Sunday, June 22, 2008

The elite are different from you and me

I've read William Deresiewicz's latest essay in The American Scholar a few times now, trying to figure out why I'm reacting so negatively to it when I've made some of the same arguments myself about certain kinds of students and certain kinds of schools. Probably some of my irritation is born of self-recognition, but at least as much of it is the feeling--having spent a fair amount of time among students similar to Deresiewicz's, and a few years among rather different ones--that he's not merely exaggerating to make his case, but also engaging in a species of complaint that is itself as much an elite indulgence as some of what he criticizes.

Entitled "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education," Deresiewicz's essay argues that an elite education (which he never precisely defines, but which seems to mean attending an Ivy or equivalent institution) prevents one, first, from having a conversation with a plumber; second, from valuing intelligences that are other than analytic; third, from believing that people who went to other schools are worth talking to; and fourth, from taking risks or leading the kind of intellectual or artistic lives that such schools, really, ought to be encouraging.

That's not an entirely fair distillation of his essay (which is worth reading in its entirety), but it captures the extent to which I believe Deresiewicz overstates and exaggerates the more credible parts of his argument--as well as the fact that his essay is pulling in two or three different and somewhat contradictory directions.

Because yes, it's true that schools like Deresiewicz's Yale (or my own Instant Name Recognition U) are fetishized out of all proportion by a certain class of parents and their children, who come to believe that admission to such schools and only such schools represents success--or rather, the first and most necessary of what will become a lifetime of successes. And this can indeed produce kids who, though smart and certainly hard-working, learn that whenever there's a hoop, it's to be jumped through. No choice, no questions, and no failures--as long as you keep clearing those rings.

But you know, although I've taught kids who seem to match the above description, I knew very few of them when I was actually in college. It may be that things have changed in the 15 years since I entered INRU as a freshman, or it may be that I instinctively avoided people like that: my friends hailed, probably disproportionately, from public high schools and from less wealthy communities, and a lot of them were first- or second-generation college students. (And I'm pretty sure that we're all not only capable of having, but of enjoying having conversations with our plumbers, secretaries, and supermarket cashiers. That's why God invented the weather. And local sports teams. And the infinite variety of women's accessories.)

But I think it's more a matter of who's doing the viewing, and from what perspective. The older one gets, the less familiar the attitudes and the poses of the young become. When you're 30 or 40, you may still feel that you're just like your 18- to 22-year-old students, but you're not. You've grown up and they haven't (yet), and their callowness and shallowness can be exasperating. You're also seeing them, primarily, in their in-class selves, and you can't take their blasé or eager-to-please personae as evidence of how they actually feel (which Deresiewicz, in another context, admits).

Most students are taught to be hoop-jumpers. The difference lies in what they understand those hoops to consist of. The funniest and truest part of Deresiewicz's essay, but also the part that best encapsulates its limitations, is when he writes this:

A friend who teaches at the University of Connecticut once complained to me that his students don't think for themselves. Well, I said, Yale students think for themselves, but only because they know we want them to.

I laughed out loud at that, thinking, "Yeah, that's INRU all over." But then--as someone who now teaches at an institution more like UConn than like Yale--I thought ". . . but damn. I wish I had more students like that." Students give us what they think we want, because that's the dynamic of the student-teacher relationship. But surely students who know how to think for themselves, and that doing so is desirable, are closer to actually doing it, all the time, than those who still think that there are absolutely right and wrong answers, and that regurgitating your lectures will guarantee them an A.

But elite students aren't risk-takers! Deresiewicz says. Well, no. But most students aren't. Most people aren't. Most people fear failure--but in my experience, "failure," for students at schools like Yale or INRU, means "selling out" just as much as it means "not getting a good job." I had an awful lot of conversations, in my junior and senior years, with friends who were asking what the point of it all was, and how they could do something meaningful in the world, and whether they were doomed to life on some kind of treadmill (making a living, supporting a family) no matter what their career path.

And that's what Deresiewicz leaves out of the picture: the fact that students, elite or otherwise, are generally aware of the choices they're making. It's their life, after all, and they know that choosing one path means abandoning a bunch of others that they may not ever be able to return to. Deresiewicz, though, claims that elite students (uniquely? or is it only bad when they do it?) value safety over opportunity, and he blames it on an institutional culture that has made them unable to contemplate failure, unwilling to risk financial security and court disappointment by trying to make it as an artist or intellectual.

