Elitism and the Engines of Democracy

I have long thought that the impetus to “diversify” the student and faculty bodies of elite institutions such as Yale, Oxford, Princeton, Stanford, and Cambridge is not as it first appears nor are the consequences of this movement.

That is, I have long thought that the (neoliberal) motivation to increase the demographic diversity of students and faculty at elite institutions is intentionally and nonsubjectively designed to make academic elitism itself more palatable to government bodies, nongovernmental funding sources, alumni from marginalized social groups, and so on rather than to actually democratize academia. Keep the elitist structures largely intact, but change their appearance.

So, I was happy to read Jennifer Morton’s essay “Engines of Democracy,” in which Morton discusses various ways that academic elitism (and the prestige bias, ableism, classism, racism, and so on that it encompasses) is effectively reproduced through the “diversification” of elite universities, circumventing a democratic future. In order to advance the thesis of the essay, Morton distinguishes between “diversity” and “real difference,” in part by underscoring the benefits that accrue to students from their attendance at non-elite universities and colleges and that accrue to faculty who teach in these institutions.

Here is an excerpt from Morton’s essay:

It is important to recognise the extent to which the social norms at elite educational institutions strongly discourage ‘outsider’ students from revealing themselves as such. One recent graduate I interviewed admitted that she joined one of Princeton’s infamous eating clubs as an undergraduate because she believed that not doing so would damage her prospects on the job market. She had been told that prospective employers would automatically presume anyone who had not joined must be unable to afford it. So even as those outsider students who attend elite universities are pressured to adapt to the dominant cultural norms and expectations at these institutions, there is also a countervailing incentive to conceal anything that could expose one as not really belonging. The student in my class was comfortable enough sharing his experience because he looked around and saw many students whose experiences were not dissimilar from his own.

Instead of imagining elite universities and colleges as black boxes into which ‘diverse’ students are deposited, later emerging ready to shape our society, we should understand more about what happens within these institutions. We must ask whether the prevailing dynamics are more or less conducive to producing students enriched and empowered by educational experiences that make them better representatives of those who are often excluded. Not all institutions do an adequate job of creating such environments. 

If we are concerned with creating a representative elite, we shouldn’t just look at the racial or economic background of its future members, but also at their educational experiences. If, for example, we want to foster policy discussions that include a broad range of perspectives, we must do better than turning to a room full of Ivy League or Oxbridge graduates. Instead, fill that room with graduates from places such as CCNY or the University of Hull. These students are much more likely to have educational experiences that can contribute different insights for a more representative elite.

I do not intend this argument as a disavowal of the fundamental democratic principle that leads us to affirmative action. Representation matters in a democratic society. A diverse elite is better able to advance the interests of all sectors of society. Unfortunately, the way that this principle has been practised is too narrowly focused on the demographics of elite institutions. Instead, as I have suggested, we should consider whether the education of those in the elite has done a good job of furthering their understanding of a diverse swath of society. Some universities do better at giving students this type of educational experience. It is time to recognise that they are the essential way towards a more truly representative elite, one that incorporates not just diversity but real difference too.

Read or listen to Morton’s essay in its entirety here.

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