Newsflash: Elite universities are supposed to produce elites. That’s their job.

Connor Wood

Young graduate standing in front of university building

As I wrote last time, conservatives in the state government have been attacking the University of Wisconsin, where I went to college. Studying religion and ideology, I’ve come to appreciate many conservative and traditionalist perspectives. But this assault on the UW system raises a tough question: why is it that conservatives – including religious conservatives – often seem so bloody hostile toward higher education? Some might say that it’s because religious conservatives are Dark Ages throwbacks, but I think that some better answers might instead come from asking a more interesting and useful question: what is higher education for? What does higher education offer a rich, complex society like ours?

If we have a clear vision of higher education’s purpose, we might get better insight into why conservatives are often opposed to it. So let me make the parameters a bit more specific: let’s talk about elite higher education, which is what many conservatives complain about. In fact, “elite” is often used as a kind of curse word by conservatives when speaking about the Ivory Tower. But the word “elite” just means top-level, or high quality. For example, elite athletes play on Division I or professional teams, and elite military units are the most highly trained and skilled. So what are elite universities?

Definitions vary, but for simplicity’s sake let’s say they’re the ones most highly ranked in publications like the U.S. News and World Report rankings. These rankings are controversial, and rightfully so – they’ve helped turn higher education into a shallow, hyper-competitive adolescent rat race, where the quality of education doesn’t always match the brand name. But for our purposes, high rankings do identify the schools where students tend to come from the top of their high school classes, to score highly on standardized tests like the SAT or ACT, and to go on to high-status professional careers. Elite education is for people who excel, more or less, at academics.

Now that we’ve got our terms down, there are two points about elite higher education that we, as a society, need to face up to. It’ll make us uncomfortable, but we’ve got to do it. You’ll thank me later.

1. Elite universities – including top state universities, like the University of Wisconsin-Madison or the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill – produce elites. That’s their job.

Conservatives commonly complain about what they call the “politics of envy” – class-based resentment against the top of the economic ladder. According to conservative wisdom, you can’t advance yourself in the world if you’re too busy resenting exactly the sort of person you’d become if you bettered yourself. There’s some truth to this; anyone who’s ever successfully worked through an insecure adolescence and come out on the other side knows that envying your self-confident peers is a lousy way to get over your own insecurity. In fact, envy can directly block you from maximizing your own talents, looking out for others, and mastering the other habits that can actually produce self-confidence – in no small part because envy turns your best peer exemplars into rivals to be sulked at rather than models to be befriended and emulated.

So, in interpersonal settings, conservative mistrust of status envy makes some sense. We can argue over how accurate these insights are when applied to the wider world, but the ideological point is that conservatives, by and large, claim to be more comfortable with inequality than progressives. Okay. Fine. So why are conservatives so widely resentful of elite education? Why is it that nearly every Republican politician, while making a folksy pitch to the electorate, can be relied on to make some snarky comment about “Ivory Tower elites” or “fancy college degrees?” Why is it that conservatives in Wisconsin think they’re shoring up their base when they publicly vilify UW-Madison? Isn’t the very concept of natural differences in talent one of the tacit cornerstones of the conservative worldview? Shouldn’t conservatives be cheering on the advancement of the best and brightest?

Let’s just sit for a moment and stew in the sheer irony of an ideological persuasion that, despite celebrating differences in ability and potential when it comes to making money, slings the word “elite” like a four-letter insult when it comes to intellectual attainment.

And then let’s also consider how truly destructive this attitude is. Do you want a society that has no elite? Sorry, but not it if you want airplanes, indoor plumbing, and antibiotics, you don’t. The only socially egalitarian societies the world has ever seen have been forager and hunter-gatherer cultures. Once you start building permanent towns (say, 8,000 years ago), you’ve entered the territory where you need a leadership class. Sorry, Daniel Quinn. Sorry, radical anarchists.*

And once you’re there, you need a way to make sure your leadership class has some savvy. You need to educate them. Nobody wants a doofus elite. You want a smart, well-informed elite. In the United States, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton have been in this very business of producing a leadership and elite class since the Colonial Era. From the beginning, people didn’t just attend these universities for their party scenes. They attended them because these institutions are where people became socialized into the ruling class. This was, and still is, their function in American society. People who attend these schools aren’t just memorizing facts about literature and finance – they’re also soaking up the ambience and know-how of the holders and wielders of power.

And top-flight, flagship state universities fulfill an analogous function. Schools like UVa, Michigan, UC-Berkeley, and – at least until this year – UW-Madison don’t just produce research, field football teams, and host keggers. They’re also tools for transforming idiot adolescents into future CEOs, professors, politicians, and lawyers. Because of their professional status, people who graduate from these schools will have a disproportionate influence on society. This is just a fact. The purpose of elite universities is to produce elites. If that makes us uncomfortable, well, tough. Conservatives – of all people – shouldn’t be complaining about this. You want a society with no elites? Fine. Move back to the Neolithic.

Upshot: we don’t need to get rid of elites. More than anything, we need responsible and well-informed elites. Conservatives should be first in line to help our colleges and universities accomplish this. Instead, they snark about academic elitism. This is a disaster.

2. Tragically, elite universities are doing a terrible job of producing responsible elites. This is partly because they’ve become inexplicably uncomfortable with admitting that this is, in fact, what their job is.