Now, I've had students who might be the kind of students Deresiewicz has in mind, like the brilliant creative writer who wound up at law school in no time flat. But you know what? I don't presume to know why she made that decision. I also don't presume to think that that's where her story ends: she'll be 27 or 28 when she gets her J.D., with a whole life and set of opportunities still ahead of her.

I also have a hard time feeling that it's a huge loss if someone who isn't willing to take risks declines to take them. Would I have liked to have seen the novel that student of mine might have written? Yes. But I'd probably also like to have seen the novel that one of my freshmen comp students at RU might someday have written--had he had parents who were academics, who encouraged his writing, and who sent him to a fancy school where he could participate in 10-person fiction workshops with prize-winning novelists. But he didn't, and he's majoring in criminal justice. Is the unwritten novel of the former more valuable than that of the latter? I'm sure Deresiewicz would not say so. But his argument comes close to implying that, because one is privileged enough to know the good things in life, one has a moral obligation to pursue them at all costs. The other kid? Well, he probably has to support a family, or whatever.

The essay, really, strikes me as a series of cheap shots, pandering either to the self- and class-loathing of those who spent too many years in the Ivy League, or to the resentment of those who didn't (see? I was better off where I was!). Either way, it's profoundly self-congratulatory, flattering its readers for being anything but the "really excellent sheep" Deresiewicz teaches, without asking them to examine their assumptions that the elite are, somehow, different--and that their failures or successes matter more than everyone else's.


Flavia said...

Full disclosure: Deresiewicz and I were once friendly acquaintances, though circumstances haven't brought us into contact for years.

Susan said...

Great analysis. There are just so many problems with the argument I can't get my brain around it. It sounds as if he's shocked that there is a class system, or maybe that elite colleges don't consider moral values enough, or something. I had an Ivy League education all the way through, but I figured out long before I got my PH.D. how to talk to people who did NOT have Ph.D.s and were not likely to get one. That had to do with my political commitments, and my unwillingness to define "getting a Ph.D." or even "going to an IVy League university" as something that made me superior to anyone else.

slantgirl said...

my first response to this article is that it's profoundly sexist, but then upon thinking of it further it fails to acknowledge anyone within the Ivy League who isn't an upper-middle class WASP, and probably a male one a that.

but back to the gender front, can you imagine any sort of woman actually claiming to not be able to talk to a woman of another class? the continued essentialisation of gender necessarily creates a false sense of shared experience that makes certain sorts of topics imemdiately accessible..

in any case, deresiewicz can't talk to people because he doesn't want to talk to them. this also makes me suspicious of his own sense of security around his class status. he spells out a privilege allotted to him casually, but virtue of overstating the ins and outs of his 'isolation' it instead sounds like a very hard won position. if he was truly that posh and intellectual, he wouldn't need to try so hard at performing it.

Flavia said...

Okay, I've been living in a cave (which is to say, with very spotty internet access) for the past few days--but I now see there have been some really interesting conversations about Deresiewicz's essay going on at Easily Distracted, 11D, and Uncertain Principles--mostly about the ability to talk to/value people from other backgrounds, and/or disputing Deresiewicz's depiction of Ivy grads as overprivileged snobs who don't know how to take risks.

And Slantgirl: I know enough about WD to be inclined (on my own time) to read some of his arguments and examples in light of certain biographical details--but in addition to being wildly speculative, it wouldn't really be fair for me to do so here, now would it?

Chaser said...

I actually rather liked the essay for one of the major points he raises, which actually goes along nicely with another essay in the edition (Black America Needs Another Narrative)--i.e., these schools and their faculty gabble on endlessly about diversity, but the diversity that they have is often superficial, and it's not about class diversity or skill diversity or idea diversity, not at all. I think that's an important point.

The other thing I've noticed being faculty at an expensive private is the extent to which students are 'post-marketed' on their decision to attend my university, which he comments on as well. There is a strong discourse on how wonderful you are for getting in, because only the best get in here, and this itself becomes a set of self-fulfilling acts: we faculty are expected to get students to do well because of course they are capable of doing well because if we admit they aren't doing well then we have to admit we perhaps haven't admitted the best and that simply wouldn't do. Not only that, but you're the best, that's why you are here, that's why it's so expensive, but weren't you clever for getting in and staying in, dear? It's an insidious form of marketing, but it occupies an enormous amount of air time here anyway.

