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The Agony of Elite

The best read of the weekend was a New York Times opinion column. No, I’m not kidding.

Not only did token conservative Ross Douthat blow the lid on the self-perpetuating elitism of the Ivy League, he did it in the pages of the elites’ favorite Sunday morning newspaper.

Susan Patton, the Princeton alumna who became famous for her letter urging Ivy League women to use their college years to find a mate, has been denounced as a traitor to feminism, to coeducation, to the university ideal. But really she’s something much more interesting: a traitor to her class.

Her betrayal consists of being gauche enough to acknowledge publicly a truth that everyone who’s come up through Ivy League culture knows intuitively — that elite universities are about connecting more than learning, that the social world matters far more than the classroom to undergraduates, and that rather than an escalator elevating the best and brightest from every walk of life, the meritocracy as we know it mostly works to perpetuate the existing upper class.

Although the column was exceptional, my favorite part was the horrified reaction of Times readers in the comment section. Mockery of the "Well, I never!” responses made for an entertaining Sunday on Twitter. The outrage provided keen insight into the minds of elitist liberals, who Thomas Sowell calls “the anointed.”

Below is a sampling of the reactions, presented just as they appeared on the New York Times site. The paper shutdown the comments section before noon, perhaps to spare their readers any further embarrassment.

  • What I would like to ask Mr. Douthat is, can you think of any other reason besides elitist snobbism, that a PhD in philosophy might not marry or be close friends with, an auto mechanic. Could it be that they wouldn't have anything to talk about? Or even a lowly English major trying to share his/her love of literature with an uneducated bank teller. How about a mathematics professor sharing his life with a beautician? I in no way wish to disparage any of the professions I mentioned…

Oh, of course not. Many of the commenters mockingly conflated matriculation to a certain school with “smart.”

  • So Ross is advocating at young people graduating for ivies should go find a good for nothing low life who has no interest in raising kids, having a job, or staying Out of jail, so that we can produce dysfunctional kids who are all mediocre in order to to create greater "social equality"?
  • Frankly, I don't understand what the author wants. Does he WANT a regression toward the mean? Should a summa cum laude Harvard graduate feel socially obliged to fall in love with, marry, and have children with a high school dropout to raise the dropout's chances of improving his progeny's status?
  • [I]sn't it more efficient to impeccably educate a small group of preternaturally intelligent and talented people, inundating them with social consciousness so that they go into the areas of the country where the education gap is truly atrocious and improve the educational systems, infrastructures, and governance therein? 
  • Douthat's essay is nonsense… Would he prefer a law allowing smart people to only marry dumb people?
  • Really? This is news? Smart people like to marry smart people and help their children live comfortable productive lives? …Why aren't they marrying stupid people and encouraging their kids to drop out of high school and get a job at Walmart? 
  • I find it hard to perceive what Mr. Douthat's suggestion is, if any. Maybe intelligent people should squeeze themselves into a relationship with people of more limited cognitive abilities for the sake of "true" diversity? Maybe wealthy women will choose to raise their kids in the slums, in order for true America to be represented in every zip code?

Some of the responses sounded like conservatives making fun of pretentious academics.

  • This is reductive nonsense. Princeton is not Columbia. It is not Cornell. Nor is it Brown, or Penn. It is most decidedly NOT Swarthmore…
  • Endogamy is an amazingly complex subject.
  • As a character in Shaws's "Bleak House said a century ago, "A soul is an expensive thing to maintain." 
  • Mfr. Douthat, did it ever occur to you that educated people marry educated people not to perpetuate inequality and go status-grubbing together but rather because they like the same philosophers and poets and composers? 
  • I'm an ivy league grad and frankly, it's hard for me to find a partner who doesn't look at me quizzically if I make a reference to Henry James. Or if I mention something I heard on Radiolab or read in the Economist… [I]t has been really hard for me to find even one date with someone who I feel has the same intellectual interests as I do. I want a partner I can talk about The New Republic with, and who likes to watch documentaries, and then actively discuss them afterward.
  • As a Princeton student AND a queer female of color from a working class family, I'm ashamed I and my fellow non-white, non-straight, non-privileged classmates are getting lumped into Ross' blanket characterization of Ivy League students!
  • Since social mobility and rising meritocracy define movement of traditional society towards modernity the old elite resting on hereditary privilege and status gives way to the rise of new meritocratic elite to be distinguished with its acquired ability as against the ascriptive social traits...

Sorry, I nodded off there for a minute.

Some people in the comments thought that Douthat (and I on Twitter) were somehow insulting all Ivy Leaguers. Far from it. I would have loved the opportunity and I appreciate those who excelled there.

The problem arises when certain members of that group assume that their diploma makes them a better person than those without one. This is the academic version of the “we-know-what’s-best-for-you” attitude of the current leadership in Washington, D.C. Despite their lofty credentials, the “best and brightest” have made quite a hash of things. 

Instead of demeaning everyday Americans, the anointed could learn a few skills. A self-employed plumber could teach them how to balance a checkbook. A weekend soccer coach will show them how to get kids to work together toward a common goal. An office manager can point out that if she creates a mountain of red tape, productivity will plummet. 

It’s time our leaders put a higher value on common sense than they do on “proper breeding.”

Follow me on Twitter at @ExJon.

Monk Mann

The reason why "leaders" cannot do that is because they, together with many members of the financial elite and managers, came from, taught in, or supported the same schools.

Also, the reason why "common sense" is not emphasized is because the middle class is also vying for the same credentials.