Five years ago, then-Yale professor and Columbia graduate William Deresiewicz wrote a lengthy attack on top-tier universities in a piece entitled “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” There were many points of criticism in the article, but the main gist was that top universities like Harvard and Yale were no longer in the business of expanding minds but rather in creating and refining the next generation of the elite.
Deresiewicz mainly focused his criticism on the bastions of higher education on the East Coast, but his conclusions apply equally to Stanford. Of course, we like to fool ourselves into thinking that we are not members of the elite class. We go to class in bro-tanks and sweatpants, we fountain-hop or play volleyball in the sun, we believe in equality and social justice, and our jobs of choice are not on Wall Street or Capitol Hill. And yet, as I approach my graduation, it is becoming increasingly clear that this is an illusion and always has been. Many of us will soon trade in our bro-tanks and volleyballs for suits and business cards. Even if we end up working at Dropbox or Google, the elites in Silicon Valley are still elite.
As Deresiewicz wrote, “the way students are treated in college trains them for the social position they will occupy once they get out.” Stanford, then, is one of the major forces responsible for reproducing the “proper” norms and customs in the next generation of elite. If the university faculty and upper members of the administration tolerate us being slightly irreverent during our time here, it is only with the full understanding that when we finish our schooling we will nevertheless enter into their world.
When we were instructed during NSO to connect with faculty members in our time here, was that in order to further our intellectual development or rather to give us connections to the upper echelons of society that would prove useful later on? Is a class like French 60 (“Wine Tasting”) an earnest intellectual endeavor to explore the field of viticulture, or is it an attempt to train us how to order the proper wine when we are dining with power brokers in five years? Is it any wonder that the administration is indifferent to how the CDC’s recruitment policies provide Stanford students with unparalleled access to the wealthiest banks, consulting firms and tech companies?
Or how about our residential system? Most students, for instance, have their cleaning and cooking done for them for all four years of our guaranteed housing. On The Unofficial Stanford Blog, contributor Megan recently lamented that students all-too-often abuse this privilege by neglecting our living spaces. She muses, “We’re at the country’s number-one dream school and I don’t see why we would want to trash any part of it.”
To me, though, it all makes sense. We are more than capable of doing these things for ourselves, yet Stanford has decided that the ethic of shared responsibility in maintaining our surrounding environment is not worth our time. Time is money, and our time is apparently better spent doing problem sets, leading student groups and partying (read: networking) with the other future elite. It is a wonder that we still have to do our own laundry.
Needless to say, we end up with a large dose of entitlement. Even those of us who are well-intentioned are not immune to inflating our importance. My colleague Chris Herries ‘15 recently wrote that “the burden of curing HIV, solving world hunger, ending war, bringing justice and expanding the human literary corpus fall on the shoulders of elites like us.” While Chris wanted to remind us of our privilege, that line still troubles me. If we adopt his perspective, why should we – the elite who are destined to save humanity – waste time, say, cleaning up after ourselves or volunteering at a local school? I am reminded of a critique in the Deresiewicz piece that schools like Stanford place their students “in the paradoxical position of wanting to advocate on behalf of the working class while being unable to hold a simple conversation with anyone in it.” If we believe Chris’s words, even if you wanted to engage with members of the working class, how could you begin to relate?
Some of you may still resist my argument that Stanford faithfully produces the next generation of elite; you may point to the expansion of our financial aid program, which on its face has promise to narrow class distinctions. And some of the students from underserved backgrounds do give back in direct ways to their home communities. But others, perhaps a majority, embrace the elite class and become almost indistinguishable from students financially privileged from birth. While it is generally regarded as morally upright that Stanford throws so much money at its undergraduates, this practice establishes an upper-class lifestyle where money is of little concern, thus allowing class differences to fly under the radar and avoid critical discussion.
Why is the perpetuation of the elite – and Stanford’s role therein – a problem? First, I think it reduces our autonomy. With so much pressure to enter the elite class, and the opportunity to be rich if we just do our work and make the right connections, it becomes that much harder to resist the path to power and wealth. There is an expectation that if you go to one of these top universities, you ought to get a good financial return on the investment. If not, you are (as some have told me) “wasting” the opportunity given to you.
Another problem I have with perpetuating the elite class is that it assumes the norms and customs of the current elite class are worth keeping. Given our custodial staff’s readiness to clean up after every mess, our easily-gained extensions on problem sets, and the trivial slaps on the wrist for students who perhaps should have been expelled, should we be surprised when graduates of elite universities like Stanford compromise our nation’s financial system or send troops into unjust wars? Things may get messy – like a Stanford bathroom on a Monday morning – but hey, someone else will clean up the mess from which we, the elite, profited greatly. Virtues like responsibility and selflessness are of little service in the elite world as it is currently designed.
One way forward is to reform the system from within, as Deresiewicz attempted to do by criticizing institutions of higher education for not fulfilling their mission of broadening the mind. Another way forward is to bypass the system. In the immediate future, there will most likely be an elite class to populate, so why not try to fill it with people removed from the university system that is stuck in its old ways?
While I was initially critical of Peter Thiel’s attempts to encourage students to drop out of universities and work on their own companies, my criticism was rooted in the assumption that universities were transformative places for the mind. Now, I am not so sure, and Thiel’s efforts seem more attractive. While the initial applicants to his program have predominantly originated from institutions like Harvard and Stanford, he believes that someday he will draw students from more diverse backgrounds; if they become the new elite, and bypass the university system that presently socializes students into the upper class, society may be fundamentally transformed.
Agree or disagree with Adam? Email him at email@example.com.