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What's the problem with Yale?
June 18, 2008 10:28 AM   Subscribe

William Deresiewicz examines the pitfalls of an Ivy League education Apparently, the Ivies prepare you for... mediocrity.
posted by roomthreeseventeen (188 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite

 
My education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class. I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me. We were “the best and the brightest,” as these places love to say, and everyone else was, well, something else: less good, less bright.

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. A thousand times yes. Unlearning a lot of this socialization (I went to Brown) continues to be a struggle for me.
posted by lunit at 10:38 AM on June 18, 2008


A solid engineering degree from a state university > English at Harvard. OH I WENT THERE.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 10:40 AM on June 18, 2008 [8 favorites]


Odd definition of "disadvantage"
posted by delmoi at 10:42 AM on June 18, 2008


The Ivy League is a sports consortium, and Dartmouth is a part of it. That should eliminate all of this unearned sense of excellence and entitlement.
posted by 1adam12 at 10:43 AM on June 18, 2008


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 guy, and lunit, apparently attended a parallel universe Ivy League rather than the one I attended. Hello across the quantum divide, my parallel friends! If parallel me has a beard, tell him he has to shave it off, because I called it first!

I got my money's worth at Yale. I'm not this kind of self-hating misanthropic freak caricature, and I've had opportunities I wouldn't have had otherwise.

Then again, I was only there for undergrad. Maybe the snooty really starts to set in at the PhD level. If so, I'm not so sure that's Ivy-specific.
posted by gurple at 10:43 AM on June 18, 2008 [6 favorites]


I have a friend who went to an Ivy League college after graduating from a typically mediocre public high school. One of the values of going to such a school, she once said, is that it teaches you to relate to stupid people.

I went to a public high school with a lot of soon-to-be ivy league attendees. It taught me how to deal with obnoxious, self-involved, overly entitled smarmy rich kids.
posted by shmegegge at 10:48 AM on June 18, 2008 [17 favorites]


My Uncle Mike graduated from an Ivy League school. My dad graduated high school (at night) and then got drafted. Uncle Mike drowned and died. My dad is alive and well. You do the math.

(I'm kidding, but I've definitely found that the gap between educated and non-educated people (the word 'educated' used advisedly of course) is a huge one, culturally speaking. Not that I haven't seen it bridged plenty of times, but I remember in my mid-twenties, I helped manage a newsstand on Chapel Street in New Haven. The clientele consisted of a roughly equal mix of Yalies, City employees, suburban commuters and general urban street flotsam. They all seemed to be existing on different planets. They also all were trying to drive me crazy, but that's a whole other story)
posted by jonmc at 10:49 AM on June 18, 2008


I have to wonder how much of the "can't relate to the little people" is really learned from ages 19 to 23 and how much from ages 0 to 19.
posted by DU at 10:49 AM on June 18, 2008 [9 favorites]


The existence of multiple forms of intelligence has become a commonplace, but however much elite universities like to sprinkle their incoming classes with a few actors or violinists, they select for and develop one form of intelligence: the analytic. While this is broadly true of all universities, elite schools, precisely because their students (and faculty, and administrators) possess this one form of intelligence to such a high degree, are more apt to ignore the value of others. One naturally prizes what one most possesses and what most makes for one’s advantages. But social intelligence and emotional intelligence and creative ability, to name just three other forms, are not distributed preferentially among the educational elite.
The most disturbing phenomenon this article alludes to is the belief I have seen in some students from elite universities (and within honors programs at top-tier state universities as well) that analytic intelligence (or even worse, scientific/engineering/math intelligence) is not only the only important kind, but in fact, the only kind. I've met many people who refuse to admit that any other kind of intelligence exists or matters.
posted by grouse at 10:50 AM on June 18, 2008 [9 favorites]


I completely agree with everything in the article. However, I'd also be completely astonished if anybody thought that the author was saying anything new or original.

Not that that doesn't make it worth restating from time to time. Nor that restating it will dissuade those who aspire to reproduce that kind of advantage from pursuing it in exactly the same manner.

I've had opportunities I wouldn't have had otherwise.

Wasn't that the author's point?
posted by PeterMcDermott at 10:50 AM on June 18, 2008


I think there are a lot of Ivy League students who would be shocked to read this about themselves. Brown students, in my experience, have an often startling inability to be sentient about themselves.

Which is not to say that there aren't exceptions. Just that I think he is correct in his description of the overall culture of elite institutions. And he sure put to words something I've been trying to for a long time.
posted by lunit at 10:55 AM on June 18, 2008


Wasn't that the author's point?

Seemed to me it was half his point. The other half was crap like My education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class.

I don't think these two things (opportunity and misanthropy) are coupled as tightly as he seems to think they are.

Meh. Some people, like this guy, come out of an Ivy League education with a feeling that they're better than everybody else. Those people are clearly inferior to me.
posted by gurple at 10:56 AM on June 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


By the end of my second year at Chicago my friends and I were crewed up with a bunch of old homeless dudes who used to take us out to the Robert Taylor Homes to cop dope, but I have to imagine that's a little unusual compared to your typical elite college experience.
posted by The Straightener at 10:57 AM on June 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


Not that that doesn't make it worth restating from time to time.

You should define "it." I imagine it's worth restating that there are massive holes in an ivy league education. It's rather less worthwhile to mention how hard it is for ivy leaguers to deal with the fact that they just don't get the little people. Fresh out of sympathy on that score. It's really rather harder to be talked down to than it is to be the one talking down.
posted by shmegegge at 10:58 AM on June 18, 2008


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.

So are the Ivy Leagues choosing to promote acronyms to words in their own right now, or have they just forgotten the value of copy editors like everyone else?
posted by Caduceus at 10:58 AM on June 18, 2008


What's the problem with Yale?

Apparently, it's not in Kansas.
posted by erniepan at 10:58 AM on June 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


One naturally prizes what one most possesses and what most makes for one’s advantages.

*cough*
posted by jonmc at 10:59 AM on June 18, 2008


Stickbugs eat ivy.
posted by Pecinpah at 10:59 AM on June 18, 2008


I went to a school that bills itself as "the Harvard of the Midwest". The 4.0 GPA Mechanical Engineering students couldn't change their own oil, and thought I should "just drive on it" when the u-joints in my car's driveshaft started to come apart. But I lost all respect when the chancellor raised tuition prices, not to pay for better education, but to be on par with the next school on the "best-of" list.
posted by notsnot at 11:00 AM on June 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


So clearly if the masses wish to overthrow the elite, we just need to send an army of plumbers into their elite kitchens and make them feel uncomfortable.
posted by drezdn at 11:01 AM on June 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


So an egotistical self-centered ignorant prick decides to write an article blaming his EDUCATION for the reasons why he is unable to be anything but a self-centered ignorant prick. My guess is that maybe, just maybe, his education really isn't the problem here.
posted by Stynxno at 11:03 AM on June 18, 2008 [9 favorites]


So clearly if the masses wish to overthrow the elite, we just need to send an army of plumbers into their elite kitchens and make them feel uncomfortable.

Of course, the odd thing is, I bet a lot of plumbers make more money than a lot of elite college graduates.
posted by jonmc at 11:03 AM on June 18, 2008 [4 favorites]


I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to elite colleges, often precisely for reasons of class. I never learned that there are smart people who don’t go to college at all.

I also never learned that there are smart people who aren’t “smart.”


Jesus, what a fucking ass. That sure stoked my class rage - my stomach actually hurts. Do you actually need to be TAUGHT THIS FACT IN SCHOOL?!

Pardon me if I can't generate one fucking iota of pity for this imbecile.

When's the revolution again? My calendar is open.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 11:03 AM on June 18, 2008 [24 favorites]


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.

I suppose Ivies do allow people with pathetic social skills more leeway, but really now, this sad interlude can't be blamed on the expensive education. Does the author wear an extra-large mortarboard all the time that blocks his view of the weather?
posted by ilyanassa at 11:03 AM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


He does make an important point about the sharp class divide in elite universities. Take a look at the websites or catalogs at Harvard, Stanford, Yale, etc., the emphasis on diversity is everywhere. But I wonder how diverse the student body would seem if you were to look exclusively at their parent's bank accounts and compared that with the population at large.
posted by bluejayk at 11:06 AM on June 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


I bet a lot of plumbers make more money than a lot of elite college graduates.

Tell me about it. I didn't go to an elite university, but I have a college degree and make half what my brother (just high school, not even a technical school) makes more than twice what I make working as an iron worker.
posted by drezdn at 11:06 AM on June 18, 2008


I enjoyed the essay, but I have a bone to pick with a common canard that was repeated.

There aren't multiple types of intelligence, unless one wants to violate the word. There is intelligence applied to different areas. Athleticism is not another form of intelligence, and neither is sociability. One can be creative and intelligent or creative and rather thick. One can be musical and intelligent or musical and not so intelligent.

When one applies the word "intelligence" to these other skills or aptitudes, it blurs the meaning of the word and makes it less useful. I recognize the egalitarian impulse to call a diversity of skills by this name, but I think it makes communication more difficult and explication less clear.

Intelligence is the ability to solve problems through cognition. One can do that in the service of getting along with people, managing ones emotions, getting a home run, creating an oboe concerto, or decipering the origins of the universe. It's all the same stuff.

Ok, I've completed my rant. As you were.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:08 AM on June 18, 2008 [18 favorites]


Tell me about it. I didn't go to an elite university, but I have a college degree and make half what my brother (just high school, not even a technical school) makes more than twice what I make working as an iron worker.

Exactly. I know plenty of skilled blue-collar workers who make really good money (here in New York that often means six figures), probably more than a lot of Ivy grads who didn't go into a profession like law or medicine. It's not so much a class divide as an educational one.

As I've said before, I value my intelligence and others, but it isn't everything.
posted by jonmc at 11:12 AM on June 18, 2008


Do you actually need to be TAUGHT THIS FACT IN SCHOOL?!
Pardon me if I can't generate one fucking iota of pity for this imbecile.


Hmm. I interpreted this article very differently. I don't think he expects anyone to feel bad for him. I think he's pointing to how much fucked up socialization happens at elite universities. I read it as him pointing to his own classism. Not lifting it up.

It's not that you need to be taught in school that there are smart people who aren't "smart." It's that the culture of these schools - and the feeder schools, and the whole pipeline, really - is teaching you exactly the opposite. If you don't get out much (or, alteratively, spend all of your time in extracurriculars with the same crowd), all you're going to know is what you're taught in those environments.
posted by lunit at 11:13 AM on June 18, 2008 [4 favorites]


The article states: You can live comfortably in the United States as a schoolteacher, or a community organizer, or a civil rights lawyer, or an artist—that is, by any reasonable definition of comfort. But this seems like a highly debatable assertion.

The very ease with which this unsupported assertion is made suggests a perhaps naive, pollyannaish unwillingness to look at the economic realities of working life in America. I realize the author was an English teacher and not an economist, but from first sentence to last the article skirts around the primary reason most people seek entrance into bluechip, brand name elite education institutions in the first place: to make money upon grauduation and to gain easier access into the elite institutions (business, finance, governmental, legal, medical, media, etc) of our corporate-centric society.

Thankfully elite education institutions do not have a monopoly in creating leaders and innovators in America circa 2008, and there are many examples of leaders in many fields who lack Ivy-League educations, but the reality is these elite education institutions represent an implicitly aristocratic training ground that is at odds with the supposed democratic nature of our country. That these institutions also produce a number of people committed to social causes and greater economic justice is one of the beneficial side-effects of them, however, as is continued innovation in the sciences, arts and humanities.

They are not a monolith, but they are also often supporting the remnants of a kind of elite, "old-boys" network that still has far too much influence.
posted by ornate insect at 11:14 AM on June 18, 2008 [4 favorites]


I kinda think the real problem here, and this has nothing to do with the specific university, is that most people in the U.S. don't go to college to have their mind radically expanded. They go to have a good starting point for a resume.

This is as true with the Ivy schools as anywhere else, and as pointed out the prestige and networking possibilities can be very powerful there. But it wouldn't matter if these schools could pour a font of wisdom into your brain, because people aren't necessarily looking for that. They don't see themselves as lacking, and won't pursue it regardless of the school they pick.
posted by selfnoise at 11:15 AM on June 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


I'm less concerned with what Ivy's teach kids than with what kids tend to think is the end result of a college education. The attitude of graduates generally is "I'm ready to be a Vice President and earn 500K a year". In reality, you are not ready for jack shit, because you have not done anything of significance in the real business world yet. The attitude should be 'I have proven that I can work hard, meet deadlines and take orders, now, teach me how the real world works and ilet me apply those skills and in 10 years I'll have a real education'.
posted by spicynuts at 11:15 AM on June 18, 2008 [5 favorites]


For some reason he didn't mention anything about verbosity...
posted by hellslinger at 11:18 AM on June 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


I kinda think the real problem here, and this has nothing to do with the specific university, is that most people in the U.S. don't go to college to have their mind radically expanded

Of course not. That's what drugs are for.
posted by jonmc at 11:19 AM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


I would love to read an essay by William Deresiewicz's plumber about how the deeply flawed plumbing social milieu never taught him that Yale English instructors could be worth talking to.
posted by transona5 at 11:19 AM on June 18, 2008 [9 favorites]


I had many fine teachers during my years at Princeton, but the one I think of most often was my fortune-telling professor, a complete hag with wild gray hair, warts the size of new potatoes, the whole nine yards. She taught us to forecast the weather up to two weeks in advance, but ask for anything weightier, and you were likely to be disappointed.

