A Level Playing field and the attitudes of the Educational Elite


This is the mindset of the ambitious educational elite: You go to Harvard (or Stanford), maybe to Oxford (or Cambridge) for a Rhodes (or Marshall), then to Goldman (or McKinsey, or TFA), then to Harvard Business School (or Yale Law School), then back to Goldman (or Google), and on and on. You keep doing the thing that is more prestigious, opens more doors, has more (supposed) impact on the world, and eventually will make you more and more famous and powerful. Money is something that happens along the way, but it’s not your primary motivation. Then you get to Peter Orszag’s position, where you can do anything, and you want to go work for Citigroup? Why do our society and culture shape high-achieving people so they want to be executives at big, big companies that are decades past their prime? Why is that the thing people aspire to? Orszag wanting to work at a megabank — instead of starting a new company, or joining a foundation, or joining an NGO, or becoming an executive at a struggling manufacturing company that makes things, or even being a consultant to countries with sovereign debt problems — is the same as an engineer from a top school going to Goldman instead of a real company. It’s not his fault, but it’s a symptom of something that’s bad for our country’

– The mindset of the Academic Elite from Ben Casnochas’ Blog. Ben Casnocha This article got me thinking about the chances many of us have now thanks to the Internet and
The excellent economist Tyler Cowen speaking about ‘inequality’.

I certainly don’t have the ability to call Warren Buffett instantly, but I do share with Bill Gates access to technology, pharmaceuticals, cheap food and cheap holidays. Ethnically I’m Irish Catholic, which in 1911 say would have severely my life choices. Most of my ancestors were farmers or laborers, in short some of them were stuck in what can only be described as ‘serfdom’.
However in 2011 I’m fortunate enough to study Mathematics at a small European University, which gives me the chance of at least a comfortable lifestyle. At lot of my friends and colleagues say similar things about their life chances. A good friend of mine points out how she was fortunate to be born in a non-communist country, unlike her parents who were born in Eastern Europe during the 1950s.
Martin Rees cited this in Edge.org last year:

‘In 2002, three Indian mathematicians (Manindra Agrewal, and his two students Neeraj Kayal and Nitin Saxena) invented a faster algorithm for factoring large numbers — an advance that could be crucial for code-breaking. They posted their results on the Web. Such was the interest that within just a day, 20000 people had downloaded the work, which became the topic of hastily-convened discussions in many centres of mathematical research around the world.’

So is the internet really leveling the playing field? A few friends of mine (and Yury Lifshits for instance in a few of his own essays about technology and mathematics) have observed how websites like Topcoder, Arxiv, and I’m sure there are other examples have formed innovation rewarding communities. The three Indian mathematicians are easily compared to the famous story of Ramanujan, and his own struggles. I don’t know if ‘knowledge is power’ as Bacon termed, I doubt it. However I do find it interesting how the Web has changed science and chances in ways we haven’t really thought about.
Although there may be wealth inequality, it may not be as big a problem as some of us think. If the Indian Educational Elite solve Mathematical problems, and the American Educational Elite aspire to join Mc Kinsey or Goldman – which is better?
I think this is an important set of questions. Firstly why work for Google or Mc Kinsey as opposed to do other things? We have this wonderful set of chances, and yet we collectively as a society worship those who go work for Goldman or Citigroup or AIB. We face huge problems in the 21st Century – and as Peter Thiel pointed out ‘we live in a technological as opposed to a financial society’.
Innovation is definitely going to be needed to solve some of the problems. These problems include world poverty, malaria, energy problems, job creation, climate change, and many other problems including Scientific and Mathematical problems.
Why is it more prestigious to become a management consultant or do an MBA as opposed to something else. I think it may be a good thing to just do ‘something else’. It seems like a huge waste of the wonderful opportunities we have collectively and a huge waste of human capital that so many of the American and Western educational elite go into ‘big companies that are long past their sell by dates’.