With my body coated in a fine layer of dust and sweat, my mind wandered among fantasies of fall at the University. My feet, however, were following the rhythmic sashay of a droning vacuum. This absent-minded dance across the carpet was soon interrupted. For months, I swabbed, vacuumed and hauled as a temporary addition to the custodial crew. Yet, I still hadn’t met the company’s owner.
Accompanied by my father, the owner stood in the doorway asking the same cliché questions about my major, my year and whether or not I was enjoying college. The owner — after apathetically nodding to each of my answers — saw my exhaustion and attempted to reassure me by insinuating days of manual labor and completing menial tasks would end once I graduated. He suggested I could bypass the drudgery of blue-collar work. I was dumbfounded he said this in front of my father — the head custodian. This supervisor was supposedly the leader of the company. Yet, he seemed to believe that a higher salary and a certificate allowed him to belittle the work of his employees and to openly insult an employee who has worked there for decades.
While the statement may be an isolated incident of arrogance in the workplace, I’ve encountered this elitist viewpoint before. College is an institution designed to foster independent thinking and to cultivate skills necessary for particular careers. Far too often, however, a college education is confused with a pathway to a pedestal. Individuals with a mindset similar to the company owner enter college, regurgitate answers, absorb enough information to get class credit, obtain a professional title and degrade those who may not have followed the same path.
In a recent essay by William Deresiewicz for The New Republic, he attributes these attitudes of “grandiosity” and superiority to the damaging effects posed by today’s prestigious educational institutions. According to Deresiewicz, “our system of elite education manufactures young people who are smart and talented and driven, yes, but also anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose.” Considering the vast amount of financial and social capital invested in catapulting students into institutions of learning, it’s no shock money and prestige can take precedence in students’ minds. Deresiewicz argues a fear of failure and the goal of “climbing the greasy pole of whatever hierarchy” they choose can strip young minds of their creativity, their passion and their concern for the less fortunate world around them.
While Deresiewicz’s critique focused on students attending Ivy League institutions, Wolverines aren’t immune to following this disconnected, formulaic approach to success. Michigan students pride ourselves upon being “the leaders and best,” and we attend a university known internationally for its tremendous commitment to service and various forms of research. In fact, Washington Monthly recently awarded the University the 13th spot in their current rankings of 100 colleges. The publication ranked universities by measuring each school’s research, civic engagement and social mobility.
Despite recognition for the University’s social mobility — its ability to admit and graduate students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds — only 16 percent of University students receive Pell grants. This percentage is lower than some of the colleges ranked beneath University of Michigan. The University takes pride in its diverse student body, but socioeconomic diversity is still lacking on campus. For students without the financial means to attend such an acclaimed university, the shortage of funds limits their educational options, puts them at a disadvantage when compared to their more privileged peers and can deter them from attending college entirely. By increasing aid and creating more opportunities for low-income students, the University can level the playing field among its student body. The University has taken strides, through numerous donors, initiatives and a selection of scholarships, to show concern for students and communities in need, but there’s still room for improvement. We need to ensure we don’t loosen our grasp upon the true definition of leadership.
The goal of leaders is not to seek accolades or to establish themselves at the top of their fields. While knowledge is considered a hallmark of a leader, the application of one’s knowledge and its combination with compassion forges true leaders. Strong leaders are humble and empathize with others. They disregard social hierarchies by realizing no individual role or career is more important than another. Leaders recognize individuals capable of improving our world are found within various social classes, colleges and career fields, and they work tirelessly to include them.
Melissa Scholke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.