The alchemy majors all wanted to know how much they'd be making after graduation. "Just give us an approximate figure," they'd say, and the professor would shake her head and cover her crystal ball with a little cozy given to her by one of her previous classes. When it came to our futures, she drew the line, no matter how hard we begged -- and I mean, we really tried. I was as let down as the next guy, but, in retrospect, I can see that she acted in our best interest. Look at yourself on the day that you graduated from college, then look at yourself today. I did that recently, and it was like, "Yikes! What the hell happened?"

The answer, of course, is life. What the hag chose not to foretell -- and what we, in our certainty, could not have fathomed -- is that stuff comes up. Weird doors open. People fall into things. Maybe the engineering whiz will wind up brewing cider, not because he has to, but because he finds it challenging. Who knows? Maybe the athlete will bring peace to all nations, or the class moron will go on to become president of the United States -- though that's more likely to happen at Harvard or Yale, schools that will pretty much let in anybody.

David Sedaris, from When You Are Engulfed in Flames.
posted by the littlest brussels sprout at 11:20 AM on June 18, 2008 [5 favorites]


I'd bet that a good chunk of the money the plumber will get from fixing Deresiewicz's pipes will go toward putting that plumber's kid through college.
posted by jonmc at 11:22 AM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


So, this thing about Americans not really having class boundries I hear every so often, tell it to me again?
posted by Artw at 11:26 AM on June 18, 2008 [5 favorites]


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.

His premise is flawed. There are plenty of people that go to Harvard, Yale, Columbia, etc. that refuse to buy into the affectation and wannabe ethic that so many impressionable undergrads aspire to. He went to his school, and adopted the haughty, lockjaw inflected tones of the predominantly upper middle class, entitled finals club crowd (who are aspiring to something that never really existed anyway), while receiving (charitably) a world class education. He could easily have chosen to attend the same classes, do the same coursework, but have actually learned something of life by actually making an effort to get a

I know literally dozens of people that decided the residence college social scene was bogus and fake, narrow and contrived, and abandoned it in favor of something a little more broadening.

He was lazy, and he got the education he defaulted into. If you go to school in NYC, Cambridge, New Haven or Providence, you have more than that to choose from.
posted by psmealey at 11:26 AM on June 18, 2008 [11 favorites]


And with a last name like Deresiewicz, he should be aware that it really wasn't all that long ago, that he'd be an anomaly at a an Ivy.
posted by jonmc at 11:32 AM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Most potential Ivy League students were brought up in families who taught them that they were better than the average Joe. Although the points he makes are salient and clear, I have to take his word on the Ivy experience. I went to a less prestigious college, not caring much about anything in high school except the Beatles, the War in Vietnam, and drugs. None of which counted for much on your report card. My SAT scores saved me, though, so I got into a good college.

But, despite how "liberal" my parents were, there was the assumption that the six or us were destined for greater things than the average person (because of our intelligence, not our class: after all, America is a meritocracy, right?).

Having been brought up as somewhat of an elitist, I was a little surprised to find out in my years working in warehouses and factories that intelligence people are everywhere. Some just have different cards dealt to them in life; some just choose to exercise their intelligence in ways other than going to college and embarking on a high-paying career than necessitates intelligence...and social connections with an Ivy League kind of peer group.

It really isn't all that difficult to talk to anyone, my friend, and I say this as an introvert. Just make small talk and ask questions. It isn't necessary to ask what bildungsroman he's read lately.
posted by kozad at 11:35 AM on June 18, 2008 [4 favorites]


i don't much care how much Yale sucks and could hardly argue with the idea but I think this is the most important paragraph:

The political implications don’t stop there. An elite education not only ushers you into the upper classes; it trains you for the life you will lead once you get there. I didn’t understand this until I began comparing my experience, and even more, my students’ experience, with the experience of a friend of mine who went to Cleveland State. There are due dates and attendance requirements at places like Yale, but no one takes them very seriously. Extensions are available for the asking; threats to deduct credit for missed classes are rarely, if ever, carried out. In other words, students at places like Yale get an endless string of second chances. Not so at places like Cleveland State. My friend once got a D in a class in which she’d been running an A because she was coming off a waitressing shift and had to hand in her term paper an hour late....

...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. The elite like to think of themselves as belonging to a meritocracy, but that’s true only up to a point. Getting through the gate is very difficult, but once you’re in, there’s almost nothing you can do to get kicked out. Not the most abject academic failure, not the most heinous act of plagiarism, not even threatening a fellow student with bodily harm—I’ve heard of all three—will get you expelled. The feeling is that, by gosh, it just wouldn’t be fair—in other words, the self-protectiveness of the old-boy network, even if it now includes girls. Elite schools nurture excellence, but they also nurture what a former Yale graduate student I know calls “entitled mediocrity.” A is the mark of excellence; A- is the mark of entitled mediocrity. It’s another one of those metaphors, not so much a grade as a promise. It means, don’t worry, we’ll take care of you. You may not be all that good, but you’re good enough.


and I know this to be true because I have taught that class at mediocre state U. and given that D and know that it is built into the system there as much as entitlement is built into the Yale experience. So goes the American empire...
posted by geos at 11:36 AM on June 18, 2008 [10 favorites]


He does make an important point about the sharp class divide in elite universities. Take a look at the websites or catalogs at Harvard, Stanford, Yale, etc., the emphasis on diversity is everywhere. But I wonder how diverse the student body would seem if you were to look exclusively at their parent's bank accounts and compared that with the population at large.

I recall being told that the median income for parents of Stanford students was lower than the median income for parents of Berkeley students. Many Stanford students were on financial aid. Stanford (and, IIRC, Harvard) are both waiving tuition for people whose parents make below a certain amount.

For a lot of these articles, I wonder how different things would have been if the author had been an engineering major.

That's what I blame any of my social awkwardness on.

Comrade "The only one among them who noticed that Godiva rode a horse" Robot
posted by Comrade_robot at 11:41 AM on June 18, 2008


By the end of my second year at Chicago my friends and I were crewed up with a bunch of old homeless dudes who used to take us out to the Robert Taylor Homes to cop dope, but I have to imagine that's a little unusual compared to your typical elite college experience.
That's because, as a school, Chicago's nuckin' futs.
That said, there are lots of people who were there who still can't adjust to normal society, for whom watching things like Iron Man is too difficult because they can't shut off their over-academic minds.
I miss the place.
posted by qcubed at 11:43 AM on June 18, 2008


"Witness the last two Democratic presidential nominees, Al Gore and John Kerry: one each from Harvard and Yale, both earnest, decent, intelligent men, both utterly incapable of communicating with the larger electorate.:

Except, you know, Gore won the popular vote and it was close with Kerry, you dumbass.

Fuck this guy for perpetuating the tired-ass "boy, those Ivy leaguers sure are clueless and socially awkward elitists who are out of touch with the normal everyday folks" lie and embracing the "rich, college educated folk look stupid when they try to act as advocates for the poor and disenfranchised" lie.

Goddamn, this kind of thing makes me angry as fuck. (Disclosure: I graduated with honors from Harvard in '95, and I've never had trouble talking to anyone from any culture or sub-culture or of any so-called "intelligence" or "education" level. And I don't think it's because I've got special communication skills, I just treat people as...wait for it...people. Shit ain't hard.)
posted by lord_wolf at 11:45 AM on June 18, 2008 [4 favorites]


I know literally dozens of people that decided the residence college social scene was bogus and fake, narrow and contrived, and abandoned it in favor of something a little more broadening.

Chances are they abandoned it for something equally bogus and fake, narrow and contrived, only they had the pleasure of patting themselves on the back for being so "independent-minded." Those I knew in school who were superficially outsiders were, more often than not, merely lifestyle tourists, every bit as privileged and sheltered as everyone else in their class. In the end, the only difference is they wind up making six figures in advertising rather than banking.
posted by decoherence at 11:46 AM on June 18, 2008 [10 favorites]


How hard is this to fix? We had classes on talking to blue-collar people at my school.
posted by GuyZero at 11:48 AM on June 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


I guess this author's experience wasn't mine at PENN. No elitists I can see in my group of friends. I didn't come from a highly privileged background, but I wasn't from the mean streets either. Just a typical suburban upbringing.

We have a street near where I live that we call "Mechanics Row". Three mechanics we know live there, in three of the biggest houses in town. I'm sure their income dwarfs my scientist salary. I live next door to a bus driver, and we talk just fine. The Ivies didn't prep me to be a snob, but I guess they could have if that was how I approached it.
posted by genefinder at 11:49 AM on June 18, 2008


That dude is insufferable.

Didn't he see "Good Will Hunting?" Sheesh.
posted by Shohn at 11:49 AM on June 18, 2008


Then again, I was only there for undergrad. Maybe the snooty really starts to set in at the PhD level.

No, I went to Yale for grad school and I assure you the PhD candidates are treated like shit and deeply resent the ridiculous entitlement and self-satisfaction of the Yalies. Hell, I used to swipe toilet paper from the undergrad colleges because they were given nice, soft, "real" TP whereas we grad students were given industrial-strength sandpaper. And having taught Yalies as a graduate assistant, I'm here to testify they are not, on average, all that bright. Just snooty and self-satisfied.
posted by languagehat at 11:51 AM on June 18, 2008 [5 favorites]


We had classes on talking to blue-collar people at my school.

Are you serious?

(also, the plumber who fixed this guys pipes is probably also a contractor which makes him a businessman, too. it's way more complicated when you look past the surface)

I just treat people as...wait for it...people.

Amen.

posted by jonmc at 11:55 AM on June 18, 2008


At Harvard, they have Dorm Crew, where you can get a job cleaning the bathrooms of the student dorm rooms. I did it all four years and everyone I know who stuck with Dorm Crew is pretty darn down to earth.

Except me, of course. I'm smarter than everybody AND gritty enough to clean toilets all day.
posted by snofoam at 11:55 AM on June 18, 2008


Cornell actually taught me to be social. I wasn't very good at it beforehand. Outside of the really preppie fratboys/sorostitutes, I didn't pick up much of a "better than you" vibe. We were too busy, y'know, working for our degrees. Cornell may be the easiest Ivy to get into, but it's the hardest to get out of.
posted by Eideteker at 12:01 PM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


I enjoyed the essay, but I have a bone to pick with a common canard that was repeated.
There aren't multiple types of intelligence,
Mental Wimp, this is what people usually mean when they talk about "Multiple Intelligences."
posted by Floydd at 12:02 PM on June 18, 2008


And if he wanted to show his real elitism, the author wouldn't have used his plumber as an example, he would have said "I went to Yale, and a work colleague disclosed that s/he went to Brown. I didn't even know what to say to them from that point on. How does one make conversation with people like that?"
posted by genefinder at 12:03 PM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


I wnet to Fordham for two years, didn't do well (mainly because I must have got in on a fluke since I was way out of my depth) and wound up working retail and factory labor jobs. Even though I empirically know that it's not neccessarily true, when someone tells me that they went to Cornell or Harvard or Yale, I immediately think 'This person is either really smart, really rich or both.'

Just so you know what the stereotype is.
posted by jonmc at 12:05 PM on June 18, 2008


I read this article yesterday and it set my teeth on edge. I just plainly don't get it. Granted, I went to a mid-sized state school in the South rather than an Ivy-league; but the idea that higher education makes you inable to talk with the "common man" is crap.

Maybe it's because I was taught from a very early age that while higher education is important and beneficial, it doesn't make you *inherently* special. According to my dad, all getting a college degree means is that you learned to stand in lines and jump through hoops before you hit the workforce. Respecting talented craftsmen like plumbers and electricians was deeply ingrained in my childhood and it never occurs to me to judge someone because they haven't read the same research I have or because they don't have an excess of letters after their names.

Now granted, I have a few peers that like to mention their Ivy League credentials in departmental meetings frequently and in most cases, those of us who went to state schools just smile and nod. Because really, if you were that shiny at Harvard how the hell did you end up teaching at a predominently undergraduate, non-research oriented university in Tennessee? I mean, I know the cost of living down here rocks, but our school's name is not one to make anyone say "OOOoooh. That's a good school." You're far more likely to hear, "My kid went there." or "I went there for a while. Didn't finish though."

