I wrote this article in the fall of 2008, shortly after I graduated, when I was much preoccupied with the question of meritocracy and the proper role of schools like Yale. My editor at Culture 11 declined to publish this draft, then the site went under and the piece was abandoned. I think I posted the text to my personal blog at some point—or I just emailed it to friends, I can’t remember. Either way, a handful of people saw it. But I can’t find any trace of it now, even in the CSB archives, so I’ll publish it here, partly so people can read it but mostly so I can cite a few lines of it in my forthcoming response [UPDATE: The response is up, here] to this excellent post critiquing some of the points I made in my previous argument for why the meritocracy deserves to be smashed to bits. I still stand by the sentiments expressed here, but please forgive any signs of immaturity in the prose. I did write it four years ago.
There’s an old joke about a Southerner who went to Yale. She walks into a bar back home in Mississippi, and the good ol’ boy next to her figures she’s a student and asks, “Where do you go to school?”
“Yale,” she says, but it sounds more like “Yay-ull.”
“OKAY,” he shouts. “WHERE DO YOU GO TO SCHOOL?”
The girl in the joke could be me. Born in Mississippi and raised in North Carolina, I grew up thinking of Yale as the place where I could shake the Southern dust from my feet and settle in among the book-learned. I spent the summer before freshman year wondering which characters from Woody Allen movies my roommates would most resemble. I fretted over which books would most intrigue them. I bought a tweed jacket.
Two months after I arrived in New Haven, the Yale of my imagination was still not in evidence. I saw seven a cappella groups at the extracurriculars bazaar, but no poetry clubs, and there wasn’t much in the way of high-minded discussion around the dorms either. My classmates struck me as high-achieving, but only in the most generic way: student body presidents, not aspiring philosopher-kings.
My expectations going in had just as much to do with style as the life of the mind, and, to be honest, I probably would have been satisfied if more of my fellow freshmen had dropped cheap allusions to the “rosy-fingered dawn” or known the rules to canasta. If hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, sophistication is the tribute ignorance pays to intellect.
As it was, it didn’t take long for me to realize that my ideas of Yale, both academic and cultural, would have to be adjusted.
Then I discovered the Yale Political Union—“the nation’s oldest political debating society”—and all the Ivy League exoticism I’d ever wanted. Speakers held forth on elevated subjects. At my first debate one man threw a blistering insult at the speaker that began with the phrase “Is it not in fact the case that.” (This turned out to be parliamentary procedure; I thought he was just being gentlemanly.) One young man not only knew what an ascot was but was wearing one.
Here were the elites of New England, I thought, no doubt ready to lay claim to their own Greenwich estates and summer places in the Hamptons. The more I learned about the Union, though, the more I saw the truth behind the trappings: practically no one in the Union hails from the ruling class. The undergraduate board’s current officers are middle-class kids from Montana, Kentucky, and Colorado. The current Union president is an Oklahoman. Last fall’s was a Kansan. The closest thing the current board has to an authentic blue blood is one poor soul from Westport.
I didn’t really mind that they lacked genealogical bona fides—every American has a constitutional right to go Gatsby if he wants to—but I was disappointed to discover that, for the most part, Union members only played Old Yale one night a week. Outside the debate hall, they were like the people I had met in my first two months: smart, but not pursued by Furies; aware of themselves as an academic elite, but not as a social (or economic) one.
They behaved unlike intellectuals, and equally unlike aristocrats whose family names might follow “You’re a” and precede “so behave like one!” – a different kind of elite with nothing but high school achievement for common ground. As Mary McCarthy put it, they knew Henry James but Henry James would never have consented to know them.
I came to Yale looking to find either a broad community of scholars or Brideshead Revisited and ended up disappointed on both counts.
And a good thing, too.
In the YPU I found a handful of people with real enthusiasm for ideas, but, all told, I did not find passionate intellectualism to be much more common at Yale than it had been at my high school. Having since read Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe, I realize that this is a perfectly normal way for a Southerner to become disillusioned with the Ivy League. Yale and Harvard are capitals of elite culture, not intellectual ferment, because that’s what they’ve always been.
That’s why the problems with Yale’s social character are more troubling. The older generations’ feeling of inherited entitlement is gone, but a sense of earned entitlement has taken its place. Yale students are persuaded from the moment of their acceptance that their hard work and natural gifts mean that they deserve their success, or, at least, are worthy of it.
An elite convinced of its own merit is unlikely to be skeptical about its decisions and prejudices. If Ivy League graduates share certain cosmopolitan assumptions, they are taken less as class markers and more as evidence that great minds think alike.
Noblesse oblige depends upon a suspicion that one’s own success is not entirely deserved. Without this suspicion, an overconfident feeling of superiority will flourish. And has.
The “decline of the university” article has grown into a genre with its own rules and conventions, but “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” follows very few of them. Rather than rehash the canon wars or wag a finger at postmodernism, former Yale professor Bill Deresiewicz focuses almost entirely on Yale as an institution of cultural education, a place that instructs tomorrow’s elite in how to act the part.
Yale students are as self-absorbed as any teenagers, so the online version of Deresiewicz’s article made the rounds on our email lists very quickly, and the phrase in which we recognized ourselves most immediately was “entitled mediocrity.”
Deresiewicz attributes this feeling of entitlement to the administration’s kid-glove treatment of admitted students. “Getting through the gate is very difficult,” he writes, “but once you’re in, there’s almost nothing you can do to get kicked out.”
No kidding: Paper extensions are awarded liberally; adequate effort receives an A-; with thousands of dollars available in grants and fellowships, generous funding for your theater production or your trip to Mexico is only an application away.
