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December 14, 2008

Throwing Stones: From Inside or Outside?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Recently, in this post I passed along some thoughts regarding graduates of elite universities assuming top roles in the new Administration and about top performers while attending such schools. I concluded by mentioning, as a disclosure of sorts, that 2Blowhards contributors suffered from that same Ivied past.

Naturally, the matter of 'Leaguers talking about fellow 'Leaguers raised a few eyebrows in Comments. In particular, the matter of Ivy Leaguers who criticized the Ivy League -- a kind of reverse-snobbery that understandably raises hackles of non-Leaguers. Which indirectly raises an interesting issue: Who should or shouldn't discuss certain things. No, that's not quite right. I personally favor discussion and opinion-flinging by anyone, provided the discussion is civil. The issue is more that of: Who should be able to discuss something without being subject to criticism pertaining to the discussant's ties to the matter under discussion

That's quite a mouthful, a big bucket of pixels and bytes. So let me try to clarify with examples.

Ivy Leaguers discussing the Ivy League have at times been dismissed as snobs. I won't deny that it's easy to give oneself a mental "attaboy" pat on the back now and then and even let slip your background into a conversation. (I sometimes call it "My fancy-schmancy Ivy League Ph.D." and thereby advance myself two-thirds of the way to a status hat-trick, coating the pill with a veneer of "aw-shucks" sugar.)

I'll go further and suggest that it seems like a human nature thing; many people seem to have a social need to identify with (if not actually be a part of) something larger than themselves that is generally seen as successful. There are exceptions, but sports fans seem to turn out for games in greater numbers when the team they root for is doing well, for instance.

On the other hand, outsider criticism of an elite or otherwise successful entity can be attacked as a case of sour grapes. So you can be attacked if yo' is or if yo' ain't. There seems to be no escape.

Educational attainment in general can be another bone of contention. Is a Ph.D. expressing skepticism of advanced degrees showing some kind of reverse-snobbery? Is it more sour grapes if somebody with only a high school diploma complains that college graduates can be really impractical?

All else being equal, I tend to value institutional criticism coming from one who is or was an insider more than outsider criticism, though I value outsider criticism if it seems well-informed. That's because the sour grapes problem tends to be minimal or entirely absent. For example, I know from personal experience some of the negative byproducts of Ph.D. training (in the "social sciences" anyway). And the Ivy League, as usually experienced by an insider spending years in a university eventually becomes reduced to the ordinary daily scene; it doesn't seem like such a big deal after a while. (Get up, washed and dressed. The same old boring breakfast. Off to classes. Library time -- any cute girls holed up in the book stacks today? Lunch. More classes and the library again. Dinner. Skip study this evening to take in two flicks at the campus film festival. This is pretty much the same routine a student would face at a typical public university, even including campus activities and social clubs if the student were so inclined. Nothing very special here aside from the aura -- as seen by outsiders more than the insiders.)

Snobism and sour-graping can be found in most places; these are part of the social nature of humans. They are not usually pretty and deserve notice. But they will never go away.

More insidious is using one's past or current associations or characteristics as a means of stifling discussion. This seems more common than it should be on college campuses. You know: How can a white man truly understand blacks? How can males truly understand females? How can Republicans truly understand normal human beings? They can't, so let's not even let them open their mouths.

The baggage a person brings to a discussion cannot be ignored. It needs to be factored in, along with the facts and arguments presented. But it should not be a show-stopper except under extraordinary circumstances -- a witch doctor at a surgeons' staff meeting, perhaps?

NOTE: This was drafted last week before Friedrich's recent article touching on part of this material was posted. I was in Victoria, BC for a few days, so stockpiled this post for quick publishing upon my return.



posted by Donald at December 14, 2008


Whats the point in writing these posts if you keep censoring my comments out of existance?

I understand Canadians like to hear their own voices in exclusion of all other but really...

Posted by: Ramesh on December 14, 2008 8:12 PM

Ramesh -- I zap comments that rely on profanity and name-calling. Others are generally welcome. (I use the word "generally" just in case someone comes up with something truly awful while somehow avoiding those items.

