David and I met with Professors Rogers and Brim last week to present our ideas. We both seemed to want to focus on Elite Education but from slightly different angles. David was interested in looking into the nuts and bolts of the Admissions Process (and associated ethical implications). I was interested in looking at the impact legacy has on the value of a college education.
I’m interested in the automatic association between wealth and the Ivy League. There’s an implied connection, that a child of a Political/Social Dynasty (Kennedys, Rockerfellers, even someone like Chelsea Clinton), is so guaranteed acceptance into a school of their choosing, it doesn’t even matter if they go. They are famailially linked to thesee schools. This is what C Wright Mill’s speaks to in The Power Elite (the context of his book is a very post WWII America. He is clearly speaking to the establish of an Eisenhowerian Military)– they’re families so powerful in this country that they move mountains. Their kids need not even go to college, but to the extent they are, you bet they’ll go to Yale!
My mother was the first class of women at Bowdoin, and she often recounts walking home late from the library in the middle of winter (in Maine), and seeing men passed out in the snow. She said she always imagined that’s what George Bush (jr) was like at Yale. Four years of party and fun, and leave with a degree that carries weight and power in this country and abroad.
I’m interested in the lack of purpose/impact a degree has for this type of student, which of course begs the question, what’s the purpose of higher ed in the first place? But there exists a reason we go to college. We’re told it guarantees employment or will allow for a larger salary, or because of the promise of intellectual fulfillment. A child of the rich isn’t burdened with these concerns– although craving the intellectual life surpasses class.
There will always be fundamental tensions between the classroom, the Ivory Tower, and the larger world of employment, taxes, and grocery shopping, but for the children (cousins, nieces, stepsons once removed) of the elite, will they not already occupy a plane of existence separate from the rest of us, with different (fewer) expectations. Education for the elite is more a rubber stamp to move on to the next stage of existence than anything else.
When I think of someone like Chelsea Clinton, I understand that yes she could be legitimately interested in public health, and want to teach graduate-level courses at Columbia, but at the same time, the experience of having her as a professor would never be neutral. She will always be a Clinton, and regardless of ability, the impetus of her ending p lecturing in front of you is something much larger than herself.
Just some background on this compilation of images, that may seem random!
I’d be interested to hear more about the connection you make between rich students and the “lack of purpose/impact a degree has” for them, as well as the idea that a degree is just a rubber stamp for the elite. Can we at all tease apart unfair advantage in admissions (e.g., legacies) from possibly worthy intellectual and career pursuits of those who receive unfair advantages? Can we do this without flatly defending “the individual” who cannot help whether she is Chelsea Clinton or not? I’m quite interested in this tension as it is reflected in professors’ and students’ relationships to the elite universities that employ or admit them. Can we be in but not of the university? (Ahmed and Moten/Harney will work with this tension explicitly in upcoming readings).
Thank you for your comments, Professor Brim.
I do not deny that my take is cynical and discounts the legitimate intellectual motivation of an individual. If that individual happens to be Chelsea Clinton, so be it. I think what I’m more interested in is the self-fulfilling prophecy that is the elite existence– for instance, Chelsea Clinton studied Public Health and has multiple advanced degrees in it, and get she heads the Clinton Foundation. Their existence is tied to their economic place in this world, it can’t help but feel like an echo chamber– perhaps what I’m trying to get at. I don’t want to say I’m advocating for complacency. Is it better for a wealthy individual to start a nonprofit than not, well I guess in some sense, sure, but it also feels like the impetus that pushes them is one of entitlement rather than fully altruistic or passionate ends. I’m interested in both the large impact someone wealthy and educated can make, and also the generally removed yet prestigious existence most of them have.
Thanks for sharing this collection of images, Eve, and for drawing our attention to the assumptions they carry with them. I echo Matt’s questions and look forward to talking this evening.