Why Is So Much of Our Discussion of Higher Ed Driven by Elite Institutions?

One of the things that makes me crazy about the media’s discussion of higher education is how much of it is driven and framed by elite schools. During the 90s, when it seemed like every college and university was fighting over whether Shakespeare should give way to Toni Morrison on the syllabus, it occurred to few pundits to look at what was happening in community colleges or lower-tier public universities, where most students get their education. And where the picture looks quite different.

The same goes today for the wars over trigger warnings and safe spaces: on both sides of the debate, this is primarily an argument over elite schools. Which has little to do with a place like Brooklyn College, where I teach. Seriously: just check out Judith Shulevitz’s recent piece on the topic in the Times, which got so much notice. In a 2100-word oped, here are all the institutions that make an appearance: Brown, Columbia, Northwestern, Oxford, Smith, Hampshire, Barnard, and the University of Chicago. There are fewer students in all of these institutions combined than there are at CUNY alone; between them, these colleges and universities enroll less than .5% of all students in America (not counting Oxford, of course, though it wouldn’t really change the numbers).

This is all a long windup to a piece in this morning’s Washington Post by a Columbia philosophy professor who is teaching at a prison in New York. It’s a lovely article about her experience teaching Aeschylus’ Oresteia to women prisoners, and it makes all the right points about incarceration and education. I really don’t want to take anything away from it. I’ve noticed that an increasing number of professors at institutions like Columbia, Bard, and NYU are teaching in prisons, and I think it’s a wonderful way to share and spread the wealth.

What caught my eye was this passage:

My incarcerated students differ radically from the ones at Columbia. When I walk into a tidy, well-equipped classroom on Morningside campus, I know my undergrads have spent years preparing for academic achievement, supported by family and teachers. Trained to ask hard questions, they consider diverse perspectives and then expect to get to the bottom of things.

When a correctional officer escorts me into a prison room equipped with rickety tables, tangled Venetian blinds, and no chalk, I know my incarcerated students have been locked away for years – sometimes for decades — with virtually no opportunity for intellectual stimulation.

My main goal as a teacher in prison has been to create a space comfortable enough for exploration and insight. The circumstance does not make that easy. With a heating system so loud we can barely hear ourselves think

As any professor at CUNY will tell you, the telltale signs that the author of this piece attributes to prison—rickety tables, tangled blinds, no chalk, loud heating systems—are ubiquitous features on our campuses. I have a very strict no-gifts policy for my students: at the end of the semester, I only accept emails or cards of thanks. But one day a student gave me a gift, and as I protested to her that I don’t accept them, she gently pressed it into my hand and said, “Just open it.” It was a box of chalk: I gratefully accepted it. That’s how bad things can get at CUNY.

Now college is not prison; a seminar room is not a jail cell. I’m not making that argument. I’m making a different claim. Two actually.

First, the way that elite institutions dominate our media discussions really skews how the public, particularly that portion of the public that is not in college right now, sees higher education. There is a war being fought on college campuses, but it’s not about trigger warnings or safe spaces; it’s about whether non-elite students will be able to get any kind of liberal arts education at all—forget Shakespeare v. Morrison; I’m talking essays versus multiple choice tests, philosophy versus accounting—from mostly precarious professors who are themselves struggling to make ends meet.

And that brings me to my second point: at Brooklyn College, we have students who have been to prison or who have friends and relatives who are in prison. The wall between the Columbia philosophy department and prison is impermeable and high; not so the walls surrounding CUNY. There’s a lot of talk these days—thankfully—about prisons and carceral institutions. But when the discussion is framed as Columbia v. prison, we get a false sense of the distance many ordinary Americans, black and white, have to travel in order to get from their everyday lives to jail. It’s often not as far as you think.

My friend and colleague, Paisley Currah, has a paper that he’s presenting today at the CUNY Graduate Center. It’s about how transgendered people are treated in prison, and how that relates to how they, and other people, are treated outside of prison. It’s a complicated and fascinating argument—if you want a copy, email gcpoliticaltheoryworkshop@gmail.com—but the last line hits home:

Prisons aren’t “real life,” but for many, neither is the realm of putative freedom. It’s slow death.



  1. snawyn March 26, 2015 at 10:37 am | #

    This is so damn good; totally on point, Corey! Thank you for writing it.

  2. mmcldn March 26, 2015 at 11:24 am | #

    Agreed!!!! We see the same dynamic in higher ed that we see in almost every sphere of life. The 1% institutions possess a grossly disproportionate share of the resources. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford have almost $100 billion in their endowments while Cal State educates nearly a half million students on about $2.5 billion–$8,000 less per degree than we received before the recession.

    And, what does the media talk about? They fawn over how wonderful these 1% institutions are and their thousand points of light, which includes recording their lectures so our students are relieved of the burden of attending actual classes.

