Knowledge, secrecy, and elite education

The academic press is particularly provocative these days. In a fascinating Chronicle column by Georgetown’s James O’Donnell, What a Provost Knows, we are informed that, as provost, he alone knows all the secrets of campus finances, the scale of comparative worth embedded in the salary hierarchy, and the general health of the institution. He ends by saying:

“That’s the burden of the job: knowing all the things that others don’t know or would rather not know. Much that I know I can’t talk about, and I have had to get used to being the object of (usually) undeserved suspicion. Because I know so much, my actions are not fully intelligible to those who observe them. The hardest part of being provost has been learning that it’s right and proper that I be suspected — that such vigilance is part of what keeps our institution healthy.

In the end, the burden of knowledge is worth it. The pleasures of the job are many, not least of which is understanding this marvelous institution so well — a Rube Goldberg creation that really does work, and very well indeed. And the opportunity to kibitz on the intellectual lives of more than 500 keenly intelligent and resourceful faculty members is an immense privilege. Even cleaning up their messes and fixing their leaky roofs gives me great satisfaction.”

Consider some counterintuitive features of this argument. 1. The Provost is cast as knowledgeable in contrast to the ignorant faculty. 2. Knowledge is viewed as a burden. 3. The Provost is apparently omniscient: a paradox, in light of his acknowledged noninvolvement with the ostensibly central activities of the institution, research and teaching. 4. Knowledge must be kept secret (he does not quite say why, but we imagine that too much transparency would be somehow lethal to smooth institutional operations). In this discourse, knowledge is turned on its head. Rather than being an open public good, whose transmission and development is for the benefit of society at large, in this case knowledge (particularly financial knowledge) becomes a threat to the university if it’s disseminated. The knowledge of the provost makes him, paradoxically, unknowable to others; his actions become inscrutable as his privileged knowledge is kept secret.

Now, a rather different take on knowledge and higher education comes across in William Deresiewicz’ nifty essay “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” The essay is an attack on the elite education you get at Yale, where Deresiewicz teaches. He lists five main disadvantages:

  1. It “makes you incapable of talking to people who aren’t like you.”
  2. It “inculcates a false sense of self-worth.”
  3. It nurtures ‘entitled mediocrity.’
  4. It “gives you the chance to be rich… but it takes away the chance not to be.”
  5. “It is profoundly anti-intellectual.”

I’m moderately sympathetic to these claims, and they certainly describe well-known deformities of elite education, although there are also plenty of people who get elite educations without suffering these maladies. It reminds me of Pierre Bourdieu’s argument in “Rites of Institution” that a rite of passage serves, not only to transform those who undergo it, but also to decisively separate the initiates from those who will never pass through the rite. We might argue that an elite education is not only, perhaps not even primarily, a process of internal transformation for the elite themselves; it is also a means of creating social distinction and privilege, of marking the elite as superior to the rest.

From this perspective, a critique of Deresiewicz’s article offered by Marty Nemko, called “In Praise of Elitism,” leaves much to be desired. Nemko’s response, basically, is that elites are of “above-average value to society,” and should be praised in order to help them achieve their best. “It is in society’s best interest… that the best and brightest be the ones given the extra opportunities, so as to maximize their greater potential for improving society,” he says. His only qualm is that elites need to be taught to value “pro-social rather than narcissistic ends.” While Nemko believes that the elites are naturally and unproblematically selected as the best and brightest, Bourdieu would suggest that the elites only become elites through their consecration by the educational system. Nemko, in fact, dodges the entire issue raised by Deresiewicz to begin with, which is that not all smart people are elites and not all elites are smart – certainly not in all respects. The arbitrary organization of elite groups massively betrays its ostensible meritocratic values.

On the whole, I find Deresiewicz rather persuasive in his indictment of elite education, much as Jeffrey Williams’ wonderful critical analysis of “smart” made me want to rethink how I judge my academic colleagues. There’s nothing wrong with recognizing people’s accomplishments, as Nemko advocates, but recognizing a success is not the same as bowing down before a fetishized caste of the successful, as if success inhered in their persons and not their actions. And Deresiewicz is quite right to criticize the fantasy that elite education is all good. He observes perceptively: “While some opportunities are being created, others are being cancelled… while some abilities are being developed, others are being crippled is.” In the economist’s terms, elitism has its opportunity costs for individual and society alike.

Unfortunately, Deresiewicz’ alternative to elite education involves a fetishism of its own. “The true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers,” he argues; the aim is to create intellectuals who are “passionate about ideas,” “independent,” ready to go “into spiritual exile,” “thinking your way toward a vision of the good society and then trying to realize that vision by speaking truth to power.”

What’s troublesome is not so much the claim that education should produce intellectuals, but the kind of intellectuals Deresiewicz envisions. They derive their intellectual sanctity from “solitude,” from isolated “introspection” — in essence from a fantasy of the intellectual, recognizable in Plato and Descartes and Nietzsche, who retreats from society to penetrate alone to its secret truths, only to return with the claim that his/her unique truth affords a unique “vision” for social reform. Such an intellectual seeks the sanctity of social withdrawal along with the virtuous life of social engagement.

At times, this view of the intellectual (which I’ve examined provisionally in this short essay) has struck me as dangerously contradictory, an effort to seize and yet disavow political power. We might, more sympathetically, view it as a progressive dialectic between thinking and action. But I wonder: do intellectuals really need to be, at heart, solitary autonomous thinkers? What about organic intellectuals, who do their thinking as part of the broader social group they’re part of? What about intellectuals forming collectives who work together, collaboratively? Such modes of intellectual action deserve further examination.

Come to think of it, O’Donnell’s description of the solitary Provost amounts to one more fantasy of this isolated intellectual, whose exceptional power is justified by the uniqueness of his knowledge. One wonders whether universities would be more fair, if provosts were more open with their precious budgetary knowledge, more open to distributing institutional power across intellectual collectives, less inclined to create sham committees whose recommendations are ignored… Yet again, the intellectual organization of the university seems incapable of living up to its own ostensible intellectual virtues.