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This article from the American Scholar was posted on Facebook by a friend, and I was quite impressed when I read it through. I got a taste of the elite educational world of which the author writes, as a student at Shady Side Academy. A large part of the student body were the perfect future leaders of whom William Deresiewicz writes, and indeed they went on to Ivy League and other elite universities, taking their place among the elite. My friends and I were definitely the outsiders though whom the author misses; not exactly beloved by our classmates, most of us wrote poetry and short stories, read voraciously, played music and wargames, and smoked a lot of dope too. Hey, it was the seventies.
I for one got bored with dope about the same time that I left prep school for Duquesne University, where I earned my first two degrees. Duquesne is a lot different than the Shady Side-Ivy League world, and the year that I went, there was only one other Shady Side alum there. Now deceased, he was a star football player who became a quadriplegic on a bad hit. He chose the school for its ramps, elevators, and proximity to home. In fact, the college counselor at Shady Side actively discouraged my attendance of Duquesne, at least until my mother informed him that it was a family tradition, in no uncertain terms. Then he backed off.
Reading Deresiewicz's article, I don't regret choosing an urban Catholic school, founded to educate the upwardly mobile working class of Pittsburgh, as much as I might. I certainly would have liked to get my ticket punched and move up into the club of movers and shakers, and Shady Side definitely is a part of that. I had a conversation a couple of years ago with a lawyer who attended Pittsburgh Central Catholic High School, and we joked how our old high schools basically ran Pittsburgh through their alumni. To an extent too, Duquesne provides something of a local elite. I recall another friend at my old bank job, saying how intimidated he felt sometimes seeing all the Duquesne class rings among the management, when he went to the University of Pittsburgh (for the record, an excellent university in its own right).
For all that, I feel as though my own education gave me advantages that Deresiewicz does not see among his students -- or for that matter in himself. I actually enjoyed selling insurance when I did that, and my customers were not the business elite of Pittsburgh, or much of any place else -- as a colleague described them, "These are guys who dig in the dirt." Others were nurses, hospital administrators, and others in the health care field; people who worked for a living and couldn't afford to live in that rarefied elite strata of second chances and easy privilege. If nothing else, we could talk about sports. Deresiewicz writes of not being able to talk to the plumber; I was able to sell dental insurance to a guy with meth mouth.
A year later, I was able to move up in the world, as it were, and become a college instructor. At one school, my students were much like the people who went to Duquesne in my day; primarily middle class, from good suburban and rural high schools. Others are international students, primarily from Africa and the Middle East. I find -- and still find -- a few who believe that they are God's gift to all their professors, set on this earth to mend all of our rotten ways. There are others too who seem allergic to work. There are not very many though, and most are really good people who work hard and neither ask for nor request special favors because they're special.
And I can talk to them. I wonder if the elite described by Deresiewicz could do quite as well in a room with no more than fifteen students, in various stages of wakefulness, and not place to hide.
Though I no longer teach there, I started at the same time at the local community college. My classes were diverse in ways far more pronounced than those identified in The Disadvantages of an Elite Education. Especially in the evening sections, there was a wide range of ages, political affiliations, experiences, sexual orientations, and familiarity with the criminal justice system. One of my first students there was an angry black bisexual with a variety mental health disorders, and a tendency toward violent threats, at least until someone got in his face about it. Which I did. Other students used to ask me for advice about appealing their sons' and brothers' murder convictions (I ultimately referred them to the legal profession).
My community college colleagues and I heard stories that might make a member of the Ivy League elite described in the article dive under the furniture even before someone mentions bullets. For us though it was all in a day's work, even a fun part of it.
Would I trade all this in for the life of elitism and high tax bracket described in The Disadvantages of an Elite Education? Well, I'd certainly like the higher income. Outside of that, I have fewer regrets about lacking the grades, opportunities, and yes I'll admit the diligence and talent, to attend an Ivy League or equivalent school. At least I can talk to the plumber, and I get to hear better stories about more interesting felonies.