What the author misses is that if you spend all your time around people just like you, you lose your ability to make casual conversation with those outside your peer group. It's not social retardation due to class or education level, it's social retardation due to lack of exposure.
posted by teleri025 at 12:07 PM on June 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


How hard is this to fix? We had classes on talking to blue-collar people at my school.

Let me guess: some of your best friends are blue collar?
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:09 PM on June 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


*sigh*

I've never been able to relate to the little people either. But that's because they are so small and get underfoot. I try not to squish them, but when you are sixty feet tall sometimes accidents happen.

Though, I did go to Bean Stalk University, and I've heard that's kind of like ivy, so maybe it's just my educational background coloring my perceptions.
posted by quin at 12:11 PM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


At Yale, and no doubt at other places, the message is reinforced in embarrassingly literal terms. The physical form of the university—its quads and residential colleges, with their Gothic stone façades and wrought-iron portals—is constituted by the locked gate set into the encircling wall. Everyone carries around an ID card that determines which gates they can enter.

...thereby showing that Yale is like nearly every other non-commuter college in the US. Including the cheap state ones. Including the radically unselective ones.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:11 PM on June 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


The existence of multiple forms of intelligence ...

Howard Gardner on multiple intelligences and education: Five Minds for the Future; Multiple Intelligences - New Horizons , Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice, Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences; Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century.
posted by ericb at 12:12 PM on June 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


People-who-went-to-elite-Ivy-League-Colleges:

I am here to solve all of you problems when dealing with blue collar works. Take my three work course and you will be able to relate to and even understand the plight of the common man. During the class you will:
-Go to a local bar and partake of Miller, Bud or Coors.
-Tour a construction site, and eat a peanut butter sandwich made on plain white bread.
-Learn how to unclog a toilet.
-Attend a sporting event in the cheapest seats.
-Talk to an actual blue collar worker

Sign up today. I also offer courses in Locksmithing, Typing, and TV/VCR repair.
posted by drezdn at 12:14 PM on June 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


Even though I empirically know that it's not neccessarily true, when someone tells me that they went to Cornell or Harvard or Yale, I immediately think 'This person is either really smart, really rich or both.'

I went to an Ivy, and I really, really hate admitting it to people for exactly this reason. I'm no dummy, but I don't think I come across as some super-genius, either. Which leaves people believing that I had some kind of privileged upbringing. When 100% of the people you deal with come from solidly middle-class backgrounds, this gets you markedly cool treatment. It's actually a little infuriating, given that I actually got a shocking amount of financial aid.

Chip on my shoulder much?
posted by uncleozzy at 12:17 PM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


I also offer courses in Locksmithing, Typing, and TV/VCR repair.

I thought Sally Struthers was teaching third world orphans to do that stuff.
posted by jonmc at 12:17 PM on June 18, 2008


uncleozzy, I'm not saying that assume it's a bad thing, if anything I feel intimidated and worry that they're going to think I'm stupid or something. And like I said, I've learned through experience that it isn't neccessarily so.
posted by jonmc at 12:19 PM on June 18, 2008


I learned to give that little nod of understanding, that slightly sympathetic “Oh,” when people told me they went to a less prestigious college.

I had countless friends that didn't go to my Ivy, including my partner at the time who attended a nearby state school, attempt to explain this precise reaction to me. I denied that that was happening for a long time, and it wasn't until I heard it from friend after friend after friend that I was able to finally see it. Generally speaking, it's subtle, but it's there.
posted by lunit at 12:20 PM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


At places like Yale, of course, it’s the reverse. The elite like to think of themselves as belonging to a meritocracy, but that’s true only up to a point. Getting through the gate is very difficult, but once you’re in, there’s almost nothing you can do to get kicked out.

THis is the same kind of pseudo-sociology babble that I used to hear at parties the summer after my freshman year.

Fact of the matter is that, for the truly ambitious (and connected or independently wealthy), yes, if you go do these schools and excel, there are virtually no limits to how high up the corporate ladder you can go.

However, middle to bottom of the class at Yale is the same as middle to the bottom of the class at Grinnell, North Carolina State, CUNY or Bellevue Community College. With the exception perhaps that you might have read more Proust had you gone to Yale.
posted by psmealey at 12:21 PM on June 18, 2008


I have my butler talk to the hired help and thus avoid this problem.
posted by Abiezer at 12:22 PM on June 18, 2008


Yeah, jonmc, I know, it's mostly my own neurosis. But I definitely find myself dancing around the subject of college if it comes up in conversation. Thankfully, since I sit in the cheap seats and drink High Life by the pitcher, it doesn't come up often.
posted by uncleozzy at 12:25 PM on June 18, 2008


Many Stanford students were on financial aid. Stanford (and, IIRC, Harvard) are both waiving tuition for people whose parents make below a certain amount.

Harvard provides "free rides" to students who come from families with incomes below $60,000.
"In the winter of 2004, under the leadership of President Lawrence H. Summers, Harvard transformed the financial aid landscape with its announcement that families with annual incomes below $40,000 would not be expected to pay for their sons or daughters to go to Harvard. The zero-contribution threshold was raised to $60,000 in 2006, with further reductions in parental contributions for families with incomes up to $80,000. Over the past three years, the number of students in these income ranges has increased by 33 percent, representing a quarter of the entering Class of 2011."*
This past December new Harvard President Drew Faust announced a "Zero to 10 Percent Standard" financial aid program:
"Harvard’s new financial aid policy dramatically reduces the amount families with incomes below $180,000 will be expected to pay. Families with incomes above $120,000 and below $180,000 and with assets typical for these income levels will be asked to pay 10 percent of their incomes. For those with incomes below $120,000, the family contribution percentage will decline steadily from 10 percent, reaching zero for those with incomes at $60,000 and below. For example, a typical family making $120,000 will be asked to pay approximately $12,000 for a child to attend Harvard College, compared with more than $19,000 under existing student aid policies. For a typical family with $180,000 of income, the payment would be approximately $18,000, compared with more than $30,000 today. The new standard reduces the cost to families by one-third to one-half, making the price of a Harvard education for students on financial aid comparable to the cost of in-state tuition and fees at the nation’s leading public universities. The new initiative also establishes a standard that students and their families can easily understand."*
There has been an ongoing discussion at Harvard about adopting a "tuition-free model" for all students: Why Can't Harvard Be Free?
posted by ericb at 12:27 PM on June 18, 2008


I must say, after reading the article, this thread is pretty much what I expected. Life's kinda nice like that, sometimes.
posted by maxwelton at 12:30 PM on June 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


Didn't he see "Good Will Hunting?" Sheesh.

"This is a Hahvahd bar, huh? I thought there'd be equations and shit on the walls." [video | 4:09] *

* - Matt Damon (Harvard | Class 1992 and local Cambridge native) only portrays a character from the "school of hard knocks" in the film.
posted by ericb at 12:30 PM on June 18, 2008


There once was a time when I thought that I could potentially achieve a high-ranking position in the US Government. Maybe in the State Department, which I thought I would really enjoy. Or maybe as a senior Congressional aide. Then I realized, "Wait, I'm going to the University of Houston. They're going to toss my application and hire some 22 year old from Yale instead."

I've now resigned myself to the fact that I'll probably just end up being an executive in some oil company, somewhere.

Ironically, though, oil companies have more power over US foreign policy than the State Department and Congress combined, so I guess it all works out in the end.
posted by Avenger at 12:31 PM on June 18, 2008


Does anybody see the irony in the fact that Ivy League is basically an athletic conference?
posted by jonmc at 12:32 PM on June 18, 2008


Yup. 1adam12 mentioned that pretty early on.
posted by Floydd at 12:38 PM on June 18, 2008


oh. carry on. (they're kind of a shitty conference, I might add)
posted by jonmc at 12:39 PM on June 18, 2008


I kinda think the real problem here, and this has nothing to do with the specific university, is that most people in the U.S. don't go to college to have their mind radically expanded. They go to have a good starting point for a resume.

Quoted for emphasis. You can still get a universal education out of a university, but you have to pay your dues (and I don't just mean tuition). When a monkey looks in the mirror, no apostle looks out.
posted by eritain at 12:42 PM on June 18, 2008


I work a crappy full time job at an Ivy League school and witness much of what this author and many commenters here have mentioned. I am also a full time student, taking classes at night through the university with people who seem to be from every imaginable background.

It has been my experience that people are people. Some are more well-rounded than others. I don't agree with the broad generalizations about not being able to identify with people outside one's own social strata can be blamed solely on the school.

The one point I appreciated reading in the article was the portion about the importance of solitude in intellectualism. I thought that was more interesting than the rest of the article and it rang true to me.
posted by YFiB at 12:44 PM on June 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


Anyone care to compile stats of how many Mefites attended an Ivy or other top-tier school?
posted by Krrrlson at 12:49 PM on June 18, 2008


The zero-contribution threshold was raised to $60,000 in 2006, with further reductions in parental contributions for families with incomes up to $80,000. Over the past three years, the number of students in these income ranges has increased by 33 percent, representing a quarter of the entering Class of 2011.

That is a commendable policy. But the class discrepancy remains.

I have no idea what percentage of the American population earns $80K or less but I suspect it's a LOT higher than 25%.
posted by jason's_planet at 12:51 PM on June 18, 2008


they're kind of a shitty conference, I might add

I went to exactly one football game while I was at school. I don't remember much of it--it was amazingly cold, and windy, and so I drank basically an entire fifth of Malibu (I know, I know) for warmth--but I do recall that it looked a bit like Midget Football played by 7-year-olds.
posted by uncleozzy at 12:52 PM on June 18, 2008


Some schools, like Michigan (my wife's an alumni) and Stanford manage to achieve both academic excellence and athletic prowess.
posted by jonmc at 12:53 PM on June 18, 2008


Contrary to the second half of my username, I went to Yale and worked my ass off to get in and stay in. I paid my entire way through (with financial aid and student loans) because my dad (a truck driver since he turned 16) looked at me when I got my acceptance letter and said, "You know we can't afford to send you there, right?" I applied for every scholarship I could before I went and worked 20 hours a week doing IT work while taking a full schedule of classes while there. I didn't "summer" like most of my friends. While they were off touring the world with their a capella clubs or swimming with dolphins in Costa Rica or whatever, I stayed in New Haven and worked full time and did freelance IT work on the side to save up money to get me through the year.

The greatest thing I learned at Yale was the true value of a dollar and just how far you can stretch it.

And DU hit it right on the head -- the students that can't speak to "regular Joes" coming out of Yale couldn't do it before going there. For many of the students I went to classes with, speaking with ME was as close as they'd ever gotten to a "regular Joe". This kind of education happens waaaaaay before reaching college age. For believing that the students need to be taught basic social skills while at Yale, Mr. Deresiewicz is, to put it politely, a fucking idiot.
posted by educatedslacker at 12:56 PM on June 18, 2008 [5 favorites]


No matter where you go, there you are.
posted by xod at 12:56 PM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


So, this thing about Americans not really having class boundries I hear every so often, tell it to me again?

We don't, at least not in the traditional definition of "class." See, in America (generally speaking), you aren't limited or defined by whether I approve of your family. I'm not talking about race, national origin, etc. In more class-bound societies, you could be bright/talented/rich, but you could never become an investment banker because your dad was a butcher. In America, that doesn't matter, because "class" in America is usually defined by how much money you have. Make enough and you're in the club, as it were.

Where the "you're not one of us" mentality does exist, and can be a real limiting factor, is in gatekeeping for a few cases. For example, almost the entire faculty of my law school went to Yale. I also know of a good-sized consulting engineering firm back home in which almost all of the engineers are graduates of the same school. Most of Trent Lott's male DC staff were, like him, members of Sigma Nu. But those are outliers and came about via individual choice. Not a structured society system.
posted by pandanom at 12:58 PM on June 18, 2008


In America, that doesn't matter, because "class" in America is usually defined by how much money you have. Make enough and you're in the club, as it were.

But like I said before, a plumber often makes more money than a university professor, but the professor would probably be held in higher societal esteem. It's complicated in America, too.
posted by jonmc at 1:02 PM on June 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


This discrepancy is actually embedded in a lot of our popular culture. Look at the Beverly Hillbillies, the Jeffersons etc.
posted by jonmc at 1:07 PM on June 18, 2008


the kid whom everyone wants at their college or law school but no one wants in their classroom

That's a pretty glaring misuse of "whom" for an Ivy League English professor.
posted by Phssthpok at 1:07 PM on June 18, 2008


Look at the Beverly Hillbillies, the Jeffersons etc.

