Friday, January 11, 2013

Elite education?

Here are a number of old articles from the New York Times regarding education.  (A disclaimer:  I'm sorry I always link to the NYT.  It's just that that's the main online paper that reaches me through friends and family).

The first article highlights the trend (in the very delimited setting of New York City) of wealthy foreign-born parents' sending their kids to public schools.  It contrasts this with the US-born elite of New York proper, who tend to send their kids to private schools.  While I like the idea of Manhattan's being a very different, unique local culture, which includes among other things a high-rise-dwelling elite sending its kids to a handful of elite schools, I of course don't think that elitism and private schools serve the greater good of our country or any country.  So I think it's cool that expat Germans and the like go ahead and take advantage of the public schools.  In so doing, they surely raise the bar of achievement at these schools.  I like economic and ethnic diversity in my place of residence, though I'm not entirely convinced that just being around diversity actually makes kids any better or more open-minded.  In fact, I've seen articles to the effect that kids at more diverse schools just learn to ignore other groups more efficiently, and this was the case to some extent at my very ethnically and economically diverse high school.  At any rate, I like and agree with one parent's quote:  that public schools are "a whole world of different people and different values, which is what the world is like".  If our kids can learn to live together respectfully and work together with other people and viewpoints, then the world will be a better place in the future.  As my wife and I contemplate a career moving between relatively poor foreign countries, it will be good for us to keep in mind that “It’s important to be a part of a community where you live and not to be estranged from your environment.”

Here is another article that calls for elite schools to return to their original vision of preparing those fortunate enough to attend them (thanks usually to their parents' economic situation and not so much to their own inherent merits) for a life of public service and giving.  The old "to whom much is given, much will be asked" approach.  If I may take the argument one step further, I'd link it to the traditional role of the economic and social elite in the US as protectors and servants of the public good, as discussed in a recent lecture by George Packer that I discussed in a prior blog post.  I would love for Harvard grads to be aware of their debt to society and to act accordingly, instead of flocking massively to jobs in the financial sector that is undercutting and ripping apart our social fabric. 

Anyway, I agree with the article's central premise, but I wanted to comment on its starting point:  President Obama's call for everyone to go to college, and Rick Santorum's ridicule of such a proposal.  I guess I would stand somewhere in between these two extremes in my stance on a university education.  On the one hand, I think that a background in the humanities and the liberal arts, traditionally the mainstays of a university education, would do us all well.  Everyone should be exposed to the Great Books, the great questions, new languages, mathematical queries, an understanding of history, and all the moral, philosophical, and existential questions raised by a Classical education.  From welders to bankers to farmers to doctors, I think we'd all do well to spend at least four years pondering these big things.

That said, today's college education is a far cry from an exploration of existential questions.  Most people (myself including) major in such a specific field that college becomes essentially a white-collar vocational training.  This being the case, it wouldn't be very desireable for everyone to go to college.  What would happen, who would we be as a nation, if everyone studied to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a teacher, or any other one thing or narrow range of professions?  We wouldn't have food, or clean floors, or cars, or electricity, if there were no farmers, or janitors, or welders, or coal miners.  Given this, in my ideal society people wouldn't all aspire to be white collar workers, because there wouldn't be a large pay or prestige differential between those who cure patients and those who construct their houses.  Hell, I'd do away with white and blue collars altogether  Everyone would have access to study the Classics, as well as technical formation of all types, and thus you'd choose a job based more on what you like and enjoy than on how much privilege you had access to.  In an essay on racism (whose exact title I don't remember) in his collection The Art of the Commonplace, Wendell Berry makes the trenchant observation that US culture has long scorned physical work, and in general the honest, tangible production of anything using both hands and mind.  Hence we are obsessed with "rising" through the social ranks, instead of becoming better at our own calling.  Farm kids study to get off the farm, not to farm better, with the result that in all sorts of non-prestigious fields, from farming to customer service to appliance repair, quality of workmanship is steadily deteriorating.  Excellence is discouraged in these fields, and any go-getter is socially conditioned to enter another, more prestigious field.  Our society steers any would-be excellent appliance repairman away from appliance repair, and toward some other field (usually involving scamming the public, as in marketing or finance or law).

Who knows what Rick Santorum was thinking when he called Obama's call for expanded college education snobbery, but if part of what he was saying is that not everyone should be or want to be a doctor, then I agree.  Every job is important, and the noblest parts of education (expanding one's mind, as opposed to training people in narrow technical skills) should be open to all.  Of course I assume Santorum wouldn't be so keen on my proposed solution of social levelling and equality among all workers, but that's his problem.

Here is an article on a program (called Posse) to get a united group of inner-city students to attend elite colleges together.  The idea is that the students can offer each other moral and academic support, thus overcoming the social hurdles that apparently drive many young people to failure in college.  I like the idea of recognizing strength in numbers, and the non-academic factors that make for success or failure in school.  Granted, I don't know what all the fuss is about all these supposedly elite colleges.  Many of them I've never heard of, and that makes me wonder if they're just status quo mills for the East Coast upper crust to maintain their mystique of cultural capital and shared in-jokes.  Indeed, it seems that part of the support offered by Posse is cluing kids into the stupid race and socioeconomic prejudices of their elite classmates, what the article euphemizes as "how to negotiate the social world".  I wonder if anyone's tried a Posse-type program in high-achieving public universities.  I know there are certainly lots of kids who work hard to get into these schools but then never finish, all for the same reasons the article discusses.  Maybe though part of Posse's appeal and funding strategy is catering to Manhattan elites or something, who find more cache in sending ghetto kids to Harvard than to SUNY or Rutgers. Along the same lines, is it really good that Carlos Salcedo, Brandeis graduate, is now a financial derivative salesman?  On a society-wide level, it might have been better if he'd never gone to college and just worked at a post office or something, as opposed to entering the ranks of the high-level scammers.  As Wendell Berry remarks in his essay on racism in the US, it too often seems that we see progress for oppressed groups (women, gays, people of color) as their joining the ranks of the oppressors.

1 comment:

  1. superb argumentation... I need more time to go over the other posts but from this side of the Atlantic, from Spain, I can only confirm your fears that education has been used (both by marketers and consumers) as a weapon to create differences instead of equity for the last decade. A profusion of useless diplomas mainly paid by foreigners from the so-called developing countries, looking for a note of distinction in their resumes, demands of more money and less academic merits...with the convenience of institutions and Governments. Meanwhile, the creation of jobs and productive real-economy business, have been disattended for too long, and now we are seeing the consequences.