About a year ago, a colleague posted a Facebook status update that linked to “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education,” by William Deresiewicz, an essay that was a few years old back then. I clicked on the link and read. Deresiewicz’s writing is lucid and interrogating, his essays have gone viral and he has just expanded them into a new book, Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite, about the shortcomings of an Ivy League education.
The “Disadvantages” essay begins with an encounter between its author, then 35, and a Boston plumber. He writes, “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.” This happens, the author acknowledges, even though he is a highly educated man.
From there, the essay, much like the new book, explores how our nation’s elite school pipeline perpetuates the class system, discourages humanism and denies graduating students the opportunity to contribute to society as individuals with uniquely cultivated talents. I remember thinking that Deresiewicz, a graduate of and former professor at elite schools, was brave in addressing this subject. I appreciated his essay’s smaller observations as well: the consideration of how “wrought iron portals” and “stone facades” on elite campuses contribute to class-based thinking.
But I found myself furiously writing comments in the margins and arguing with the author in my head. What sparked this ire was a sense that Deresiewicz was writing about truths that others have identified, but his writing occurred within a cultural vacuum. Why, I wondered, was he not linking his observations to scholarship that explores the ways in which class and race are enmeshed in our educational system or which propose new frameworks for achieving diversity in higher education? Given his encounter with the plumber, wasn’t that a logical line of inquiry? <Read more.>