The what, now? (Self-link.)
posted by uncleozzy at 1:09 PM on June 18, 2008


Heh. uncleozzy, I once spent a day flicking back and forth between a Beverly Hillbillies marathon and one of the Twilight Zone until they merged in my mind.

(but you see my point. George jefferson is a wealthy man, but because he's originally from Harlem and because he made his money through dry cleaning (to say nothing of the rather obvious racial angle), he's not quite a member of the club, which was the source of all the fish out of water humor. Same with the Clampetts: they have more money than God, but they're still hicks to the people in Beverly Hills.)
posted by jonmc at 1:14 PM on June 18, 2008


nicolas léonard sadi carnot: "A solid engineering degree from a state university > English at Harvard. OH I WENT THERE."

I'm always kind of surprised that the ivy leagues don't seem to have much of a presence in the computer science world. They used to, back in the fifties early work was done at Penn and Cornell and Harvard but you don't hear anything about their programs since then. I know that they all have CS programs but I don't know anyone who graduated from one of them. In the tech world, places like MIT and Berkeley have the highest status but even giant state schools like Penn State or University of Michigan are more respected than the Ivies.
posted by octothorpe at 1:21 PM on June 18, 2008


That's a pretty glaring misuse of "whom" for an Ivy League English professor.
"The kid who’s loading up on AP courses junior year or editing three campus publications while double-majoring, the kid whom everyone wants at their college or law school but no one wants in their classroom..."
In that phrase "the kid" is the object while "everyone" is the subject (as in: "Everyone wants the kid at their college or law school...), hence it is proper to use whom (the accusative case).
posted by ericb at 1:22 PM on June 18, 2008 [4 favorites]


I know that they all have CS programs but I don't know anyone who graduated from one of them.

I did (Yale's). I can't speak for it now, but back in the late 90s it was a pretty small undergrad program (<5>reasons people went to Yale -- Lit, History, etc.

I probably could have gotten a better CS education a lot of other places (I decided on my major pretty late), but I'm glad to have had access to those other departments.
posted by gurple at 1:25 PM on June 18, 2008


(jonmc, I'd like to point out that the Wikipedia article on George Jefferson is terrifyingly detailed. But I definitely see the point; I would almost say that class is about the trappings of class more than the wealth itself, but then the Jeffersons just about defy that, too.)
posted by uncleozzy at 1:25 PM on June 18, 2008


One thing I hadn't really realized is that grade inflation is higher at the ivys. I worked my ass off to get my 3.0 average studying architecture at a local commuter school, and now you tell me it would've been *easier* at Columbia or U.Penn? Just showing up and doing the work gets you an A minus ?!

I managed to procrastinate my way past the application deadlines, even though my grades/SATs/etc were good enough to get in. And once I found out how difficult my classes were, I figured I'd never be able to cut it at a better school. And at that point I probably wouldn't have, anyway - as my grades had dropped from As to Bs and Cs.

Very depressing realization, that is.
posted by bashos_frog at 1:25 PM on June 18, 2008


Wow, my earlier comment got mangled. Forgot to escape my <. Let me try again:

I know that they all have CS programs but I don't know anyone who graduated from one of them.

I did (Yale's). I can't speak for it now, but back in the late 90s it was a pretty small undergrad program (less than 50 per year). There were some professors there doing interesting research, and one or two profs who could teach pretty well, but it was clearly sidelined by the departments that were the reasons people went to Yale -- Lit, History, etc.

I probably could have gotten a better CS education a lot of other places (I decided on my major pretty late), but I'm glad to have had access to those other departments.
posted by gurple at 1:28 PM on June 18, 2008


I've known a few Ivy Leaguers, and talking to them about their years in undergrad means listening to a lot of "When I was at Harvard, I..." or "A few years ago at Harvard we..." statements, all strategically phrased to mention their school. But when I talk to people about that time of my life, I simply call it "college." It certainly matters to me where I went, but to assume that everyone else cares or will be impressed by constant name-dropping is pretty crass. Is the Ivy League experience really so insulated they can't see that not everyone regards their alma mater with the profound importance that they do? I'm far more impressed by people for whom a Harvard (etc) education is a minor highlight of their character, not a defining feature. That level of modesty, to me, speaks volumes.
posted by phatkitten at 1:28 PM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


I know literally dozens of people that decided the residence college social scene was bogus and fake, narrow and contrived, and abandoned it in favor of something a little more broadening.

Amen. I did it for a few years, and I couldn't take it. So I moved to NYC and became a commuter student. I enjoyed college much more as a job than as a life.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 1:28 PM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


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.

how about something like, "i think the pipes are leaking here" for starters?
posted by pyramid termite at 1:32 PM on June 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


Wow, a lot of responses for my first FPP, huh?

I was at one of the "New Ivies" in the late 90s, and dropped out after my sophomore year, subsequently transferring to a commuter school in NJ. It was much easier for me living in the real world.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:34 PM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap... and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him.

You say, "Could you please sign this for my kid, Mr. Youkillis."
posted by drezdn at 1:37 PM on June 18, 2008 [6 favorites]


Amen. I did it for a few years, and I couldn't take it. So I moved to NYC and became a commuter student. I enjoyed college much more as a job than as a life.

I'm essentially commuting to an Ivy League night school. I get the benefits of the great faculty without the elitist atmosphere. I couldn't be happier with my situation.

I put off going to college because of all I'd heard and seen regarding campus life. I feel as though I appreciate my education more than I would have if I had dived right in, but that could also be due to the decade hiatus I took, working terrible jobs and moving around the country.
posted by YFiB at 1:38 PM on June 18, 2008


I would imagine this would be most true for people whose parents live an Ivory Tower life, complete with economic power. I knew a few people from very humble backgrounds that made it into Ivy schools on their merit and are extremely talented individuals who can talk to anybody.

On the other hand, I once worked at a nonprofit headed up by a Yale alum. She had founded it. I was prepared to be completely blown away by her intelligence and ability to do higher-level analysis. I was ready to learn from her.

What a major disappointment that was. It became evident that she (and her brother) actually got into Yale because her father was a high level Clinton appointee. The nonprofit she founded and ran was largely funded by her parents and friends of the family. She was a modern day nobless oblige who didn't have any understanding of social policy or even accounting compliance. Her parents were Ivory Tower types. She really cared very deeply about where people went to school, versus how well they did or what skills they brought. If she was a normal person without a trust fund and connections, she'd be unemployable.

Anyway, I'm rarely impressed by Ivy Leaguers, unless it's obvious that they worked hard to get where they are, without family help or family connections.
posted by onepapertiger at 1:42 PM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


My uncle and I once had a (slightly) drunken dinner conversation whereby he stated with absolute conviction that "we don't really know anything about how electricity works" as an explanation for some supernatural/ spiritual thing he had read about.

He went to both Yale and Harvard and graduated with honors from both.

He's actually fairly brilliant at what he does, he just sometimes convinces himself of some silly shit.
posted by quin at 1:44 PM on June 18, 2008


onepapertiger: I once spent 3 solid minutes giving an Ivy League grad directions to a building directly across the street, fully visable through a window behind him, because he insisted on seeing where the building was on a map.

It was an experience I will never forget.
posted by YFiB at 1:45 PM on June 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


He's actually fairly brilliant at what he does, he just sometimes convinces himself of some silly shit.

Well, there you go. Often, people use their great intellects to create elaborate justifications for their own bullshit, and we're all guilty of that to some extent.
posted by jonmc at 1:49 PM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Memo to the author:

This bit of your essay?

At Yale, and no doubt at other places, the message is reinforced in embarrassingly literal terms. The physical form of the university—its quads and residential colleges, with their Gothic stone façades and wrought-iron portals—is constituted by the locked gate set into the encircling wall.

In embarrassingly fake literal terms if you want to get snotty about it and google Yale's architecture:

The real Yale may look ancient, but its "Gothic" architecture was actually built in the twentieth century and artificially aged with acid washes and other techniques.
posted by Jody Tresidder at 2:03 PM on June 18, 2008


So I take it we won't be seeing those millions who don't share the mefi late-liberal mindset dismissed as stupid ever again? That's welcome; il ennuyeux.


> The real Yale may look ancient

Bertrand Russell on Princeton: "Full of new gothic, as much like Oxford as monkeys can make it."
posted by jfuller at 2:13 PM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


“... 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.”
That’s OK... I’m a carpenter and I don’t know what to say to those guys either.
posted by Huplescat at 2:15 PM on June 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


you have the word 'scat' in your username and you can't talk to a plumber?
posted by jonmc at 2:17 PM on June 18, 2008


I went to exactly one football game while I was at school. I don't remember much of it--it was amazingly cold, and windy, and so I drank basically an entire fifth of Malibu (I know, I know) for warmth--but I do recall that it looked a bit like Midget Football played by 7-year-olds.

You went to Columbia, didn't you?
posted by $5 at 2:21 PM on June 18, 2008


On a bit of a side note, while I thought the article was spot-on overall, I have to take issue with the author's raising of the oft-repeated canard about rampant grade inflation at the Ivies and what that implies about their students.

If you compare the median GPA at Yale with that of Cleveland State, then yes, there's grade inflation occurring in some definite sense of the phrase. But the fact is Cleveland State has a much lower "low end" than Yale; a big fraction of its students just don't care about being there and probably shouldn't be there in the first place. Most colleges in the country are much closer to Cleveland State than Yale in this sense. Yale students might not all be intellectual heavyweights, but at the very least, they had to be pretty sharp and motivated to have gotten in, and there are few who are utterly indifferent toward their education and their reasons for being there.

The average B+ or A- Yale student would coast effortlessly to the top 10% of his class at Cleveland State for doing the exact same work. In fact, I'd argue that the truly capable students at large public schools are both the beneficiaries (or victims, depending on your perspective) of even more profound grade inflation; because the bar is set so low by their peers, they're able to get top grades for handing in work that's merely cogently written and free from gross grammatical or logical errors. The same is true for science courses; while organic chemistry is organic chemistry anywhere you go, if you look at the first year organic chemistry finals for Yale and Cleveland, you'll see some big differences.

So yes, while there is "grade inflation," it doesn't imply that Ivy students are given a free pass for doing shoddy work, or that their peers at public schools are working their assess off to claw their way up a rigorous curve. Academic standards have declined everywhere, but the situation is no worse -- and it's quite possibly better -- at Ivies than at anywhere else.
posted by decoherence at 2:25 PM on June 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


I find a lot of the responses in this thread that read as "I'M not like the person this guy describes, therefore his premises are bullshit!" to be somewhat ironic. Regardless of your ability to talk to people who don't share your life experience, you display a narrow-minded tunnel vision that rivals that of the students that Deresiewicz talks about.

It's not always the case that people like Deresiewicz are socialized that way before going to school. In many ways, it's just as easy to fall into the elitist mindset if you come from a background that isn't remotely upper- or middle-class. I don't think it's a difficult process to understand, and deriding those folks while congratulating oneself on getting through it okay (obviously you possess a strength of character that very few share...does this viewpoint sound familiar?) is a very insensitive position to take on the matter. Many of the responses in this thread discount how malleable personalities still are in the age range from 18 to 22. Even after those ages, the culture with which you surround yourself affects your perceptions and attitudes. This is how humanity at large works.

The author is talking about the negative effects that Ivy League culture has on its members. To imply that only those who are sufficiently well-adjusted are not affected by their cultural environment is a judgment that flies in the face of reality, and reeks of its own type of elitism.
posted by invitapriore at 2:42 PM on June 18, 2008 [9 favorites]


Everything he says about grade inflation at elite universities is true. There are some really bright kids there, and there aren't any students who really struggle. There are also some kids who aren't as bright as they think they are, and when they produce good or adequate rather than excellent work, they are shocked to get a B+ or B - in other words, the grade they would receive at any other university. The severity of the problem differs by department/discipline, and I don't know if the full A's have been compromised, but I have met students who expected A-'s for work that would have gotten B's, B+ at best at other, less elite universities.

decoherence: I went to the equivalent of Cleveland State, and now teach at an Ivy League uni. I have seen students at the Ivy League uni expect and/or receive A-'s for work that would get a B+ or B at Cleveland State. Which still might put them in the top 10% - at my undergrad uni the B+ was among the top 10%, because there were a hell of a lot more C's.

I have two main reasons I think this is bad, for both the students getting the inflated grades, and for the students at the other universities:

a) within the grade inflated classroom, there is no room for development. Students don't know when they are not doing good work because very good work and adquate work receives the same grade. Only truely outstanding work gets any recognition. When students get lower grades, it inspires them (or at least the more motivated ones) to ask about how they can improve their work, and in the end they learn more.

b) these students compete nationally with students from other universities for scholarships and entry to post-graduate programs. When an A- from Ivy U = a B+ from Cleveland state, that sets up an unfair competition. And to make matters worse, there are those who assume that an A- from Ivy U is better than an A- from Cleveland State, which often is not true. Many non-elite state universities have very rigorous grading schemes.
posted by jb at 2:47 PM on June 18, 2008


I went to Cornell for undergrad, and have no problem talking with anyone of any educational or social background.

