An Ivy League Theory of Value

July 26, 2008

Fassbinder’s fabulous 1981 film “Lola“, tells the story of a small town singer/hooker (Fassbinder lifted the premise from “The Blue Angel” starring Marlene Dietrich), who goes after a reserved and untainted building commissioner after a corrupt contractor (and lover) remarks that the new commissioner is “no man for her”. By seducing the commissioner, Lola is reacting against social exclusion and oppression by seeking to affirm her “true value” through the melodramatic vehicle of “true love”. Granted, Lola and the commissioner fall in love and get married, but Fassbinder is perverse at heart. During the last scenes, the corrupt contractor buys a short honeymoon with the freshly married Lola by giving her the whorehouse she worked in as a wedding present. “You’re an expensive mistress”, the contractor quips. “That’s how it should be”, retorts Lola.

The big irony of the film is that Lola’s successful quest to reaffirm her worth amounts to a mere increase in exchange value. Lola just became more expensive, that is her empowerment.

In the new issue of “American Scholar”, former Yale English Prof. William Deresiewicz presents a stinging and insightful critique of the elite Ivy League education system and how it breeds an upper crust mentality of exceptionalism and entitlement. On the one hand, Deresiewicz laments a system which he calls “anti-intellectual” for pushing normative ideas of intelligence, work, and society, while eschewing independent intellectual development and individual choice. Being smart isn’t the same as being intellectual.

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. So when students get to college, they hear a couple of speeches telling them to ask the big questions, and when they graduate, they hear a couple more speeches telling them to ask the big questions. And in between, they spend four years taking courses that train them to ask the little questions—specialized courses, taught by specialized professors, aimed at specialized students. […] We are slouching, even at elite schools, toward a glorified form of vocational training.

On the other hand, Deresiewicz believes the self-congratulatory bubble of elite institutions is a reflection of American socio-economic conditions. How different is the atmosphere of grade-inflation, extensions, and constant counseling at elite institutions to the padded lives of the wealthy, where they can always count on family money, connections, rehab and spiritual voyages to India to get themselves together? Meanwhile, public universities are entrenched with rigid bureaucracies and inflexible technocrats…

In short, the way students are treated in college trains them for the social position they will occupy once they get out. At schools like Cleveland State, they’re being trained for positions somewhere in the middle of the class system, in the depths of one bureaucracy or another. They’re 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.

Deresiewicz’s disenchantment is summarized in the following quote:

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.

But how inextricable is education from “the class system”? Is it that surprising that a school such as Amherst or Yale, whose endowment is funded by capitalists, would seek to train future investment bankers and politicians? Perhaps this disenchantment comes from the expectation that an “elite” institution would be mass producing young Darwins and Marxes and Sartres, but even such expectation presupposes that educational institutions are essentially social factories. As Baudrillard put it, an educational system aims “at remodeling an ideal nature from a child”. What “ideal nature” exists that isn’t defined by a dominant paradigm?

As astute as Deresiewicz social-economic commentary is, he speaks of the class difference between elite institutions and public universities only in terms of their differences, as if an i-banker from Amherst working 80 hours a week for Bear Stearns isn’t stuck in a life of subordination, supervision, and deadlines. Classes are separated by their position relative to the means of production, not simply by annual income. Chris Rock once joked, “Shaq is rich, but the white guy who writes his check is wealthy“; while elite institutions are spawning the ruling class of tomorrow, that can’t be said for all of us. A diploma from Yale isn’t an automatic ticket to upper-classdom, we’re still expected to sell our labor just like a middle-manager from Ohio State or a factory worker in Sri Lanka. This idea of a meritocracy espoused by “the elite” is an illusion at worse, a petty reward at best. Exploit yourself so that you one day can exploit others. What empowerment then does an elite institution give us? Ask Lola. It just makes us more expensive.

– s