Monday, April 27, 2009

The Disadvantages of an Elite Education

Periodically I’ll take a look at Whitney Tilson’s blog. The first time I became aware of Tilson was when word went out about his account of Ben Chavis’ verbal attack on New York City Council Member Charles Barron at Sharpton’s National Action Network EEP forum. Chavis, Oakland’s notorious and poorly-behaved American Indian Public Charter School founder, had been invited to sit on the panel.

According to Tilson, Chavis approached Barron and said, “You're a mother f-ing black pimp, you're f-ing our kids. Come to the reservation and I'll beat your ass. You want our kids to take Home Ec? YOU should wear a dress!"

For those of us in Oakland who have been experiencing Chavis for years, hearing something like this was nothing new. But then there was Whitney Tilson’s enthusiastic response of, “I LIKE this guy!”

Tilson's day job is as the founder and managing partner of a New York company that manages investments. He also writes about financial investing and is a minor TV business celebrity. He has posted some of his appearances on YouTube.

In addition to the things above, Tilson's super-intense hobby is being involved with education reform-minded things. He co-founded Democrats for Education Reform, and is on the board of directors of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He has spoken to Philanthropy Roundtable members, guiding and reinforcing their K-12 education philosophy. Tilson is a huge fan of Joel Klein, according to whom he meets regularly, he adores Michelle Rhee, and Jay Green gives him praise.

Whitney Tilson was the first person to join Wendy Kopp as a founding member of Teach For America. He is the vice chairman of KIPP Academy Charter Schools in NYC. All-in-all he is a big pro-charter, pro-voucher cheerleader of TFA and KIPP; possibly the ultimate neo-liberal education reformer of our day.

Tilson explains on his blog that his parents spent most of their careers doing international development. His interest in education came about because of both the work of his parents and from his experience with TFA.
“I remember the many times, going back to my teenage years, that she [his mother] reminded me of all the good fortune I’ve had in my life and told me that I had a duty to give back and make the world a better place.”
A photo posted online reveals that he was a high school student at Northfield Mount Hermon School (where today's current tuition, room, and board charge is $43,400+, and $30,500+ for day students). He attended Harvard, and eventually Harvard Business School. His education trajectory is very much like Duncan and Obama's.

Tilson invites his readers to look at the photos and videos of KIPP celebrations which he has posted online. I was surprised to see them intertwined with photos and videos of his personal life, and have no idea why someone involved in a controversial, public topic would do such a thing. But since he made them available to the world and I'm a curious person, I thought I’d take a look. I’m fascinated with trying to understand the make-up of people who think so differently from me. For some reason, or the other, I keep looking for a bridge.

The photos and videos feature the travel and activities of an extraordinarily privileged American family; Machu Picchu, Kenya, Prague, Jackson Hole, skiing, golfing, water skiing, private plane flying, white-water rafting, paragliding, and on and on and on. It strikes me that Whitney Tilson is one entitled dude. Incidentally, I learned that his children attend a private school who a mother described as "one of the most elite girls’ schools in the nation." It has a student to faculty ratio of 7:1 and its tuition is around $34,000/year. No public schools will be experienced here.

This all brings me to a fascinating and useful article I discovered during my googling of “elite schools,” The Disadvantages of an Elite Education by William Deresiewicz, a literary critic and former Yale professor. I love how he begins his piece:
It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League degrees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. “Ivy retardation,” a friend of mine calls this. I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn’t talk to the man who was standing in my own house.

