The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

Schools of Privilege

Posted on | July 22, 2014 | 44 Comments

My hostility to elite institutions of higher education is not entirely a matter of vulgar populism. It is also based on knowledge of what sort of childhood and adolescence is necessary to compete in the admissions sweepstakes at elite private schools.

It’s not just about being “smart.” Unless your Daddy’s a millionaire alumnus, mere intelligence doesn’t matter much in terms of getting admitted to Harvard, Yale, Princeton and other such schools which annually receive many applications from kids with perfect SAT scores (before the test was changed in 2005, more than 900 students each year were “dialing toll-free,” as it’s called, referring to a perfect 800 score on each section of the SAT). No, to get into an elite school, a high SAT score is just the beginning; you’ll also need a near-perfect high-school grade-point average (GPA) and a thick stack of extracurricular activities and awards — captain of the tennis team, student-body president, first prize in the state science fair, etc.

Basically, in order to get into an elite school — unless your family is rich and your Daddy’s a senator, like Columbia alumna Megan McCain — you’re going to have to devote the first 16 or 17 years of your life to compiling the kind of credentials necessary to gain admission. You’re going to have to be a grind, an apple-polishing teacher’s pet, and your life outside the classroom is going to be so crammed full of activities (violin lessons, dance classes, and so forth) that you will have no time for anything resembling a normal childhood. And then what? Well, your folks are going to have to shell out $50,000+ a year for tuition, room and board, so that you can have the privilege of spending four years being indoctrinated by Marxists, atheists and sexual perverts, while acquiring the snobbish certainty that you are morally and intellectually superior to everyone who didn’t graduate from an elite school.

Why anyone would want that for their children, I don’t know. And neither does former Yale instructor William Deresiewicz:

“Super People,” the writer James Atlas has called them—the stereotypical ultra-high-achieving elite college students of today. A double major, a sport, a musical instrument, a couple of foreign languages, service work in distant corners of the globe, a few hobbies thrown in for good measure: They have mastered them all, and with a serene self-assurance that leaves adults and peers alike in awe. A friend who teaches at a top university once asked her class to memorize 30 lines of the eighteenth-century poet Alexander Pope. Nearly every single kid got every single line correct. It was a thing of wonder, she said, like watching thoroughbreds circle a track.
These enviable youngsters appear to be the winners in the race we have made of childhood. But the reality is very different, as I have witnessed in many of my own students and heard from the hundreds of young people whom I have spoken with on campuses or who have written to me over the last few years. Our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.
When I speak of elite education, I mean prestigious institutions like Harvard or Stanford or Williams as well as the larger universe of second-tier selective schools, but I also mean everything that leads up to and away from them—the private and affluent public high schools; the ever-growing industry of tutors and consultants and test-prep courses; the admissions process itself, squatting like a dragon at the entrance to adulthood; the brand-name graduate schools and employment opportunities that come after the B.A.; and the parents and communities, largely upper-middle class, who push their children into the maw of this machine. In short, our entire system of elite education. . . .

You can read the whole thing at the New Republic. Deresiewicz’s critique of the elite schools is essentially liberal, whereas my viewpoint is conservative. I have no problem with rich people sending their overprivileged kids to elite schools. My problem is with middle-class parents who think they’re doing their kids a favor by spending money they can’t afford to send their kids to schools that teach them to emulate the fashionable attitudes of the decadent rich.

Ted Kaczynski was a Harvard graduate, you know.

UPDATE: The blogger at Booman Tribune is a wretched leftist scumbag whom I would normally never link. However (a) he is a longtime resident of Princeton, N.J., who has had the opportunity to observe young Ivy Leaguers at close range, and (b) he basically agrees with me about this:

Most of them are well-rounded, but I don’t think we should expect most of them to be well-adjusted. Mostly, they’re basket cases who are terrified of failure. They’re also so goal-oriented that they can become unglued if no one is pointing them to the next goal. And maybe there aren’t enough different goals. Med School, Law School, a job in finance. Beyond that, what? . . .
I am very aware of what I’d have to do if I want my four year old son to go to an Ivy League school, and I would consider it a form of torture to inflict that kind of regimen on him.

