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The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, FIRE, announced the results of a recent survey on the free speech climate at America’s universities. Out of 254 colleges, Harvard University ranked at the absolute bottom.
I’m reminded of some comments about Harvard written by the English traveler Harriet Martineau following her visit in 1835:
The politics of the managers of Harvard University are opposed to those of the great body of the American people. She is the aristocratic college of the United States. Her pride of antiquity, her vanity of pre-eminence and wealth, are likely to prevent her renovating her principles and management so as to suit the wants of the period; and she will probably receive a sufficient patronage from the aristocracy, for a considerable time to come, to encourage her in all her faults. She has a great name, and the education she affords is very expensive in comparison with all other colleges. The sons of the wealthy will therefore flock to her. The attainments usually made within her walls are inferior to those achieved elsewhere, her professors (poorly salaried, when the expenses of living are considered) being accustomed to lecture and examine the students, and do nothing more. The indolent and the careless will therefore flock to her. But, meantime, more and more new colleges are rising up, and are filled as fast as they rise, whose principles and practices are better suited to the wants of the time. In them living is cheaper, and the professors are therefore richer with the same or smaller salaries; the sons of the yeomanry and mechanic classes resort to them; and, where it is the practice of the tutors to work with their pupils, as well as lecture to them, a proficiency is made which shames the attainments of the Harvard students. The middle and lower classes are usually neither Unitarian nor Episcopalian, but“orthodox,” as their distinctive term is; and these, the strength and hope of the nation, avoid Harvard, and fill to overflowing the oldest orthodox colleges; and, when these will hold no more, establish new ones.
Also, after attending a meeting of the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa society, she said:
The traveller is met everywhere among the aristocracy of the country with what seems to him the error of concluding that letters are wisdom, and that scholarship is education. Among a people whose profession is social equality, and whose rule of association is universal self-government, he is surprised to witness the assumptions of a class, and the contempt which the few express for the many, with as much assurance as if they lived in Russia or England. Much of this is doubtless owing to the minds of the lettered class having been nourished upon the literature of the old world, so that their ideas have grown into a conformity with those of the subjects of feudal institutions, and the least strong-minded and original indiscriminately adopt, not merely the language, but the hopes and apprehensions, the notions of good and evil which have been generated amidst the antiquated arrangements of European society: but, making allowance for this, as quite to be expected of all but very strong and original minds, it is still surprising that within the bounds of the republic, the insolence should be so very complacent, the contempt of the majority so ludicrously decisive as it is.
Excerpt of her full remarks on Harvard here.
I’m also reminded of something that a great writer on management and society, the Austrian-born Peter Drucker, wrote back in 1969:
One thing it (modern society) cannot afford in education is the “elite institution” which has a monopoly on social standing, on prestige, and on the command positions in society and economy. Oxford and Cambridge are important reasons for the English brain drain. A main reason for the technology gap is the Grande Ecole such as the Ecole Polytechnique or the Ecole Normale. These elite institutions may do a magnificent job of education, but only their graduates normally get into the command positions. Only their faculties “matter.” This restricts and impoverishes the whole society…The Harvard Law School might like to be a Grande Ecole and to claim for its graduates a preferential position. But American society has never been willing to accept this claim…
We as a country are a lot closer to accepting Grande École status for Harvard Law School and similar institutions than we were when Drucker wrote the above. A distinction between “schools for leaders” and “schools for followers” is, as Drucker noted, a socially malign one. Extreme Ivy credentialism is much stronger in some industries than in others. It is especially high in government, in ‘nonprofits,’ and in finance.
I’m sure it’s possible to get a great education at Harvard and other Ivies, at least in some fields, and I’ve known several impressive individuals who graduated from these schools, both as undergrads and from the business schools. But I’ve also need a lot of impressive people who followed other educational paths, and I don’t see that there is any magic sauce possessed by the ‘elite’ universities, at least as far as actual education goes. But as far as the contacts and the ‘brand’ go, there is indeed some magic, though not of a beneficent kind. The dominance of these universities in government and the archipelago of institutions that surround it has reached the point that an Ivy degree is something like one of those Titles of Nobility that were prohibited by the US Constitution.
(I see that former Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot is now a lecturer at Harvard. Her scholarly attainments may not be particularly noteworthy, nor did her job performance reach a level of excellence that would make a useful case study–but her appointment does strengthen the Harvard linkage with the governing party.)
On a positive note, there is starting to be some significant pushback against Ivy credentialism and academic credentialism in general. For example, the Thiel Fellowship “gives $100,000 to young people who want to build new things instead of sitting in a classroom.” (Ten of the companies started by Thiel Fellows now have valuations of over $1 billion.) The 1517 Fund defines itself with the line: “We back dropouts, renegade students & sci-fi scientists at the earliest stages of their companies.” Michael Gibson, co-founder & co-manager of 1517, has written an interesting book titled Paper Belt on Fire:
Paper Belt on Fire is the unlikely account of how two outsiders with no experience in finance—a charter school principal and defrocked philosopher—start a venture capital fund to short the higher education bubble. Against the contempt of the education establishment, they discover, mentor, and back the leading lights in the next generation of dropout innovators and in the end make their investors millions.
(Former Harvard president Larry Summers is not a fan of the Thiel Fellowship, calling it “the single most misdirected philanthropy of the decade” and averring that it would be “tragic” for intellectually capable young people to eschew college in favor of Thiel’s backing. I doubt he is very fond of the 1517 fund, either.)
Some corporations and some states (Virginia) are eliminating universal college requirements for a broad range of jobs. The Federal Aviation Administration no longer requires a college degree for Air Traffic Control candidates (although degrees are still considered a positive). There is a revived interest in vocational education and trade schools.
Universities and K-12 schools have been seriously abusing their power, with malign consequences for the economy and the full use of human talents. The only hope for reform lies in the reduction of that power through the development of alternative paths for the acquisition of knowledge.
Some related previous posts and discussion threads:Published in