The Elite and Education

Elena Kagan as Dean of Harvard Law School
Elena Kagan as Dean of Harvard Law School. Creative Commons License. Image via Wikipedia

Joel Stein tackles elitism in The Awesome Column in last week’s Time Magazine, and he comes off sounding – as was his goal, me thinks – elitist. From his lede:

I went to a better college than you did. That does not make me a better person than you. It does, however, make me smarter, more knowledgeable, more curious and more ambitious. So, in a lot of ways, better.

Since Stein has no idea where I went to college, this kind of irritates me, although, in the end, he is right: He did go to a better college than I did, unless he went to University of Oregon. If that’s the case, I definitely went to a better college than he did, because I went to Oregon State. (Motto: Joel Stein may be Ivy League, but our basketball coach is the President’s brother-in-law.)

Anyway, the column hit a nerve because, as a laid-off journalist running up the learning curve of becoming a high school English teacher, I’ve had copious concerns about what I’ve seen in classrooms during my training. One of the points Stein brings up in his piece is that the notion that all people are equal in talent and brains is a bunch of bunk. (We are, however, all equally valuable as humans, in spite of what he says in his ending salvo.)

Humans are all different in brains, ability and innate talent. My daughters both have a better eye for design than I do, and the one who has had formal art training is an amazing artist. I can’t even paint my toenails, much less a self portrait that actually looks like a person. We are all blessed (and cursed) in different ways and as Stein points out, when you’re in need of a great brain surgeon, you will absolutely look at where she went to school before agreeing to go under the scalpel.

Let me say it again: We are not all equal in talent and ability. That said, Stein’s veiled argument that Elena Kagan is qualified for the Supreme Court because she went to an Ivy League school lacks some merit since said education alone cannot make up for lack of judicial experience – at least not in my non-Ivy-League opinion.

But I digress. There’s this idea teachers have to fight against in classrooms, and that is that natural ability trumps effort. We work hard with students who say they “just can’t write” or “just can’t do math” to show them that indeed, if they put in the effort, they can do that writing or math. We tell them that Magic Johnson didn’t become Magic Johnson because he was born with great hand-eye coordination; rather, he practiced for hours and weeks and months and years to get as good as he was at his sport.

Still, while effort – lots of it – can make up for some lack of innate ability, someone with a 90 IQ will not be able to catch up with someone with a 140 IQ no matter how many books he reads or math problems he tries to solve. And, as Stein points out, we do children a disservice when we more or less tell them that there is no innate difference. It is simply not true that a person can become anything he wants to be if only he works hard enough. Success will not come at all without hard work, but you cannot become a brain surgeon if you are horrible at science and have hands that naturally shake. You can’t be an astronaut if you are claustrophobic. You cannot be a calculus teacher if you cannot master algebra.

What we need to be telling students is they can get to a good college if they work really hard in high school (and middle school, and elementary school) and that in getting to a good college (or excellent technical school), they will expand the choices of careers open to them. While certain talents and skills are innate, getting the best teachers in the best schools teaches you to do the best thinking – and sets you on a path you will not travel if you have lousy teachers in a lousy college (or high school, technical school, etc.).

Which is why, dear readers, we need to work a heck of a lot harder to get the best K-12 teachers into the worst schools to turn around more of the students who have been convinced they will never succeed. We need the best teachers with the most educationally needy students to help more students get into the best colleges so they can become snarky columnists like Stein or, better yet, brain surgeons.

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3 thoughts on “The Elite and Education

  1. Stein’s veiled argument that Elena Kagan is qualified for the Supreme Court because she went to an Ivy League school lacks some merit since said education alone cannot make up for lack of judicial experience – at least not in my non-Ivy-League opinion.
    Is your non-Ivy league opinion backed up by and data ? Because I am not aware of any that shows that Justices with judicial experience perform any better than those with none.
    Just off the top of my head, the “judicial experience” of:

    Louis Brandeis – none

    William O. Douglas – none

    Earl Warren – none

    John Marshall – none

  2. The true elite do not possess the hubris to share it with the masses.  The elite folks I know are humble, erudite, and charitable. They do not pass judgment as freely as the new citizen who is educated only by the linguistic tricksterism of talk radio. Attacking the elite, while in vogue, is quite transparent in its telegraphing of a very low self esteem and a fear of literacy.  Kinda like High School stuff, when the girl turns you down.
    I personally think the Religious Studies program at the University of Arizona is elite. Don’t here much about it do you?  I was privileged to be in the first class in 1972.
    Judge Sirica, of Watergate fame, did not even complete a four year degree prior to entering law school. Many, in those days, did not have to graduate from college to get into Medical School or Law school. Now that is elite!

  3. I think it’s fair to advocate for meritocracy and argue that not all opinions are equal. However, this can be taken overboard. It’s also worth noting that believing ability is malleable leads to improved performance in school. I agree that ability matters, and effort doesn’t fully compensate. But how much should ‘natural ability’ be emphasized?

    https://www.stanford.edu/dept/psychology/cgi-bin/drupalm/system/files/cdwecklearning%20success.pdf

    Also, there are success stories associated with confidence.

    Consider this Ian  McEwan interview:

    Ramona Koval: What sort of a child were you, were you like Briony, did you have an active imagination and ambition to write?
    Ian McEwan: I was very secretive. I was a bit like Briony in that I used to borrow my mother’s typewriter and I loved threading the paper in and then I’d be stuck, because I wanted to be writing, but I didn’t have anything to write, so I kept secret journals, sometimes for days on end and then would forget about them. As a child I was very freckly like Briony’s cousins, pale and very, very shy; very close to my mother, much to my father’s annoyance. He thought I was too much of a mother’s boy. Very mediocre in class, never spoke, hated speaking in public. No-one told me I was clever till I was about sixteen. And then when someone told me I was clever, I started coming on as clever.
    Ramona Koval: Who told you?
    Ian McEwan: I’m one of those writers with a marvelous English teacher who fed me all the books at the right age.

    ———————————————————————————————
    McEwan is one of the most acclaimed living novelists. I don’t know what it would have seemed like he could do when he was a high school student. What should someone have told him about how far his ability could go?  

    Stein went on for some time about his degree. Does it mean that his words will influence or change debates? There are Pulitzer Prize winning writers who went to state universities.

    It’s fair to tone down this whole notion of equality, but it can easily go overboard.

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