Exactly so. My oldest daughter is highly intelligent, has excellent study habits and graduated summa cum laude from a state university. (She worked her way through school as a Pizza Hut waitress). If I were a millionaire, I might have encouraged her to think of attending an elite school, but it simply makes no sense to put your kid through that kind of grind if you’re not rich.

What kind of parent would want their kid to be the poorest student at Yale? You want your kid to have the opportunity to be snubbed by a bunch of overprivileged brats? Are you crazy?

And here’s the worst of possibility: You put your kid through the wringer — total grindathon in high school, extra-curriculars out the wazoo, etc. — encouraging her to dream of that Ivy League acceptance letter that she’s not quite good enough to get. The psychic trauma of that rejection will haunt her forever and, having gotten her hopes up, of course, she’ll want to attend the “second-tier” private liberal arts school that does accept her, taking on outrageous student loan debt just to have that semi-elite credential.

She’ll probably major in Women’s Studies and hate you forever and, honestly, I can’t say I would blame her: You are a bad parent.

It’s better, you see, to avoid the high-pressure elitist ambitions. If your kid is truly superior, they will excel naturally, wherever they go to school. If my well-adjusted kids get rich, I hope they’ll send my grandchildren to the best university in the world.

Roll, Tide!



44 Responses to “Schools of Privilege”

  1. Evi L. Bloggerlady
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 2:37 pm

    They have been schools of privilege forever. Basically now they look for students from certain pools: Alumni-Legacies, Students who are very likely to succeed or have the right connections and will send those schools money later on when they make their zillions, and select minorities to show how “diverse” they are (Michelle Obama at Princeton).

    It is all about networking.

  2. Quartermaster
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 2:41 pm

    Sending your kid to an Ivy League School is an act of stupidity if you want them to get an education.
    OTOH, in Tennessee we would say “if you want to study Engineering go to Tennessee Tech. If you want an alumni association, then UT Knoxville is the place to go.” It was the comparison of a teaching college and a research University. UTK is a research school by state law. The Board of Regents schools are teaching universities, although Tech and Memphis State have tried to transmogrify into research schools, but they get overshadowed by UTK and Vanderbilt.

  3. richard mcenroe
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 2:44 pm

    Interesting note: among activities, 4H Club is an automatic disqualification at Harvard, Yale and Princeton. This is not a joke.

  4. Anon Y. Mous
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 3:00 pm

    I just finished reading up on Kaczynski at Wikipedia. Although I agree with much of your view on the so-called elite universities, I don’t think that Kaczynski serves as a good example of what you are saying. His early life story and even his college years tell a different story. He seems not to have been the overachiever type, but rather just plain brilliant. Back in the day, it appears that was enough to get you into Harvard.

    However, his brief career as a professor is illuminative:

    In late 1967, Kaczynski became an assistant professor of mathematics at the University of California, Berkeley, where he taught undergraduate courses in geometry and calculus. He was also noted as the youngest professor ever hired by the university, but this position proved short-lived. Kaczynski received numerous complaints and low ratings from the undergraduates he taught. Many students noted that he seemed quite uncomfortable in a teaching environment, often stuttering and mumbling during lectures, becoming excessively nervous in front of a class, and ignoring students during designated office hours. Without explanation, he resigned from his position in 1969, at age 26. The chairman of the mathematics department, J. W. Addison, called this a “sudden and unexpected” resignation, while vice chairman Calvin Moore said that given Kaczynski’s “impressive” thesis and record of publications, “He could have advanced up the ranks and been a senior member of the faculty today.”

    What that says to me is that another of the “elite” universities, UC Berkeley, was willing to overlook his complete unsuitability as to actually teaching students in a classroom setting in order that they have the “get”. When anyone looked at the faculty of UC Berkeley, they would see that one of the members was the same guy who solved a mathematical problem in a thesis that “maybe 10 or 12 men in the country understood or appreciated”.

