Most Americans go to public university, if they go to college at all. Yet so many of our role models were educated by a handful of elite schools.
You may have heard by now that Elizabeth Warren is running for Scott Brown's Senate seat in Massachusetts. Warren is best known as President Obama's special assistant, and for her role in setting guidelines for the Consumer Financial Protections Bureau. She's also a professor at Harvard University, and that's the detail that many conservatives have emphasized in an attempt to paint Warren as an elitist East Coast liberal. Republicans often refer to her as "Professor Warren." In a recent radio interview that's recently made the rounds, Scott Brown proudly distinguished himself by saying that he had attended the "school for hard knocks."
Despite the Republican push, most Massachusetts residents are not swayed by Warren's academic pedigree. In a new poll [PDF], 63 percent of voters said Warren's status as a Harvard professor would have no effect on whether they'd vote for her. Twenty-one percent are more likely to vote for her because of it, and just 13 percent would be less likely to cast their ballot for her. On the one hand, it's reassuring that most voters can look past the academic institution where a politician teaches or calls her alma mater. But maybe we can learn something from the remaining 35 percent.
The mere mention of "the H-Bomb" packs a host of competing associations for American voters. You're smart or you're a smart-ass. You're exceptional or you're elitist. You're Barack Obama or you're George W. Bush. Americans don't believe you need to attend an elite university to succeed—no one exemplifies that better than the world's most famous dropout, Steve Jobs—but a fancy college still translates to an elite position in our society.
Perhaps part of the reason many voters don't bat an eye at Warren's Harvard pedigree is that so many of our leaders were educated at Ivies. Our last few presidents attended prestigious schools like Georgetown, Yale, and Columbia. Following Elena Kagan's confirmation, all nine Supreme Court justices are now either Yale or Harvard law school alums. Many of our public intellectuals, from Cornel West to Noam Chomsky, teach at elite institutions while espousing populist ideals. In certain professions, like politics and law, attending a highly elite school now feels like a prerequisite to a paycheck. It's not only rich people who go Ivy, either. The upper echelon of poor students attend those schools, too. Considering that universities with large endowments are the only ones that can afford to give full scholarships, elite private colleges (and high schools) frequently snatch up the most gifted working-class students who could never afford a four-year institution otherwise.
Can you blame 13 percent of Massachusetts voters for feeling resentful? Or, conversely, for one in five of them feeling reassured by Warren's familiar credentials? Given the sad reality of the contemporary higher education system, it makes sense for the vast majority of Americans to attend public universities if they can afford to attend them at all. Yet many of our intellectual role models, regardless of class, were educated through elite channels. This dynamic creates a catch-22: We want to vote for the leaders who can speak for us, but the pool we're presented with comes from a very small corner of the academic world.
Highly educated people like Elizabeth Warren should be celebrated. But we should also make efforts to expand our leadership base beyond the same five campuses. It's not enough to invest in the schools most of our kids will end up attending—we also need to invest in the graduates of these schools. That way, we'll help ensure that the average American education actually means something. And maybe we'll start to see a cross-section of leaders who look more like us.