Elite Universities: The Good, the Bad, and the Pathological

The Internet is all abuzz with a post about elite universities from The New Republic. (Find commentary here and here.) There are some issues with the article, namely, going from a legitimate gripe about the insane admissions process to assuming that “kids these days” are shallow, self-absorbed twits, or that “real learning” doesn’t happen at good schools.

I’m the first to say that the modern elite college admissions process is best ignored in favour of having a life and doing things that interest you. But the value of being at such a university is not just in the connections or the professors; it is one’s fellow students.

Back in high school, I found plenty of smart, motivated students in the honours and AP courses, but it wasn’t that challenging of an experience.  (I seem to recall spending five minutes a day on my AP chem homework.) That all changed once I hit university and found that I was one of five thousand people who had all been among the best students at their high schools.  My engineering and science professors often graded us on a B-/C+ curve, and when you looked around the room to wonder who would get the Cs, you often looked at yourself. Once my ego got over being whacked, it was a great experience: I worked harder than I ever would have before, for professors who demanded more out of me than any teacher had before, alongside students who were very smart, motivated, and intellectually curious.

It also showed me how very big the world is and how very many talented people are in it.  You can tell a teenager that there are four million high school seniors graduating with her and an awful lot of them are ridiculously brilliant, but it’s just an abstraction until she starts to meet hundreds or thousands of those people at a time.  It was an unnerving experience, but a valuable one: adults should understand that the world is full of talented people.

The problem that everyone from TNR to Stacy McCain has with super-elite universities is that people focus on admission and alumni connections, as if what actually happens at college is irrelevant. But that is a problem that is best solved by individual students and their parents, not by elite thinkers and planners.


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