Maybe it helped that I worked in the dining hall all 4 years, got treated like shit by most of the student populace, and hung out with my group of not-rich-but-smart friends and the 'townies' that also worked for campus dining.

Maybe it helped that none of my friends were legacy admissions or anything like that. We got in on our grades and paid for it with loans and financial aid and the $5 an hour we made at (and free food we got from) the dining hall.

Maybe it helped that I stayed far, far away from the Greek life/parties/scene.

Maybe it helped that my parents instilled a sense of work ethic and general not-dumbassery in me as a kid by not giving me an allowance or buying me unnecessary shit, and expecting me to get a job as soon as I was able if I wanted to buy things.

On preview, I want to make it clear that I'm not saying "I'M not like the person this guy describes, therefore his premises are bullshit!" It's just funny because my experience of the Ivy League is very different than what is portrayed in the article, TV/movies, and so many of the comments here. I'm not sure if I missed out on something, or what. But I also can't pretend I experienced something I didn't. Sure, I saw a lot of rich twats running around campus wasting Daddy's money, but I mostly ignored them and spent my time and energy on the normal, cool people. I didn't really see it as some ingrained culture that necessarily permeates everything there. *shrug*
posted by misskaz at 2:49 PM on June 18, 2008


When I was a couple years into my education at a state university, my younger sister was about to graduate high school and was looking into her options. She had a few more prestigious schools on her list. My dad, suddenly feeling the strings of his pocketbook, suddenly made some noise about how much he could afford to provide.

I told him that if he was being nice enough to cover my college costs, he should shell out for hers, even if it was more money, or at least make me pay the same amount (not a proportional one) of my own tuition. I explained that while she'd get a good education wherever, and could go to an ivy league school and fail to make any connections, it's completely possible her diploma would set her up for a different world, one that she might be more interested in.

You might find a lot of programmers with varied college diplomas, or no diploma at all, across the country. But you really don't find that many people with Harvard or Yale degrees around Des Moines, Iowa. Not that you'd necessarily make more money right out of college elsewhere with such a degree, but you'd be likely looking for different jobs and different placement.

She ended up going to the same school I did, but I still wonder about it, and think about the fact that I knew an education is an education.
posted by mikeh at 2:50 PM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


(Note: I know nothing about Cleveland State. I don't even know if Cleveland State exists. But my experience is based on the expectations of the very un-selective state university I went to, and the slightly more but still not very selective state university my husband attended - which actually had mega-tough standards for A-s. Both of us have since gone on to grade and teach at elite universities as post-graduates. Of course, in our capacity as students, we have also benefitted from laxer standards and more flexibility than would have been granted to us at many other universities.)
posted by jb at 2:51 PM on June 18, 2008


So yes, while there is "grade inflation," it doesn't imply that Ivy students are given a free pass for doing shoddy work, or that their peers at public schools are working their assess off to claw their way up a rigorous curve.

An important point from the essay: it's very difficult to run afoul of rules which guarantee you a low grade at an ivy school (despite of whatever effort you may have put in to that point), whereas a lower-rung school will generally be very inflexible in the same situation.

So while there are lots more people just coasting at the non-Ivy school, there will also be a number of people there lowering the curve because they weren't given a second or third chance when a deadline was missed, for example.
posted by maxwelton at 2:54 PM on June 18, 2008


lunit writes "I think there are a lot of Ivy League students who would be shocked to read this about themselves. Brown students, in my experience, have an often startling inability to be sentient about themselves."

My dad was admitted to Brown law school and left after one semester to go to the local public university, and it was almost entirely due to this attitude that he left. Turned out to be a hell of a lawyer, and the lack of the Brown name on his educational experience didn't hurt him one bit, but he was glad to get a decent education without having to turn into an entitled jerk to get it.
posted by krinklyfig at 2:56 PM on June 18, 2008


But, of course, as a post-graduate, I am incapable of having a conversation with anyone normal, regardless of their class.
posted by jb at 2:56 PM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'm siding with the "your education is what you take from it..." crowd. I didn't go to an Ivy, but I went to one of the best universities in Canada, and then to University of Chicago (what up The Straightener). But most of my friends from high school went to trade schools, and I spent most of my spare time hanging out with them. Now I can talk to tradesmen, not to mention many of the people I know who went to trade schools (or didn't go to school at all) who turned out to be talented artists or musicians, or just people doing their own thing.

I still have a lot of affection for the UofC kids I knew who really couldn't function outside of the university environment (or get their shoes on the right feet, or keep from getting scurvy), but I really can't stand the sort of privileged attitude the author describes. However, as others have pointed out, this is likely developed long before university entrance.

For me the only thing worse is when the Ivy types get "adventurous" and start hanging out in the bars where I drink, but can't help but make a huge show of it. That and the one girl I know who went to Harvard and won't shut up about how she hates everyone else who went to Harvard.

Of course this is coming from someone who pissed away a perfectly good academic career and now works in advertising.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 2:59 PM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


jonmc writes "Exactly. I know plenty of skilled blue-collar workers who make really good money (here in New York that often means six figures), probably more than a lot of Ivy grads who didn't go into a profession like law or medicine. It's not so much a class divide as an educational one."

As anyone in Britain can tell you, money does not equate to class.
posted by krinklyfig at 3:01 PM on June 18, 2008


misskaz: I'm not saying it's invalid to point out the difference of your experience. I don't think the author ever claimed to be talking about everyone at Ivy school X. God knows, too, that those insufferable rich kids exist and were probably insufferable long before they got to college. That's not the only type of elitism that you find at those places, though (the intellectual elitism the author mentions is a good example).

I disagree, though, that that culture isn't pervasive. Especially in the first year of college, it is shoved down your throat quite forcefully. I've personally witnessed a good number of people who weren't snots before college (and aren't at all privileged, economically) descend into that bullshit because of how invasive college culture is. They are complicit in their transformation, but that doesn't make criticism of the culture itself invalid. It's a strong force, and to treat it on the basis of the individual, blaming every person who bends to it for doing so, is naive.
posted by invitapriore at 3:03 PM on June 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


misskaz writes "Sure, I saw a lot of rich twats running around campus wasting Daddy's money, but I mostly ignored them and spent my time and energy on the normal, cool people. I didn't really see it as some ingrained culture that necessarily permeates everything there."

Hmm. But you also said,

"Maybe it helped that I worked in the dining hall all 4 years, got treated like shit by most of the student populace"

So, most of the students treated you like shit, yet you don't see it as some ingrained culture? Sure, you can avoid it, but you practically had to be defiant enough not to want to fit in.

FWIW, I'd like to think if I had the opportunity, I'd do what you did. But it's not clear that my 18-year-old self would have had that sort of integrity.
posted by krinklyfig at 3:04 PM on June 18, 2008


My username is a pretty straightforward takeaway from a classic American satire not, as you would have it (when you have it your way), from some loathsome porn site, jonmc.
posted by Huplescat at 3:05 PM on June 18, 2008


When an A- from Ivy U = a B+ from Cleveland state

So, not too often, then.
posted by $5 at 3:05 PM on June 18, 2008


Mental Wimp, this is what people usually mean when they talk about "Multiple Intelligences."

OK, I'll turn the rant back on.

Yes, I know that piece of work. It is exactly what I object to. How does it help to call someone "artistically intelligent" instead of "artistically skilled" or "artistically adept"? As far as I can see, it only dilutes the meaning of the word intelligence, usually (formerly?) designating sharpness of cognition. One can be artistic without being particularly "intelligent" about art. Once can be athletic (have Bodily-Kinesthetic intelligence ("body smart")) without being an intelligent athlete.

In my experience, intelligent people are intelligent at whatever endeavor they focus on. They may lack the physical abilities to be a great pianist, artist, or athlete, but they can pursue the endeavor intelligently. A mediocre baseball player can become a great coach because they understand the game and can solve the cognitive problems the game imposes. Tacking on the word intelligence to any particular nonintellectual skill one values only signals that the person considers "intelligence" to be highly valued as well. It's kind of an affirmative action plan for those not particularly intelligent, but skilled in other areas.

Rant off (again)
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:08 PM on June 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


I figured, but the pun was too much to resist.
posted by jonmc at 3:09 PM on June 18, 2008


One more comment on the post. I work with several current professors at Harvard, and they say that the students at Harvard are good at one thing: getting into Harvard.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:10 PM on June 18, 2008


Mental Wimp writes:

Intelligence is the ability to solve problems through cognition. One can do that in the service of getting along with people, managing ones emotions, getting a home run, creating an oboe concerto, or decipering the origins of the universe.

They should have got you working on the 4th Edition of the Player's Handbook.
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:13 PM on June 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


My dad was admitted to Brown law school and left after one semester to go to the local public university, and it was almost entirely due to this attitude that he left. Turned out to be a hell of a lawyer, and the lack of the Brown name on his educational experience didn't hurt him one bit, but he was glad to get a decent education without having to turn into an entitled jerk to get it.

When did Brown have a law school?
posted by jayder at 3:32 PM on June 18, 2008


But the fact is Cleveland State has a much lower "low end" than Yale; a big fraction of its students just don't care about being there and probably shouldn't be there in the first place. Most colleges in the country are much closer to Cleveland State than Yale in this sense.

Wow. Just....wow. I can only imagine that you have absolutely no idea how insulting that is.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 3:48 PM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


psmealey writes "I know literally dozens of people that decided the residence college social scene was bogus and fake, narrow and contrived, and abandoned it in favor of something a little more broadening."

Yeah, but the local school where I grew up had like 5% greek, and most of the students lived off campus. SMU, on the other hand (where a friend went for one semester), had a 95% greek student body, and most students lived on campus. Sure, at SMU you could choose not to join a frat or a sorority, but you're going to be an outcast if so. The power of the peer group is pretty strong at that age. I'm not saying the students aren't responsible for their own choices, but I can see how it might be difficult to go to an exclusive school and decide to be your own person, despite what the vast majority of the other students are doing.
posted by krinklyfig at 3:54 PM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


jayder writes "When did Brown have a law school?"

Sorry, I misspoke. That was his undergrad, pre-law education.
posted by krinklyfig at 3:55 PM on June 18, 2008


Yeah, what nicolas léonard sadi carnot said. I'd rather higher people whose degree has more objective meaning.

Also, the good non-Ivy engineering school are good precisely because they accept anyone but fail most out. Don't even pretend for a moment that your precious admissions process means more than this.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:13 PM on June 18, 2008


Grade Inflation: It's Time to Face the Facts.

The Dangerous Myth of Grade Inflation.
posted by ericb at 4:14 PM on June 18, 2008


March 2007: Princeton Leads in Grade Deflation.

May 2007: Report: Harvard Grade Inflation Persists.

Grade Inflation at American Colleges and Universities.
posted by ericb at 4:20 PM on June 18, 2008


The Light Fantastic: Apologies to you if you do go to Cleveland State and you are in fact in that bottom 25%. But I don't think it's especially controversial or insulting to point out that a large proportion of incoming college freshman have absolutely no idea why they're going to college and even less motivation to succeed once they get there. That doesn't mean they're dumb or inferior; just that they're not necessarily cut out for college at that time. Sky high drop-out rates at most non-selective colleges attest to this. Lots of kids, maybe even a majority, go off to college for no better reason than because it's what's expected of them, and it winds up being both a waste of time and money for all involved.
posted by decoherence at 4:21 PM on June 18, 2008


I went to a private east coast liberal arts school, not an ivy, but considered upper tier. I also went to a top 15 east coast law school. I spend most of the 1990's in these two schools. In my experience, most of the students in these schools who had an attitude toward blue collar/non-elite people already had it when they entered college. These kids had grown up in cities or upper class suburbs, most of their friends and family went to ivy's, and they just had no experience outside of this cocoon that had been provided for them. The elite school was just the next step in this "cultural cocoon".

I came from a blue collar background, and that occasionally came up in conversation. Some people seemed to put a barrier up when they found this out. However, even the ones that were friendly seemed to be clueless as to anything relating to blue collar people.
posted by JasonM at 4:27 PM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


In fact, I'd argue that the truly capable students at large public schools are both the beneficiaries (or victims, depending on your perspective) of even more profound grade inflation; because the bar is set so low by their peers, they're able to get top grades for handing in work that's merely cogently written and free from gross grammatical or logical errors.

decoherence, you nailed it.

I went to Cleveland State for grad school because hey, it was free (if I TA'd), and I was living overseas when I applied to grad schools/couldn't afford to fly home for the interviews elsewhere. Some of the work I had to grade was so appallingly bad that it pretty much backed up decoherence's assertion that there's a lower low end there than elsewhere.

