On the heels of Ester’s exploration of trust fund kids (my position: don’t trust ‘em), I came upon this rather wide-ranging indictment of elite colleges and the admissions process in the New Republic: in short, the author avers, the Ivies squelch creativity, channel thinking and energy into a narrow set of endeavors, reinforce privilege, and perpetuate the illusion of a meritocracy: “This system is exacerbating inequality, retarding social mobility, perpetuating privilege, and creating an elite that is isolated from the society that it’s supposed to lead.”
And the cause (aside from, you know, how rich people always set stuff up to benefit themselves)?
Not increasing tuition, though that is a factor, but the ever-growing cost of manufacturing children who are fit to compete in the college admissions game. The more hurdles there are, the more expensive it is to catapult your kid across them. Wealthy families start buying their children’s way into elite colleges almost from the moment they are born: music lessons, sports equipment, foreign travel (“enrichment” programs, to use the all-too-perfect term)—most important, of course, private-school tuition or the costs of living in a place with top-tier public schools.
In contemplating a solution to this problem, the author touches on a question that I asked a little while ago: can the rich ever hope truly to understand the poor? No, he says: “You cannot cogitate your way to sympathy with people of different backgrounds, still less to knowledge of them.” He goes on:
Instead of service, how about service work? That’ll really give you insight into other people. How about waiting tables so that you can see how hard it is, physically and mentally? You really aren’t as smart as everyone has been telling you; you’re only smarter in a certain way.
And then, just when I thought this guy was going to urge every member of the demographic that appreciates the phrase “you can’t cogitate your way to sympathy with people of different backgrounds” to renounce striving and advantage-taking in childrearing in favor of honest toil and self-fulfillment, he lost me:
The best option of all may be the second-tier—not second-rate—colleges, like Reed, Kenyon, Wesleyan, Sewanee, Mount Holyoke, and others. Instead of trying to compete with Harvard and Yale, these schools have retained their allegiance to real educational values.
Am I being unrealistic in expecting an eloquent indictment of the college-admissions-wealth-perpetuation-industrial complex to end in an exhortation to something a little bolder than a polite suggestion that the enlightened elites raise enlightened petit-bourgeois children?
[Edit: Commenter @andnowlights takes me to task below for my blanket declaration concerning the imagined character of the wealthy in this post ("don't trust [trust fund kids]“). @andnowlights is right. It’s no more fair to judge someone’s character based on her parents’ wealth than based on her parents’ poverty. I can and should do better.]
Photo by the author.