Here are nine additional excerpts which not only relate to Tilson and TFA, but also to the current state of education reform, the vision of which has been conceived, and is being pushed, by our nation’s elite. The article also gives us a clue as to why other social classes are being excluded from participating in important conversations about their own schools. Deresiewicz writes:
(1) It’s not surprising that it took me so long to discover the extent of my miseducation, because the last thing an elite education will teach you is its own inadequacy. As two dozen years at Yale and Columbia have shown me, elite colleges relentlessly encourage their students to flatter themselves for being there, and for what being there can do for them. The advantages of an elite education are indeed undeniable. You learn to think, at least in certain ways, and you make the contacts needed to launch yourself into a life rich in all of society’s most cherished rewards. To consider that while some opportunities are being created, others are being cancelled and that while some abilities are being developed, others are being crippled is, within this context, not only outrageous, but inconceivable.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
(2) The first disadvantage of an elite education, as I learned in my kitchen that day, is that it makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you. Elite schools pride themselves on their diversity, but that diversity is almost entirely a matter of ethnicity and race. With respect to class, these schools are largely—indeed increasingly—homogeneous.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
(3) At the same time, because these schools tend to cultivate liberal attitudes, they leave their students in the paradoxical position of wanting to advocate on behalf of the working class while being unable to hold a simple conversation with anyone in it. Witness the last two Democratic presidential nominees, Al Gore and John Kerry: one each from Harvard and Yale, both earnest, decent, intelligent men, both utterly incapable of communicating with the larger electorate.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
(4) My education taught me to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class. I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me. We were “the best and the brightest,” as these places love to say, and everyone else was, well, something else: less good, less bright.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
(5) [Elite universities] …select for and develop one form of intelligence: the analytic. While this is broadly true of all universities, elite schools, precisely because their students (and faculty, and administrators) possess this one form of intelligence to such a high degree, are more apt to ignore the value of others. One naturally prizes what one most possesses and what most makes for one’s advantages. But social intelligence and emotional intelligence and creative ability, to name just three other forms, are not distributed preferentially among the educational elite. The “best” are the brightest only in one narrow sense. One needs to wander away from the educational elite to begin to discover this.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
(6) Elite institutions are supposed to provide a humanistic education, but the first principle of humanism is Terence’s: “nothing human is alien to me.” The first disadvantage of an elite education is how very much of the human it alienates you from.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
(7) The second disadvantage, implicit in what I’ve been saying, is that an elite education inculcates a false sense of self-worth… It’s been said that what those tests [SAT, GRE, and other numerical rankings] really measure is your ability to take tests, but even if they measure something real, it is only a small slice of the real. The problem begins when students are encouraged to forget this truth, when academic excellence becomes excellence in some absolute sense, when “better at X” becomes simply “better.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
(8) One of the great errors of an elite education, then, is that it teaches you to think that measures of intelligence and academic achievement are measures of value in some moral or metaphysical sense. But they’re not. Graduates of elite schools are not more valuable than stupid people, or talentless people, or even lazy people. Their pain does not hurt more. Their souls do not weigh more.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
(9) This is not to say that students from elite colleges never pursue a riskier or less lucrative course after graduation, but even when they do, they tend to give up more quickly than others… Because students from elite schools expect success, and expect it now. They have, by definition, never experienced anything else, and their sense of self has been built around their ability to succeed. The idea of not being successful terrifies them, disorients them, defeats them. They’ve been driven their whole lives by a fear of failure—often, in the first instance, by their parents’ fear of failure.

We need to have a public discussion about the extent of the patronizing contempt for the middle-class-on-down held by some of those in the non-public school using elite, and how it is manifesting itself in the way our public education system is being treated and where education reform is being headed. The People who actually use the public schools, and the providers who work in them, are being excluded from important decisions on both the local and national levels.
The response by the elite is always about how much they are trying to "help." Sorry, I just don't buy that, especially because so many of the reforms are being pushed onto communities after the elite arranges for general public input to be forcefully disengaged.*

Before a reader charges me with inciting class warfare, I hope they realize how much class tension is already there, and growing by the minute. Think of these entries as reports about what is going on at the ground level.

*Remember Joe Williams' (Tilson's buddy) description in his report for the Center of Education Reform of a desirable "politics free zone" conveniently created by the state control of Oakland's school district, and which opened the door for Eli Broad's reform ideas to be implemented?


Tom Hoffman said...

This is perhaps even more to the point:

AVParodi said...

Excellent post and points well made. I don't know if I read it here or somewhere else but I am reminded of the Warren Buffett quote, actually there are two of them but I will use the one from the NY Times, when he was arguing the need to raise taxes on the rich: "There's class warfare, all right, but it's my class, the rich class, that's making the war, and we're winning." (NY Times, 11/26/06)

The main thing here is the condescension and while this attitude is not the exclusive domain of the elite it does seem to drip from their help like the condensation on an overheated pipe. Hence from the Kopps and Rhees, and so many others, we get the "trust me, I know what's best" model of governance.

I don't think your concerns are misplaced. The disparity between what people like Tilson say they care about and what they actually are doing is quite huge. This isn't helping, this is guilt-reducing charity work. This is giving the people fish instead of teaching them to fish. It is also quite effective in keeping them where they belong.

Ruth Howard said...

Thank you, I appreciate the William Deresiewicz quotes above.

This past 18 months I've been progressively struck by how incredibly small our planet is. How intimately my life is connected with others (I dont profess that I understand others situations, but I now feel that this too can happen to me. I grew up here in Australia feeling a distance to global catastrophes-I no longer feel this, the opposite in fact). How small it all feels, like I can begin to sense the potential for 'oneness' even whilst watching systemic collapse.

This connects with your piece because I myself experienced distance through lack of empathy,identification,unquestioned cultural anomalies and now I feel so different. It's not an intellectual response,I feel this in my gut and everyday reminders that we are in this together. What I do/not does affect the world.

I have come to know that people are poor not at all because they are lazy but because of such separatist segregationist policies that support the one winner and dismiss mass losers.People lose because there are winners.

