Too much of our education discourse focuses on a handful of tiny elite schools.
This is an almost totally unrelated pet peeve of mine, but I'm struck by how many news articles, when they reach out to academic experts for their takes, tend to go to Ivy League universities and to an unhappy degree particularly to Harvard professors. Now, I'm sure they're smart and all that, but we have academic talent all over the nation. I suspect that it's just an implicit bias among journalists and a bit of laziness to avoid the work needed to learn who the best informed and interesting academics are in the rest of the nation.
Do better, journalists.
I think it's worth considering that if those elite schools feed into elite and powerful jobs, a greater diversity in these schools could lead to greater diversity at the top of the corporate and government worlds. That could ultimately lead to decision-making that is better for more people.
There's an interesting 2nd and 3rd derivative to this policy as well in that the more low income / deverse people graduate from these community colleges and state universities the more likely their kids and grandkids are to go to better schools or even Ivies in the future. Therefore, by increasing access to state schools today we're diversifying tomorrow's Ivy League classes
While you mentioned the gifted-and-talented program, you stopped short of selling the benefit to the "elite" class. Sure, it's great when non-rich and non-hyper-successful students get the same lessons as the elite, but it's also great for the elite to see how other very smart people work on similar problems without the same tools each elite grad is given (tools being short for experience, instruction, connections, anything useful for solving a problem). While elite schools tend to give its students the best tools to work with, without knowing the tools everyone else is using, there are times where elites focus on a particular problem that will literally never be a concern because of the tools everyone else is using.
For example, vaccination for COVID-19. A lot of elite discourse, coming from the "pundit class" that is largely Ivy and west coast taught, focuses on strain mutation, what you can/can't do after vaccination, and who is "most worthy" of each vaccine rollout phase. What are the actual issues we're seeing on the ground now? Supply bottlenecks and vaccination hesitation among the working class.
Thankfully, Biden has made moves to make progress on the actual issues. However, look around the news media and conversations happening on social media. They're very much driving home the stories about ineffectiveness of vaccines (on different strains), how you still need to wear a mask and can't hug grandma after she and/or you are vaccinated, and "How dare these young women dressed up as old ladies to get a vaccine dose!"
As long as elites primarily talk to each other within their own circles they control membership to through these schools, these problems will get worse (especially if paired with your notion of "overproduction of elites"). This isn't a problem that can be solved by giving more poor overachieving kids access to elite coastal universities, it has to be solved by expanding the criteria to become a member of the "elite class" to those who didn't all go to the same 1-2 dozen schools learning the same few lessons.
I think there are two major factors behind the elitist turn in the US:
1) The core of the US job market has shifted from unionized work in manufacturing and civil service jobs (the mid-century middle class) which create relatively few multiplier jobs in services to highly paid white-collar technical jobs that are fewer in number than the old mid-century middle class (the 21st century upper-middle or professional-managerial class) but which create a much higher number of multiplier jobs in a much wider array of services. Enrico Moretti has worked on this. Since politics is downstream from culture, and culture is downstream from economics, it makes sense that the very meritocratic, competitive, geographically detached, and secretly-but-not-so-secretly materialistic culture that this group has would come to prevail throughout the country. I grew up in a well-off suburb of Seattle during the Bush II years, and the teachers and administration would give any student who looked like a potential Stanford recruit a lot more attention and resources than anyone else, and no one paid much attention to whether the student would be a future Noah Smith or a future Josh Hawley.
2) In an non-material sense, I think the blogger Jason Segedy had a good point when he identified our current civic culture as a mixture of the worst elements of the 60's (libertinism, a rejection of science and institutions in favor of bespoke reality and solipsism) and the 80's (greed is good, to the victor go the spoils) and the result is reverence for hucksters, salesmen, cult leaders, and billionaires, and a disdain for the ordinary people that actually make our economy and society work. This includes lots of college educated people - think of the Ph.D scientist at a small state university whose job might be comprised of research in their tiny subfield combined with teaching first generation college students basic chemistry.
I don't really know how to fix it either, and it seems like it would require a sea change in cultural values in addition to policy reform.
good! i'd also like to hear less about what's happening in California, Texas, NY and Florida. #FLYOVERSTATESMATTER
America’s best idea is the Land Grant university. Yes, increase the numbers in the Ivies by 4x at least, drawn by lot from top 25% of the applications, but better than that pour resources into state colleges everywhere.
I feel connectedness is creating all these heavy tails. Egalitarianism is essentially dead, because everything and everywhere are connected. This creates an extreme winner-takes-all result in all dimensions of life. No amount of social engineering can, probably, change that. If you don't give best opportunities to best people, the loser will be the society. Sure, social mobility *is* desirable. It should be rewarded. But it's also dangerous to do it willy nilly. You really need to balance it well.
Ivy Leagues also strip mine top talent from the third world and rural America and end up redirecting those people to the same old 4-5 megacities. De-emphasising them in funding and prestige is likely to increase equity. What do you think of a labour market intervention that subsidizes hiring from public universities?
Regulating how we somehow lean against the wind of cultural elitism, the ancient Athenians had a political principle which has been lost to modern democracy. Ισηγορια (Isegoria), which was occasionally translated as 'freedom of speech' but really means "equality of speech". Our entire political system has obliterated equality of speech. Around half the population have university degrees while over 95 per cent of their elected representatives do. There is an institution that leans against all this and has numerous other qualities which detoxify the state of our politics – sortition, or the selection of political bodies by lot – as we still do in juries.
Greater use of such mechanisms could do a huge amount of good as I argued <a href="https://quillette.com/2019/02/16/polarisation-and-the-case-for-citizens-juries/">here</a>
The problem with this post is the same problem as all the other posts on this subject, which is the American unwillingness to confront deep talent inequities. Simply put, the Ivies routinely do a better job over time of attracting the smartest, best-prepared, most tenacious candidates. Are there exceptions? Of course. Tom Brady doesn't win EVERY Super Bowl. But I know who I'd bet on.
Very good article!
I would go even further than this and say not only do we need to do-emphasize Ivy Leagues when we talk about equality and mobility, we need to de-emphasize college in general. We often seem to forget that only about a third of Americans go to college and that level has been pretty steady for a few decades. There may be an economic and cultural gap between Ivy Leaguers and your average college student, but there's a canyon between college grads and non-college grads. Even average students who graduate with questionable degrees and a bunch of debt tend to do better than people without degrees. What can be done to make sure people without traditional four-year degrees are economically dignified and culturally relevant? That seems to be a more important question.
Hey Noah, I cross posted this on HN https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=26240354
Charmingly naive article. Is this the author's first realization that primate dominance dynamics exist in human society? Cute!
The focus on the Ivy League schools is important in that priorities and policies that originate there trickle down down to other selective schools such as Duke and Oberlin and Vanderbilt. And that then transfers to flagship public universities. So while the undergrad population of Ivies is small, the influence is undue.