    We should also know that the democratic party is not on our side. Jerry Brown sounds a lot like Scott Walker an Rick Perry on this issue, as does Gavin Newsome.

  3. Edward March 26, 2015 at 11:26 am | #

    How real are any of our public discussions, whether about education or anything else? The “reality-based” community left our public discussions some time ago. This is still an interesting point.

  4. jonnybutter March 26, 2015 at 11:34 am | #

    Discussion of most things in the US is driven by elite institutions and/or elite people.

    It’s a very sly confusion of two very different meanings of ‘exemplary’ – one being ‘worthy of imitation’ and the other being ‘typical’; but the elite institutions which control the discussions ignore the yawning gulf between ‘worthy of imitation’/’model’, and ‘typical’. ‘Exemplary’ means one thing when *that* meaning is useful, but quite another when another meaning is.

    Kind of like the concept of running public institutions (like public Universities!) ‘like a business’. When the concept is being sold to voters, the implication is that budgets will be used frugally, in the way they supposedly are in a business (the emphasis is on ‘like’); but when the regime is implemented, there is a completely different meaning to the idea, and it becomes ‘running AS a business’: management fires as many workers as possible (teachers, in the case of schools) and hires and aggrandizes as many management types (administrators) as it can.

  5. Donald Pruden, Jr., a/k/a The Enemy Combatant March 26, 2015 at 11:39 am | #

    Your post reminded me of this piece, from a blogpost written by a professor named Sherry Linkon at the site “Working-Class Perspectives”.

    Here it is: https://workingclassstudies.wordpress.com/2014/12/08/a-tale-of-two-universities-class-differences-in-higher-ed/

    True, unlike yours here it does not mention prison (or the popular image of college as an elite undertaking at elite institutions) but it does greatly overlap with yours on the experience of higher ed as an experience of (and reproduction of) material class relations and class anxieties, resource deployment, and so on.

  6. Joanna Vecchiarelli Scott March 26, 2015 at 12:05 pm | #

    A most apropos observation, which I too see every day in my classes at a “regional comprehensive university” in Southeast Michigan. Another factor to weigh here is the fact that the professional associations which structure department practices of hiring, tenuring and teaching are equally elite driven. Mine is the American Political Science Association, whose leadership is always predominantly from Big10, Ivy League and elite liberal arts colleges. Yet faculty earning their Ph.D’s in these institutions will be taking jobs in our sort of university, and struggle to adjust to the very different context (no chalk!) However, it is here on campuses like Brooklyn College and mine that 40+ percent of faculty are now located, at least in my profession. A short anecdote: this past semester 2 of my students identified themselves as homeless, living in their cars or on a nightly basis with friends, and spending their days in the heated library in between classes. Few are prepared to respond to that sad fact as they enter the job market with a Ph.D from Columbia.

    • Lars March 26, 2015 at 11:22 pm | #

      Bang on…as a big 10 phd in political science ( but fortunate to escape the APSA to the briefly more comfortable Canadian context) not only do we emphasize the elite in policy discourse, but it’s reinforced continually by popular media, film and tv. I don’t have a book lined, fireplace and leather sofa study or office, don’t drink sherry at 3pm, and while I have been VERY lucky, I too am reminded (in recently oil rich Alberta) how precarious the situation of our students, and sessional faculty, really is. I fully expect to be the last generation of tenured faculty in Canada, and just hope I can retire someday. As do most of my students. Great piece.

  7. freespeechlover March 26, 2015 at 1:04 pm | #

    Thank you for writing this. You must be clairvoyant. I teach at an urban university in the mid-West, and I was talking to a colleague the other day. I noted that in all of my time of teaching, I’ve never encountered “trigger warnings.” There is only one time a student asked me to accommodate her, when I assign students to write their own ending to Alice Walker’s short story, “Advancing Luna and Ida B. Wells,” which is about a (real/alleged-Walker fills this question with ambiguity) intra-racial rape that took place in the civil rights movement; the short story is about two women housemates, white and Black, who worked in the south and are now living in NY city; the white woman, Luna, tells the Black narrator she was raped by a Black man and Walker takes us through the impact of this on their relationship. The story’s ending is left ambiguous with multiple possibilities hinted at.

    One student spoke to me about not wanting to do the assignment and hinted at the possibility she had been sexually assaulted. That is the only time I have ever encountered something remotely close to the issue of “trigger warnings.”

