What an elite education deprives you of

Muse has some poignant musings about the disadvantages of an elite education. I am often struck by the self-absorption of even many good, ethical, spiritual, and thoughtful students/graduates of elite schools and universities. There is an air of entitlement, which Deresiewicz discusses in the “The American Scholar” article, entitlement which makes many individuals solidly immersed in the self, which makes them a little less able to climb out of the self and experience empathy. They are able to envision new worlds, at times, for the world, and they are taught by means of endless learning exercises to lead, to manipulate people and nations, to handle large amounts of money. But there is something missing in there.

I shouldn’t talk, probably, because in Pakistan I went to the Convent of Jesus & Mary school and then to Kinnaird College. But once I graduated, I did the unthinkable and went to Punjab University for my Master’s. My peers were shocked. I had abandoned the Community. I had gone to the masses. I had joined a classroom of people who came from small towns and big families, who sat on the floor, and who did not own cars. I’m glad I did it. I am happy also that I am starting a tenure-track position in Oklahoma, at a smaller university.

As an observer on Muslim American affairs, I am often disturbed by the upward mobility of my own community. It is good to be comfortable and to be free of anxiety for the next day’s meal, certainly. But it is important to have your feet solidly on the ground, aware of your neighbor, aware of your roots and aware of the fragility of existence.

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8 Replies to “What an elite education deprives you of”

  1. Agreed – I’ve seen it a lot, too. I find that upwardly mobile often means caught in the rat race of “career success” or “academic success” that causes one to sometimes have skewed priorities, forgetting what is really important – moreso than accolades and material gain.

  2. Thank you for the pointer to a good read.

    I spent my early years in PAF schools (being an Air Force Brat) and studied a lot of fancy books speaking only English in the class room but I started learning about life only after I ended up going to a poor neighborhood FG school.

  3. This is something we as parents considered seriously for our kids when they attended “private” academy for a couple of years but soon realized they are not being given proper advancements in studies, so we switched them to ordinary (Public) school where our main worry was drugs and such. but Alahmdulillah they did OK.
    Well, I have lots to tell you for I was always on the non-elitistic side when I was growing up. As you will recall, your nanjan always wore Khadder and only desi stuff (Gandhian Philosophy), always travelled in “third Class” (and I remember that when I came to Punjab in 1944 from Sauger)
    That is what worries me about those who are born with silver and even gold spoons in their mouths proclaim themselves to be standing for the poor worker, when they dont know what hunger or want or deprivation is. And majority of champions of democracy only want votes, not demonstration or agitation from the “Awam kal-an’am” Is’nt that the problem with democracy everywhere?
    I have strayed awy from your topic, sorry.

  4. I know I’m not alone in being among white brits who, from the beginning, were not motivated by a desire to get to elite institutions. I got badgered at school to “pull my socks up” because I was supposedly Oxbridge material. But there was simply no inclination to go there. Academically, such institutions are often over-rated. But more than that, they are full of people I have spent my whole life trying to avoid!!

  5. This is a topic I’ve thought about a lot. When we’re growing up, parent’s, teachers, and others tell us to be good people which means being honest, putting others first, and living by a set of core ethical principals. When you’re grown and you’ve entered the real world of social and economic competition, one finds that other things count a lot more and that so long as one has gathered all the right trophies that symbolize academic, financial, and social success, then the other stuff about being good people is really just extra stuff that may actually get in the way of being a winner in life. The point where we become aware of this contradiction is what I’d call the point at which one has grown up and faced the reality of life. I’m a college teacher and I am continually baffled at how little pleasure my students derive from learning. Life for them has already been presented as a series of obstacle courses one has to master. Living for livings sake; learning for learnings sake is not an experience most have. The best studetents are often so stressed out that they have to take drugs or drink heavily to actually get in touch with themselves and their surroundings again.

  6. Interesting. I hear your point (and have attended some elite schools myself, so perhaps am not in the best position to comment)…but I’d suggest that it is not, perhaps, so much a product of an elite education but of an elite mindset. I teach at a second tier college. Most of my students attended their local public school before coming to me- but many of them are from affluent suburbs. Their education has not been elite by US standards (or even adequate in most ways), but they have grown up in positions of economic advantage and that affects their entire world view. They feel entitled and deserving. Kind of a twist on the old Puritan thing- they MUST be saved/superior, their dad drives a BMW (heck, the student might, too)! College is holding ground until they can get out, get a high paying job and *really* starting living. Of course I am generalizing and I see wonderful exceptions to this in every class I teach, but the attitude can be quite discouraging, even at non-elite institutions.

  7. Assalaamualaikum-

    I would not consider my education necessarily elite (Rutgers & NYU) but because I have a Masters and I am working on a doctorate I am very different from many of the people I grew up with and many of the members of my local Muslim community.

    As an African American Muslim from a modest background I do think there is an interesting phenomenon where you have people (within the same family) who are very educated and upwardly mobile and others who are struggling to stay afloat and who are in crisis. I know of many “famous” black intellectuals /academics who have siblings who are not upwardly mobile. For instance Michael Eric Dyson’s brother is incarcerated. Years ago, I attended a talk where bell hooks discussed her sister who was on welfare.

    When you face your own family or friends and see their struggles it can be quite sobering. It often helps to keep your feet square on the ground.

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