Moving Beyond Perfection

The Disadvantages of an Elite Education

Posted in Uncategorized by Kathy on July 12, 2009

I love Harvard, but lately I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and seeing fewer and fewer benefits from the name, “Harvard”. As a girl, this immediately limits the number of guys I can date without them being intimidated by me. At work, I’m told that they prefer state school students because they are “hungrier” and therefore willing to work harder and more inhumane hours. When I talk to my parents, I’m told that the problem with Harvard kids is that they all want to do something big with their lives and think that their careers should actually be something they enjoy–that I need to just go with the flow and that work is not meant to be glorious. I don’t think I agree with this about Harvard students as a generalization, and the article written by William Deresiewicz also seems to suggest otherwise.  I would like to make some comments about The Disadvantages of an Elite Education (inserted below), but please aware that these are only my own opinions, so feel free to agree or disagree with anything I say.

Note: these are only parts of the whole article.

The Disadvantages of an Elite education, written by William Deresiewicz

There is nothing wrong with taking pride in one’s intellect or knowledge. There is something wrong with the smugness and self-congratulation that elite schools connive at from the moment the fat envelopes come in the mail. From orientation to graduation, the message is implicit in every tone of voice and tilt of the head, every old-school tradition, every article in the student paper, every speech from the dean. The message is: You have arrived. Welcome to the club. And the corollary is equally clear: You deserve everything your presence here is going to enable you to get. When people say that students at elite schools have a strong sense of entitlement, they mean that those students think they deserve more than other people because their SAT scores are higher.

First off, perhaps there are many students at Ivy leagues have high SAT scores and think that they are smarter than others, but I would like to argue that there a good number of there who simply worked hard. SAT scores were not my forte, and thinking about taking the GMAT or any other standardized test still haunts me. In fact, I never applied to MIT simply because I did not have all the SAT II scores they required, and I wanted to avoid as many standardized tests as I could. I also have a set of GMAT books sitting in my room right now that I am sure will remain unopened until I panic and realize I really need to get going on studying for that exam because I am 99.9% certain I will be going to business school sometime in the next few years (the scores last 5 years and I have more time now to study for it now than I ever will in the future).


If one of the disadvantages of an elite education is the temptation it offers to mediocrity, another is the temptation it offers to security. 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.

To a certain extent, yes. To a certain extent, no. When  you apply for anything from Harvard, you are also competing with Harvard kids. Nobody is going to only accept kids from a certain school. The bar is raised higher. And maybe where I am working this summer is unusual, but I have talked to a few other people working in other companies,and there really seems to be a trend of financial corporations looking to hire students who are willing to get their hands more dirty in the work. In their minds, these are not the ivy league students.

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. We live in a society that is itself so wealthy that it can afford to provide a decent living to whole classes of people who in other countries exist (or in earlier times existed) on the brink of poverty or, at least, of indignity. You can live comfortably in the United States as a schoolteacher, or a community organizer, or a civil rights lawyer, or an artist—that is, by any reasonable definition of comfort. You have to live in an ordinary house instead of an apartment in Manhattan or a mansion in L.A.; you have to drive a Honda instead of a BMW or a Hummer; you have to vacation in Florida instead of Barbados or Paris, but what are such losses when set against the opportunity to do work you believe in, work you’re suited for, work you love, every day of your life?

Yet it is precisely that opportunity that an elite education takes away. How can I be a schoolteacher—wouldn’t that be a waste of my expensive education? Wouldn’t I be squandering the opportunities my parents worked so hard to provide? What will my friends think? How will I face my classmates at our 20th reunion, when they’re all rich lawyers or important people in New York? And the question that lies behind all these: Isn’t it beneath me? So a whole universe of possibility closes, and you miss your true calling.

I couldn’t have said it better.


This is not to say that students from elite colleges never pursue a riskier or less lucrative course after graduation, but even when they do, they tend to give up more quickly than others. (Let’s not even talk about the possibility of kids from privileged backgrounds not going to college at all, or delaying matriculation for several years, because however appropriate such choices might sometimes be, our rigid educational mentality places them outside the universe of possibility—the reason so many kids go sleepwalking off to college with no idea what they’re doing there.) This doesn’t seem to make sense, especially since students from elite schools tend to graduate with less debt and are more likely to be able to float by on family money for a while. I wasn’t aware of the phenomenon myself until I heard about it from a couple of graduate students in my department, one from Yale, one from Harvard. They were talking about trying to write poetry, how friends of theirs from college called it quits within a year or two while people they know from less prestigious schools are still at it. Why should this be? Because students from elite schools expect success, and expect it now. They have, by definition, never experienced anything else, and their sense of self has been built around their ability to succeed. The idea of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them, defeats them. They’ve been driven their whole lives by a fear of failure—often, in the first instance, by their parents’ fear of failure. The first time I blew a test, I walked out of the room feeling like I no longer knew who I was. The second time, it was easier; I had started to learn that failure isn’t the end of the world.

True. Even in 7th grade, when I received my first C+ on a quiz and hardly even knew what grades meant at the time, I totally hid that quiz from my parents. I didn’t know what grades meant at the time, but I did know that a C+ did not equate success.


But if you’re afraid to fail, you’re afraid to take risks, which begins to explain the final and most damning disadvantage of an elite education: that it is profoundly anti-intellectual. This will seem counterintuitive. Aren’t kids at elite schools the smartest ones around, at least in the narrow academic sense? Don’t they work harder than anyone else—indeed, harder than any previous generation? They are. They do. But being an intellectual is not the same as being smart. Being an intellectual means more than doing your homework.

If so few kids come to college understanding this, it is no wonder. They are products of a system that rarely asked them to think about something bigger than the next assignment. The system forgot to teach them, along the way to the prestige admissions and the lucrative jobs, that the most important achievements can’t be measured by a letter or a number or a name. It forgot that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers.

The problem with this is that some of us do want to have minds, and do want to do something with a purpose, something we are passionate about, and something original- but then there are our parents in the backgrounds. And then there is always the fear of failing at our passion, and your parents looking at you disappointed, saying “I told you so….” “You should have gone a more traditional route….”


Being an intellectual begins with thinking your way outside of your assumptions and the system that enforces them. But students who get into elite schools are precisely the ones who have best learned to work within the system, so it’s almost impossible for them to see outside it, to see that it’s even there. Long before they got to college, they turned themselves into world-class hoop-jumpers and teacher-pleasers, getting A’s in every class no matter how boring they found the teacher or how pointless the subject, racking up eight or 10 extracurricular activities no matter what else they wanted to do with their time. Paradoxically, the situation may be better at second-tier schools and, in particular, again, at liberal arts colleges than at the most prestigious universities. Some students end up at second-tier schools because they’re exactly like students at Harvard or Yale, only less gifted or driven. But others end up there because they have a more independent spirit. They didn’t get straight A’s because they couldn’t be bothered to give everything in every class. They concentrated on the ones that meant the most to them or on a single strong extracurricular passion or on projects that had nothing to do with school or even with looking good on a college application. Maybe they just sat in their room, reading a lot and writing in their journal. These are the kinds of kids who are likely, once they get to college, to be more interested in the human spirit than in school spirit, and to think about leaving college bearing questions, not resumés.


One Response

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  1. Ellie said, on July 12, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    LOVE the post! I just came upon your blog and I think its great. I’m fresh in recovery from an eating disorder (5 months!) and am going off to Yale in August. I used to be a huge perfectionist, but I’m coming to realize that the whole POINT in succeeding is so I can do what I want to do, not what I should do. Anyways, yeah, awesome post. By the way, I just started my own blog, check it out if you have time!

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