Egalitarian Elites and the Academic Dilemma

It doesn’t take an acquaintance with Tocqueville to spot the flaws in many American claims about equality. Just go to school. You soon learn that an A paper is not equal to a C paper. You also learn that those different grades will have a bearing on where you go to college. And at college you will learn the hierarchy of professors and the jealousies by which faculty guard their senior statuses. If you persist and go on to graduate school (and didn’t have grades to see the point of national rankings), you learn the differences between elite graduate programs and middle rung institutions. And if you hang on to finish a dissertation, you have already mastered the differences among university presses and will feel little gitty-up in your morning run if you have to settle for Penn State University Press after having shot for Princeton University Press or even the University of Pennsylvania Press.

In other words, the American academy, like every one of its peers and predecessors, is built upon hierarchies that should have taken down the American myth of equality at least 140 years ago when the research university set the pace for higher education and elevated the Ph.D. to its esteemed rank. But it did not.

Andrew Delbanco, who teaches at one of the nation’s elite institutions, Columbia University, wrote a column recently for the Times in which he added a bit of candor to some of the fictions that surround American higher education and surprisingly had a few kind words to say about a Republican candidate:

Consider the fact that SAT scores (a big factor in college admissions) correlate closely with family wealth. The total average SAT score of students from families earning more than $100,000 per year is more than 100 points higher than for students in the income range of $50,000 to $60,000. Or consider that a mere 3 percent of students in the top 150 colleges, as defined by The Chronicle of Higher Education, come from families in the bottom income quartile of American society. Only a very dogmatic Social Darwinist would conclude from these facts that intelligence closely tracks how much money one’s parents make. A better explanation is that students from affluent families have many advantages — test-prep tutors, high schools with good college counseling, parents with college savvy and so on.

Yet once the beneficiaries arrive at college, what do they learn about themselves? It’s a good bet that the dean or president will greet them with congratulations for being the best and brightest ever to walk through the gates. A few years ago, the critic and essayist William Deresiewicz, who went to Columbia and taught at Yale, wrote that his Ivy education taught him to believe that those who didn’t attend “an Ivy League or equivalent school” were “beneath” him. The writer Walter Kirn recalled that at Princeton he learned to “rise to almost every challenge … except, perhaps, the challenge of real self-knowledge.” In my experience, a great many students at top colleges are wonderful young people whose idealism matches their intelligence. Yet the charge that elite college culture encourages smugness and self-satisfaction contains, like Mr. Santorum’s outburst, a germ of truth.

Our oldest and most prestigious colleges are losing touch with the spirit in which they were founded. To the stringent Protestants who founded Harvard, Yale and Princeton, the mark of salvation was not high self-esteem but humbling awareness of one’s lowliness in the eyes of God. With such awareness came the recognition that those whom God favors are granted grace not for any worthiness of their own, but by God’s unmerited mercy — as a gift to be converted into working and living on behalf of others. That lesson should always be part of the curriculum.

In this respect, I agree with Mr. Santorum that our leading colleges could use a little more of their own old-time religion — not in any doctrinal sense, but in the sense of taking seriously the Christian virtues of humility and charity. In secular terms, this means recognizing that people with good prospects owe much to their good fortune — and to fellow citizens less fortunate than themselves.

(Thanks to John Fea)

8 comments on this post.
  1. Patrick J. Deneen:

    I’ve long admired Delbanco. However, like so many well-meaning and generally sensible liberals, can one truly “talk seriously about the Christian virtues of humility and charity” while discarding “doctrine”? Wouldn’t “self-knowledge” on his part – and that of so many of his disposition – require serious reflection on the possible, and in my view likely, relationship between the decline of doctrine and the rise of atomized “smugness” on the part not only of students, but contemporary faculty – who are, after all, drawn to and shaped by the institutions in question?

  2. James Matthew Wilson:

    I second the admiration. Andrew Delbanco has, at the very least, the merit of having spoken frankly over the years about the decline of literary education as it has lost touch with a sense of vocation to culture and beauty. Delbanco’s brother, the novelist, Nicholas, was my professor as an undergraduate and instilled the seriousness of the writer’s trade and the virtue of art as few professors now could.