The Light Fantastic, you may find that comment insulting, but you know, there's a larger issue in play here. This is about the educational system that feeds into the colleges as much as it is about colleges and selectivity. While there were plenty of smart people at CSU, there were also a ton of kids who wouldn't have made it out of 8th grade English in my high school. Are we doing them a favor? Remember this MeFi discussion not too long ago? I'm not saying they shouldn't be there eventually, but is college college really the place for remedial ed? I say no.
posted by bitter-girl.com at 4:32 PM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


(And on post -- decoherence is reading my mind with secret thoughtwaves or something, particularly "That doesn't mean they're dumb or inferior; just that they're not necessarily cut out for college at that time." -- ditto!)
posted by bitter-girl.com at 4:34 PM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


As anyone in Britain can tell you, money does not equate to class.

As many in New England can tell you, money does not equate to class.
posted by ericb at 4:36 PM on June 18, 2008


The average B+ or A- Yale student would coast effortlessly to the top 10% of his class at Cleveland State for doing the exact same work. In fact, I'd argue that the truly capable students at large public schools are both the beneficiaries (or victims, depending on your perspective) of even more profound grade inflation; because the bar is set so low by their peers, they're able to get top grades for handing in work that's merely cogently written and free from gross grammatical or logical errors. The same is true for science courses; while organic chemistry is organic chemistry anywhere you go, if you look at the first year organic chemistry finals for Yale and Cleveland, you'll see some big differences.

The plural of anecdote is not data, obviously, but my experiences (taught one year at U of M--Ann Arbor followed by nine at my current location), my father's (occasional visiting appointments at UCLA besides his regular job at CSULA), and various pals'/colleagues' have all been very different. Yes, the A students at a R1/other prestigious university will be better than the A students on my own campus, and there will be more of them. Once you get out of the solid A range, however, the students start to have identical problems. Quite a few of my students at the U of M couldn't write a complete sentence, couldn't read very well, couldn't develop a logical argument, and so forth. Were the students at the U of M better overall? Sure. Would the B+/A- students "coast effortlessly" to a higher rank at my little SUNY? Er, well, not necessarily.
posted by thomas j wise at 4:49 PM on June 18, 2008


This just in: some folks that went to Ivy Leagues look down on folks that didn't.

In other news: Some folks that went to grad school look down on folds that just have a bachelor's.

Some folks that went to college look down on folks that just have a high school diploma.

Some folks with high school diplomas look down on folks that dropped out.

Yep, the pecking order of academia is still in order.
posted by jabberjaw at 4:55 PM on June 18, 2008


bitter-girl:

I went to Cleveland State for grad school because hey, it was free (if I TA'd), and I was living overseas when I applied to grad schools/couldn't afford to fly home for the interviews elsewhere. Some of the work I had to grade was so appallingly bad that it pretty much backed up decoherence's assertion that there's a lower low end there than elsewhere.

Why do you think that is particular to CSU / low selectivity publics? This easily describes a Harvard class that included seniors that I TA'd .

The blowback I got from giving poor grades at Harvard was intense, and sadly, it works. Eventually, subconsciously, you start giving out a lot more part marks. This was in science / physics to boot. I imagine its worse when grading papers.
posted by bumpkin at 5:05 PM on June 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


Many years ago, I graduated from one of the top "feeder" schools for the Ivy League in the US (Hunter College High School, NY, NY.)

I graduated recently from Cleveland State with a B.S. in Biology.

And yes, in my "general education" classes, one could turn in work that would have been harshed on back in my high school and still get an A. However in my science and math classes, I found myself working hard and learning much. Fools were not suffered gladly there, and many of my fellow classmates who started out as Biology majors ended up switching out after a few Ds and Fs.

It became apparent that in the humanities, there was a very low bar. In science, math and engineering, there was a different, higher bar and that if you showed yourself capable, you could get the kind of education and one on one interaction with your professors that you would struggle for in a larger place. So while I still carry around a different chip than many (that I did not attend a prestigious college within an acceptable time frame), I believe that Cleveland State and I got a great deal from each other, and am honored to have learned from some accomplished scientists who feel that educating students who may not enter the top universities is an important mission, and certainly one not to be "ashamed" of.
posted by ltracey at 5:14 PM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


I will want to read this article and these comments more closely, but my initial reaction is, wha? A college makes you unable to relate to everyday people? (Wouldn't this have just as much or more to do with the environment you were raised in or where you went after college?) Yale makes you less suited for appreciating the joys of solitude? (The tiny cubicles in The Stacks are at least some indication that solitude doesn't go out of style.) This was not my experience there, now nearly two decades ago. I went there even though my dad inspected boilers for a living (is this the sort of blue collar work that supposedly makes folks like me uncomfortable?) and he never graduated from high school or made more than $45K a year to support his wife and three kids. And please don't try to make me ashamed of the unfamiliar feeling of pride and extraordinary accomplishment I felt when I got an acceptance letter in the mail, and the pride my parents felt for me.

I sometimes talk to old classmates about our post-college life and our feelings about jobs and the work we do. One of my friends, who came from a family that was well off by my standards, talked about the pressure that she felt from her parents not to waste her time at work that had no social value. And I have to say that I was so grateful that I didn't get that kind of additional pressure from my own parents. I think when you come from a family of little means, the most important thing for me, frankly even more important than what kind of work I do or how happy it made me or whatever, was that it lift me out from a fear of poverty and not being able to support myself. So, Yale did that for me, or at least has so far, and I'm very grateful for it. I'm sure this author makes valid points, but many of them were just not my experience or the experience of the friends I made there.
posted by onlyconnect at 5:15 PM on June 18, 2008 [7 favorites]


The most disturbing phenomenon this article alludes to is the belief I have seen in some students from elite universities (and within honors programs at top-tier state universities as well) that analytic intelligence (or even worse, scientific/engineering/math intelligence) is not only the only important kind, but in fact, the only kind.

!=

A solid engineering degree from a state university > English at Harvard.

Hate away, but I went to Stanford, which is supposedly a top national school, and this statement was completely untrue in my case: "My education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class."

Perhaps it's just the East Coast nobility in effect? I admit there's certainly that sort of arrogance at any top university from *some* people. I just didn't see it very much, nor get that impression from any of my teachers. Perhaps it was the people I associated with.

For what it's worth, it cost my parents about $9K/year and I ended up with about $18K in student loans total. I didn't get as much out of the experience as I should/could have, but I still think it was *very* much worth the money.

Harvard provides "free rides" to students who come from families with incomes below $60,000.

So does Stanford now, apparently, though I do not quite completely understand the math. Free tuition for students with household incomes under $100K. Free tuition *and* room/board for students from household incomes under $60,000. ... I'm not sure why they still have to pay something...
posted by mrgrimm at 5:21 PM on June 18, 2008


What bugs the shit out of me about this essay is that this guy just assumes that attendees of the Ivies have better grades, better school records, or better test scores than the rest of the population.

When, in fact, there are a number of reasons (outside of financial ones), not to attend an Ivy League school. This guy is a tool.
posted by mckenney at 5:46 PM on June 18, 2008


Yes, the A students at a R1/other prestigious university will be better than the A students on my own campus, and there will be more of them.

My experience is that the best students at the prestigious university aren't better than the very best at a non-prestigious uni (particularly one that draws a very large and diverse population), but yes, there are more of them, and a lot more A-s even when you are trying to hold the bar to make the A- a real recognition of very good work (as opposed to eliding it with the Bs). Basically, there are talented students at every single university or college, but at elite universities, the bottom range of ability & preparation has been cut off, and thus the top is more dense. But grades are a reflection of skill and the effort put in to attain and exercise those skills, and having ability doesn't mean that a student necessarily has the skill or has put in the necessary effort.

The blowback I got from giving poor grades at Harvard was intense, and sadly, it works. Eventually, subconsciously, you start giving out a lot more part marks. This was in science / physics to boot. I imagine its worse when grading papers.

The blowback is intense elsewhere as well. It's not as funny as the bad reviews given because the other students in the class weren't prepared or didn't participate.

I don't know that marking papers is worse - it's more qualitative, of course, and criteria can be more subjective (some would rate organisation over style, for example), and that does make it hard sometimes to explain to a student why their paper is just pedestrian. It can be right, that is adequately fufilling the assignment, without being very good; I don't know yet how to explain this without being unintentionally insulting, which is a reflection of my lack of skill as a teacher.
posted by jb at 5:56 PM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


I've met persons who graduated from state schools and ivy league schools and found both to be warm, friendly, not condescenting or able to talk to person with less intelligence or education, for the most part. This from a person who most on this thread would consider non-educated. Don't believe ivy league school instill any of the nonsense protracted by author, or state schools for that matter. Believe has to do with upbringing from environment and is probably already a part of their lives prior to attending these elite institutions. Environment and upbringing is going to determine your attitude much more than 4 years of a education at any university or college. Ivy league or not.
posted by brickman at 6:04 PM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Lots of kids, maybe even a majority, go off to college for no better reason than because it's what's expected of them, and it winds up being both a waste of time and money for all involved.

And this applies to Ivy League schools as well. Whether or not the kid is being shoved down the cattle shoot to the elite colleges or is just going to the local school, I haven't seen a lot of real understanding of what they are actually going after. I work for a teen program, and most of the kids that I've seen that are on the elite college track have parents behind them pushing as hard as they can - half of the time the parents fill out ALL of the paperwork, and I wouldn't be surprised if they write half of the application essays. These kids are just being swept along in a bizarre current of "accomplishment" in which they have absolutely no vested interest.

There are a lot of reasons that people don't end up at Yale or Harvard, and lack of dedication is only the tiniest fraction of those. The broad statement that you made about the majority of college students was pretty damn derogatory.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 6:15 PM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


What do most Ivy league grads have in common?

When their last parent dies they will be a lot wealthier than they already are.
posted by notreally at 6:34 PM on June 18, 2008


And. My wife likes to remind me that though I am educated, she is intelligent.
posted by notreally at 6:37 PM on June 18, 2008


What bugs the shit out of me about this essay is that this guy just assumes that attendees of the Ivies have better grades, better school records, or better test scores than the rest of the population.

Would you care to show that any of these is not true? Especially the last, which is provably true.
posted by oaf at 7:14 PM on June 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


wtf? Most of the fancy-college people I know are very down-to-earth. Maybe the stuck up ones don't deign to hang out with me, but it's certainly not universal.
posted by jewzilla at 7:34 PM on June 18, 2008


I went to an ivy league school, and I can do plumbing, drive anything, and have working-class friends. You could choose to be like this idiot's caricature, or you could live a different life while getting an education. I went on to the PhD and teaching at another ivy. But I just spent a languid afternoon sitting around the table in a tractor repair shop in the Ozarks debating global climate change with two mechanics and a farmer over coffee and cigarettes.

Suit yourself
posted by fourcheesemac at 8:14 PM on June 18, 2008


The most elite schools have become places of a narrow and suffocating normalcy. Everyone feels pressure to maintain the kind of appearance—and affect—that go with achievement. (Dress for success, medicate for success.) I know from long experience as an adviser that not every Yale student is appropriate and well-adjusted, which is exactly why it worries me that so many of them act that way. The tyranny of the normal must be very heavy in their lives.

This rings utterly and depressingly true. I'm still getting over my disappointment about that; unfortunately, said disappointment creeps back every time I talk to one of my old friends from my supposedly "elite" undergraduate grindhouse and get the same old tired questions about what I've "achieved" lately or whether I'm going to quit working and go back to school anytime soon. As if those were the only possible metrics by which one might measure one's continued existence on this Earth.

Fuck that, and fuck everyone in this thread who's felt compelled to assert their own "normalcy" despite x, y and z circumstances that make them completely different from everyone else such that this piece has no relevance to their worldview. You're missing the point in spectacular (yet completely predictable) fashion.
posted by limeonaire at 9:08 PM on June 18, 2008 [4 favorites]


You're missing the point in spectacular (yet completely predictable) fashion.

That even elitists can't teach people to overcome their classism?
posted by GuyZero at 10:28 PM on June 18, 2008


YOUR FAVOURITE SMART THING IS STUPID!
posted by turgid dahlia at 10:36 PM on June 18, 2008


A lot of the general stuff this guy says about elite schools is true enough, with plenty of appropriate caveats.

But his inability to talk to the plumber is a red herring. Why does he attribute it to being at an Ivy, when you could just as plausibly attribute it to being a professional academic -- where overwhelmingly the people you have to make small talk with are people you can ask about their academic work?

Topics of academic conversation:
1. What's your research?
2. Where do you teach? [Do we know anybody in common?]
3. How do you like it there?
4. Where did you go to school? [Do we know anybody in common?]
etc.

