social roles

Elite Education | The Point Magazine


One of the wonders of modern academia is that the ideal of workplace democracy should be so prevalent among people who regularly endure faculty meetings. It’s not hard to see how lived experience might lead academics to a Churchillian argument for workplace democracy as the least bad option, a way of preventing administrative tyranny and legitimating decisions, but how anyone can take seriously the Arendtian vision of speechifying as some higher form of life I really don’t know.

Swarthmore College, where I have taught for the last four years, is run pretty democratically as a result of its Quaker heritage, to the point where any erosion of faculty governance is still noticed and lamented even if the most important decisions seem to be out of our hands. Much of the work is trivial but slow. A student can only graduate if the faculty collectively votes to approve a list with their name on it, and until a couple of years ago this required everyone present to sit through a full roll call of around four hundred names, with pauses for each and every objection. Is it possible to make an exception for a student who has taken three writing courses but not one in each division? What about someone who wants to study abroad in their final semester? Whether professors’ time is best devoted to such Solomonic inquiries is a question I have not yet seen raised—this is what faculty governance looks like, apparently, and in any case nobody forces you to show up.

The problem with not showing up, of course, is that sometimes important things do get debated, and every so often they even get decided. During the first wave of COVID, we discussed whether to allow students to mask their grades for the semester or to simply do away with grades altogether. As the second wave peaked the question was how to respond to students boycotting their classes—which they called a “strike”—in the wake of a police shooting in Philadelphia. As the third and gentlest wave of disease rolled our way we were at our most turbulent, utterly divided over the Swarthmore president’s decision to sign us up to a scheme (“the Chamberlain Project”) designed to bring retired military officers to liberal arts colleges as visiting professors. By the end of the spring of 2021 it felt like we were all veterans of some kind of war.

Something about the setting encourages melodrama and grandstanding, not to mention a tendency toward digression that can make concentration, especially via Zoom, seem like a mark of sainthood. A lot has to do with the internal logic of this kind of gathering; everyone has a right to speak, but it’s first-come-first-served and some were born with their hands up. But if people jump up to speak (as I sometimes do) or if they feel compelled to enter a comment in the chat, it’s generally because they care deeply, not only about the issue at hand but also about the underlying question of what Swarthmore stands for. It is this question, unresolved and for the most part unposed, that is the ultimate source of conflict.

Everything hinges on a tension that is constitutive to the college itself, given its history and self-conception. The official mission statement reads as follows:

Swarthmore College provides learners of diverse backgrounds a transformative liberal arts education grounded in rigorous intellectual inquiry and empowers all who share in our community to flourish and contribute to a better world.

What is the meaning of the first “and” in that sentence? How exactly is the goal of providing a rigorous education supposed to relate to that of building a better world? Are they simply parallel, or is one supposed to be subordinate to the other? This isn’t about uncovering the founders’ original intent, since this particular sequence of words was only recently introduced. It’s more that the statement captures an uncertainty that runs deep at Swarthmore—and, I surmise, at similar institutions, however democratically governed they are. What is our role in the world? To what extent is our institution a vehicle for political progress as opposed to academic excellence?

Rational decision-making is impossible if these questions are left hanging, but at the same time it’s not hard to see why nobody tries to resolve them. Cass Sunstein has extolled the benefits of “incompletely theorized agreements” in political life: the more fine-grained we get, the more we disagree. But even if vagueness can successfully keep the peace among the faculty as a whole, which seemed doubtful this last year, individual academics still have to form their own answer to the question of what the institution is for. After all, in reflecting on which courses to offer, which readings to include, which assignments to set, how to grade, how to interact with students—how to teach, in short—we are necessarily presuming a certain conception of how our individual work dovetails with that of our colleagues as part of some larger project. To think seriously about one’s own role is therefore necessarily to think seriously about what the college is, or should be, aiming at.

Not all colleges are elite colleges, but mine certainly have been—for better and for worse. As an undergraduate at Oxford I used to sit in front of the Clarendon Building on Saturday nights watching tuxedoed toffs trickle by in blithe stupor just so I could wallow in my alienation and despair. I had imagined Oxford as a bookish Valhalla, a magnificent palace where those who had conquered the anti-intellectualism of their high schools would finally feast together on conversation and argument; what I found was a period drama in which it was considered gauche to discuss academic work at the dinner table.

Once I went to a debate at the Oxford Union on the proposition that “the future is blue”—by which they meant Tory. This was the height of the Blair years, probably 2002 or 2003, and I remember looking around and wondering how death could have undone so many. It’s hard to describe the horror of the Union to someone who hasn’t seen it. It’s a private club that you have to pay to join, but most people I knew didn’t want to miss out: this was the place where future politicians from across the world, people like Benazir Bhutto and Ted Heath, had first locked horns in debate. By the time I got there, the Union was dominated by a strange species that you might call politicians without purpose. Strutting around in black tie and ball gowns, they advertised themselves for election to offices within the Union. Since these offices carried no real power beyond the right to organize parties and hobnob with famous speakers, they served mostly as a record of one’s capacity to get elected independently of a meaningful platform, but to say that they were desperately sought would be an understatement: every election seemed to end with a tribunal for malpractice, often covered in the national press. (It might not surprise you to learn that Boris Johnson cut his political teeth in this environment, aided and abetted by Michael Gove and Frank Luntz.) The day of that debate, filled with disgust, I fantasized about standing up and asking the house to open its eyes. If the future was Tory, and these egomaniacs were the future of the Tories, then surely we were all damned. How could the future not be red?

How wrong I was. Not only has Britain been blue since 2010, but my generation of Union hacks didn’t even go into politics. In hindsight this was Thatcherism working itself out over the generations. As Boris Johnson has discovered, a life in politics involves financial sacrifice; it remains a form of public service, no matter how egoistic you are. The smart play for the modern Union president is to skip all of that and instead leverage your arts of persuasion, not to mention your contacts, in the service of founding your own start-up or venture-capital firm. Another thing I now realize, though, is that feeling alienated by a social world is just another way of belonging to it. What could be more Oxford than the self-righteous anger of my disappointed idealism? What could be more Oxford, moreover, than the career paths of my own college friends, into law, consultancy, journalism, think tanks, academia? There were different types of people at Oxford, no doubt, but what they had in common was that they were all part of a nascent elite. Elite colleges produce elites. Sociologically speaking, that…


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