Concerning Eschewing Ivies and Raising Working-Class Heroes


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.


33 Comments / Post A Comment

Also, Wesleyan, Kenyon, and Reed are second-tier schools? That’s so ridiculous it throws everything else he’s saying into question.

@Ester Bloom EXACTLY! That’s where the dude lost me. I have a lot of first-hand experience with Wesleyan students (having been, for some years, married to a Wesleyan professor). They are, on the whole, lovely and smart and often inspiring, but still, emphatically products of the college prep machine that the author is decrying. Talk to me about UMass Boston and CUNY, nahmean?

Tupperwear (#6,911)

@Ester Bloom I believe what he means is second-tier within that mentality of seeing the Ivies as the ultimate goal, not in an overall objective sense.

Stina (#686)

@Josh Michtom@facebook Well as someone who is both from a working class background and went to a very good State *gasps, clutches pearls* school (University of Wisconsin) a vast majority of my fellow students were still middle to upper class. In a economics course they asked who was working class or lower and three of us out of 40 raised our hands. So while it may get you at least less* involved with the prep machine it’s still not really a great way to expose you to a different way of life.

*I still needed to kill the SAT, have a good GPA and the activities in HS to get it. People DO still get rejected from it.

eatmoredumplings (#3,808)

@Ester Bloom Right! I went to small liberal arts college that will not be named, and one of the frequent topics of conversation during orientation was people from fancy prep schools bonding over getting rejected from Harvard and Yale. (Just Harvard and Yale – the other Ivies weren’t good enough to bother applying to, apparently.) I suspect it wasn’t a very different group demographically than…the people who got into Harvard and Yale.

Thursty (#7,023)

Not to be that guy, but do most people “choose” to send their kids to Ivy League schools anyway? Of course you can encourage them to try to apply to them, or to enroll if they get in, but it’s not something that’s easy to do.

@Thursty I think the idea of the underlying article is that parents of means begin “choosing” when their kids are knee-high to a grasshopper by signing them up for equestrian classes and french lessons and overseas charity latrine-building. It’s that ceaseless childhood polishing that is the author’s focus.

andnowlights (#2,902)

@Thursty I think that depends on where you live. In the South, even the children of people worth several million dollars go to *gasp* state schools (mostly the SEC schools). People in the Northeast do NOT get that at all and I think it’s really one of the biggest cultural differences I’ve experienced between the two.

Allison (#4,509)

@andnowlights In California it’s pretty similar, sure there’s Stanford and USC, but Berkeley and UCLA (and the other UCs) were big targets for my (public, well supported by property taxes) high school class.

Meaghano (#529)

Arguments I got in with classmates at my elite-ish college included things like racism doesn’t exist anymore, evolution isn’t real, and that women’s role is to take care of kids, they go to college to learn things to teach their children. So, anecdotally: YES.

andnowlights (#2,902)

Can we STOP the blanket statements about trust fund kids being terrible/not trustworthy? It’s beyond ignorant to perpetuate this idea and is exactly the kind of ignorance several writers on the Billfold would preach against if it were any other kind of discrimination. It’s petty and the increasingly hostile tone against anyone with any kind of money on the Billfold is really a turn-off.

ECW (#2,765)

@andnowlights I agree. I can’t tell if many of the comments are meant to be humorous, but I feel like they are getting very VERY regular.

Also, as a product of Southern State Schools (ACC not SEC though) I fully agree. In the south. you meet people who got into Ivies but didn’t go, regularly, so that they could go to state schools. And everybody understands it. And then drinks together outside while getting sunburned and cursing the SEC…. well maybe that last bit is just my undergrad.

Non-anonymous (#1,288)

@andnowlights There’s a huge gap between “trust-fund kids” and “anyone with any kind of money.” I don’t see any hostility against the latter here. If you do, could you cite some examples?

@andnowlights You know what? You’re absolutely right. I err when I say (or suggest) that trust fund kids are inherently untrustworthy. Being perfectly reasonable, there is no blanket statement that I can safely make about people based on how much money their parents managed to provide to them.

We could have a separate discussion about whether there is any moral imperative on the inheritors of wealth to do something selfless and worthwhile with their money, or about the attitudes that may or may not prevail among them about whether they deserve their good fortune. But that doesn’t take away from the fundamental rightness of what you say.

I’m going to leave the post as is but insert a little note directing people to the comments. Thanks for keeping me honest.

ThatJenn (#916)

@andnowlights I made a related comment on Ester’s post from yesterday just now. I’m totally all for examining privilege and criticizing problematic behaviors/attitudes/self-perpetuation among the privileged, but it’s sort of an unfortunate choice of shorthand, especially when used too often.

Vib G Yor (#3,566)

@Josh Michtom@facebook I would be very interested in this kind of discussion.

andnowlights (#2,902)

@ECW I mentioned upthread somewhere that where I grew up, people who are worth several million dollars send their kid to SEC schools without thinking twice about it. It’s just not a big deal… until, as it turns out, that kid moves to the Northeast. I faced some pretty serious “you went to a state school?” side-eyes from people that really turned me off to the whole thing!

@Non-anonymous Obviously I haven’t committed them all to memory, but Ester’s post about rich people, cars, and trustworthiness back in April included the phrase “Eat the rich,” which even as a joke is completely unnecessary. Only reason I remember that one is because I actually wrote an email about it.

@Josh Michtom@facebook I would be TOTALLY interested in having that conversation! I think it’s an important conversation to have, for sure, and I have a lot of opinions on it (surprise!). I didn’t mean to come across as harsh, so I apologize if I did. I appreciate the comment, Josh, and also your contributions to the site!

