3/29/2010

The Burden Of An Elite Education

Originally I had every intention of including this as part of my weekendly Thoughts On A Sunday post. But after reading the original article in more depth I realized it would be better as a standalone post.

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It as been said by smart men and women through the ages that we should not cripple our children by making their lives too easy. Unfortunately far too many parents have ignored that advice to the detriment of their children. It's just as true to day as when the first wise parent uttered that truism.

We experience the effects of this every day, seeing people with elite educations being incapable of performing or understanding the simplest things most of the rest of us take for granted. Far too often they also have a sense of entitlement created by the educational institution they've attended as if merely by attending such a prestigious school automatically bestows it upon them.

It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and 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. 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. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League degrees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. “Ivy retardation,” a friend of mine calls this. I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn’t talk to the man who was standing in my own house.

I've seen this on more than one occasion among acquaintances of mine. Fortunately none of my friends have fallen into a predicament like this as most of them grew up in the real world, having had worked in the trades, on farms, or served in the military long before getting their college degrees, most receiving them at less than elite institutions, though a few have gone to Ivy League institutions.

I've cut lawns, milked cows, shod horses, worked as a bus boy and a server in a restaurant, driven a school bus, driven a forklift in a warehouse, worked on an ambulance as a driver and an EMT, been a track worker for NASCAR on the Speedy-Dry truck, a broadcast engineer and DJ, a land mobile radio technician, a radar technician, and an electrical engineer. I attended public schools and a state university. My friends are plumbers, carpenters, electricians, farmers, supermarket managers, butchers, mechanics, pilots, librarians, store proprietors, as well as doctors, lawyers, fellow engineers, bankers, academicians, and a whole host of other folks. As far as I know, none of them have been crippled by an elite education, having a good grounding in the real world and being able to rise above the brainwashing of such an education.

That being said, I'm not sure what needs to be done in order to break the grip of isolation and self-aggrandizement elite schools lay upon their students. How does one bring them to a realization that they really are no different, no better than those outside the ivy covered halls? I'm not sure there's an easy fix...or even a moderately difficult fix.

Being an intellectual begins with thinking your way outside of your assumptions and the system that enforces them. But students who get into elite schools are precisely the ones who have best learned to work within the system, so it’s almost impossible for them to see outside it, to see that it’s even there. Long before they got to college, they turned themselves into world-class hoop-jumpers and teacher-pleasers, getting A’s in every class no matter how boring they found the teacher or how pointless the subject, racking up eight or 10 extracurricular activities no matter what else they wanted to do with their time. Paradoxically, the situation may be better at second-tier schools and, in particular, again, at liberal arts colleges than at the most prestigious universities. Some students end up at second-tier schools because they’re exactly like students at Harvard or Yale, only less gifted or driven. But others end up there because they have a more independent spirit. They didn’t get straight A’s because they couldn’t be bothered to give everything in every class. They concentrated on the ones that meant the most to them or on a single strong extracurricular passion or on projects that had nothing to do with school or even with looking good on a college application. Maybe they just sat in their room, reading a lot and writing in their journal. These are the kinds of kids who are likely, once they get to college, to be more interested in the human spirit than in school spirit, and to think about leaving college bearing questions, not resum├ęs.

Too many of those leaving our elite institutions of higher learning figure they know everything worth knowing and believing they deserve success, whether they've earned it or not. After all, they went to all the right schools and have all the important social contacts. Never mind that they may not know anything important or how to actually talk to the plumber, electrician, carpenter, mechanic, or gardener.

And to think these people think they are the only ones capable of running the country when I doubt they could even run a day care center or convenience store.

I guess it takes all kinds.

(H/T Maggie's Farm)