Flavia said...

Yes, the point about the lack of diversity is a good one, although it's a) slightly overstated (there's not nearly enough economic diversity at Ivies, but there's more than the public imagines), and b) not a point that's original to Deresiewicz, or made in more than a casual manner.

As for the post-marketing and the sense of self-congratulation and complacency--of course this exists, and I've certainly seen people plume themselves on where they went to school. But I'm not sure it's really a private school, much more an "elite" private school thing--I saw at least as much of it among students & alumni of my hometown flagship state school (which is indeed academically well-respected, in addition to being an athletic powerhouse). It's insidious, and we should do what we can to combat it. But. . . I think Deresiewicz underestimates the utility of anxiety, at least as I saw it play out among my classmates and my students at INRU. As he says, there's a deep fear of failure among such students, and a deep suspicion that one is, at bottom, a fraud. (I first encountered academic imposter syndrome in college--and I don't know anyone who didn't have it.) And that can inspire a surprising amount of hard work and humility. (And the snobbery, when it appears, is often due to a need to hold onto something: but at least I got in here! so I must be smart! and successful!)

I don't want to be an apologist for genuinely elitist, jerky behavior or for complacency, and maybe at some point it comes down to one fistfull of anecdotes against another; clearly, my experience at INRU wasn't the same as Deresiewicz's at Columbia and Yale. But Deresiewicz's criticisms just seem like the wrong ones--or so overexaggerated as not to lead to the kind of institutional self-scrutiny that is necessary.

scr said...

He seems to be arguing that these brilliantly analytical elite Ivy minds are somehow unaware of grade inflation; that they don't know precisely where that 3.5 GPA places them in the overall pecking order at their particular institution.

dance said...

Thanks for this---I haven't figured out my detailed thoughts on the piece, yet, beyond comments left at Easily Distracted (including a long one re economic diversity), but I agree with a lot of what you said.

I do think WD is identifying some issues that should be discussed, but I don't agree with the causes of them that he identifies, or, particularly, the comparatives he sets up.

Slantgirl, nice point re gender.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Can I say how thrilled I am that Deresiewicz, having opened with his thrilling and fascinating inability to imagine his plumber, goes on to fail to imagine Cleveland State University. He uses Cleveland State repeatedly as his example as the "other" kind of American university, as the anti-Yale. Cleveland State is the example, the illustration, the other. As someone who teaches, ahem, *much closer* to Cleveland State than Deresiewicz does, and teaches at a school far more like Cleveland State (nudge, wink) than Derewiewicz does, let me say that his cavalier assertion of authority about that school does no credit to his intelligence or his purported egalitarianism.

Deresiewicz doesn't know anything about Cleveland State, except a second hand anecdote or two. What he thinks he knows is largely wrong. When he's right, it's on the level of such bland generality that it's not worth much to his argument. (It is absurd, and demonstrably false to anyone with an internet connection, to say that Cleveland State hires no advisers and no tutors. It is certainly true that Yale, or INRU, can afford far more advsing and tutoring for their students. But that doesn't make a good story, does it?

Undergraduates can't have a grade dispute at Cleveland State? Really? That is not only blatantly inaccurate, it is ridiculous on its face. If he bothered to think about it for a second, or gave his readers a bare scrap of credit, Deresiewicz would know better. Deresiewicz is indulging in romantic fantasies about those less privileged than himself.

Cleveland State is no more real to him than his plumber is, but Deresiewicz is under the illusion that, having had a chat with his friend, he knows everything about it. He will in fact pontificate about how life at Cleveland State is, like a Victorian gentleman pontificating about Africa over brandy. Never been, of course, but it stands to reason ...

Not having to know, speaking as an authority without bothering to find out, feeling free to define others rather than inquire about them: what greater hallmarks of privilege can there be?

Chaser said...

Actually, I don't think he underestimates the role of anxiety and fear of falling. I think he plays that hard into the center of the essay. Rather, he doesn't think all that striving does people any good in the artificial context that they are in. They are frantic about failing, he argues, but they are in a context by which real failure (and thus, its value in forming your character) isn't very likely because family money and social privilege provides the safety net under which all this angst is played out--rather than a more authentic situation where real failure has real consequences.

Also, don't assume I'm not speaking from an elite private. That would be a mistake. Last semester I taught a member of the Jordanian royal family, a really famous actor's daughter, and the son of somebody on the Forbes list.

