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Sunday, April 21, 2024
The Observer

Against the elite university: A Nietzschean critique

Good Americans believe in meritocracy, the idea that people earn their standing on the basis of their ability. The American love of meritocracy is as old as the country itself, but the U.S. hardly lives up to this ideal: it is woefully easy to predict economic outcomes based on the circumstances of one’s birth. Firstly, the top 1% of Americans own as much wealth as the bottom 90%, with mostly the same families owning that wealth today as in the 1980s. Additionally, income mobility is low in the U.S. compared to other major countries, as children increasingly struggle to surpass their parents. Our country’s wealth is consolidated and entrenched.

The U.S. has an aristocracy, not a meritocracy, something which is painful to admit. Similarly painful for us, as students of Notre Dame, is that elite universities play a large role in upholding the aristocracy. The Ivy League, for example, grossly overrepresents the 1% of earners. High income students in general are more likely to attend elite schools than their poorer counterparts. If the U.S. were a meritocracy, attendance would be much more evenly distributed across income brackets. Instead, the playing field is deeply uneven based on factors largely outside a given student’s control.

In this column, I will use Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy to explore the implications of elitism in education. Elite schools, defined here as the top 20 universities in the country, raise questions about our sense of worth and what we want from society. Why do so many of us hate to admit that the system may be “rigged”? Why do we expect, or even believe, that our economic and political elites deserve their power? 

Let’s start with Nietzsche’s archetype of the noble, who is a rare kind of person. The noble, Nietzsche writes, “determines value … he is the one who gives honor to things in the first place.” He “does not need anyone’s approval,” instead creating meaning for himself and finding pleasure in his own creative power. It’s also difficult to tell who is noble in many cases, because society worships and elevates the wrong people. Essentially, nobles are those who effortlessly and joyfully assert their own right to shape the world, exercising their full human potential. 

To most people, the elite university exists to cultivate and promote nobles. As the public understands it, elite schools are where you go to “be anything you want.” They produce presidents, CEOs, Nobel laureates, Rhodes scholars, Supreme Court justices and so on. If you go to an elite school, you’ve made it. Low admission rates support this view, suggesting that only a select few “natural-born leaders” deserve to attend. Everyone else must have done something wrong along the way, or in some cases, must have been cheated out of their spot.

The idea of cheating, that some people “don’t deserve” to be at elite schools, is beginning to pick up traction. In 2019, the college admissions scandal shook the nation, rupturing trust in meritocracy. Suddenly, it became possible that super rich kids were stealing the spots of hard workers like us. Another controversy is affirmative action, which became newly salient after a high-profile discrimination lawsuit against Harvard. Opponents of affirmative action clamor for color-blind admissions, claiming that people of all races have equal opportunity to succeed in America.

These criticisms are rooted in the idea that under “normal conditions,” elite students would more or less earn their admission. The American aristocracy, however, makes success into a kind of lottery … in many cases, your zip code is your destiny. Our achievements, as commendable as they may be, are only possible at the expense of countless others who could never fly as far. We soar into the heights while the less fortunate, but equally capable, cook our meals and clean our bathrooms, abandoned by the American regime. 

Furthermore, far too few of us question the idea of elite superiority altogether. As Nietzsche puts it, “success has always been the great liar.” What value is an elite education if it produces politicians who boil our planet, leave millions of sick people uninsured, refuse to house our 580,000 homeless people and condone a starvation minimum wage? And businesspeople who run the economy into the ground, dodge taxes and leech off public goods, all for a nice car and a summer home? Clearly, the aristocratic model of education is doing something wrong. Our leaders aren’t noble; they’re petty and selfish.

Here, the mental block returns: surely this can’t be true! Looking at elite universities, from their magnificent campuses to their famous alumni, we enter denial mode. Nietzsche argues that we tell ourselves lies to make life bearable, and he finds it a sign of weakness. In the case of the myth of meritocracy, it gives high achievers an external source of self-worth. We rely on fancy degrees, publications, net worth and bragging rights to feel valuable.

If you accept that meritocracy is a myth, the next step is to create an internal sense of your own value. In my view, this begins with a critical examination of our relationship to society at large. Consider, for example, Notre Dame. In order to stop deriving worth from it, we need to prove it ignoble, and even prove that we are better than it. Rather than letting Notre Dame define us, we need to define it, making its value contingent upon our own judgment. 

According to Notre Dame’s stated values, our unique Catholic mission is to serve, give and uplift others. This mission allegedly sets us apart from other elite universities. In practice, however, Notre Dame follows a classic business model like all other colleges, putting profit first, hoarding wealth and expanding endlessly. Lacking the same historical credibility as the Ivys, Notre Dame has sidelined its values and racked up a multi-billion dollar endowment in order to compete.

A noble Notre Dame would forge its own path. Imagine, for example, if Notre Dame turned last year’s heated dining tents into a permanent shelter for the 500+ homeless people in St. Joseph. This innovative, unprecedented act would set a standard for other Catholic universities and demonstrate our school’s power. Or what if the University smelted down the gold of the Golden Dome (likely worth hundreds of thousands of dollars) and reinvested it to fight South Bend’s 25% poverty rate? Rather than daring to do more, Notre Dame settles for the practices of its competitors, painting a glittery veneer of rhetoric on top.

This kind of lucid honesty is necessary for being noble. Not only is aristocracy harmful, it’s boring. Do you want to be a walking derivative, worshiping indifferent power structures, or do you want to be original? Aristocracy stifles creativity and the lust for life, turning us into mindless robots on a socioeconomically determined path. School spirit is one manifestation of this herd mentality, at least when the school is unworthy of our pride. 

I didn’t have space to address the Board of Trustees leadership model or specific admissions policies, but I hope this will suffice for a broad critique. Aristocracy diminishes the incredible potential of higher education, the potential that makes me love it. While Nietzsche generally approves of aristocracy, he shares my distaste for the ignoble, and we agree that people deserve to live free, inventive lives. Meritocracy is a sham, and the sooner we admit it, the sooner we can make education into a shared process of growth.

Jim Moster is a senior from Chicago majoring in the Program of Liberal Studies and political science. He spends his days chasing serotonin and sleeping. For comments and inquiries, he can be reached at or @jimmoster on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.