Why do we have elite learning institutions? Could this possibly be a huge mistake? Does it make sense to group the best and brightest together?
Some would say that it makes perfect sense. When you put all the best together, you can give them the best teachers and challenge them all at a higher level, raising the ceiling on what they can achieve. Perhaps another reason it makes sense is because the brightest will all challenge each other. When you put two smart people together, they'll have smart conversation, and explore new ideas - the interaction will be at a higher level because both of them are at a higher level. If you put a smart person with a dumb person, the smart person will be held back because the level of discourse will have to be at the lower person's level.
But maybe these arguments aren't really that good. Because if we put all the smartest together, and expose them all to the same teachers, we're creating a high-level group of people who all have the same ideas. If we diversify, putting some smart people here, and some there, and mixing them up, then we'll get a group of people who have very different ideas and ways of approaching the world. If we have many different approaches, then we're likely to find more and better solutions to more problems. Moreover, in our current society, we've bred our intellectuals from the same pools - and so while we do have a number of high-level institutions that would "mix it up" a bit more, the people teaching at those schools are more-or-less interchangeable. They've come from the same institutions and such, simply trading back and forth. Professors at Harvard went to Yale, and Yale professors to Harvard, and professors at both were classmates at Stanford, and so on. It seems to me that what we really have is a very large pool, instead of several different ones. Thus, the intellectuals of the next generation are getting the same training everywhere, and we've completely undercut any diversity of thought. And without diversity of thought, we'll only be able to pass on a limited way of thinking to the next generation, and so on and so forth. We'll become intellectually myopic and reach academic stagnation.
The second argument - that putting two smart people together leads to a higher level of discourse, also seems to be pretty weak. First of all, the challenge of explaining high-level thinking to lower-level individuals may lead to a better development of that thinking. When you have to explain the basics you come up with a stronger position than if you're dealing with standard assumptions. Lower-level individuals will likely need the basics explained, whereas higher-level individuals will likely gloss over standard assumptions, creating holes in the ultimate conclusions.
More importantly though, basic economic thought tells us that shrinking marginal returns are a reality. The lower-level individuals have more to gain from high-level thought than the high-level individuals do. Say you've got two somewhat hungry people. One is at a fullness of 10 and one is at a fullness of 3. There's only one piece of pizza. The person who is more hungry (the person at the lower fullness), is going to value that pizza more. It might move him to a fullness level of, say, 5 or 6. The person at level 10 isn't going to need the pizza as much, and would probably only move up a little on the fullness scale - say to 11. So basically, the pizza has more value to the lower-level person.
The same idea applies to the intellectual situation. A lower-level person has more to gain from education than a high-level person would gain from that same education.
So wouldn't we be better off as a society if we didn't separate out our high-level intellectuals? Aren't we really hurting ourselves by creating an elite group of people who all think the same things? Wouldn't it be better to have a large group of people who have diverse ideas? And is it better to have a handful of super-intellectuals while everyone else is left at a low level? Wouldn't we be better off if instead society had a sizeable group of some high-level individuals and lots of middle-to-high-level individuals?
Maybe we should rethink the way we do education. Of course, most of the high-level individuals at the premier schools will disagree with me. And they'll probably all respond exactly the same way.
Well, I'll be as high as that ivory tower that you're livin' in