@andnowlights Not harsh at all! This is why I love the tone of this site’s comments: it is so reliably respectful that criticism has room to be taken at face value. If I’m off base, people should call me on it.

tad123 (#7,246)

@andnowlights You said it perfectly. The articles here are usually a great combination of thoughtful / interesting / funny / helpful / supportive / open-minded. It’s disappointing that the same consideration isn’t given articles concerning the general topic of people / corporations / things having what we deem is “too much money.”

@non-anonymous Recent examples are articles that include themes / comments like the following:
Don’t trust trust fund kids
Don’t trust corporations
I guess the rich really are different than you and me huh?
“Can egos that large deflate, even a tiny bit? Can private money be used for government good and not vanity evil?” (in context of “billionaire philanthro-capitalists”)

@andnowlights I stand by my assertion that corporations are, as a rule, not to be trusted. They are fictional people made up of the pooled funds and avarice of many real humans, stripped of any human instinct toward compassion or charity, and existing expressly to profit. They’re untrustworthy by design.

theballgirl (#1,546)

@Josh Michtom@facebook This is an excellent comment on corporations. I may use it sometime, but I will give you full credit/royalties.

Non-anonymous (#1,288)

@tad123 @andnowlights True, those are real examples of hostility to the rich. What I was objecting to was the idea that this hostility extends beyond the actual rich to “anyone with any money,” which I took to mean anyone who isn’t poor or close to it.

andnowlights (#2,902)

@Non-anonymous @tad123 That’s a fair argument. I hate the words “rich” and “wealthy,” so it was a bit euphemistic of me to use “anyone with any money” since it wasn’t clear on the outset. Though the idea that we should give all our money to the government and let them do “good” with it is INCREDIBLY alarming since they’ve done such an amazingly spectacular job of screwing anything they try to do.

@andnowlights There is an argument to be made, although it probably goes too far afield for this particular space, that when our government has made a hash of things, it’s not because something inheres in government that makes it lousy, but because our government is so thoroughly under the sway of corporate interests. The more general problem is human beings. They will do rotten, selfish things when given half a chance, and they hold 100% of the positions in both government and private industry.

andnowlights (#2,902)

@Josh Michtom@facebook Very true! I like to believe that humans are mostly good, but I am so often disappointed, especially when it comes to money or power. I welcome our robotic overlords with open arms. ;)

chickpeas akimbo (#6,745)

He’s not saying that elite folks can’t understand the poor/less well off. He’s saying that elite folks can’t THINK their way into understanding the poor. It’s not a cognitive task, it’s an emotional/spiritual one (understanding another person deeply), and that’s what a super-elite school like Yale doesn’t value and develop.

I have (let’s say) some experience with the populations discussed in this article, and he is right to say that schools like Reed, Wesleyan, etc, are “second-tier” in that the Ivy League is a WHOLE NOTHER REALM of privilege. I mean, it is really bananas. I don’t even know how else to describe it. They are NOT second-tier in terms of their education, by any means (in some ways I would argue they are much, much better.)

DebtOrAlive (#5,233)

I mean, on one hand–the one with my poor planning to be born black & male to working class immigrants with high school educations and to grow up in a “sketchy” neighborhood with severely overcrowded & underperforming schools–I completely agree that the system is rigged to keep marginalized folks out, thereby exacerbating systemic inequalities that make the lives of the scions of the upper middle class that much easier.


@DebtOrAlive I feel you. I can’t really fault people individually for that approach, because, well, you can’t knock the hustle. But in the aggregate, it is what keeps poor people down – hoping always to be the one in a thousand who beats the odds rather than saying, “We need a new game because these odds suck.” I know you know this. I’m not saying new things here.

siege91 (#1,738)

My girlfriend and I met at UC Berkeley, which is about as ivy as a state school can get, but still the other day when we met up with one of her high school friends and their small tribe of friends from Princeton it felt like we were watching a sketch comedy performance in which everyone acts and dresses (ALL J-CREW ALL THE TIME: AJATT) like a young Jack Donaghy/Sheryl Sandberg. The bottom line is that if you send your kid to Princeton they’ll come out of it thinking that wearing pink khaki shorts and tasseled loafers while day-drinking on the west coast is a non-ridiculous thing to do, and that is incorrect. Life skills, people.

Vib G Yor (#3,566)

@siege91 You don’t need life skills if you went to Princeton. That’s the whole point of going to Princeton.

@siege91 As an alum of the school you’re denigrating, I have to take issue with this. I grew up in a middle-class family on the Great Plains, FAR from the “J-Crew/loafer/prep school” world that most people imagine when they think of Princeton. Yes, that definitely exists at Princeton (I don’t disagree on that point!), but to suggest that *all* of us come out of the school with that mentality is ridiculous.

I’m beginning to agree with @andnowlights’ comment above: I see more and more articles at The Billfold that casually play up ressentiment for certain “class signifiers” in a way that shuts people out of the conversation, rather than invites them in. It’s worth thinking about whether that approach is wise if you’re trying to open the conversation about money/class/privilege to everyone, rather than just talk to people who already agree with you.

@Intravenus de Milo You’re right! See my note at the end of the article and the comments above.

theballgirl (#1,546)

Back in my halcyon days of youth I dated a few extremely wealthy men. And this: “you can’t cogitate your way to sympathy with people of different backgrounds” – is just painfully accurate. My middle class background was often a confusing and befuddling thought exercise for them.

Comments are closed!