  5. robertstacymccain
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 3:26 pm

    Not saying that the Unabomber was “typical” of anything, but he proves that just because you’ve got a Harvard diploma, it doesn’t mean you’re a good person — or even a sane person, for that matter.

  6. Evi L. Bloggerlady
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 3:33 pm

    It is not an act of stupidity if you want them to have connections to be successful in certain industries (like politics).

  7. Evi L. Bloggerlady
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 3:35 pm

    I would think it would be a plus at Cornell.

  8. Evi L. Bloggerlady
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 3:37 pm

    This is an interesting Radio Lab on young Ted at Harvard:

  9. Quartermaster
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 3:55 pm

    Note how I qualified what I said. The Ivies are not noted for their undergrad programs either. Having met a number of grads from Engineering programs in the Ivies I can’t say I’m impressed. It’s like UTK, you go for the Alumni Association – i.e. the connections.

  10. Charles
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 3:58 pm

    It doesn’t actually cost a middle class kid $50,000 a year to attend Harvard. About 65% of Harvard students are on scholarship, for which the average annual family contribution is $11,500. Families with incomes below $65,000 pay nothing.

  11. RS
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 4:02 pm

    Attendance at a Top 20 college or university is not about an education. It is a class marker and nothing else. For the middle class parents, who believe that an Ivy League degree will guarantee a life of wealth and privilege, are simply members of a cargo cult.
    The Kennedys and Bushes will always get in; they will always be successful. Regular shmohs may do alright, but not so much as to justify the sacrifices made to go.

  12. PerceptionDeception
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 4:32 pm

    The government did that to him. He was an Mk-Ultra test subject, and that’s what broke his mind just like it did to countless others.

  13. Art Deco
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 4:58 pm

    If you say so. Hope you do not mind a bit of biography…

    Once upon a time I received a stack of acceptance letters from competitive schools. You and I are contemporaries, so maybe the world has changed. However, I had next-to-no extracurriculars; the vice principal of my high school, the athletic director therein, and several teachers would have told you I was a screwball grouch with a bad smoker’s hack; and at least one of my alumni interviews was wretched. I just had satisfactory grades, good board scores, and had won a couple of awards that were issued that year in my area consequent to competitive examinations.

    My life since then is, of course, testament to the circumscribed utility of academic competence. (Which tends to discredit one of the main selling points of highly competitive schools).

  14. richard mcenroe
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 5:55 pm

    Didn’t help Keith.

  15. MassManny
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 5:56 pm

    See “Harvard and the Making of the Unabomber” by Alston Chase, in the Atlantic (2000).

    “In the fall of 1958 Theodore Kaczynski, a brilliant but vulnerable boy of sixteen, entered Harvard College. There he encountered a prevailing intellectual atmosphere of anti-technological despair. There, also, he was deceived into subjecting himself to a series of purposely brutalizing psychological experiments — experiments that may have confirmed his still-forming belief in the evil of science. Was the Unabomber born at Harvard? A look inside the files”

  16. Adjoran
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 5:57 pm

    Quite so – AND the Kennedys and Bushes will be successful without regard to their performances as undergraduates.

    As Glenn Reynolds has been noting for a couple of years now, it’s become a huge bubble.

  17. RKae
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 6:07 pm

    Yeah, they’re all “super.” They’re all “thoroughbreds” who will then be sent out into the world to rule us… with such brilliant ideas as “massive debt is no problem” and “let’s murder poor people!”

    And don’t forget: These geniuses have had intelligent experiences you and I will never know, like stripping down to your underpants, getting spanked by your club mates, putting on a Halloween mask, and lying in a coffin.

    They truly are the best and brightest, huh?

  18. goddessoftheclassroom
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 6:16 pm

    My son will be attending a conservative private liberal arts college in the South. In my experience, Conservatives tend to be more tolerant (or at least polite about it) than Liberals, at least in the South.

