Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Elite-osphere

Like our Chimpanzee cousins, we humans seem programmed to compete for status. A big complex society has a few such dimensions upon which to compete, so that the cheerleader and the vice president of science club can each get a little piece of the elite-osphere. Some elites, of course, are more unequal than others, and in the US tournament of prestige an Ivy League education is a singularly important merit badge. No recent US President or Supreme Court nominee has failed to collect one - and if you want to be President, it had better be from Harvard or Yale. The Ivy education is also one of the more promising paths to wealth or prestigious occupation.

Needless to say, those of us not in the club look with probably exaggerated awe and envy at the membership. This gives rise to, among other things, a whole industry of Ivy flavored prestige porn - usually hostile or faux hostile insider accounts.

William Deresiewicz has written a minor classic - not that F. Scott Fitzgerald is worried about his laurels - of the genre: The Disadvantages of an Elite Education. This of course is what the hoi polloi want to hear (though he points out elsewhere the superfluity of the the "the" in the hoi polloi). What deprivation is it exactly that they, the elect, suffer?

It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League degrees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. “Ivy retardation,” a friend of mine calls this. I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn’t talk to the man who was standing in my own house.

The horror.

It's possible, I suppose, that the plumber actually just wanted to fix the pipes and get back in time to watch the Red Socks/Patriots/Bruins game, and if he had had more time, might have loved discussing Aristotle's lost classics with the prof. Or not.

There are some other problems too. It seems that some dumb or lazy kids manage to get in to the Ivies, either because their father was President or they were a jock/legacy/whatever or maybe just discovered the virtues of laziness and dumbness after getting there. These people, it seems, are destined to become entitled mediocrites, and subsequently, President, thus ensuring their own progeny a spot in some future class.

Or you could read the prof's own account, written with the benefit of several Ivy degrees, in one of his languages, English, and damn fine English at that.