When these questions are unavailable, the only fallback is,
"so what do you do for a living?" -- not because academics are obsessed with status or prestigious jobs or something, but because we (some of us, sometimes) forget that for many people their job doesn't absorb their whole life to the pathological exclusion of any other interests. But the plumber is here, now, plumbing -- so he can't ask what his job is. So he's at a loss.

This guy has just forgotten how to make small talk outside the academic world. And is an idiot, because the Red Sox cap gives you the easiest opening in the world.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:28 PM on June 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


marking papers... criteria can be more subjective (some would rate organisation over style, for example), and that does make it hard sometimes to explain to a student why their paper is just pedestrian. It can be right, that is adequately fufilling the assignment, without being very good; I don't know yet how to explain this without being unintentionally insulting, which is a reflection of my lack of skill as a teacher.
posted by jb


Oh, how I know this problem. Lately, I've been handing out a grade sheet with explanations of all my grades in general terms. The sheet explains what A, B, C mean when I give them. For example, a B (or whatever scale I'm using) means "This paper covers all the bases, it's all true, and you've done a pretty good job laying it all out. This is a good baseline paper, no significant errors." And then the explanation for B+ might be something like "A good baseline paper, plus at least one original argument/objection, or exceptionally well-explained passage, etc" And so on up. (These aren't verbatim, just giving the jist) The point is to explain in a general sense that for you, B means "nothing was really wrong, but also nothing was strikingly great", and give them a sense of what "strikingly great" things you're looking for. Writing such a sheet - and modifying as needed - can also help you work out more explicitly what you value in papers, so you can tell the students ahead of time.

posted by LobsterMitten at 11:40 PM on June 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


phatkitten's comment above:

I've known a few Ivy Leaguers, and talking to them about their years in undergrad means listening to a lot of "When I was at Harvard, I..." or "A few years ago at Harvard we..." statements, all strategically phrased to mention their school.

Is it not possible that you know a few Ivy Leaguers who never said boo about it? Of course the ones you know about, and can't forget about either, are the ones who brag incessantly.

Separately- I also disagree with the article's comment that saying "in Boston" instead of "to Harvard" is an example of elitism; I personally hate it when people try to quiz me about my schooling history, and I'll give the equivalent of that response hoping people won't keep asking more (esp. if it's a party or whatnot where I really don't think education is relevant). I'm always slightly irked when people keep asking anyhow.
posted by nat at 2:21 AM on June 19, 2008


Metafilter: we’re all just, like, really excellent sheep.
posted by Ritchie at 2:57 AM on June 19, 2008


Wow. Just....wow. I can only imagine that you have absolutely no idea how insulting that is.

Especially considering the number of people that don't even get to think of going to college.
posted by YoBananaBoy at 3:29 AM on June 19, 2008


I'll go ahead and add my two cents.
Everything the author of this article says is true.

I know that there are people in this thread who have tried to explain how these precepts are not universal and how they are not like that, or their friends are not like this. I am sure thats true but it does very little to undermine the authors point.

Harvard and Yale and many schools of their ilk actively promote and encourage a culture within their walls which is so twisted, so myopic that few people realize just how perverted it is until they have had some time to distance themselves from it. This culture has as its basic premise that there are two types of people in the world: achievers and non-achievers. Achievers of course are most important because they actually "do" things in the world. This includes running governments, companies, creating great Art and winning Nobel prizes. The world runs forward and develops because of the Achievers.

The other folks, the non-Achievers, are still necessary because, well, someone needs to pick up garbage and stand around at retail outlets and so forth. I recall, when I was at Harvard, sitting around in very serious conversations about whether all these blue-collar people felt fulfilled or not with their lot in life, with their small role in the universe. This conversation and others like it, are very straight-faced. The discussion was based on underlying premises which were to us obviously true.

If you were a rich kid from a powerful family then this culture is likely already familiar to you. If you came from a poor family then you are treated as a returning prodigal son. What was it like in that wasteland of culture? Thankfully you are with us now, where you belong.

Now you can imagine sending all these people out into the world to deal with others. Many of them shake it off, perhaps even feel vaguely dirty about it, and lead balanced lives of achievement. But there are also a huge number of still fervent believers out there, who drive themselves relentlessly and value all their former classmates by how much they have been able to impact the world, as they ought to be doing.

I read this article not as a defense of this culture but as an exposition. You can hate it and rail against it, perhaps contrive plans to dismantle it. But its there and its important to know its there.
posted by vacapinta at 4:02 AM on June 19, 2008 [16 favorites]


1. There is only one kind of intelligence. Intelligent people are comfortable with different languages (even if they aren't fluent) and with the space between languages (which is created when two people don't share a common language.) Intelligent people can play musical instruments and talk intelligently about music. Intelligent people have good reflexes and have generally trained in some sport or physical discipline. They are good at math, they like science, and they understand people (although this understanding isn't always that of an advertising agency or army recruiter).

It has been suggested that American culture doesn't value intelligence, and this may be the reason that so many of us think that "being good at one thing" is the same as being intelligent. It isn't. Intelligence is General Aptitude, or "good at anything."

2. One of the core abilities or skills or talents of intelligent people is a self assessment-self alteration loop. Intelligent people can mid-course correct very easily, sometimes disconcertingly quickly. An intelligent person notices a deficiency in themselves, like not knowing what to say to the plumber, and corrects it... often by following the plumber around, asking the occasional question, offering coffee, and watching... always watching. An intelligent person can do most of what the plumber did after watching the plumber do it.

3. Regardless of whether the article "gets Ivy culture" we have a terrible problem in this country. People have no education. Anyone with an education knows this. Around the water cooler, it can be difficult to find people who've read Shakespeare, memorized a poem, understand game theory basics, know how to build a pc, have listened to Balkan music, feel strongly about American literature, and know how to throw a punch. Occasionally one person will know one of these things, but that’s not education.

Most of all, it can be difficult to find people who read.

This hasn't historically been the case. Maybe it was the advent of television. Maybe it was the creation of public schools. Whatever the cause, we have become a nation of football watching reality tv enthusiasts who don't understand that everyone else in the world knows how to cook better than we do. I'm pretty sure, at the end of the day, this applies all the way up, from state colleges to ivy league snootiness.
posted by ewkpates at 6:16 AM on June 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


often by following the plumber around, asking the occasional question, offering coffee, and watching... always watching.

this could freak out the plumber, you know.
posted by jonmc at 7:34 AM on June 19, 2008


If you were a rich kid from a powerful family then this culture is likely already familiar to you. If you came from a poor family then you are treated as a returning prodigal son. What was it like in that wasteland of culture? Thankfully you are with us now, where you belong.

So true, so true. I've said on here before that when I got to college and especially later when different groups of friends' friends started to intersect and I found myself around a lot of Yalies I used to get this all the time. When I told people that my dad was a mechanic, my brother was a mechanic, all my uncles were mechanics I would get this sort of pitying look like, "that must have been so awful for you." Other times people came right out and asked how someone like my father could go through life doing that kind of work and not off himself. When I was 18 that stuff really hurt because I was wrapped up in a lot of my own self-doubts and self-consciousness but eventually I learned to owned my upbringing as something that set me apart from this otherwise pretty socioeconomically homogenous crowd of extended acquaintances I had acquired.

And honestly, I think the author of the article and posters like vacapinta should be congratulated for their honesty. I suspect that the some of the more inflammatory responses upthread might be provoked by a hit nerve. I agree that the author is largely correct, and is also in the uncomfortable position of sharing some ideas that are very unpopular amongst northeastern elites who identify politically as progressives. In fact, I was just talking about all this over the weekend with some Yalies at this ridiculous penthouse apartment party I got roped into going to in the Village while visiting NYC. It was a big room full of Ivy League liberals drinking red wine and talking about recent jaunts to the Aegean and the Galapagos. I asked this one Yalie when he thinks the last time was that anyone in the room actually spent some time with someone in poverty, or in the working class. He laughed and said he was just having the same argument with his parents, who are big Obama supporters from Wesport who he says haven't spoken to a black person who wasn't a servant in their home for more than 40 years. I appreciated his honesty.

Ironically, yesterday my car shit the bed and I wound up spending an hour driving around the blue collar suburbs of Philly in the cab of a tow truck. I kind of thought about this thread when the truck driver offered me a lift. I didn't have a second thought about jumping up in the cab of his truck; honestly, the smell of oil soaked rags reminded me of my dad's truck on the days when he used to take me to construction sites with him when I was a kid. It also reminded me of all the summers I spent working labor jobs, riding around in or driving trucks just like this one. So shooting the shit with Johnny Tow Truck Driver wasn't a big thing for me, it was kind of a blast and it felt comfortable and natural. But at the same time, I understand why that would be uncomfortable for some people who don't have all that background to draw on, all this history to bring up in order to immediately get a vibrant conversation going.

The auto shop we were headed to was the one my brother and a bunch of his buddies work at, so it was kind of a pleasure to hang out at the shop for a minute, too, despite the fact that it's in a real roughneck working class town right outside Southwest Philly that a lot of people here might not have been so hot on hanging out in. I understand that, too; lots of bad teeth, wife beaters and crude neck tattoos can put some people off.

Not surprisingly, a lot of those people have an equal measure of distaste for uppity rich kids who went to fancy colleges, so it's sort of a two way street. They don't know anything about Camus or abstract art or Herodotus and when you bring those things up they think you are putting them down, questioning their values, trying to make them feel bad about their station in the world. At least, my dad did when I came home from college talking about these things. He couldn't believe he was actually paying money for some Ivory Tower jackass to pour all this useless horseshit in my ear. It angered him that my path had departed from the more simple vision he always had of me learning a trade and working with my hands.

The only thing the author got wrong, in my opinion, is that the inability to communicate, understand and empathize runs in both directions. But you wouldn't know that unless you had ever been on the receiving end of that kind of contempt.
posted by The Straightener at 7:35 AM on June 19, 2008 [12 favorites]


Wow, 50 comments since I commented last night. Sorry the conversation passed me by.

But I did want to add this - I don't know what the other Ivies are like, but I do wonder if Cornell is a little different because some of the colleges are part of the NY state college system. As in, I paid in-state tuition (about $9k a year back in the mid-late 90s) to get my Ivy League degree. Maybe that part-state-school aspect means Cornell has at least a slightly different culture than Harvard and Yale. Or at least that the elitism is less pervasive. I don't know.

I went to the University of Texas for my grad degree and didn't find the experience or the students substantially different, other than the football and basketball teams didn't suck.

Oh, and for phatkitten, I always get embarrassed when people act impressed by my Cornell degree - for that reason in casual conversation I just say I went to college in upstate NY unless specifically asked what school I went to.

Mostly I just wanted to brag that I paid less than $40k for my Ivy League degree. Suckers!
posted by misskaz at 7:43 AM on June 19, 2008


An intelligent person can do most of what the plumber did after watching the plumber do it.

no.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 7:55 AM on June 19, 2008 [4 favorites]


The article is good and makes some excellent points about the forgotten value of a liberal arts education.

Still, I think the poor bastard doesn't mean "ivy league" so much as "Yale." The only other school he mentioned was Harvard, and then only as a counterexample, noting that Harvard alums artfully downplay their alma mater when its tactful. Maybe he should get the hell out of Connecticut.

As i said, the hidden meat of the argument is his critique of an Education system which emphasizes metrics and field specialization over critical thinking and broad experience.

I mean, I already new Yale sucked.
posted by es_de_bah at 8:25 AM on June 19, 2008


I realise that my earlier comments might have sounded bitter or harsh, just as the original link does.

But I think that is not what I or the original author intend with our comments. He's a professor at Yale University - it's not like he dislikes the place. He choses to be there and to commit his life to it (and it seriously is a life committment - academia is no career for dabblers).

And I don't think that he (or I) intend criticism of the students or their characters. It's a criticism of the system into which they are thrust, a criticism of the institutional culture, including that which the faculty (of whom he is one) have helped to create and sustain. along with a lot of help from the development office and the alumni.

Nor is it a culture limited to the undergraduate program (though I would say that the undergraduates are subjected to a very carefully planned program to create and develop their loyalty to their university which graduate students never experience. I have watched this spirit building in action - it's quite fasinating). But even among the faculty and graduate programs, there is a culture of elitism, of claiming to be "best" even when that is essentially meaningless. I have heard a senior member of my department claim that he thought we were the "best" History department; the best in the country was implied, and since this is the United States, that means the world (certainly he did not consider any non-US, or non-elite university to be competing for graduate students with his program). Which is frankly ridiculous, because there is no way any History department on the planet can be the "best" because History is so diverse. I mean, we don't even teach Canadian history (I know that's not exactly the world's most important topic, but we would be a terrible graduate school to be at if you wanted to do Canadian History). That's not to say that the faculty are not brilliant - they are, most of them scarily so. But it also doesn't mean that there aren't excellent people working at less prestigious universities, and that lots of places with a lot less money and brand name could be "better" at specific things. I think my advisor is amazing (and subjectively yeah, one of the best), but other places are better in my exact field, simply because there are more people interested in it.