Oh yes ... I also zapped a few from someone (I forget who) that were smart-alecky reactions to my zapping of comments on a thread that had gotten out of hand.

Comment as if you were having a restaurant dinner conversation with older people who you greatly respect, and all should be fine.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 14, 2008 8:31 PM

Donald, I was one of those who criticized, not the fact that you were criticizing Ive League institutions while being an Ivy Leaguer yourself, but the faux regretful tone, the "aw shucks" put-on, that is intended as a buffer against snobbery, but actually comes off as even more snobby, in the reverse way.

I know, it's petty, but that was my reaction to it. Now, this post, I very much appreciate. Just admit that an Ivy League education is nothing but helpful, while criticizing the aspects of it that could use improvement. I'm all for that discussion and welcome the insights of those who actually attended such institutions. No "aw shucks" put-ons needed.

Anecdotally, I can't think of one Ivy Leaguer that I've met who isn't smart, interested and engaging. Maybe I've just been lucky. And that is not to say that some of them haven't been blowhardy. Hell, most of them have been. But my impressions of an Ivy League education are nothing but positive in the end. Maybe that's a result of the people who strive towards such an education, or the institutions themselves, or more likely a combination.

Posted by: JV on December 14, 2008 8:47 PM


i refuse to accept your oversight. if I think a comment is appropriate I will makew it no matter what youropinion of it is.

you are not obligated to tell me or anyone else why you zap comments. censorship is not a collaborative activity between the censor and the censored. it is inherently tyrannical and I refuse to participate in your tyrrany.

I find , on the balance my own tyranny satisfying and sufficient without needing to share my overbearance with anyone else using involved reasoning.

Posted by: Ramesh on December 14, 2008 9:05 PM

This post was so insufferably narcissistic and smugly self-satisfied that I feared I would develop a brain tumor simply from reading it. If you wished me to stop subscribing to your rss feed you could have simply asked, I assure you I am more than happy to take that action. In fact, I am.

Posted by: Don McArthur on December 14, 2008 9:25 PM

Really, you know for all you blowhards say, if I could go back and not royally screw up high school and get into an Ivy League, I would do it in a heartbeat.
Because, it's so damn easier to get a nice New York Media job, or a good governmental statistical analysis job with a degree from Harvard or Yale than from "Ubiquitous State U" like myself. Besides, it's not like going through your local community college on up to State U grad school is a massive bed of roses or more "real" than an Ivy League education. Hell, or just going to welding school or straight into the workforce for that matter.

The great truism of life is that bullshit pervades any institution that's big enough to exist at a distance from reality.

What crap they cram into your head isn't the basis of school, in any case. It's the people that you meet and the doors that it opens. Ivy League has got that in spades, whatever you think about the quality of those people or institutions.

Let me put it this way, there's ways to do criticism as an insider. For example, we all know being rich ain't all that it's cracked up to be, right? Still, if three old billionaires get together in a downtown Manhattan penthouse, and sip Sauternes and nibble fois gras while bemoaning being rich, people roll their eyes (I'm not saying you guys are doing the equivalent of this, mind you, it's an example taken to a logical extreme). It takes a deft hand.

I don't question the merit of your criticism or your right to make it, just the reaction that you're *shocked* *shocked* that people are rolling their eyes at you all. It's all in the delivery and context, dudes.

Posted by: Spike Gomes on December 14, 2008 9:46 PM

Anecdotally, I can't think of one Ivy Leaguer that I've met who isn't smart, interested and engaging.

Wow, I've had mostly an opposite experience. I have met a few who are genuinely smart, interesting and engaging. Most, however, were just very well-read and polished. Especially the polished part. But very little in the way of dynamic thinking or novel insights, they just regurgitated their views from the Sunday Times. I'm not talking about the quantity of what they know or their polish in presenting that knowledge, I'm talking the quality of their thinking. Basically, any institutions that produce such an overwhelming amount of rabid liberals just can't be considered good at training minds to me.

Posted by: T. AKA Ricky Raw on December 14, 2008 10:15 PM

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