To me, Dr. Cleveland's is the strongest critique of the essay; there's nothing real to this writer outside of his rarified world. If anything, it proves his point at the same time many of the things he imagines are "gains" from not being in the Ivy are constructions of some fantasy he has. Being a member has its privileges, and one of those privileges is to be utterly ignorant of the other and still presume to know the other. But that would hardly seem to be just a function of Ivy status or training.

Flavia said...

Dr. C: yes, you're exactly right, and that's some of what I was trying to get at in saying that hoop-jumping, fear of failure, etc., are true of ALL students. He thinks that he's positively comparing CSU--being more "real-world"--to his Yale, but it's at least as condescending a portrait as his portraits of his own students. Overall, I think it's pretty equally nasty to all sorts of students without being a really thoughtful or useful critique of what are, I think, some genuine problems.

As both you and Dance (and Chaser) are saying, there are legitimate issues here, but they're common to a lot more schools than he thinks, and by implying that they're problems only at super-elite schools--and by caricaturing his students so ridiculously--he's allowing, I think, his audience to congratulate themselves on not being or having been those kinds of students without actually inspiring them to think about making changes in their own behaviors or at their own institutions.

And Chaser: I know where you teach! And I know that you have first-hand experience with some of the phenomena Deresiewicz discusses--I'm not dismissing your arguments; I'm just trying to work through why I'm not convinced by Deresiewicz's.

You're right that WD talks about anxiety, and you (and he) are right that the fear of failure is largely within an artificial context, and that it can prevent students from being willing (as WD says) to take the risks they might otherwise and that might allow them really to grow and change. I largely agree with him on that point. I was making a smaller argument in my last comment--I just meant that anxiety serves to curb the kind of snobbery that elsewhere in his essay he talks about: the belief that people at other kinds of schools aren't as good as they are, or worth talking to. That isn't true, in my experience, of most Yale or INRU students, and self-doubt is, I think, one reason why.

And I love your last paragraph. That's what I was trying to say in saying that his essay is an example of the kind of elitism and insularity he thinks he's so trenchantly critiquing. Thanks to you and Dr. C for saying it better than I did.

Irina said...

Thank you, Flavia, for posting this. (It even made me delurk.) I had a similar reaction -- WD echoed some of my own complaints, but I reacted negatively to the article. Perhaps, indeed, I reacted negatively to my own previous complaints about how coddled Ivy League students can be.

I only really have substantive experience with two universities. I went to a big public school in Canada for undergrad, and am now near the end (I hope) of grad school at Yale. Some rough and random observations:

1. Students at Yale really do have an unbelievable amount of support. It's quite stunning. We certainly didn't have that at my undergrad, and to be honest, I resented it for a long time. I thought, "if we did it without all the hand-holding, why can't they?" I've since come to the conclusion that actually, my undergrad should have had more support, not Yale less. Yes, failure is valuable, if you overcome it; but I had so many classmates who went on the wrong path for years, and I'm not sure what purpose it served in the long run.

2. Yes, it's much harder to get a failing grade or even a C at Yale. And that is due, in great part, to grade inflation. But if anything, my big public school had even more second chances, if only because teaching was so decentralised. And having taught Yale students, I have to hand it to them that they work *hard*; when a student of mine isn't getting the grade he wants, for example, his solution is generally to find out from me what's needed and to work towards it. Yes, behind that is the assumption that he can achieve the highest grade possible, but the tiniest minority of my students expect that to happen without work. If that's an attitude of entitlement, I'm fine with it.

3. I'm not sure how easy it would be for an instructor to tell what the class background of a certain student is. Moreover, the need for class diversity is certainly something that Yale is aware of. They compare the SAT scores of a student to those of his/her region and school, for example; i.e., the student who's likely to have had tutors and practice tests will be judged on a tougher scale than the student unlikely to have had all the advantages.

They're also aware that it's not enough to offer full rides to promising lower-income students, but that lower-income students have to *know* about this and be encouraged to apply -- which means advertising and holding informational sessions around the US, not just in the Northeast and California.

Does this fully counteract the advantages of fancy private schools, AP courses, tutors and coaches, guidance counselors trained in the art of reference letter writing? Definitely not, and maybe not ever. But I can't help but think that if you're going to criticise your own institution (an activity of which I vigorously approve), you need to be a little more comprehensive about the facts.... dare I say, a little more analytical?