But it is this culture of rankings and elitism that is very pervasive, and I think it hurts the elite uiniversities. Many don't have a strong sense of how academia at other universities work, or (as the author pointed out) how life outside of their culture works, and they lose any perspective when it comes to evaluating their students, their teaching or their university culture. Since they are the best, nothing any other, non-elite university does could possibly be better, right? Seriously, I have heard librarians at an elite university announce proudly that they had now installed a COMPUTER catelogue, as if this was an achievement, some 10 years after it was standard at all Canadian universities. (Note: this was not Ivy League, but Cambridge, because at least the Americans like their tech toys.) As for actual accountabilty and open decision making for university policy, well, that's just beneath an elite university like Yale, they couldn't possibly do that. I mean, you can't legislate faculty to do something like take minutes at departmental meetings, except that most other universities do.

Yeah, so my point is that this is not about the students - it's about the UNIVERSITY. (Not just Yale - Cambridge is as bad or worse for the attitude of the adminstration, but both places suffer from basically thinking that because they are "the best", everything they do is "the best" way to do things, and no other way of doing things could possibly be better. Actually, at least Yale will compare itself to Princeton, Harvard, Stanford, U Chicago, etc -- Cambridge doesn't even think Oxford is worth looking to for an example on how to improve anything.)
posted by jb at 9:34 AM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


Cambridge doesn't even think Oxford is worth looking to for an example on how to improve anything

Wrong way round jb, actually:)
posted by Jody Tresidder at 12:16 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: Making coffee, watching plumbers.
posted by turgid dahlia at 5:09 PM on June 19, 2008


I mean, I already new Yale sucked.

What about the old Yale?
posted by ericb at 6:24 PM on June 19, 2008


Regardless of whether the article "gets Ivy culture" we have a terrible problem in this country. People have no education. Anyone with an education knows this. Around the water cooler, it can be difficult to find people who've read Shakespeare, memorized a poem, understand game theory basics, know how to build a pc, have listened to Balkan music, feel strongly about American literature, and know how to throw a punch. Occasionally one person will know one of these things, but that’s not education.

This is a very immature idea of what education is. Education is not a perpetual effort to lengthen the list of nifty/exotic/intellectual/macho things you "can do." Your list of proficiencies only leaves out "is able to handle himself in a bar fight."

I think a big problem with the Ivy League schools is that they idolize a kind of well-roundedness that you describe ... which is generally available to people from monied backgrounds.

People from monied backgrounds are more likely to think they can know and be everything. This kind of "renaissance man" idea is not something you find as commonly among less privileged people. A lot of people don't need to know game theory basics, nor does many U.S. people need or desire to have listened to Balkan music unless they are trying to social climb in a certain kind of cultural environment that prizes one-upmanship.
posted by jayder at 8:45 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


Hey, I've totally listened to Balkan music - Serbia's entry in Eurovision 2007 - the winning song - was brilliant. But this year both Bosnia & Herzegovina and Croatia had better entries (sadly neither won).
posted by jb at 9:45 PM on June 19, 2008


More seriously, maybe the world needs to have a conversation about what education is for. I don't know that we - even those suposedly employed in education - know.

Obviously, part of education is teaching skills and knowledge. This is where learning how to write good essays, keep a good lab book, dig the ground in 10cm intervals comes in. (Okay, the last is just for archeologists, but it's an important skill). So that when you graduate, you can say: I know how to write an essay, I know how to keep a lab book, I know how to dig with a cake lifter.

But there is this greater question: what is Education with a big E for? Why do we care about having an educated populace, when education is not necessary for most of what people do? Why not just train people in exactly what they need to know and nothing more? It would be much more efficient.

I think the reason that we want to educate people, rather than train them, is to help them become more critical thinkers, to understand more about the world they are in. That means we need certain skills and tools. We need to be numerate enough to understand tax proposals put to us by our governments, we need to be literate enough to read complex things, and we need to know enough about history, geography, society, economy - and physics, chemistry, biology, psychology - to understand what we read about those things, or (maybe more importantly) how to find out stuff we don't know when we don't know it.

And the next step, after getting some skills and facts in our heads, is to think critically about what we've learned. Okay, not the next step - ideally, it's done all along. It means talking about how we know what we know, and the limits of what we know when talking about factual things, or lining up arguments and thinking through them and examining them rigorously (when talking about those pesky fuzzy things that aren't just decided by fact).

I guess in my ideal world, these critical skills would help people be better voters and citizens. We leave the bridge building to experts, along with the tooth extraction and literary analysis. But we (rightly) give the vote to all, so I think education for all should be about enabling people to better understand what they are voting about.

I think many universities actually do a fairly good job of teaching these critical skills. But I also think we don't need to wait until university. I think that we could teach the most important things universities teach in secondary school. We don't set our expectations high enough. I'm not talking about making high school "tougher", I mean that we should focus high school curriculum on the same kind of critical thinking as universities teach, without fussing about what facts are used to get to that end. It would be of value to all people, whether they go to university or not. Teenagers are less patient than young adults, so maybe the curriculum would need to have more immediate real world application. (We can leave the thinking about 17th century radical religion for the truly dedicated to pursue later.)

But it's rarely about exactly what you know - it's not about what books you have or have not read, it's about being able to read and then think about what you've read critically, whether that is Shakespeare or a Buffy the Vampire Slayer novel. Or having enough mathematics and logic to think about statistics you are presented with, or knowing enough about science to know the difference between a hypothesis and a theory. And, of course, having read enough history to understand that everything happens again, kids are always more disrespectful than they used to be (whether now or in ancient Sumer) and the middle class is always rising (except when it's falling).
posted by jb at 10:16 PM on June 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


Education is not a perpetual effort to lengthen the list of nifty/exotic/intellectual/macho things you "can do." Your list of proficiencies only leaves out "is able to handle himself in a bar fight."

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."
posted by The Light Fantastic at 10:22 PM on June 19, 2008


I'm someone who struggle(d/s) with "only" attending a state school (even if it makes complete financial, personal, and academic sense) while many of my ulta-competitive friends attend elite universities.

It'd be nice to have a brandname associated with me to point out, "Look at her, she's definitely clever! All up to snuff!" It would be nice to have that as a fallback, to reassure myself with whenever I say something really dim. It would be nice to be in an environment where everyone is basically on the same wavelength as I am, likes the same sorts of movies and books and discussion topics.

This article really resonated with something I've been thinking about lately.

Most of the intellectual-type I once longed to study with are passionate about knowing people (politics, language, anthropology, whatever.) It's a lot of learning about "x fascinating foreign culture they'll never actually deal with." Promoting cultural sensitivity is definitely a good thing, but there's the abstract idea that yeah, people are people, and then there's putting it into use. How is that message sinking in if you're cooped up with similarly privileged, intelligent people for four years (or longer)?

A lot of us (and I've definitely been guilty) turn our noses up at the different worldviews we rub shoulders with every day. How many students preach cultural sensitivity and greater understanding before turning around and ranting about rednecks, bible-thumpers and so on? It's easy to be fascinated by the Yanomamö from your North American college classroom, but I bet plenty of students would find them as obnoxious as some apparently find "football watching reality tv enthusiasts."

I'm glad I'm (admittedly slowly) getting over that, but it took dealing with lots of people of different social standing to help. And I'm aware that the people I meet are still the privledged few who can afford university in the first place. It would be nice to know more people that like to read and discuss the same things I do, but I think I prefer getting to know and learning to like people who don't.
posted by Solon and Thanks at 12:11 AM on June 20, 2008


"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

That quote has annoyed me since I first read it. Could you do all of those things, Mr. Heinlein, and do them well enough to satisfy yourself and your peers? My experience is, no, you probably couldn't, not all of them, or even most of them.

(As an example, if everyone can plan an invasion, can an invasion even be successfully mounted? Surely the potential victims, equally rounded humans to a person, have considered and prepared a defense for anything you can think of--or will quickly use their other abilities to repel your force.)

If everyone isn't that well-rounded, that means that only the few toffs who don't have to toil for their bread can possibly find the time to master such a disparate set of skills, which, of course, makes the general run of mankind sub-human. Nice.

I'd be satisfied with

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly [and recognize who can help them solve it]. Specialization is for insects [how we came to have civilization]."
posted by maxwelton at 2:56 AM on June 20, 2008 [13 favorites]


maxwelton says it better than I did.
posted by jb at 2:11 PM on June 21, 2008


Maxwelton attacks ad hominem, then misses the point, so no, maxwelton didn't say it better.

Most people who don't think that they can do it well even if they haven't done it before just aren't smart. Sorry. While it is always helpful to learn from those who have more experience, the learned helplessness that we develop as a part of the modern system of education should not be confused with man in his natural element - he is quite capable of everything.
posted by ewkpates at 5:34 AM on June 23, 2008


No, he was pointing out that Heinlein's line was ridiculous, with Heinlein himself as an example. Human beings have never been generalists - even in the most self-sufficient of small communities, there is specialisation in skills by age and gender and status. There is no society in the history of being human when those kind of diverse skills have regularly been mastered by one person. From the time when we started having complex buildings to design, we've had specialists - they specialised in building buildings, and farmers specialised in butchering hogs, and both were done safer and better.

So max welton's point is that since it's ridiculous to try to educate anyone in everything, general education should be an education in learning skills - in skills that help you learn new things later. Which is what I was groping towards, but he said better.

Frankly, refusing to listen to people who are specialised in things like planning invasions and (more importantly) peaceful occupations is exactly how the United States got itself into the situation it is right now in Iraq.
posted by jb at 9:20 AM on June 23, 2008 [1 favorite]


If this current discussion about Yale teaches us anything, it should teach us that specialization doesn't assure good results, that "experts" aren't necessarily any smarter than anyone else, and that trying to learn everything is better than committing to learn what someone else thinks is important.

The problem with Yale that the author is pointing to is a problem with over specialization... and you can't get out of the problem by dismissing the kind of specialization that Yale offers. Specialists fail more often than not because they don't try to learn things outside their field.

I offer you the ultimate argument from authority: Charlie Munger says I'm right, in fact, it's his argument.
posted by ewkpates at 9:30 AM on June 23, 2008


The current discussion about Yale has nothing to do with specialisation or the lack thereof. It's about the institutional culture of the university, and universities like it. It's not about what they teach, it's about the attitudes they inculcate.

Frankly, experts are more knowledgeable about that thing they specialise in. If you don't believe me, I'd be happy to do your next surgery. Do I have to wash my hands?

What the article was saying was that even though the author knows more about English literature and literature analysis than most plumbers, it doesn't make him a better person.

I am someone who has struggled with specialisation of skills. My profession is one where specialisation is both loved and hated - and frankly, I've realised it's necessary, and my lack of specialisation is probably going to end my career. Trying to learn a little bit about everything is a good thing - a great thing - but eventually you will have to specialise because otherwise you won't master anything. Skills and knowledge take too much time and dedication to do anything other than specialise - and in becoming expert in a small area, you can learn things you would never learn by being purely generalist in everything.

That Jack of All Trades, Master of None principle is true.

-----------------

Actually, as for ad hominum - ewkpates, you ended your comment by saying that anyone who believes in specialisation and that they aren't capable of learning everything "just aren't smart".

I guess everyone everywhere "just aren't smart" (since everywhere has divided skills, of which traditionally the greatest division has been by gender).

Maybe then "just aren't smart" would be a pretty good definition of human.
posted by jb at 9:40 AM on June 23, 2008


I guess we really don't see the same problem... and you either don't understand the old ah hom or misunderstood me.

I'm not saying that smart=good and "ur nt smrt". I'm saying that "smart is typified by general proficiency." I'm also not saying that practice is unnecessary... but practice isn't intelligence. Surgeons practice. Enough practice, and even a pretty stupid person can do a routine procedure.

Jack of All, Master of None has never been true in my experience. Many so called "blue collar" people I've met can do whatever they set their hand to and require no formal education to be successful. Engineering and Architecture in particular, along with the modern skills of plumbing, electrical work, tailoring, and metallurgy.

Lastly, English lit and lit analysis does make you a better person. Many people have been working most of their lives and didn't get the opportunity to attend college. Even middle of the road intellects appreciate For Esme with Love and Squalor when it's read to them, and enjoy a little Hemingway with the best of us. Smart people find this stuff. Reading voraciously is part of General Proficiency.

I think also that, along with disliking "smarts", America is a super competitive country where everyone feels that they should receive first place, and should be counted as "smart". Smart is the upper few percentiles. Not everyone is in there.

If you go to Yale and don't learn how to talk to the plumber about war, then what was the point, really?
posted by ewkpates at 11:59 AM on June 23, 2008


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