It didn’t dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I’d just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn’t have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn’t succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League dees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. “Ivy retardation,” a friend of mine calls this. I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn’t talk to the man who was standing in my own house...But this suggests that it isn't going to an Ivy League school that screws you up, or even becoming (gasp!) a professor. It's spending your entire life from cradle to grave in a self-sustained cocoon of privilege, thinking that you've been "taught.. to believe that people who didn’t go to an Ivy League or equivalent school weren’t worth talking to, regardless of their class. I was given the unmistakable message that such people were beneath me." I don't think you learned that lesson on your first day at Yale; as the South Pacific song goes, "you've got to be carefully taught," and that teaching started early.
I have a friend who went to an Ivy League college after graduating from a typically mediocre public high school. One of the values of going to such a school, she once said, is that it teaches you to relate to stupid people. Some people are smart in the elite-college way, some are smart in other ways, and some aren’t smart at all. It should be embarrassing not to know how to talk to any of them, if only because talking to people is the only real way of knowing them. Elite institutions are supposed to provide a humanistic education, but the first principle of humanism is Terence’s: “nothing human is alien to me.” The first disadvantage of an elite education is how very much of the human it alienates you from.
It is, in other words, partly a function of what Deresiewicz calls "the mechanisms that get you there in the first place: the private and affluent public “feeder” schools, the ever-growing parastructure of tutors and test-prep courses and enrichment programs, the whole admissions frenzy and everything that leads up to and away from it," and partly a function of the rest of the institutions that support elite privilege that have nothing directly to do with an Ivy League education: the neighborhoods you live in, the clubs you belong to, the sports you play, the vacations you take, the friends you keep, what you read and watch and eat and talk about.
Deresiewicz doesn't want to think of school in terms of careers, test scores, hot contacts, or any other kind of material or quantitative achievement -- what English professor would? -- and he's pushing a newfound kind of class consciousness to get that point across. But I don't think he actually realizes the extent to which he's caught up in a particular kind of privilege. After all, when you're not born into it, you actually do have to spend a remarkable amount of time worrying about money, and getting ahead, and making the best of your opportunities. And it seems like even if the self-enclosure of the elites is ultimately suffocating for some of them, the kinds of resources possessed and opportunities offered by top-flight schools serve students who begin by looking in from the outside remarkably well.