Anonymous said...

i agree with a lot of what has been said here and in the comments -- there are many problems, and some valid, though perhaps exaggerated, points in the essay. but what ticked me off the most was what slantgirl mentions, the inability to think of a student from an elite college as anything other than upper middle class male wasp. and the generalizations are just ridiculous. this would make a very interesting out-loud IRL discussion.

Doctor Cleveland said...

I agree that WD's "we" and "us" are a huge problem. His assumption that all Ivy grads are like himself, and his assumption of a spokesman's role, are thoughtless and grating.

The bigger problem, even though his essay grazes against genuine issues, is that there isn't a genuine thought in the whole piece. It's a kind of bouillabaisse of pretty standard Ivy league reflexes and prejudices, cobbled together without any real examination. This place is too snobbish! And too careerist! And there's too much grade inflation! And do you know Harvard kids avoid mentioning their school's name, as if they were in Skull and Bones? None of these observations are new. They are all cliches, and like all cliches they are embedded in specific discourses which govern their meanings in advance.

WD, by synthesizing these cliches without examining any of them, achieves a nonsensical negative capability, holding contradictory misleading ideas in his head at the same time without choosing between them. The anti-careerist meme has had a long, virulent, antibiotic-resistant life in the discourse of class privilege at the Ivies. One of the prime uses of that meme has to promote an aristocratic amateurism, as opposed to the crass professionalism of the scholarship boys. (Yes, roundedness and breadth and perspective have other, healthier, appeals, but the discussion of class at these schools makes no sense if we ignore the history.) WD, hilariously but with no evident irony, combines this lofty anti-professionalism with a demand for more undergrads from humble backgrounds. "Let's take more poor students," his argument runs, "and not teach them to make a living."

I'm also fond of the complaint about only favoring "one kind of intelligence, analytical intelligence" (which is actually a kind of Spearman's g that WD has just made up out of different "intelligences") with a) his complaint about mediocre legacies and b) his exhortation to admit more underprivileged students.

The (reflexive, cliched) attack on George W. Bush's mediocrity, however I might applaud it in another context, is very silly when WD has been encouraging emphasis on alternate kinds of intelligence. Bush is a kind of monument to those alternate intelligences, evidently wonderful at nuanced interpersonal communication face-to-face, but with slightly less "analytical" curiosity than the average sea sponge. WD repeatedly complains about having gotten the very things he's demanding.

That WD seems to presume that an emphasis on other kinds of intelligence would yield more underprivileged students is too ugly to contemplate long, but says the world about WD's assumptions.

(And on the question of intelligence, or its opposite: what to talk about with a man wearing a Red Sox cap is not one of the great riddles of life. The answer is "baseball," Ivy Boy. How many hints do you need?)

Flavia said...

Irina: oh, you've delurked before! But thanks for doing so again, and thanks also for your first-hand perspective. Please keep on commenting as you feel inspired.

Dr. C: I like your description of WD's essay as a stew of undigested and unexamined cliches--that struck me, too. I mean, Al Gore, Scooty Libby, and W didn't go to the Harvards and Yales that Deresiewicz is, explicitly, criticizing; some of the problems of the old Harvard and Yale still remain, but things have changed a lot in 40-odd years, and to fail to address those changes really weakens his credibility.

I also like your comment on the aristocratic amateurism that WD seems to be valorizing; my original post (which was once oh, so very much longer) contained a couple of paragraphs responding to WD's complaint that students no longer ask "the big questions." If by that he means things like, does God exist, why is there evil in the world, what's my purpose in this universe--well, first of all, I think students still DO ask those questions, but they don't ask them in the classroom, or at least not in those forms, because that's not a productive space for it--they ask them over a couple of beers, or flopped on a dorm-room floor at 2 in the morning.

Personally, I very much want my students to be asking such questions, but that's not what I want them doing in the three hours a week that we're together; as they say, the point of a liberal arts education is to teach you how to think, and the object on which you focus those skills, in a given classroom, is less important (which is why his objection to the overly specialized classes that he claims his colleagues teach is silly--that, and the fact that there are still tons of big, broad surveys, which students are free to take along with the more focused courses that appeal to them). The skills students develop in the classroom are what make them able (or not) to synthesize information across a range of topics and fields and ask those big questions in their own lives.

