Friday, January 07, 2011

No Wonder We're Failing: Our Power Elites' Sole Expertise Is Being Privileged

The Power Elite which has been raised to occupy the privileged seats of political and financial power in America has a skillset limited to navigating the world of privilege.

The Power Elites are not monolithic: there are three distinct layers, each with its own defining characteristics.

Correspondent Judy T. recently recommended an extraordinary essay on the education and grooming received by the Political and Financial Power Elite: The Disadvantages of an Elite Education by William Deresiewicz.

I have roughly excerpted this long and important essay below.

In essence, Deresiewicz suggests that the Elite youth being groomed at exclusive Ivy league universities--an Elite education--are functionally incompetent in the real world and only skilled at a superficial facsimile of "independent thought" which is merely a higher order of groupthink and its attendent obedience.

Deresiewicz is addressing the privileged-by-birth/class Elite which is being groomed for positions high up in government, law and finance--the working Elites of the American Empire who make the decisions which impact billions of people.

A much thinner layer of Elites have little real power but plenty of wealth. These are the entrepreneural Elites glorified by breathless articles such as The Rise of the New Global Elite (The Atlantic).

This perspective takes the examples of Bill Gates (co-founder of Microsoft, Mark Zuckerberg (founder of Facebook)--both children of privilege, we note--and a handful of hedge fund managers and other super-wealthy players as proof that meritocracy is still the great leveler, and that hard work and innovation now pay off more than ever.

This article claims that a "winner take all" economy is rewarding the wealthy because the wealthy are smarter, more innovative and harder working than the average bear, and so income inequality is the outcome of this.

This argument is higher-order propaganda: by establishing a superficially undeniable case that a handful of super-wealthy individuals has earned their great wealth rather than inherit it, then the argument is extended to cover all positions of wealth and power: it's all, ahem, "earned."

But as Deresiewicz scathingly delineates, the vast majority of the Power Elites in government, finance and global corporate leadership are trained to a mediocrity which they have been groomed to accept as excellence.

This highly-touted Innovative Elite only functions in the narrow sphere of technology and financial speculation. Its numbers are miniscule and its direct influence over policy is generally overstated.

The Third Elite is also a meritocracy: this is a group I would term Academic Elites.These are the young people who earn their doctorates from, do post-doc research in, and end up teaching at the creme da la creme science and math universities: MIT, Caltech, Princeton's Institute of Advanced Study, Harvard, UC Berkeley, et al.

Since I live in Berkeley, I have met many of these budding academic superstars, and I have found them to be uniformly unpretentious about their high-powered talent and knowledge. Just anecdotally, that suggests that carting a great ego around does not play very well in the hard-sciences Academic Elite.

A member of this Elite is occasionally appointed to some high position in government--for example, President Obama appointed physicist Steve Chu to be Secretary of Energy. Though these positions can be bully pulpits for various innovative ideas, they are essentially powerless.

Thus this third Elite also has limited access to the levers of power. (Anecdotally, they are often foreign-born citizens or second-generation immigrants--that is, they don't arise from families of established privilege and wealth.)

I have had a small taste of a privileged Elite education, as I graduated from the same prep school that President Obama attended in Honolulu, Hawaii (the oldest prep school west of the Rockies, mind you). My stepfather taught there, and so I was able to attend tuition-free.

I would say that an Elite education is only one piece in the Power Elites' grooming; ultimately, it's family connections and the mentoring of influential people which raise people to positions of State and financial power. This is not the networking one achieves by attending various meetings; you are born to it. (sorry, meritocracy propagandists.)

I would also be careful to separate the hard sciences Academic Elites from the Ivy League/law school layer that Deresiewicz describes. They are different Elites despite having some occasional crossover.

There are two classes manufactured in Elite education institutions: those destined to be handed the levers of power, and those destined to serve them as well-paid factotums and functionaries. Sadly, many believe the hokem about merit being the key to State and financial wealth and power, and on a superficial level of outliers and frontmen (Bill Clinton et al.), this is true enough to further the con.

But when the real Elites gather, the hard-working Elite functionaries find themselves relegated to the Siberia of inferiors.

Here is my rough excerpt of The Disadvantages of an Elite Education by William Deresiewicz. It suggests that the institutions of Elite education are failing at a fundamental level, and that the meritocracy so treasured as part of the American Dream is as threadbare as the "independence and expertise" of the Elites being groomed to power.

(Those who attend 2nd and 3rd Tier universities) are being conditioned for lives with few second chances, no extensions, little support, narrow opportunity--lives of subordination, supervision, and control, lives of deadlines, not guidelines. At places like Yale, of course, it’s the reverse.The elite like to think of themselves as belonging to a meritocracy, but that’s true only up to a point. Getting through the gate is very difficult, but once you’re in, there’s almost nothing you can do to get kicked out.

Elite schools nurture excellence, but they also nurture what a former Yale graduate student I know calls "entitled mediocrity."

Anyone who remembers the injured sanctimony with which Kenneth Lay greeted the notion that he should be held accountable for his actions will understand the mentality in question—the belief that once you’re in the club, you’ve got a God-given right to stay in the club.

