Is the Ivy League Ruining America?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. It started when I read an article by David Brooks where he actually gave a student at Yale an ‘A’ and approved her assessment that

“Time not spent investing in yourself carries an opportunity cost, rendering you at a competitive disadvantage as compared to others who maintained the priority of self.”

I found that appalling. The link doesn’t go back to Brooks’ originally article. I already did that once in my prior post. I don’t want  to encourage him.

Equally appalling was the comment I heard on National Public Radio (NPR) this week when discussing the bridge collapse in Seattle. The commentator was interviewing someone who said that we actually knew about structural problems in thousands of bridges across the country but no one wanted to vote for repairs during his/ her term in office. The interviewer laughed and said,

Isn’t that just human nature? We all want benefits but we don’t want to pay for them.

And he laughed while I thought WHAT THE FUCK? You know that a bridge is going to fall down if it is not eventually repaired and yet you think it is perfectly okay to put it off because you don’t want to pay for it. You must have gone to the same school as Brooks’ student. In fact, interestingly enough, over one-quarter of senators have an undergraduate or graduate degree from an Ivy League institution.

Shortly after I listened to that radio show, I was leaving Gompers Middle School in south central Los Angeles, where I have volunteered for the past two years teaching an after school class. Painted on the wall of one building was this quote from Cesar Chavez,

We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community…

The remainder of this quote, by the way, is

Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.

Clearly, Chavez did not attend an Ivy League school.

What does it take to get into the Ivies these days? Well, it certainly helps to be related to an alumnus. That helps a lot. Attending a private school is strongly correlated with admission. Of course, one needs exceptionally high SAT scores, advanced placement classes help. There have been a number of articles and even a book written by parents (mostly mothers) who give their strategy for putting their child into the Ivy League, many beginning at kindergarten with hours of studying every night and weekend and almost every minute focused on a single goal – that golden ticket of an admission letter.

I’m not arguing that a degree from a subset of schools makes it FAR more likely you will be working on Wall Street or in Washington and far more likely in general that you will make a LOT of money. I am questioning whether that is the whole purpose of life.

People seem to get into the Ivies in largely two ways:

  1. Being born into privilege. They come from a family of Ivy alumni  that gives them an in-road with legacy admissions and who also have the money to send them to top private schools and pay for extras such as tutors and SAT prep classes.
  2. Being willing to play the game and do as they are told from very early on.

Children who forego playing soccer, football or God forbid some minor Olympic sport for studying will do better academically. Children who put in 8 hours or more in a sport (pretty common at the high school level) will have less time to study. Forget working full-time in high school, or part-time as many students do. The child who studies twelve hours a week beginning in kindergarten will be far ahead by third grade of the child who studies two hours a week. This doesn’t make the first child more intelligent – although he or she will certainly appear so to teachers. It means the second child spent time playing outside, flying a kite in the park (yes, that is what I did with my granddaughter) and maybe laying on the couch watching Strawberry Shortcake videos.

Shouldn’t the students who studied for twelve years get admission over those slackers who watched videos in first grade instead of doing math work sheets? Funny, when I was younger, we had a word for those slackers. We called them “children”.

I do not accept the premise that someone who studied twelve hours a day for a dozen years to be at a given point by age 18 will necessarily be ahead at 25 or 30 or 50. It depends on how you measure ahead.

Where do those students who graduate from the Ivy League schools go? It turns out that a disproportionate number of them go into finance, law school and management consulting. A very small proportion go to education, non-profits, start-ups COMBINED.

It could be argued that those students will go on to run our financial and government sectors. They are disproportionately represented there and those seem to be the two sectors that are causing great problems in the rest of our society. The creative loopholes in the tax code exploited by Apple, the toxic assets created by Wall Street are two examples of exactly what the student from Yale saw as the goal in life, investing in oneself and screw everyone else. As NPR said, isn’t that human nature?

I don’t know. I think I’m human and I was teaching for free at that school with the quote by Chavez on the wall. Cesar Chavez was human.

What an Ivy league education seems to confirm for people is the belief that either a) you are entitled to live a life with privileges not available to others because that is just the way it is or b) do exactly as you are told, don’t question the system and you will be rewarded.

The Spoiled One commented to me recently,

“I’ve thought about going to Harvard but I know some people might think I’m not smart enough because there are two or three people in my class ahead of me.”

I told her,

“You’re plenty smart enough. You don’t work hard enough.”

At this point, I did not, as you might imagine, exhort her to work harder. She has 3.7 or 3.8 GPA at a private college prep school, where she has a scholarship. She plays soccer and volunteers at the food bank to serve meals to homeless people. She recently went to Mexico to help at an orphanage. None of these are things I told her to do. I don’t believe the next three years of her life should be devoted solely to matching a template in some admissions office.

I expect she will go to one of the very many good colleges or universities in this country. It may be one of the Ivies but probably not. At some point, she will choose a path for herself, not follow one I have laid out for her since the day she was born. I have full confidence that she will grow up to be the kind of person who is GOOD for America and not someone who believes that she wasted any second not spent moving herself one step ahead of the next guy.

I trust that she will grow up to be the kind of person who believes in repairing bridges.


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  1. Thanks, thanks, thanks! Wise words, as usual!
    I can remember people trying to appeal to my “competitiveness” in the way you describe, in particular when trying to motivate me for an academic career.

    “Why don’t you work in the weekend… you have so much potential… if you would work harder you could be the youngest professor ever…”

    You nailed it down – it is not the call to arms or the necessity of hard work (if there is) – but it is this focus on Your Personal Competitive Advantages.

  2. I had a friend in high school named Chad. We took all of the same AP classes together (physics, calculus, chemistry), and were always very competitive trying to one up each other in academic performance. We typically were always the highest scorers in the class, sometimes he’d win, sometimes I’d win.

    He took out huge loans to go to U. Penn. I rode 3 scholarships and went to a local ABET accredited state school for free which most people have never heard of.

    He’s never beat me in the real world to date, not even close.

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