement we need to get rid of is our sense of entitlement.

On the election:

In all his speeches, John McCain urges Americans to make sacrifices for a country that is both “an idea and a cause”.

He is not asking them to suffer anything he would not suffer himself.

But many voters would rather not suffer at all.

As a counterpoint, it is worth mentioning Open Courseware, but I suppose that is sort of like the difference between a concert and a concert CD. Especially if the concert in question is Woodstock, or the Beatles at Shea, or Bach's impromptu visit to King Frederick the Great of Prussia, as recounted by Hofstadter in GEB. Or perhaps Brian Moriarty's talk at GDC 2002, as compared to its transcript.

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