Yale students’ sense of entitlement begins even before the first semester’s inflated report cards are handed back. I would wager that most students in Yale’s class of 2012 could give this year’s admissions rate within a percentage point. (The answer is 8.3%.) If they can’t, they have no excuse: I recall everyone from President Levin to the freshman counselors mentioning my class year’s acceptance rate during orientation week: 9.9%, a record-breaker at the time. The implication was clear: Of all classes every admitted to Yale, yours is the worthiest.
Four years ago I would have been scandalized by the suggestion that Yale’s primary purpose was anything other than academic. After all, isn’t that why so many high-scoring geniuses applied in the first place, and why Yale put such effort into selecting only the very best of them? More importantly, no aspiring singer has ever longed for the footlights of Broadway more fervently than I dreamed of one day finding people my own age for whom the give-and-take of an intellectual sparring match was second nature. If I didn’t find them at Yale, where could I ever hope to?
A fellow Yalie—a legacy, if you want to know—put to me a very different idea of Yale: “The purpose of this school is to teach students how to behave like successful people.”
Five years later, I agree with him. Some Yale students will go on to be public intellectuals and policy wonks, but most don’t and wouldn’t care to. A name-brand diploma and Ivy League connections are tickets to wealth and influence, and it is for that life that Yale is meant to prepare its students.
(To say that Yale is primarily a training ground for America’s future elite and only incidentally a place to train future intellectuals and professors is more intuitive than it sounds. Which quality does the admissions office emphasize more, intelligence or leadership? Do consulting firms recruit Ivy League graduates because they imagine that an expertise in Restoration comedy will come in handy? Does anyone believe that the most important part of a college education, Ivy League or otherwise, takes place in the classroom?)
Success depends on a knack for self-presentation, and my friend was right that four years at an Ivy League school is an education in how successful people present themselves. Even little behaviors—making small talk about New York Times editorials rather than college football, recognizing the names of elite neighborhoods and brands, knowing what drink to order, having stories about jet lag—communicate to the relevant gatekeepers that an Ivy League graduate is part of the successful elite, and the reward of behaving like a person of the ruling class is becoming one.
This is why Deresiewicz’s cultural complaints are more difficult to answer than the intellectual ones of an Allan Bloom. Culture wars aside, there exists a general consensus on how an intellectual should behave, what he should value, and what virtues are essential to his vocation. America is much more confused about what it wants from its rich and powerful, although there seems to be general agreement that what Yale currently produces isn’t it.
So what, then, should we do about it? It is traditional for naive souls—the kind that picture elite universities as Socratic groves where bright students gather to live the life of the mind—to think that any problem in Ivy League culture could be solved by stricter application of meritocratic standards.
A noble and well-intentioned vision, but not a practical one. For one thing, it is impossible to tell from a few essays whether an applicant has that intellectual spark. More importantly, the Ivy League in particular could never sustain a culture of pure-hearted intellectualism.
As long as an Ivy League diploma grants automatic access to the upper class, there will be students (or parents) willing to do what it takes to get their hands on one. (Crippled by the burden of its inheritance; Southerners should like the Ivies better than they do.)
Yale could make a fervent passion for ideas the sole criterion for admission, and ambitious careerists would only find a way to fake it.
If we accept that a Yale education is primarily cultural rather than academic, then the kind of acculturation that should take place there depends on what habits we would like our ruling class to have. No one wants to go back to the days when behaving like a successful person meant mimicry of the New England elite in every arbitrary particular down to the Brahmin vowels, and, as for diversity, I’m glad that at least a handful of America’s future leaders can plausibly claim to represent those they will be leading. Maybe the answer begins with realizing that, however much diversity Yale’s freshman classes may have, its senior classes have far less.
Yale emphasizes the ways that it broadens students’ horizons, but never the ways it narrows them. When Yale offers free fellowships to study in China or subsidizes a trip to New York to catch a Broadway show, it bills these luxuries as instruction in how to be open-minded and well-cultured. In fact, these trips are, more than anything, instruction in how to be wealthy.
When Yale sells these tourist’s-eye-view glimpses as a genuine education in worldliness, it leaves students thinking of themselves as in the ruling class but not of it. Really, they’re just as insular as any elite.
If anything, these experiences make Yalies more insular. I once saw a classmate of mine try to make small talk with a clerk about what a hassle trans-Atlantic flights are. The clerk nodded blankly; I fell on my ass laughing.
It is important for middle-class kids to receive instruction in how to act rich—these habits of self-presentation have as much to do with future success as talent does—but Yale needs to start taking that kind of instruction seriously.
It used to. Other generations of Ivy League elites taught their inheritors scripts for how to interact with other social groups politely and magnanimously, if a little distantly. Then as now, mutual understanding was an unreachable ideal. (What does the clerk know about the relative merits of Beijing hotels? What does the average Eli know about the Egg Bowl?) A good upper class script circumvents this gap by depending on more reliable foundations like mutual respect and good manners. As things stand now, Yale graduates are more likely than their predecessors to confuse ignorance of Ivy League norms with real ignorance.
Because the Ivy League will always award ambition—or, more precisely, because ambitious people will always find a way to be rewarded by the Ivy League—Yale will always be one of the places where these upper-class scripts are written. If Yale learned to associate success with humility rather than pride, emphasized the uniformity it creates as much as the diversity it rewards, and developed greater self-awareness about its role as an institution of ruling class acculturation as well as academic instruction, it would write better ones. The last election cycle was preoccupied with elites; there are worse moments for such reforms.