What if “Elite Education” is a Public Good?

I invite my readers to think with me: what if the ideal form of education for students at elite schools (e.g. student-centered, well-rounded education on humanities, arts, science, and technology) is a public good, not only reserved for a small number of well-resourced students, but for a much more diverse student body?

My current research project focuses on a very specific group of well-resourced students —mainland Chinese teenagers who come to the U.S. on their own for private secondary education. The educational investment is huge, with an average of $50,000 per year to cover tuition and living expenses. Why are they here? Apart from the obvious reasons of aiming to boost the chances of getting a degree from one of the most prestigious American universities, they also come for the ideal form of education, one that applies Harkness method and cultivates renaissance men. Harkness method is described as follows on the official website of Philips Exeter Academy, one of the most prestigious boarding schools in the United States, 

At Exeter, Harkness is not a pedagogy. It’s a way of life. It begins in the classroom and extends beyond it, to field, stage and common room. It’s about collaboration and respect, where every voice carries equal weight, even when you don’t agree.

Exeter’s Harkness method, established in 1930 with a gift from Edward Harkness, a man who believed learning should be a democratic affair, is a simple concept: Twelve students and one teacher sit around an oval table and discuss the subject at hand.

What happens at the table, however, is, as Harkness intended, a “real revolution.” It’s where you explore ideas as a group, developing the courage to speak, the compassion to listen and the empathy to understand.

It’s not about being right or wrong.

It’s a collaborative approach to problem solving and learning. We use it in every discipline and subject we teach at Exeter.

I cannot help but wondering while reading these, isn’t it essentially the student-centered pedagogy the Futures Initiative has been advocating? The essence of student-centered pedagogy is to bring students back to the center stage of teaching and make them the leaders of the classroom. Such pedagogy is not, and should not be only reserved for a small portion of privileged students at elite boarding schools, or liberal arts college. It can be practiced everywhere, as long as the teachers are willing to make that change. 

My colleagues are all at the frontiers of this change. Our founding director Cathy Davidson, along with the Graduate Center students, have co-written a book titled Structuring Equality:  A Handbook to Student-Centered Learning and Teaching Practices, that details hands-on activities, lesson plans, assignments to build structures for equality in classrooms. Giving equal voices to students does not require any fancy classroom settings or technological equipment. It can start with inventory methods such as Think-Pair-Share and Exit tickets. It does not need to be just 12 students, it would work with a larger student body with thoughtful pedagogical tools. At the beginning of last fall semester my colleague Christina Katopodis and I co-organized a University Worth Fighting For workshop, titled “Classroom and Social Justice: Why Start with Pedagogy?” We shared student-centered pedagogical practices we use in our classrooms (e.g. collaborative syllabus and exam design) and tied such practices to institutional change, race, equality, gender, and social justice. We then did several iterations of this workshop at ACERT of Hunter College, at the Digital Democracies conference at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, along with our other past and current FI fellows, Gustavo Jimenez and Danica Savonick. These workshops resonate well with teachers across disciplines and in different types of institutions of higher education. 

What if we apply student-centered pedagogies in every classroom? Teachers may take some extra time to design pedagogical activities to facilitate it. Students may take a while to build trust in teachers, and genuinely believe they can be and should be the leaders of the classrooms. It is still probably the fastest way to structure equality, one tiny step at a time, in our society. As teachers, we do have full control over the classroom most of the time. Taking the liberty to give those control back to our students, and trying to avoid replicating any existing hierarchy they are experiencing, is an achievable and rewarding thing to do. 

The other part of the ideal form of elite education is harder to achieve. Cultivating a renaissance man requires more institutional resources. In elite boarding schools or colleges, it usually materializes as well-equipped gyms, along with a tennis court, swimming pool, cutting-edge scientific labs, opportunities to participate in global programs, etc. Elite institutions rely on tuition revenues and endowment to provide such facilities and other resources to their students. Public institutions may have less means to do so. This gap can only be addressed from an institutional level. If we believe every student is entitled to equal access to such resources, more public funding need to be granted to public institutions. 

“Elite education” after all is a social construct based on the ideas of social selection and exclusion, and is almost an oxymoron with public good. At the end of the day, this “what if” question is really about concrete steps we can take to make education more equitable to a diverse student body and bring more students’ voices into the center of the classrooms. 


The Futures Initiative
The Graduate Center, CUNY
365 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10016-4309