    Now I hear and read the higher ed literature, debate about them all the time. I can’t help but think that 1) the students who can afford to perform their traumas, whatever those are or aren’t, come from elite backgrounds and are in elite university environments where everyone has a lot of time to spend on the issue. 2) that there is indeed something patently odd about the way that this issue has been covered in the higher ed and mainstream media. It’s as if the main concern that universities, especially public one, especially very poorly funded public ones that teach 1st generation college students, have no budgetary problems. It’s all just everyone’s psychological trauma, rights, etc. and finally 3) that the main issues of academic freedom and freedom of speech on campus are about students not wanting to hear what professors have to say about sex, when, in fact, the main issue of academic freedom on campus is Israel-what you can and cannot say about it.

    So, thanks again Corey, for putting into words what I have just started to articulate myself.

  8. KW March 26, 2015 at 2:09 pm | #

    As a community college instructor who has to carry around white board markers all the time, I love the points. However, I just wanted to point out that the preferred terminology is transgender people, or trans* people. It is an adjective–a marker of current, continuous, and ongoing identity–and the -ed is unnecessary, especially as it incorrectly suggests that the adjective/ description only applies to something in the past (-ed usually equals past tense), something that occurred the once and is done.


  9. James Scaminaci III March 26, 2015 at 3:27 pm | #

    Got the fb request.

  10. David Green March 26, 2015 at 9:45 pm | #

    I’ve been wondering lately how elitism works in relation to sports–they don’t have to participate to the same extent, and their “reputations” obviously don’t depend on it. They can afford to remove themselves from the cesspool of money and exploitation, and all of the hype. But of course sports aren’t a factor at CUNY either.

  11. Bradley Dilger March 27, 2015 at 9:39 am | #

    Thank you for writing this. The problem needs a lot more attention. Regional comprehensives, community colleges, tribal colleges, historically black institutions — many are absolutely invisible despite the critically important work they do. Steven Brint calls this the “Ivy islands” problem: http://lareviewofbooks.org/review/beyond-the-ivy-islands .

    • mmcldn March 27, 2015 at 4:29 pm | #

      Interesting article, though I found the author’s solutions to the problems of regional comprehensive and community college education to be a bit thin. The idea that clickers are the answer to boring large lectures is naive. And, the government online study the author references was paid for by a Gates Foundation grant. Teacher’s College has published some studies on online education in community colleges and found it to be much worse. I teach at a regional comprehensive university and our new president told us to stop doing it because our students are flunking at much higher rates. Technology is not the answer.

      The battle we need to fight is to get the 1%, and Bill Gates in particular, to realize that we need their tax dollars a lot more than their advice and technology.

  12. Mushin March 27, 2015 at 11:09 am | #

    Corey first I appreciate your blogs and tackling leadership conversations such as genocide. The compliment is an appreciation for leading in difficult moment of truth in our humanity. I rarely, if ever, follow anyone, because leadership is the systemic breakdown and education versus learning is paramount distinction in my assessment. Your very interesting!

    This “Higher ED” blog is a great appreciative conversation for the systemic breakdowns in leadership. I assert education is entirely wrongheaded and the proof is in the pudding that has created the current outcomes of growth without restraint in overshoot. Current educational practices is like watching so called smart people that no longer know how to walk up stairs. Instead they are falling down, stumbling around like drunkards, and knocking children around unconsciously in their stupidities.

    Learning to learn is a life long journey where one is never arrogant or aggressive in what they know. Claiming to know in this competitive stupidity is the first act of ignorance. What I know at the beginning of responding socially to you in this conversation is the conversation produces modifications in knowing as a social experience in our shared human concerns. None of us are getting paid rather we are conversing because we care about learning together, and education is an elitist narrow minded militant approach based in the power of the coin. I am 64 years old with a Parochial education and by the 3rd grade I realized I was in a prison. To survive I became a rebel, clown and rational debater in ontological arguments with so called “Higher and Lower IQ’s.” My IQ was 125 at 19 years old entering the military. I submit in the 3rd grade it was at least 160 unfortunately the educational system warehouses children and does not even the capacity to innovative within the regulatory capture and rent controls in capitalistic democracies. I assert the current educational system drums down social creativity in a Disneyland mentality enlightened entertainment and is based in competition for the coin. not the truth in the moments of our human existence P2P, C2C and G2G.

    My personal experiential bias is the Prussian militarism in education the “one size fits all” in educational warfare of knowledge making activity serves capital market economies and has proven to be careless in regards to human nature. Currently to have a WASP philosophical appreciative inquiry and dialog you have to be drummed down to dumb versus dumber, like Democrats vs Republicans. Our government is now considered irrelevant to emergent players and China is now becoming the enemy that we created. Of course swearing has been the right of patronizing leaders and is now prohibited by the FCC since Janet Jackson flashed a nipple during Super Bowl Half Time Special. I was watching, I missed the event, didn’t even catch it, and have rerun the clip 1,773,682 times including right now with you. Woops! just ticked off another one thinking of FCC Net Neutrality of broadband with this 10,000 million element neo-cortex abstract Meta designer looking for literacy running on 25 Watts in this moment of truth swimming in FCC bullsh$t. Do you find it interesting that 91% of Americans do not trust social media, corporations and governments after the Snowden Effect? The Orwellian “1984” is a reality and no one wants to talk about the real politics happening in our lives. We are educated to not think.