I get the feeling that this old top dog down system isn't working for the masses anymore-its exciting to say the least.

Invert the pyramid! Children,planet and spirit (same thing)at the top (mothers next!)and corporations at the bottom,supporting everyone else to support the topmost tier. What would education look like then? What could civilisation become?

Anonymous said...

The so-called "Elite" really need for someone to take most of their money away, because they will be made more moral,
and probably also happier, if their money is taken from them
in huge quantities.

Having too much money robs one of motivation, and compromises any decent person's ability to make clear ethical decisions.

It should be up to poor and middle-class people ONLY to decide how much money the Elite should be able to keep.

The Elite need to have no say whatsoever in the matter at all----That will free them from moral compromise.

By taking most of the Elites' money away from them forever, we will improve their lives, make them happier, amd make them more productive members of society.

But NONE of this will happen if we let the Elites decide their destiny (or fate) for themselves---That would be counter-productive and would spoil everything.

Stuart Buckaroo has got to go
for that, right?


Bob Heiny said...

Glad I found your blog. Interesting post about elitism and education. I wonder if we hold different views of this topic.

So called elite schools, however defined, demonstrate what and how much learning is possible for identifiable cohorts of students. Nothing wrong with that.

These schools set academic benchmarks against which other people and schools measure how much of the possible they accomplish. Nothing wrong with that either.

They attract bright students, because their students learn more and develop contacts they want for after school. Nothing wrong with that.

Another explanation, rather than blaming schooling, exists for people not talking with each other. They hold few common views, for many reasons (including religion, interests, biases, etc.) with schooling likely making a minor contribution to those differences.


Anonymous said...

I think the problem with geting the so-called "Elites" to understand how they are actually HURTING and not helping Education, can be summarized by this quote:

"It’s hard to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” - Upton Sinclair

It looks like
"The Elites" will have to have their investment portfolios taken away before they can understand the harm they are doing via the charter schools movement.

Until that happenes, they can never, EVER be trusted
to be impartial.


Anonymous said...

And let me add a quote from Upton Sinclair to elaborate the suspicion more and more people are now having about Elites' involvement in Public School "Reform" and the Charter School movement:

"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"

Maybe we could substitute "big profit$ from educational products" for the word, "salary".

Kinda' hits an aspect of human nature right on the button, no?


Anonymous said...

I checked out Bob Heiny's blog, and it is very "techy", but I suspect a pro-profit agenda as he mentions he
is in the high-tech business.

Sounds like he's got some products
to sell.

But it's all for the kids,
I'm sure.



Bob Heiny said...

A great bait post, Anonymous. I see a tangent relationship to the post.

Setting aside the obvious political rhetoric, I'd answer your Q with "No", substituting for salary doesn't necessarily hit an aspect of human nature on the button.

What's "human nature" about such a trade?

Why should anyone trade initiative and risk-taking (entrepreneurship) for dependence on salary issued by someone else ultimately at their discretion?

What's "human nature" about depriving anyone of the maximum academic achievement they care to accomplish, whether with age or accomplishment peers?

Anonymous said...


What a perfect demonstration of Upton's Sinclair's brilliant insight into human nature!

You have been very helpful with this lesson, Mr. Heiny.

Thank you very much!

Sign me,


Bob Heiny said...

nikto, I meant my comment as questions for discussion, not as conclusions. Maybe later, yes?

nikto said...

Mr, heiny,

You have just proven why should not be allowed anywhere near a school.

You are obtuse like a fox.

The Perimeter Primate said...


Pete Zucker said...

I know I am coming to the party late, but this is freaking brilliant!

The Perimeter Primate said...

Mike Klonsky's blog (

Hedge-fund school "reformers" Tilson, Buffett cleaning up on the oil spill

"In a cash-constrained world of chaos and panic, we are finding tremendous bargains," says Tilson (Tech Ticker)

Tlison's fund owns Warren Buffett's holding company. Buffett is partners with Bill Gates in the Gates Foundation (which owns more than 4 million shares of BP Oil). Buffet and Tilson also bought NALCO, the company that makes the toxic oil dispersant they are dumping into the Gulf. May be a bigger pollutant than the oil itself. They are also among the biggest backers of privately-managed charter schools. Tilson heads up Democrats for Education Reform (DFER).

The Perimeter Primate said...

Sign in and enjoy!

The Perimeter Primate said...

The Perimeter Primate said...
Whitney @

"The alumni magazine for my daughters' school, Nightingale-Bamford, has a nice profile of three alums who joined Teach for America..." (8/24/2007)
The Nightingale-Bamford School
Tuition (2011-2012)
K-XII $37,150

Student to faculty ratio: 7:1