Okay. I just let the conservatives have it. But now it’s liberals’ turn. By and large, there is no group of people on Earth more hostile toward the very concept of power than the university professors whose job it is to educate the future power-holders of the United States. These teachers – who, true to stereotype, tend to overwhelmingly be liberal – have often so completely internalized a post-New Left, anti-authoritarian ethos that they’re simply incapable of teaching students honestly about their privilege and the social responsibilities that come with it. Instead, they teach students that power is universally a Bad Thing that’s wielded by a bunch of WASPy white men holed up in a boardroom somewhere, and that the job of academics and intellectuals is to snarkily undermine the hegemony of those power-holders. It rarely seems to occur to these professors that the power is actually in the room where their students – future executives, lawyers, and doctors – are sitting.

Yes, yes – there are good reasons why smart, savvy intellectuals are so preternaturally mistrustful of power. Having studied history and society, they’re excruciatingly aware of how often power has been misused and abused to tragic ends. It was entrenched power that kept Jim Crow laws in place in the postbellum South. It was power that napalmed North Vietnam. It’s power that keeps unfair social structures in place, limiting the options for the poor, minorities, and the dispossessed. Power is a dangerous thing.

But it’s also power that got the Civil Rights Act passed, and power that laid down the tracks of the New York City subway. It’s power that ensures that the mail gets to your door each day, and power that fills in road potholes, maintains national parks, and funnels federal money to cancer research. And it’s power that just legalized gay marriage across the United States. Power is  dangerous, but it gets things done. We’re fools if we let countless examples of the abuse of power convince us that all power is evil, tout court. Power isn’t evil. It’s necessary.

Which means that many university professors are – it pains me to say it – acting like fools. If you haven’t sat in on a humanities class in a university like UW-Madison in the past 30 years, it’s almost impossible to overstate how profoundly the ethos of suspicion, snark, and outright hostility to all forms of power has permeated many academic disciplines. Elite humanities professors have transformed themselves into experts at ferreting out nefarious Machiavellian motivations behind any statement, claim, or text, no matter how innocuous. Thanks to these paranoiac habits, the humanities are now a grim party with no music, where highly educated men and women smugly congratulate themselves on opposing the Man. They grip their cocktails tightly. They never smile when they speak.

This unreflective antagonism toward all forms of power makes elite professors feel righteous. But here’s the thing: it has completely crippled those professors’ ability to honestly inform their students that they, in fact, are going to be powerful people and will have responsibilities because of it. The result? Harvard grads flock to Wall Street, where they make insane amounts of money for themselves while complaining about government regulations. “Creative destruction” and “disruption” are the trendy buzzwords throughout the tech world, which has apparently decided that its true calling is producing worthless apps. Meanwhile, at academic conferences, PhD students at Yale and Princeton talk airily about how their work is going to help “subvert dominant power structures.”**

Today’s entire intellectual and professional class, in short, is either 1:) shamelessly out to enrich itself, feeling no obligations to the wider society, or 2:) is oddly convinced that its social obligations are limited to challenging, tearing down, and subverting the elite. Very few people seem to be cognizant of the fact that they, having graduated from elite schools, belong to the damn elite.

What I’m saying is that academics’ self-image as noble rebels – a self-image that, paradoxically, becomes more prominent the higher you advance up the ladder, from backwater state schools to the Ivy League – is actually enabling the increasing self-focus and self-absorption of the American ruling classes. An elite that’s socialized to genuinely believe that it’s actually part of a glorious rebellion against some anonymous, powerful bogeyman patriarchy is one that does not have to assume any of the unsexy, boring responsibilities of power – like making sure the roads get fixed, bridges are maintained, and transit systems are kept up.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t challenge authority or fix social injustice. If you tell me that this is what I’m saying, I will get cross with you. Fixing injustice is important. I am thrilled to see the Confederate flag finally coming under serious public criticism. I’m thrilled we live in a world where gay people are increasingly able to find acceptance among family and peers. But the academic left’s rush to throw all of its moral energies into upending established hierarchies has left it unable to grasp any of the positive dimensions of power and authority. In top-tier universities where students are future elites, this is insane.

Generally, I think that conservatives are more interested in the positive, stabilizing dimensions of power, and are much more blind to its many dangers. But as the academic world has tilted further and further the other way, disconnect has grown. Many conservatives now see academics as reflexive subversives who indoctrinate students into antiauthoritarian ways of thinking that wind up, at the larger scale, weakening society. A great way to help correct this perception might be to start honestly teaching students at top schools that they will be elites, and this means they will bear responsibilities.

This doesn’t mean they should give up on social justice. As grown-up elites, they can and should keep critiquing injustice; in fact, people with social power are in a better place to act to rectify inequities. It just means that we should be teaching students who come through top-tier colleges and universities that the world isn’t just their oyster – it’s also a charge that needs their caretaking. If conservatives, whose moral instincts are basically centered on making sure everyone contributes to the tribal good and that no one is a freeloader, started seeing universities as places that produce well-informed future leaders who give back to society, they might stop self-destructively bashing on higher education. It’s probably too late for Wisconsin. And my critiques of higher education’s antiauthoritarian streak don’t excuse conservative attacks on public higher ed. But we need to be honest about what elite education is for – regardless of what happens in Madison.


* Nothing against hunter-gatherers; there’s good evidence that such lifestyles are less stressful than our own. But we’re not hunter-gatherers. How long could you survive in the woods with just a hatchet and a loincloth? I’d give myself five days – if I brought Gatorade. It’s a bittersweet truth that, after you enter civilization, there’s really no going back.

** Really. I have had so many conversations like this with Ivy league PhD students. So far, I have been able to keep from interrupting to shout, “What do you mean, you’re a subversive? You’re getting a doctorate at frickin’ YALE! You’re not sticking it to the man! You ARE the man! Own it!” But I might not be able to hold out much longer.

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