Category Archive 'Adam Gopnik'

25 Oct 2007

Abolishing the Ivies

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The New York Society for Ethical Culture, as part of the New Yorker Festival, earlier this month held a somewhat tongue-in-cheek debate, moderated by Simon Schama, featuring two of the magazine’s staff writers, Malcolm Gladwell versus Adam Gopnik on the question: “Resolved: The Ivy League Should Be Abolished.”

NY Sun (10/5)

IvyGate (10/10)

Thomas Bartlett, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, describes the silliness.

It’s easy to hate the Ivy League. Also, it’s fun.

Yet rarely do hundreds of people cheer wildly as some crazy-haired guy calls for Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to be shut down. That’s right: closed entirely. Their campuses turned into luxury condos. Their students distributed evenly throughout the colleges of the Big Ten. Their endowments donated to charity, or used to purchase Canada.

But cheering is exactly what happened on a recent Saturday night during a somewhat tongue-in-cheek debate on the abolition of the Ivy League. The guy with the crazy hair was Malcolm Gladwell, author of two best-selling works of counterintuitive nonfiction, The Tipping Point and Blink. His opponent, the essayist Adam Gopnik, took the opposite view, arguing that — whatever their faults — we shouldn’t shutter those three prestigious institutions. Both men are staff writers for The New Yorker, and the event was part of the magazine’s annual literary festival.

Mr. Gladwell (University of Toronto, ’84) is a well-known Ivy hater. In a 2005 article, he argued that the admissions process for Ivy League colleges is odd, arbitrary, and more or less ridiculous. On this particular evening he pushed that view to its most extreme: that Harvard, Yale, and Princeton should be made extinct (the other five Ivies can, presumably, rest easy). The heart of his argument was that the Big Three do a lousy job of promoting social mobility. He also asserted that they have come to be valued as “consumption preferences” rather than places where people, you know, go to learn.

But more interesting than the debate itself was the audience reaction. Anti-Ivy proclamations were greeted with enthusiastic whoops. It was as if everyone had finally been given permission to voice their long-held antipathy toward the elite. It was a mob scene, or as close as you’re likely to get at a wine-and-cheese gathering on the Upper West Side.

It’s all part of a current Ivy backlash, according to Alexandra Robbins, author of The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids and Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power. Ms. Robbins thinks the mystique of the Ivy League is starting to wear thin — even though, as she acknowledges, it’s harder than ever to get into those colleges. “Other schools have caught up and surpassed the Ivy League,” she says.

An Ivy League degree can even be a hindrance. Ms. Robbins says she recently talked to the chief executive of a major company who has an unofficial policy against hiring Ivy grads. “There is an assumption that if you went to an Ivy League school, you have a sense of entitlement,” she says.

Ms. Robbins, a Yale graduate herself, is sometimes sheepish about her pedigree, preferring to avoid the topic.

Jim Newell knows the feeling. He writes for IvyGate, a snarky Ivy League gossip blog. Mr. Newell attended the University of Pennsylvania, “one of the lesser Ivies” (his words). His alma mater often gets confused with Penn State, and he’d rather not correct people: “God forbid I’d say, ‘That’s the one in the Ivy League.’ I’d rather run away than say that.”

He thinks a lot of the resentment toward the Ivy League is based on an outdated image. “There is some foundation for the hatred,” he says. “There are a lot of stereotypes about WASPs smoking cigars with stuffed moose heads by the fireplace.”

Of course, it also has a lot to do with admissions. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton reject a lot of applicants, and that can create some hard feelings.

It’s Michele Hernandez’s job to get kids into Ivy League colleges. Ms. Hernandez is one of the most prominent college consultants around. Plenty of people are willing to pay a gulp-inducing $40,000 for her five-year package, which begins in the eighth grade. Ms. Hernandez made about a million dollars last year helping to craft applications.

Still, she tries to dissuade clients — frequently without success — from the idea that it’s Ivy or nothing. “I don’t find anything special about Harvard, Yale, or Princeton,” she says.

But she would hardly celebrate their demise. “Other elite schools would spring up in their place, like a Hydra,” she says, demonstrating a knack for entrance-essay allusions.

There is a “perception issue” when it comes to Ivy League colleges, says Robert Franek, author of The Best 366 Colleges, published by Princeton Review. “I think students and parents may be fed up with the hierarchy,” he says. “They’re starting to take a harder look at other colleges, even if they might be in a position to go to an Ivy.”

But that doesn’t explain where the hate comes from. James Twitchell, a professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida, who writes about branding and popular culture, says it’s simple: “Because so much of what most of us have at the mass-supplier level is interchangeable, we resent those who have something more or better or different.”

Another word for that is envy. Sarah E. Hill, an assistant professor of psychology at California State University at Fullerton, who studies envy, says The New Yorker debate was an opportunity to revel in that feeling. “The audience obviously perceives that these people in the Ivy League receive some kind of unfair advantage,” she says. “The idea of removing them is exciting. It’s like, ‘Ha, ha, ha,’ we took away your label!'”

Representatives of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton would not comment for this article. But, really, what did you expect?

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If you don’t happen to be part of the pitchfork-waving mob of anti-elitists and actually attended one of the Ivies, be informed that GoCrossCampus is conducting an Ivy League Championship Risk Tournament, which will be starting its very first combats today. Yale has a bit of an advantage right now, which is only right.

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Hat tips to David Nix and AJ.


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