What's a "top college"?
Maybe it’s because I need easily digestible print reading for my train
commute. Maybe it’s my inevitable post-20s loss of hipster cred.
Whatever the reason, I seem to be reading a lot less of the humor
writing at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and a lot more of Joel Stein’s Time column.
don’t often agree with Stein’s take on the world, but I enjoy his
breezy prose and his punchlines, equal parts smart-aleck and goofball.
He took some heat for a July column that came off as xenophobic, but it’s this week’s entry
that has me irked. Stein is defending elitism, specifically the
Ivy-to-power-elite track that dominates the resumés of most big-time
journalists and the people they cover. He begins:
I went to
a better college than you did. That does not make me a better person
than you. It does, however, make me smarter, more knowledgeable, more
curious and more ambitious. So, in a lot of ways, better.
being funny, of course, in an
I-actually-mean-this-but-want-to-play-it-as-a-joke kind of way. He goes
on to criticize the “cancer” of anti-elitism and the culture’s
affection for inclusive mediocrity. Yeah, yeah. We all saw The Incredibles, which at least was more entertaining than Stein at his best, to say nothing of Stein here.
whole piece is irritating, but I’ll focus on “I went to a better
college than you did.” That’s probably true—I liked Wheaton well
enough, but unlike some chapel speakers,
I’m not eager to argue that it’s superior to Stanford, Stein’s alma
mater. But Stein is assuming a lot in that statement, namely that the
concept of a “better college” is built around solid evidence and
He takes this for granted, anticipating many
objections to his argument but not this one: our American system of
understanding which schools are the best is based largely on two
mutually reinforcing factors—the opinions of the elites who go to these
schools and the rankings put out by U.S. News & World Report.
main considerations include the assessments of peer administrators, the
proportion of applicants accepted, per-student spending and alumni
giving rate. If you think this sounds like an easily manipulated
formula for self-perpetuating elitism, education expert Kevin Carey agrees.
While Carey and others were writing their white papers, the Washington Monthly
began in 2006 publishing an alternative set of annual college
rankings—a great example of hybrid advocacy/service journalism. Here
are the magazine’s three criteria:
- community service: participation in ROTC, alumni in the Peace Corps, work-study money channeled toward service projects
- research: production of research in the sciences and humanities
- social mobility: the matriculation and graduation of lower-income students
short, schools are ranked as to how well they promote the common good.
The fact that this sounds radical is part of the problem.
WaMo’s new rankings are out, and Stanford ranks fourth among national universities—but it’s the only school to crack each publication’s top five.
Yes, Stein went to a great school by any standard; but there are
multiple standards with very different aims and results. It’s a shame
that for many, “top school” is an uncritical euphemism for “school that
trades in carefully preserved elitism.” Good for the Washington Monthly for working to correct this.