Elites Really Are Different | Inside Higher Ed

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Every so often I’m reminded that elites really are different from the rest of us.

“Elite” can be a malleable term, so in this case, I’m defining it as those who belong to and operate within highly selective or exclusive institutions. Some may think that a college professor is an “elite” profession because of the amount of time and education involved to qualify for the credential, but that’s not how I’m using the word here, mostly because I want to demonstrate what it’s like to have spent many years working in higher education and yet feeling like other people who work in the same sector exist in an entirely different universe.

A couple of recent examples that came across my radar got me thinking about the nature of those differences, what they’re rooted in, and what they might mean.

One example was flagged by fellow IHE blogger Matt Reed in his response to an essay by Brown University economist and COVID oracle to many, Emily Oster, about how higher education institutions must return to in-person instruction for the good of the students.

After discussing the institutional responsibility to the students, Oster continues: “Parents entrust their children to universities. Many professors—myself included—have looked those parents in the eye and told them a version of I will watch out for your child. We have a responsibility to follow through on this now. We can do it very simply: by letting them go to school.”

In the entirety of my teaching career, I do not remember ever looking at a parent in the eye.[1] The number of times I have spoken to a parent on the phone can be counted on one hand, and the times I have promised one that “I will watch out for your child,” is exactly zero.

To correct Prof. Oster’s flattening of all students into the kinds of students that she apparently interacts with at Brown, Matt Reed clearly and concisely lays out the data showing that, for example, the average community college student is 28-years-old (and could quite possibly be a parent themselves), and are very unlikely to live on-campus.

That said, while the overwhelming majority of students I’ve personally worked with have been 18-to-22-years-old, I still have not spent a nanosecond concerned about what their parents might be thinking. As Matt points out, these students are also adults, which makes me promising to a parent that I’ll watch out for their child straight-up strange. 

I think it’s also bad for the overall learning atmosphere. Internalizing and embracing that level of paternalism is unlikely to create a healthy atmosphere for either party.

As an instructor, my job is simply to teach. I am not in loco parentis. I am not a therapist. I am someone that wants to help the people in front of me learn. Now, in my view effective teaching involves addressing the needs of the whole person, and benefits from an ethos of care that requires appropriate intervention and help, but the roots always lead back to what’s good pedagogically.

Those roots are why, unlike Oster, I think it may be prudent for schools to either delay the start of instruction or switch to remote instruction if the wave of Omicron variant infections proves too disruptive to face-to-face operations. I believe this because disruption is the enemy of learning

I can only guess where Oster’s pledge is coming from. Perhaps it is aimed at a particularly privileged class where a child is an investment and attending a school like Brown is expected to pay dividends. 

Perhaps not having a chance to rub shoulders with fellow elites because class is conducted remotely may actually diminish the value of an Ivy League degree. 

Sounds like a good question for an economist to study.

The other moment of pause came in reading Jonathan Haidt’s holiday email message to friends of Heterodox Academy.[2] In it, he welcomes new president John Tomasi (a Brown University political theorist), and lays out the vision he and Prof. Tomasi have of higher education and the academy, saying “John and I both became professors because we thought academic life was fun. We thought we had the best jobs in the world, getting paid to read, think, teach, and write––things we’d be glad to do for free.”

I think the sentiment that the work of academia can be interesting and pleasurable is widely shared by many who intersect with higher education. It’s certainly something I’ve felt over the years, and those pleasures are what kept me persisting as a non-tenurable instructor even as the underlying working conditions degraded.

But “fun” sounded a little odd to my ear. Fun suggests a certain kind of carefree space, a freedom that I would not associate with my experience of higher education. This discordance grew as I read on: “And we both agree that the academy got a lot less fun around 2015. Before then there was a wide space between ‘I agree with you’ and ‘I demand that the administration punish you for what you just said.’ That was the space within which all productive discussions occurred. But that began to change in 2014.”

Haidt believes 2014 is the beginning of faculty and students “walking on eggshells” which is “an orientation to university life that is incompatible with fun.” The infamous Yale Halloween costume incident is cited as a kind of ur-example of the dynamic.

I found this framing and example very helpful as a way to better understand the apparently unbridgeable divide between an organization like Heterodox Academy and myself. I read the Yale Halloween incident as an attempt by minority students to be heard while living in an atmosphere they perceived as at least somewhat hostile. Haidt sees these claims as a bummer for the faculty (like him) who had become acculturated to operating with unfettered and unquestioned autonomy. Having to grapple with these new voices, particular unruly ones was harshing his buzz.

Framing this as an affront to core academic values is clever positioning, but to me it reads like a Mad Men-era ad executive lamenting that they’re not allowed to have a bar cart in the office and grope a secretary or two anymore once women became executives too. Students agitating for change is as hallowed and enduring a tradition in higher education as anything.

I wonder what percentage of those laboring in higher education (staff, faculty, students) have ever experienced the kind of freedom/security/autonomy that Haidt identifies as the key to the academy being “fun.”

You won’t see my hand raised. At the very fine, but non-elite institutions where I’ve worked, the vast majority of my colleagues would likely not be raising their hands either. What do you think the demographic profile of those who experience Haidt’s version of “fun” is?

The notion that the key element missing from higher ed institutions is Haidt’s version of “fun” is so far outside my experience that it exists only as a fantasy.

Elites really live in a different world. It makes me wonder why non-elite institutions are required to emulate them in order to be deemed worthy of resources and support. 

It doesn’t make sense. It never did.


[1] I could imagine it happening at graduation, but non-tenureable faculty do not attend graduation.

[2] I am a subscriber to their email list.



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