    I second Patrick’s plaint as well. One hear’s in Delbanco precisely the kind of honorable stoic position typical of Harvard at the turn of the last century. T.S. Eliot, who was the heir apparent to that mantle, saw that true humility could not be manifest in our simply aspiring to be our “best selves.” Rather, it consists in silencing the self to await the voice of God. That voice does not speak in fuzzy emotive gestures, but with an Incarnate voice and definitive doctrine. He is the Word, after all. Eliot saw, in other words, it will not suffice to turn the clock back one hour, as all urbane varieties of humanism have tried to do, from Babbitt and Royce to Delbanco and Kronmen. One must, rather, serve an everlasting truth.

  3. Anymouse:

    Excellent point, Wilson.

  4. D.W. Sabin:

    The humility attending our founding is in strongest eclipse precisely when our perceived exceptionalism is being trotted out most vociferously, as either cover for declining expectations or ginning up hatred in fear.

    When everyone is equal, there is no need for the superior and when there is no need for the superior, we shall possess an equality of sloth.

    But then, if we possessed a truly deliberative culture up to the mechanics of our lapsed republic, we might not have to resort to reminiscing about the ameliorative impact of superior achievement, regardless of Class.

  5. robert m. peters:

    Mr. Wilson,

    The Incarnate Voice indeed speaks with definitive doctrine, and we respond through the liturgy which the Holy Spirit has prepared and reveals, through the written Word which the Holy Spirit has written and guards, through prayer with which the Holy Spirit aids with His groanings, and through His revelation of the Creator in the creation of which we are a part.

    It is impossible to learn meaningfully until one becomes aware of one’s creaturehood, giving up abstract “worldviews,” and then until one is aware that one is a fallen creature and is in desperate need of grace.

    Here is were true learning begins: a creature with the capacity through grace to follow his Lord.

  6. Tony Esolen:

    Very nice piece of honesty from Prof. Delbanco.

    My mater ferox, Princeton, instilled in me, or perhaps I should say confirmed in me, an inveterate distrust of people soaked with money and taking for granted their prestige and their right to rule the world. Back then it was called “Princeton in the Nation’s Service,” not meaning “Princetonians Enlisting in the Armed Services,” because of course we never had any sweaty finger-dirtying truck with ROTC programs, but rather Princeton Congratulating Princeton for Turning the Nation to the Service of Princeton.

    One of the more unfortunate results of this self-preening meritocracy was that very bright students are skimmed off the top of all the communities in the country, accentuating the perceived differences between a Harvard graduate and, say, a graduate of Providence College, where I teach. And yet — students at Harvard can escape that institution with almost no instruction in the west’s heritage of literature, art, philosophy, and theology. Students at Harvard have told me so. It was one thing, back in the day, when certain landed gentry sent their sons to Harvard and they came out of there with a classical education. Now we have if anything a more radically self-adulating meritocracy, but without the classical education that would in part justify the adulation, or the Christian education that would provide the calls to humility.

  7. JonF311:

    Re: In this respect, I agree with Mr. Santorum that our leading colleges could use a little more of their own old-time religion — not in any doctrinal sense, but in the sense of taking seriously the Christian virtues of humility and charity

    The problem with this fond wish is that you cannot tap into Christian virtue without also affirming Christian theology. Oh, not at the “how many angels can dance on the head of a pin” level, but certainly at the “I believe in one God…” level. It’s a package deal. You can leave off some of the gift wrap and can choose a bit among flavors, but you can’t cut out anything essential.

  8. polistra:

    What is this nonsense? Humility and doctrine are opposites, not friends. Any firm belief in a doctrine, whether it’s Global Warming or anti-triclavianism or the Prosperity Gospel, directly creates the worst form of arrogance.

    Humility comes from adhering to a practice, not a doctrine. Doesn’t matter if the practice is crocheting, gardening, auto-body work or programming. If your hands and mind are occupied with a piece of Nature that fights back and refuses to become perfect, you’ll master humility.

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