How elite are we?

Did you see “Disadvantages of an Elite Education” (American Scholar, 2008) in which former Yale professor William Deresiewicz contrasts the education at Yale and Cleveland State, an inner-city university much like Baruch? The article was unexpectedly thought provoking. For example, consider this:

“[S]tudents 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.

“That may be an extreme example, but it is unthinkable at an elite school. Just as unthinkably, she had no one to appeal to. Students at places like Cleveland State, unlike those at places like Yale, don’t have a platoon of advisers and tutors and deans to write out excuses for late work, give them extra help when they need it, pick them up when they fall down. They get their education wholesale, from an indifferent bureaucracy.”

It’s not that I agree with all the arguments in the essay, but Deresiewicz asks an important question: where do you fall on the spectrum of “indifferent” to “pampering”? The essay also gives one newfound appreciation for our students.

There was another recent attack on the elite colleges—Pulitzer prize-winning reporter Chris Hedges’ 9-Dec-2008 essay “The Best and the Brightest Have Led America Off a Cliff“—but skip it if you are looking for uplifting news.

If you want to read something more positive about elite colleges, consider Philip Delves Broughton’s Ahead of the Curve: Two Years at Harvard Business School (Penguin Press, 2008; see the reviews that appeared in The New York Times, Business Week and The Economist). I especially recommend the book to my colleagues in the Zicklin School. Broughton shares several positive aspects of the HBS MBA, especially the way it trained him to think and noteworthy classes and professors. But if you keep reading, sure enough, more critique. For example, the last chapter (“A Factory for Unhappy People”) lines up closely with Deresiewicz and Hedges. His comments “If I were dean for a day…” (pp. 277-280) are particularly interesting:

“I would change the mission statement. HBS does not need to promise to ‘educate leaders who make a difference in the world.’ It suggests that business, with its priorities and decision-making approach, has a right to impose its will on the world. But business needs to relearn its limits, and if the HBS let some air out of its own balloon, business would listen. HBS need only promise to educate students in the process and management of business. It would be a noble and accommodating goal and would dilute the perception of the school and its graduates as a megalomaniacal, self-sustaining elite. … Harvard can stop saying it ‘transforms’ students, as if it has a lifelong claim on them.”

(Special thanks to Professor Mano Singham, Case Western Reserve Univ. for bringing the first two articles to my attention.)

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8 Responses to How elite are we?

  1. Kyra Gaunt says:

    I would love to open up our blog to students. We talk of teaching but never ask and inquire into the students’ view of our teaching in informal blogosphere ways.

  2. Avatar of Leah Schanke Leah Schanke says:

    Kyra,

    Anyone can comment on our blog posts. Students can participate in our discussions, and I recall at least two comments from students thus far.

  3. Arthur Lewin says:

    Yes, blind obedience to orthodoxy on every level, in every context, is folly. The American people are right to question why we should pay millions to the discredited Wizards of Wall Street to decipher the mess that they created while under the supervision and direction of fellow Ivy League politicians and regulators.

    The gods have fallen. New ideas and methods are now called for in every sphere. Baruch College, the nation’s most diverse institution of higher learning, can examine and refine its pedagogy and put it up against any formerly touted as “the best and the brightest.”

    This is why I am an avid reader of Dr. Millhiser and his colleagues’ always thought provoking posts on the Baruch College Teaching Blog.

  4. glennpetersen says:

    I read the Hedges and Deresiewicz pieces Will linked us to in this post, and feel the need to comment. I was very much struck by them, which for the most part means that they reinforced some of my own views and prejudices.

    I started working through major elements of my own doubts about elite institutions quite awhile ago, and have managed to make sense of some of them. But I’m still grappling with several issues that these articles stirred up. I’m especially interested in the ways that the points Hedges and Deresiewicz raise intersect with my concerns about the increasing emphasis on honors programs here at Baruch, and with questions about the narrowing of focus or increasing specialization in our instruction, that is, in the tendency to drift away from the classical meanings of a liberal arts education even within Baruch’s liberal arts programs.

    I note in passing, before saying anything else, that Chris Hedges spoke here at Baruch a couple of years ago, when we used his book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning as the freshman text (and I have also used it in my own courses). A small but vocal group strongly opposed having Hedges here, on the grounds that a few paragraphs of his book maligned their nationality (Hedges’s book is about the brutality of war—he spoke critically of almost everyone he wrote about, in one way or another); President Waldron staunchly refused to back down, despite the alumni and political pressure brought to bear on her.

    I have taught honors classes of many sorts in the past few years: honors sections of our own courses, CUNY Macaulay Honors College courses, and Feit Seminars. Each time I have done so I have come away with much the same feeling (though it’s especially marked with the CUNY Honors College). These students, who are by no means a representative cross-section of our student body, tend to be much more concerned about their grades and their grade point averages than they are about the ideas we are grappling with in class. I understand this, in the sense that the honors programs confer a great many benefits on them, which they stand to lose if their GPA’s decline. But what I see is exactly what Hedges and Deresiewicz describe as typical of the elite schools, that is, that all the effort and obsessive focus that got these students in to these programs in the first place has served to shape their approach to everything that follows: an A in the course means a good GPA, meaning in turn a good graduate program or job, and thus ultimately a high salary. My classes are simply steppingstones on the route to an up-scale standard of living. It is not clear to me why we expend so many more resources on people who are much less interested in being educated than they are in making money (and note that I am not disparaging the making of money, but only the relative importance given to it), when we could be using those same resources to educate students who might well use their education simply to become better people.

    Second, I was struck by Deresiewicz’s observation that students in elite institutions “spend four years taking courses that train them to ask the little questions—specialized courses, taught by specialized professors, aimed at specialized students.” This is may be less of an issue in the arts and sciences here than in the business programs, but nonetheless at Baruch, nearly as much as at the Ivies he is writing about, professors “are valued exclusively for the quality of their scholarly work; time spent on teaching is time lost.” This is on my mind because I sometimes find myself wondering whether I spend too much time simply educating students instead of instructing them in esoterica. The fact is, I mostly teach courses with names like Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, World Geography, Contemporary World Issues, and Peace and War, that is, courses intended to be as wide ranging as possible. And I continually worry about what’s going to happen when the assessment enforcers come round and insist that I narrowly define what my students are supposed to learn in courses that are really intended to provoke and exhort and puzzle and excite rather than to prepare them for hoop-jumping tests.

    Among the many reasons I enjoy teaching at Baruch so much is that it is not an elite institution. And I fear that the creeping emphasis on honors programs, SAT scores, and assessment is meant to turn us into a cut-rate approximation of an elite institution, something we were never intended to be.

  5. Glenn… your 4th paragraph makes me wonder if you are familiar with the writings of British philosopher Alan Watts (1915-1973), especially his “Life and Music” (go here: http://www.souljerky.com/_media/swf/alan_watts_life.swf).

  6. dz alexander says:

    To add another reading in the spirit of Deresiewicz –

    http://disciplinedminds.com/

  7. On the theme of elite schools, as a follow up, the NY Times ran an essay on July 20, 2009, “Do Elite Colleges Produce the Best-Paid Graduates?” by C. Rampell.

    The article: http://tinyurl.com/m9fkda
    The data: http://tinyurl.com/mz8p3d

    According to the data, Baruch ranks about 110th for starting salary and about 170th in mid-career salary.

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