Monday, January 05, 2015

Class Hierarchies and the Ivy Leagues

In Excellent Sheep, the author, essayist, and literary critic Bill Deresiewicz writes about the state of American education: the the entitled and the elite.  Examining the decaying state of education in the United States, the author pulls no punches in his disparaging assessment of how Ivy Leagues have shaped American higher education for the worse.

A professor of English at Yale University, there is no other with such insider knowledge of the intellectual factory than Deresiewicz himself, who ironically is himself a product of the Ivy league privileged class (whom he comfortably acknowledges) before he decided to abandon his faculty position in favour of freelance writing.

In 2008, Deresiewicz published a controversial essay in the The American Scholar titled The Disadvantages of an Elite Education which criticizes Ivy League and elite higher education institutions for supposedly coddling their students and discouraging independent thought.  Deresiewicz asserts elite institutions ultimately produce students who are unable to communicate with people who don't have the same background as themselves.

Fast-forward to 2014 and in Excellent Sheep, he continues the argument:
. . . the problem is the Ivy League itself - the position it and other schools have been allowed to occupy.  The problem is that we have contracted the training of our leadership class to a set of private institutions.  However much they claim to act, or think they're acting, for the common good, they will always place their interests first.  They will always be the creatures of the rich.  The arrangement is great for the schools, whose wealth and influence continue to increase . . .
Credentialism -  Colleges have become inundated with job fairs and the two most coveted: consulting and finance.  It seems as if the number of degrees and the most prestigious jobs have curtailed society's sense of worth - and this has crept up and in fact this mindset is being cultivated early in the student's mind.  

Corporatization - In many ways it is the fall of Humanities and the rise of a technocracy which thirsts for fame and wealth.   The results of this has been further monetization and privatization of  higher education; whatever cannot be measured as an "outcome" for the institution's bottom line is cut and slashed in the name of efficiency and global competition.  What are MOOCs but further watering down of quality instruction, less face-time with professors, and further reduction of adjunct instructors altogether?

Class Privilege - In conspiratorial fashion, the system is fixed (but not flawed) in that it's designed specifically to sustain the class hierarchy, mirroring many of current society's problematic income gaps.  Deresiewicz points out an appalling fact: the majority of American presidential candidates since 1984 had been educated from the Ivy Leagues.  On the surface it appear as if the "best of the best" rise to the top to be a nation's leaders; however, the underpinnings of how the structure of such a rigid class system sustained by the (wealthy) elite for the elite is troubling to say the least.

Cynical, you say?  The situation is more pronounced in America than it is here in Canada (although Deresiewicz praises Canada, Finland, and Singapore for their egalitarian systems not yet tainted).  However, I already do see symptoms of this higher education vortex.  Each year as funding is reduced is one year closer we move the needle to the meritocratic hierarchy that Deresiewicz so despises.   We can only hope that Deresiewicz's early warning signs are just an exaggeration.  I fear not.

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