William Deresiewicz’s article “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” is currently making its way around Stanford’s email lists just in time for finals. In the article, I believe Deresiewicz makes some great, grounded points that really resonated with me and some weaker ones that did not. As a student here at Stanford, when I found myself agreeing, it was because I had seen or lived through the topics he discussed.
He is correct in saying that many of us understand only the type of “smart” that brought us to an elite university. He is correct in saying that our education often creates an ideological barrier that prevents us from listening to and engaging with anyone lacking a similarly elite educational pedigree. And he is correct that elite universities, including Stanford, are often not the place for fuzzier students not seeking law, medical, or business careers.
Personally, I’ve really been struggling for a while now as I question the value of my education, especially with only a year and a half of school left. I’ve questioned the value of university culture, personal interactions, and academics here at Stanford. I fiercely question whether this education will have any real bearing on my life—not the job or the wealth or the security—but my real life—my family, my values, my passions, my principles, my priorities. And I’ve been none too shy about expressing my urges to break free into the “real world” and to have my own choices dictate my life’s trajectory.
Then I remember that while I usually detest them, I function more effectively within external rule frameworks and bureaucracies than many. If anyone can figure out how to toe the line and “get ahead,” then I can. And because I can succeed within others’ systems, I have made myself content to do so. When systems like elite universities structure themselves to produce wealth among its system components like students, those who succeed are those who achieve wealth. Therefore, in attending Stanford, I seek to succeed within the system—I seek to generate the wealth.
But I firmly believe that the while the wealth I generate will ease my path in the future, it will not go so far as to carry me along that path. Wealth or no wealth—I can focus on my family, passions, and values. But wealth may very well free up some resources such as time and attention that will aid me pursuing these goals.
But Deresiewicz believes that the elite university system deprives its student components of their opportunity to lack wealth, an opportunity he believes would better ground them in the real world. He says,
When parents explain why they work so hard to give their children the best possible education, they invariably say it is because of the opportunities it opens up. But what of the opportunities it shuts down? An elite education gives you the chance to be rich—which is, after all, what we’re talking about—but it takes away the chance not to be. Yet the opportunity not to be rich is one of the greatest opportunities with which young Americans have been blessed.
I think he is wrong. It is not money that prevents individuals from being able to understand the lives of those unlike themselves. Rather, it is the ideological barrier, the mentality that those with less must be less, and that they must need help from those with more. It is that tendency to deny dignity to those who do lack wealth by viewing their lives as less rich because their bank accounts say they are less rich. Deresiewicz’s mistake is that he falls into the trap of believing that wealth dictates the true level of connectedness one has to the real world, but many of those problems are universally felt and not rooted in money.
Growing up, I learned and followed the rules of a system, then I busted my butt within that system constantly working toward the goal of a better financial life for myself and my family. Wealth offers the opportunity to entertain more options and expand choice. Wealth will allow me to choose between an expensive car and inexpensive one, between a large house and a small one, between steak and ground beef. Fifteen years from now, will my my life’s substance be better because I’m richer? Will my values be stronger, my family more loved, my passions more inflamed because of money? Probably not. But wealth does not dictate the quality of life’s substance. When I look at my life fifteen years from now, I will evaluate it by those non-material aspects, and I will thank God that He blessed me with the opportunity to live my life for those very aspects.