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Tuesday, July 30, 2013

College Elitism

College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be Cover
Cleaning out my office, I found an interesting book review written by CUNY history professor Richard Wolin in The Nation, May 21, 2012. Wolin discusses College; What It Was, Is, and Should Be by Andrew Delbanco, a distinguished humanities professor at Columbia University.

The review and the book focus on the elitism that now thoroughly permeates American higher education. Forget the ideal of meritocracy:
"He [Delbanco] notes that whereas the child of a family earning at least $90,000 a year stands a 50 percent chance of receiving a BA by the time he or she turns 24, for a child whose annual family income is in the range of $60,000 to $90,000, the odds diminish to one in four. For someone from a household with an annual income of $35,000 or less, they plummet to one in seventeen....
Delbanco explains further that the children of affluent families are four times more likely to be admitted to a prestigious, highly selective university than students with comparable grades and test scores from families of more modest means."
You probably already know why these statistics are important, but here's a well-known stat referenced in the review:
"Over a lifetime, someone with a bachelor’s degree will earn an average of $2.1 million, nearly twice as much as someone with only a high school diploma."
Moreover, given what graduation from an elite colleges means for entry into a host of professions and professional networks, Delbanco concludes that "top universities perpetuate the perquisites of privilege rather than ameliorate them in a democratic manner." There's more:
"To judge by all the evidence available, American higher education today more closely approximates the dystopian image of the 'nightmare society' than it does the egalitarian 'pipe dream' that would be more in keeping with the democratic aspirations of our founding."
Towards the end of the essay, Wolin addresses the content of higher education, not merely the access to it. For example, he references Dewey on the importance of critical thinking, autonomy, and "participatory learning" for fostering democratic citizenship. He also cites de Tocqueville on the dangers of majoritarian tyranny, which he says higher education can help counter by promoting nonconformity.

The key passage from the conclusion echoes a point made by a long line of critical theorists, though the author refers to Plato and Rousseau:
"One of the central problems of undergraduate education today is that it increasingly reinforces the “instrumentalist” view that the major decisions in life concern the efficient selection of means rather than a reflection on ends. It would not be an exaggeration to claim that higher education has been degraded to the status of an enfeebled auxiliary to reigning social and economic interests." 
My youngest daughter is entering her senior year in high school, so we've been looking at some elite schools, some of the top flagship state schools, and a smattering of liberal arts schools that emphasize her particular interests.

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