Because of their significant resources, influential alumni and academic authority, elite universities play an outsized role in influencing public discourse. Reflecting the importance of elite colleges in our culture, the general public lavishes them with praise, attention and, occasionally, anger. Primarily, the focus is on the actions and attitudes of the young adults who attend these institutions. This preoccupation not only calls our national priorities into question, but is also absurd. What other demographic in modern America is nitpicked like college students? To date, I have not read an article about the dangerous ideas of McDonald’s employees. Obsession with higher education and its students stems from a powerful belief—a belief so powerful that it calls into question whether or not colleges are “secular” institutions.
Our cultural consensus is that elite colleges are beacons of wisdom that operate as cultural pacesetters and moral authorities. They are treated as unique institutions endowed with a holy and civilizing mission of education and burdened with the responsibility of enlightening both their students and society. Especially amongst liberals, higher education operates similarly to a system of secular churches. The reason Fox News and major news outlets cover every development surrounding the status of the Robert E. Lee statue in the Duke Chapel or of UNC’s Silent Sam Confederate memorial is not because they want to give their audiences a lesson about our nation’s history. They cover these controversies because they recognize power and influence when they see it and they know that the decisions made by these Universities on a variety of subjects have significant ramifications for our national discourse. In any given debate, the backing of elite universities can lend significant moral and intellectual authority to their chosen side.
If elite universities wield such power, then it is no wonder that their institutional political bias toward liberal values is such a point of contention. These secular churches no longer exist to discover a universal higher truth, as they advertise, but to advocate for their chosen truth. How do we know this? It is implied by the values that elite schools hold most dear, values such as diversity (amongst those who are liberal) and inclusivity (of all those who are liberal). At the center of it all are Harvard and the rest of the Ivy League, the informal Vatican of this system. However, the belief that colleges are special and holy is not only damaging, but also reflects a failure to appreciate the driving impulse of these organizations. To better understand elite colleges and why they hold the biases they do, we should turn our gaze and, with it, our expectations, away from Saint Peter’s in Rome and towards Burbank, California, the home of the Disney Corporation.
Attending a liberal arts college has more in common with visiting Disney World for four years than it is does with a journey down the Buddha’s eightfold path. Whereas Buddhism presents you with an immaterial spiritual journey, both college and Disneyland offer you a tangible experience. The main difference is that the “happiest place on earth” leaves you with stuffed animals and funnel cake and, at their worst, elite colleges leave many students with an average debt load of 37,000 dollars, a set of skills that often have limited economic value and a nagging substance abuse issue. That being said, Disney World does not offer the opportunity to write a term paper on the problematic socio-political power dynamics within Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire. Life is full of tradeoffs. Thus, at its core, elite colleges are offering a “consumer experience” similar to Disneyland. We have simply convinced ourselves otherwise. Maybe there was a time when our secondary education system deserved to be called “higher,” but there is little question as to today’s reality—elite colleges are businesses that offer luxury educational experiences to their predominantly wealthy and liberal consumers.
Say what you will about “for profit” colleges, but at least they are honest about their motivation: money. Regardless of “non-profit” status, elite colleges, like all good businesses, succeed by paying close attention to what their consumer base wants to see, hear and receive. As a result, these colleges basically are businesses that offer a service (education), seek to attract consumers (wealthy liberal parents and students), and strive to beat the competition. Former Duke President Richard Brodhead did not authorize a $90 million renovation and expansion of then-West Union dining hall out of the goodness of his heart. He did it to "set a new bar for college dining," to make the experience Duke offers more attractive to potential customers.
However, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Like many other businesses, the fact that these institutions are motivated by money keeps them accountable to their consumers and driven to offer the best possible experience. In fact, it could be argued that many actual religious and spiritual institutions, especially those of hulking proportions (now you should turn your thoughts back to St. Peter’s in Rome), are far less accountable to public demand than private businesses are. My issue is not with the fact that elite higher education is a business, but with the cultural denial of that. Instead of treating colleges like sacred and special institutions, we should approach elite colleges as businesses that offer educational experiences with a liberal slant.
So where does this conclusion leave average college students? In need of a mentality shift. One of the sad consequences of our inaccurate view of elite higher education is the idea that the trend of “elitism” is an unfortunate and accidental stain on these schools. Across Duke’s campus, students often reflect on how Duke (and elite schools broadly) is a “bubble” insulated from the real world. These statements are made with good intention and a genuine desire to promote greater inclusion, but they ignore a core premise of higher education. The elitism did not sneak in and corrupt some original mission of making higher education accessible to all. Higher education was never meant for the many. It was always intended for the few.
The reason it is so odd that many college students do not recognize the inherent elitism of top colleges is that, at one point, they did. Why did we students apply to these schools in the first place? With little doubt, one of the reasons is because these institutions are inaccessible to most people—and that is attractive. Attending Yale is an exciting prospect for many more reasons than just “light and truth.” The exclusivity was something that we, the prospective students of these elite universities, accepted and were excited by throughout the entire college application process. Yet, a sudden, dramatic shift occurs upon entrance to college. The feelings of elation and pride are replaced by guilt and self-doubt. From the window of our ivory tower, we look out on the unwashed masses and wonder why they can’t join us. To soothe our aching consciences, we condemn our initial motives and adopt a “higher-minded,” self-critical perspective. This mindset is just as unhealthy and hypocritical as it is unproductive.
Very little can or will be done about ending the elitism in America’s top colleges. Ending elitism in higher education would likely mean ending elite schools in general, because the value of such institutions is derived, significantly, from scarcity. Moreover, our guilt about being among this elite, especially after achieving elite status, means awfully little to those who are not among us. Our guilt does not win hearts and minds and it certainly does not shift material reality.
Rather than bemoaning elitism, I propose that we collectively revive the best of our original motivations, acknowledge the truth behind them and embrace them. We should embrace our prior achievement for the tremendous opportunity it offers and remind ourselves that with wealth, power and prestige comes responsibility. Each and every Duke student, by virtue of their attendance to a privileged place, has an obligation to do well today so that they can do good tomorrow.
Reiss Becker is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.
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