Stamatakis: The limits of an elite education

By Nick Stamatakis

Grab four or five of the smartest people you know. Now build a time machine.

OK, you might not… Grab four or five of the smartest people you know. Now build a time machine.

OK, you might not want to grab them. Ask first.

Once you’ve made it back 15 years, place these people in the same schools. Give them the same life experience. Pick a town — Buffalo, maybe, or someplace like that — and encourage them to remain mostly within this nice little group you’ve created.

What would the world look like today if suddenly, we handed them the reins? They would probably be smarter; without distractions from their highly specialized environment, they’d reach greater academic heights and higher levels of intelligence. That wouldn’t be bad.

But we would all probably want some variety. Even if our leaders were the smartest people alive, we would hope they experienced more than life in Buffalo. Having all emerged from the same background, lived in the same city, mingled in the same social groups and dealt with the same problems, their understanding of the world would be limited.

Unfortunately, this is already the case with our best and brightest. However, instead of sticking them in the same city as children, we send them to the same universities — Ivy League schools and their academic equivalents — and task them with controlling the world.

And control they do. A 2009 National Journal study found that 37 percent of Obama’s top officials held an undergraduate or graduate degree from an Ivy League school. The Supreme Court, for its part, is all Ivy League. And 19 percent of the current Senate holds a law, undergraduate or graduate degree from the Ivy League. Even Wall Street is full of Ivy Leaguers: The Los Angeles Times reports that some top schools send more than a quarter of their classes into financial services.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, relying solely on the intelligence these esteemed leaders presumably possess hasn’t improved our condition. That’s because management and leadership aren’t really about intelligence. Instead, they’re about collaboration.

In other words, you get way more out of two diverse people working together than two people being smart by themselves. And although Ivy League schools don’t typically produce antisocial introverts, and many Ivies still strive for diverse communities, their average SAT scores shave off all but the cream of the crop.

State schools like Pitt might not be bastions of diversity, but they still expose students to a broader range of people. There are more part-timers and non-traditional students, and more varying intelligences. If the melting pot dynamic is what gives this country its vitality, the melting pot of a state school is potentially just as important.

Indeed, the lesson we’ve learned from the past decade is that experts are almost always wrong anyway. Affirmations of this are everywhere: Remember how they assured us Iraq harbored WMDs or that subprime mortgages had to be stable? Now, crowdsourcing is in, and centrally planned, unaccountable organizations like the European Union are out. Given these developments, it seems backwards that we still rely on such a homogeneous (intellectually speaking) group to run the country.

Ironically enough, an even older model of governance is better. Rather than the current situation, where studies have demonstrated that elite organizations limit themselves to recruiting only students from similarly elite schools, a more varied spectrum of backgrounds would be preferable. For instance, only 15 percent of the 1955 senate held degrees from Ivy League institutions, and most of these were law degrees acquired after many years of working. The percentage of senators who attended the Ivy League as undergraduates has since doubled. Most other senators attended local colleges or no college at all, rising to the top not because of their education, but because of their accomplishments afterwards.

To return to our time machine, this would mean taking all the smart kids, dropping them off in random locations across the country and bringing them to Buffalo older and more experienced. Maybe they’ll lose some degree of scholarly knowledge, but a truly varied talent pool would still be preferable if we want them to solve actual problems.

After all, the 1955 Senate passed the Federal Aid Highway Act with a nearly split political composition. Compare that to today’s elite crowd, and decide for yourself which method works better.

Contact Nick at [email protected]