  19. robertstacymccain
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 7:19 pm

    You and I are contemporaries, so maybe the world has changed.

    Indeed, it has changed. It began to change while you and I were still in school, but the change didn’t really take full force until the mid-1980s — these were the “Gen X” kids, born after the Baby Boom. They came from affluent families with two college-educated parents and only one or two children.

    Remember Risky Business (1983)? In an ultra-affluent Chicago suburb — his father drives a Porsche, for crying out loud — Tom Cruise’s character absolutely must get into Princeton. That character would have been born about 1966.

    As college education became more commonplace, attending the “right” school became more important, and as America became more affluent, there were more college-educated parents in double-income households willing to foot the bill to purchase elite credentials for their kids.

  20. RKae
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 7:31 pm

    And here’s MY favorite episode in higher education:

  21. Schools of Privilege | That Mr. G Guy's Blog
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 7:55 pm

    […] Schools of Privilege. […]

  22. Art Deco
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 8:02 pm

    One thing that perplexes me is that there has not been a secular increase in the size of birth cohorts over the post war period. They’ve bounced around a set point of about 3.7 million for more than sixty years, sometimes higher (ca. 1957 and 2007), sometimes lower (ca. 1976). Freshmen admissions to baccalaureate granting institutions ca. 2010 were 1.4 million. That would be about 35% of the 1992 cohort. That ratio might have been a shade lower in 1980, but only a shade. I cannot believe its that much more competitive now than then. The archetype you’re describing is not much like people I knew (in high school or college).

  23. Art Deco
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 8:06 pm

    He was a man with a schizophreniform disorder who would not take anti-psychotic medications. The one oddity with Kaczynski is that it hit him later than it usually does for young men, though that happens too. (John Nash was cut down at age 30).

  24. Art Deco
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 8:16 pm

    Now that I think about it, I was acquainted with two people admitted to Princeton in that era. One was a doctor’s kid. He was a short and mild-mannered towhead. The sports he played were to amuse himself. I think he did some student government shizz and landed a summer job working for a stockbroker. I think he must have taken AP courses, but my memory of that is vague. (I seem to recall he has some sort of Wall st job). The other was a girl who comes a good deal closer to your portrait, but she was not Tracy-Flick-avant-la-lettre, but just one of the world’s naturally sanguine and energetic types, a dear in truth. Her family was old money and her father worked for Corning Glass Works. She and her husband are I believe quite wealthy from a business they founded and run (I judge that from the greenbacks they dropped into the philanthropic foundation they’ve set up in recent years).

  25. K-Bob
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 8:25 pm

    You only have so many buckets of learning you can manage in four or eight years. So while some “superkid” is learning the entire body of Shakespeare in order to pass a test, my kids were able to attend a few great Shakespeare plays at Stratford, Ontario, while learning things like programming, construction, and how to operate a business.

    My kids learned to speak and write very capably. They would never write an article that sounds like it was written by Peggy Noonan. They would prefer people understand what they are writing about.

    We are a family of voracious readers, and I’d put my reading list up against an Ivy-leaguer’s any day. People scoff at “autodidacts”, but the age of enlightenment was brought forth by such people. We’re the ones who figure things out. The Harvard types are the ones who lard our discoveries up with weighty meaning.

    On the other hand, a Harvard-trained surgeon is pretty darned good to have, just like you’d want your big, precision machinery built by the Germans. Some things the “elder” institutions are actually quite good at.

    Anything ending in “studies” would not be on that list.

  26. PerceptionDeception
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 9:20 pm

    I’m well aware of the official narrative, but it’s not like the state is going to say “oh, yeah we were conducting mind control experiments back in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, and old Ted was one of our subjects who we dosed with all kinds of drugs, and mental tortured!”. If you don’t think that played part in who he became you are seriously mistaken. It always amazes me that people who claim to be critical thinkers never question the narrative when it comes from the CIA/NSA, or military. Do a bit of research into that program and you’ll hear from all sorts of people who were broken by it.