One of the disadvantages of an elite education is the temptation it offers to mediocrity, another is the temptation it offers to security. When parents explain why they work so hard to give their children the best possible education, they invariably say it is because of the opportunities it opens up. But what of the opportunities it shuts down? An elite education gives you the chance to be rich— which is, after all, what we’re talking about—but it takes away the chance not to be. Yet the opportunity not to be rich is one of the greatest opportunities with which young Americans have been blessed.

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.

But if you’re afraid to fail, you’re afraid to take risks, which begins to explain the final and most damning disadvantage of an elite education: that it is profoundly anti-intellectual. This will seem counterintuitive.

Being an intellectual means more than doing your homework.

If so few kids come to college understanding this, it is no wonder. Being an intellectual means, first of all, being passionate about ideas—and not just for the duration of a semester, for the sake of pleasing the teacher, or for getting a good grade.

Places like Yale are simply not set up to help students ask the big questions. When elite universities boast that they teach their students how to think, they mean that they teach them the analytic and rhetorical skills necessary for success in law or medicine or science or business. But a humanistic education is supposed to mean something more than that, as universities still dimly feel.

They spend four years taking courses that train them to ask the little questions— specialized courses, taught by specialized professors, aimed at specialized students. Although the notion of breadth is implicit in the very idea of a liberal arts education, the admissions process increasingly selects for kids who have already begun to think of themselves in specialized terms—the junior journalist, the budding astronomer, the language prodigy. We are slouching, even at elite schools, toward a glorified form of vocational training.

Indeed, that seems to be exactly what those schools want. There’s a reason elite schools speak of training leaders, not thinkers--holders of power, not its critics. An independent mind is independent of all allegiances, and elite schools, which get a large percentage of their budget from alumni giving, are strongly invested in fostering institutional loyalty.

As another friend, a third-generation Yalie, says, the purpose of Yale College is to manufacture Yale alumni.

The liberal arts university is becoming the corporate university, its center of gravity shifting to technical fields where scholarly expertise can be parlayed into lucrative business opportunities.

Yet there is a dimension of the intellectual life that lies above the passion for ideas, though so thoroughly has our culture been sanitized of it that it is hardly surprising if it was beyond the reach of even my most alert students. Since the idea of the intellectual emerged in the 18th century, it has had, at its core, a commitment to social transformation. Being an intellectual means thinking your way toward a vision of the good society and then trying to realize that vision by speaking truth to power. It means going into spiritual exile.

Being an intellectual begins with thinking your way outside of your assumptions and the system that enforces them. But students who get into elite schools are precisely the ones who have best learned to work within the system, so it’s almost impossible for them to see outside it, to see that it’s even there. Long before they got to college, they turned themselves into world-class hoop-jumpers and teacher-pleasers, getting A’s in every class no matter how boring they found the teacher or how pointless the subject, racking up eight or 10 extracurricular activities no matter what else they wanted to do with their time.

Thirty-two flavors, all of them vanilla. The most elite schools have become places of a narrow and suffocating normalcy. Everyone feels pressure to maintain the kind of appearance—and affect—that go with achievement. (Dress for success, medicate for success.) I know from long experience as an adviser that not every Yale student is appropriate and well-adjusted, which is exactly why it worries me that so many of them act that way. The tyranny of the normal must be very heavy in their lives.

"To whom can I expose the urgency of my own passion?...There is nobody--here among these grey arches, and moaning pigeons, and cheerful games and tradition and emulation, all so skilfully organised to prevent feeling alone." (Virginia Woolf)

Emerson says, he reported, that one of the purposes of friendship is to equip you for solitude.

There’s been much talk of late about the loss of privacy, but equally calamitous is its corollary, the loss of solitude. It used to be that you couldn’t always get together with your friends even when you wanted to. Now that students are in constant electronic contact, they never have trouble finding each other.

Other students told me they found their peers too busy for intimacy. What happens when busyness and sociability leave no room for solitude? The ability to engage in introspection, I put it to my students that day, is the essential precondition for living an intellectual life, and the essential precondition for introspection is solitude. They took this in for a second, and then one of them said, with a dawning sense of self-awareness, “So are you saying that we’re all just, like, really excellent sheep?”

But I do know that the life of the mind is lived one mind at a time: one solitary, skeptical, resistant mind at a time. The best place to cultivate it is not within an educational system whose real purpose is to reproduce the class system.

The kid who’s loading up on AP courses junior year or editing three campus publications while double-majoring, the kid whom everyone wants at their college or law school but no one wants in their classroom, the kid who doesn’t have a minute to breathe, let alone think, will soon be running a corporation or an institution or a government.

She will have many achievements but little experience, great success but no vision. The disadvantage of an elite education is that it’s given us the elite we have, and the elite we’re going to have. (emphasis added)

Thank you, Judy, for recommending this insightful essay.

No wonder the U.S. is imploding--its State and financial Elites believe their mediocre groupthink is actually brilliant. That self-serving self-deception and hubris has cost us dearly, and will continue to do so.

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