I mean: Does Deresiewicz really want a kid to pipe up, in his Joyce seminar, "you know, reading Portrait of the Artist has really made me think about MY relationship and obligations to my country, and I'm really thinking about some changes I gotta to make. . . "

Because--if he does want that? We've got a whole different set of problems here.

Irina said...

Dr. C: You've pointed out the logical fallacy so much better than I could. Posting, as I was, well after midnight in my time zone, I sleepily forgot about another important point: it is deeply ironic to be teaching at Yale and complain that the ivies only value one kind of intelligence. Yale kids are *selected* to be well-rounded. In fact, so many of the "second chances" about which he complained are there to allow the students to juggle the analytical in-class work with the roles in plays, musicals and operas, the political work, the sports, the a capella, the dancing, the growing of organic vegetables, the charitable work, the mentoring of each other and of other kids in the community.

Look, I know details and exceptions don't make for very enthralling op ed writing, to say nothing of the fact that no one wants to hear that Yale students work really hard and do a lot of extracurriculars beside. But to my mind, an ability to juggle the complicated specifics of an issue and still make a strong and valid general point should be exactly what an academic brings to op ed writing.

Flavia: Yes, I guess I have, but it was so long ago I'd pretty much forgotten about it! Thanks for the welcome.

Flavia said...

Oh, and another thing (which ties in with both Irina's and Dr C's most recent comments): many kids at Ivies come in with strong artistic or other "non-analytical" talents or passions, and they pursue them enthusiastically while in college. Most of them do not go on to make a career out of those things (or at least not right away, in part because hey: bills have to get paid).

As I said before, I really don't see it as a loss to the world if someone who is, say, a pretty talented, passionate musician or writer doesn't go on to make a career out of it. She may decline to take that "risk," as WD conceives of it, not because she fears failure, but simply because it was, always, a passionate amateur interest, one that she was lucky enough to have support for through her teens and early 20s, but for which she readily acknowledges she doesn't have the drive of a *true* artist.

And I dunno: in some ways isn't it better to have fewer starving artists, and more artistically-inclined, humanistically-educated lawyers and bankers? (At least in part because the latter can afford to buy the products of the former?)

Irina said...

Flavia, this takes the discussion in a new direction, but, I think, an interesting one.

Artistically-inclined lawyers and bankers (etc) not only can afford to pay for the career-inclined artists, but they can also appreciate the art. I know that my very amateurish experience with dance lessons has made me better at appreciating what professional dancers do, and how they do it; ditto for photography. Quite frankly, even those of us who have decided to devote our lives to our passion even though it's not the financially secure path (cough, cough, literature), often find that other passions have to be put aside, or enjoyed only on an amateur basis.

There's a bigger issue behind your comment though, probably too big to raise in a little space like this one, but.... one of my problems with the way natural sciences and humanities are divided, for example, is that it becomes acceptable for a person who studies one in university to have absolutely no interest in the other as long as he or she lives. In my home country, just about everyone who had the grades for it became an engineer. The downside was, you had a lot of engineers who weren't too interested in their work. The upside was, you had a lot of engineers who could have intense conversations about philosophy, literature, linguistics, history, theatre, you name it.

K said...

I have to agree with Irina that there's a vast difference between public and private institutions. It's the difference between "What's your social [security number]? Oh, sorry, the computer won't let me change that," and "Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that, let me make a call and fix that."

I thought that Deresiewicz was right on with his comparisons between institutions. I don't know the institutions in question, but his claims about the large public institution closely matched my own experience. Sure, there were advisers, but I got only stolen moments of their time, mostly to get them to sign my registration form in a pro-forma fashion. Sure, there were a few tutors; I worked as one for awhile, but there was one of me for an awful lot of students. Sure, there were deans, but they sure as hell weren't writing any excuses for me -- they were looking at the computer screens and threatening me.

Even at the wannabe elite private institution where I was in grad school, life was dramatically easier. It was like night and day. Watching my partner teach at a top-rung SLAC, it's even more clear -- "So-and-so may do poorly in my class, so I talked to her adviser and the dean." If you think that kind of attention doesn't make a difference in how much you can achieve, you're just kidding yourself.

Obviously, people can and have achieved great things with degrees from non-elite institutions. In the same way, folks have gone from abject poverty to riches. But it sure is a whole lot easier to become a billionaire when your daddy was a millionaire.

That's the same kind of class system that Deresiewicz is railing against.