At a salon dinner in Washington not long ago, I found myself explaining why so many people go into consulting: it’s less exhausting than corporate jobs. One of my friends who went into the management training program at a telecom firm out of business school found himself managing a call center. It’s a responsible position, but it’s also a little stressful and not always interesting. “I’m sorry,” said one of the other attendees, a very smart and insightful person who writes beautifully and knows a whole lot about economics, “but if you get an MBA from Chicago, and you manage a call center, you’re an idiot.” This is pretty much exactly wrong. If you are going to someday be a senior manager at a major telecom firm, you should absolutely manage a call center: nowhere else will you get the kind of hands on experience with the firm’s customer base in their most irascible, demanding moments, or learn as much about the company’s cost structure and operational challenges. And surely it is not actually idiotic, even for someone with an MBA from a top school, to want to be a senior manager at a major telecom firm? And yet, it’s such an unsurprisng remark, because this so often seems to me to be the animating spirit of our governing class. The purpose of an elite education, the thinking goes, is to equip you to design and run the system by which 300 million Americans live together—and to ensure that you never, ever have to actually interact with the 280 million who did not graduate from an elite academic program.
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