by Jennie S. Bev
In Indonesia, I went to a top-tier high school in Jakarta and the best university in the nation. In the United States, I didn’t go to an Ivy League school, instead I went to a state university and a so-so private university. Still, I did my master’s and doctorate-level studies and am now assisting a think tank at a posh private university in San Diego as a short-term fellow, writing on the subject of peace.
To some people, I’ve had an elite education and live an elite lifestyle. But for those educated at Ivy League schools, like Harvard, Princeton and Yale, I’m just a second-tier intellectual.
The gap between those who are highly educated and not-so-highly educated is palpable, both in America and in Indonesia. Being in the “middle” of the intellectual ranks, I’ve come to see the world from both sides: as a layperson and as a scholar. It may sound awfully smart to be labeled an “intellectual,” but it also has some downsides. And the more elite one’s education, the bigger the downsides.
Throughout my life I have been surrounded by laypeople. My single mother, a dressmaker, has just become a college student at the age of 56, and my grandparents were an elementary school teacher and a laundry owner. Most of my friends are college educated but they work as executives, professionals and businesspeople. And through them I have seen that living outside academia is as useful and meaningful, or even more so, than living within it.
Still, overseas education is often seen as a ticket to success. And while a handful Indonesians obtain scholarships from the Fulbright Program and Ford Foundation, most don’t. Many Indonesian parents who send their children abroad to further their education pay full foreign student tuition. They hope their children will get a better education abroad, or at least some international exposure to broaden their minds.
They also assume that after graduation, their children will nail a big-shot job at a foreign consulting firm or at a top multinational corporation, either overseas or in Indonesia.
In short, Indonesians who study abroad are expected to succeed when they graduate, despite the relative notion of “success.” They are the privileged ones among Indonesians, and the few who go to Ivy League schools are believed to be destined for great things. This mind-set alone is a trap.
The expectations of success based on academic and professional choices are crippling as overseas-educated students become less aware of the possibility of failure. The fact is, they live among people who aren’t as privileged as they are, and they should communicate with them on a daily basis. They become robot-like in their pursuit of straight As and graduating with honors. This creates a false sense of security that cum laude status is all it takes to succeed.
While overseas many of these students live in exclusive dormitories, which isolates them from the realities and problems in society. They become desensitized to other people’s urges, wishes and desires as their minds are shaped in such a specialized way that big questions about life and its purposes no longer matter. They frequently only form friendships with people from the same social and economic classes as themselves.
When they graduate, they continue to live with the idea that their overseas education will bring money and social status. They think that they have earned their class, which is only true to some extent. Elite education, regardless of its relative definition, comes with many advantages. It opens many doors and provides an excellent opportunity for networking. But there are no guarantees. The greatest cost is not the six-figure tuition fee in US dollars, but the false sense of security it brings and the notion that academic success is the only measure of success in society.
While many educators have their own theories and opinions about what constitutes a good education, every individual should be aware of his or her own needs and intelligences —hence there are 11 types of intelligence.
Ivy League education has given birth to Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners, but it also produces tyrants and losers. At the same time, drop-outs and people with mediocre educations have gone on to become philanthropists and billionaires.
People need to remember there are many ways to get an education and many definitions of success. And the ultimate form of success isn’t an international award or tons of money in the bank —it is how we affect other people in the widest sense possible.
The Jakarta Globe, August 11, 2009