    I claim we do not live in “things” nor do we live in the “material world.” It only appears that we do. We live in speech acts, languaging of commitments, and a linguistic interpretive meta universe we declare P2P through trusted oral human conversations creating the societies we experience. Meaning we are not utilizing the 25 Watt generative creativity in our humanness. Quantum dynamics has pierced this notion in cognitive science opening an entirely new landscape in the phenomena of future action research in learning that is going to blow the socks off of Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Stafford etc. Persistent Native Cultures can leap frog this arrogance occurring at the Top of the Pyramid from the Bottom of the Pyramid.

    The horizon in the future of man is anything imaginable is possible, if we are committed, to conserving our humanity with one another person to person. If that is true then going to western schooling is actually injurious to becoming a social spirit-sense entrepreneur regardless of gender and place. Yet the “systems thinking is driving the law of complexity” by operating in the “industrial eugenics robotic age patronizing human creativity” in an old structure, context, and processes of a worldview arising from Plato’s Cave: Aristotle, Socrates, Spinosa, Descartes, Hegel, Marx, Dewy to name a few philosophers you need to know about to converse in “one size fits all ~ no child left behind” dehumanization where the distinctions between rich and poor, freedom and prisons, right and left, up and down don’t actually mean anything at all. Sustainability has over 100 definitions and is an example of the confusion we created in education. Just noise in the 2,500+ year old Cartesian observer error passed generation to generation in sacred texts called laws.

    Harvard Law School comes to mind first because we have pontificating idiots sitting on the USA Supreme Court needing EMT’s not blind obedience as political party appointees claiming to be the final arbiters in “we the people, of the people and by the people.” The contra variant to the declarative notion of freedom and creation of the Constitution of we the people. These Harvard Idiots occupy the “Interpretation Game in Law Making” as an elite Harvard sacrosanct private club concave, and there are barbarians at the gates of the city ready to tear them apart in reality worldwide. They literally run on bullsh$t claiming they never make laws as the final arbiters. When in fact we the citizens have been hoodwinked into a tragedy of commons unlawfulness where corporate plutocracies now have due process and citizenry has no voice in the courtrooms, and the police enforce inequities in capitalism’s notions of “standing your ground” and shooting people with no consequences. Israel and the USA are playing from the same playbook based in regressive fundamentalist apartheid notions of “Manifest Destiny.” Let’s really raise some hell in this world and redress Chief John Marshall’s 1823 decision in “Johnson vs M’Intosh” that makes “Brown vs Board of Education” look like a picnic because this case effects persistent Native cultures worldwide regarding who owns what lands.

    “Limits of Growth” at MIT is another assembly of highly educated peoples that 40 years after scenarios of overshoot have proven correctly that globally we are in overshoot in climate change. It also indicates there is no political will power for long term thinking and social behavioral change in the directionality of insane stupidities in American politics. “At every single stage, from biased arrival to its biased encoding, to organizing it around false logic, to misremembering and then misrepresenting it to others, the mind, continually acts to distort informational flow in favor of the usual good goal of appearing better than it is.” The Folly of Fools: the Logic of Deceit and Self Deception in Human Life” Robert Trivers (2011). We have went from the 1970’s no limits, to 1980’s there are limits, to the 1990’s markets and technology will handle the limits, to 2010 we are serious overshoot on the verge of a collapse in civilization and the earth’s biosphere. The earth is heating up twice as fast as the biogenic system can process CO2. The exponential heat is the same as 400,000 Hiroshima nuclear weapons going off everyday. How does any educated person deal with the reality of ice melt between 1979 and 2010 in this 30 second video clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YgiMBxaL19M We should be moving fiercely in all out actionable research to stop the Iceland melt as a communitarian learning experience bringing equilibrium to these individuating egos in politics, economics, religions and commerce in collaborate learning for our mutual liberation as global virtuous citizens.

    The education Proof is in the Pudding that current educational territorial claims to know anything are extremely disconnected from the reality of mother nature and masses of peoples. I am amazed that it is almost impossible for serious educators, researchers and humanitarians to offer grounded public appreciative inquiry and dialog empowering children to think honestly without being classified by mass media pundit’s as a terrorist or radical by institutional administrators. The capitalistic Democracies Nation Sates are the resisters and the elitism at Harvard Law depends on liars in a religiosity of sacrosanct nonsense based on biblical teachings offering false assumptions in science creating a collective psychosis in overshoot.

    A little rant from my corner of reality in the classroom called the living universe and reality in this moment of truth.

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