  27. Art Deco
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 9:40 pm

    If you don’t think that played part in who he became you are seriously mistaken.

    Buzz off, kook.

  28. notpilgrims2
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 9:58 pm

    Whether you go to Yale or Ohio State it doesn’t matter. What matters is if you work hard and get a good job after you graduate. Of course, people shouldn’t be looked down upon for going to Yale.

  29. Matt_SE
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 10:04 pm

    I’m sick of people patting themselves on the back for how clever they are at establishing “connections.”
    There’s another name for that: corruption.
    The primary motivator of the upper classes is preserving their advantage. They use connections and cronyism to accomplish it.
    They do very little for society at large, unlike the striving middle class.

  30. Matt_SE
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 10:06 pm

    And people wonder why America’s “elites” seem out-of-touch.
    Fucking snobs.
    Like Pacino’s character in the clip above, I’d love to take a flamethrower to those institutions.

  31. Matt_SE
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 10:11 pm

    I heard it was the subsonic frequencies from the nearby naval base that drove him mad.
    No, wait.
    That was an episode of X-Files.

  32. RKae
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 10:13 pm

    I took a copy of Shakespeare’s Works to my job, sat in the corner, and read it in my down time.

    I got paid to read Shakespeare!

  33. Evi L. Bloggerlady
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 11:15 pm

    Spot on. Get great grades in undergraduate (saving money) and then go to the best grad program you can get in.

    Unless you are IT, then it does not matter if you have a degree or not. All they care about is talent.

  34. Evi L. Bloggerlady
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 11:17 pm

    There is nothing wrong with a student striving to get into Harvard Law so they can get a clerkship with Scalia. Whether the process corrupts you or not is up to you.

  35. Evi L. Bloggerlady
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 11:18 pm

    They mistook him for one of the swine at the vet school and he got in by mistake.

  36. Evi L. Bloggerlady
    July 22nd, 2014 @ 11:35 pm

    Then again, there are the Clintons and Obamas. You may have a point…

    And as Proof points out, if the Clintons are America’s Lannisters, does that make them brother and sister?

  37. PerceptionDeception
    July 23rd, 2014 @ 12:05 am

    Oh, you’re one of those rationalists…:)

    Mk-ultra is not a conspiracy theory, it’s a fact, along with the Unabombers involvement in it while a student. The above comment references it as well. It was disclosed in the 1970s during the Church hearings, and has been reported on extensively, especially the works of Dr. Ewan Cameron, Sidney Gottlieb, Robert Orn, etc. wake up, dummy.

  38. David R. Graham
    July 23rd, 2014 @ 12:07 am

    The best university in the world is The University Of Life.

  39. PerceptionDeception
    July 23rd, 2014 @ 12:07 am

    I’m a kook? lol! you refuse to accept facts, and believe complete bs. Oh, right, you’re “rational”!

  40. Elite Universities: The Good, the Bad, and the Pathological | The Fog of Law
    July 23rd, 2014 @ 12:32 am

    […] is all abuzz with a post about elite universities from The New Republic. (Find commentary here and here.) There are some issues with the article, namely, going from a legitimate gripe about the insane […]

  41. Quartermaster
    July 23rd, 2014 @ 12:55 pm

    “Who’s the U-Boat commander?”

  42. kuvasz
    July 23rd, 2014 @ 7:25 pm

    Attending an elite university is less about education than building connections.

    btw if you agree with a “wretched leftist scumbag” that makes you just what?

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  44. News of the Week (July 27th, 2014) | The Political Hat
    July 27th, 2014 @ 4:12 pm

    […] Schools of Privilege My hostility to elite institutions of higher education is not entirely a matter of vulgar populism. It is also based on knowledge of what sort of childhood and adolescence is necessary to compete in the admissions sweepstakes at elite private schools. […]