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« The Real "Brown Bunny" | Main | 2Blowhards: The Brand »

September 08, 2004

In The Atlantic

Fenster Moop writes

Dear Blowhards:

First off, you might think about breaking down and subscribing to The Atlantic, if you don't already. The venerable mag does an awfully nice job, I think, in balancing different viewpoints. Apropos Francis' points about civility and conversation, each issue typically brings some nice contrasts without browbeating. Think of it, if you can visualize such a thing, as a paper version of 2Blowhards. Imagine!

Another reason to subscribe: The Atlantic often blocks full web access to some of its better articles, so you might have to shell out some dollars or visit the library to read the articles I am going to comment on here.

The most recent issue has two articles about college. The first is an update on the admissions race at selective colleges, by James Fallows & V. V. Ganeshananthan. The second is entitled "Who Needs Harvard?", and it's by Gregg Easterbrook.

Both are interesting and informative reads. But reading them back to back you see an interesting contrast that is not obvious on the surface.

Fallows and Ganeshananthan take the more conventionally liberal view of various admissions matters, such as the negative impact of increased levels of merit aid on support for lower-income applicants. And in the process, they approvingly cite the work of former Princeton president William Bowen, who worries that the most selective universities have turned into "bastions of privilege" rather than "engines of opportunity." Fair enough, to a point.

But when you read Easterbrook, it gets a little clearer that the benefits of an Ivy, or near Ivy, education are not all they are cracked up to be. Seems that when you hold individual apititude constant, the value-added of the best schools may not amount to much. Sure, graduates of the top schools achieve more in life, but that just might be because they self-selected for a prestiege school, not because of any value imparted by the school itself. Smart Kid X may do as well graduating from Tulane or Northeastern as from Yale.

Looked at this way, Bowen may well be fretting more over the potential loss of the franchise on the part of dear old Princeton. In this light, the desire on the part of Richie Rich to pay up for Princeton is for the most part a kind of consumption snobbery, akin to paying extra for jewelry that is advertised in The New Yorker.

I always kind of thought that the dust kicked up by Bowen and Derek Bok's The Shape of the River was suspect for a similar reason: who needs Harvard? The advance of first generation college students up to the middle class is taking place in other venues, ones with a substantial number of open doors.



posted by Fenster at September 8, 2004


Thanks for the tip about The Atlantic. To my shame, I haven't looked at anything but their freebie webstuff in a few years. Interesting too about fancy schools. The impression I got from the one I attended was that what was really being sold was prestige, not an education. Egos were being filled much more than minds were. There's another thing that doesn't seem to get mentioned in discussions about elite educations, which is whether or not they tend to promote satisfied and rewarding lives. I'd venture that kids going to state schools often wind up happier than kids who go to elite schools, who often seem to peak when they get into the elite college -- that's the summit of their lives -- and experience everything that follows as a letdown. Have you noticed anything similar?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on September 8, 2004 10:36 PM

I'm very angry because you used to be able to read almost everything on the Atlantic's site but can't now. Grrr...

Posted by: lindenen on September 8, 2004 11:19 PM

I'd say that making "important" connections at a prestige school are what is most important. If you're not really a connection-making type of fellow (or not likely to because you don't fit the proper socio-economic category), you are missing most of the benefit of an ivy-league education.

From what I gather the actual undergraduate education is not vastly different from other universities. What they gain by having high admission requirements, they lose by not being able to filter 98% of the students out of the top-end programs. (People paying extraordinary sums tend to get quite annoyed if a professor decides to fail 50 of 100 students because this year's class isn't capable enough.)

Posted by: Tom West on September 9, 2004 06:42 AM

Ha. I forgot when I wrote this that the Blowhards site advertises itself as two greying amateurs writing about, among other things, lousy Ivy educations. So I am brand-congruent without even knowing it.

My own experience: I didn't attend an Ivy so it's hard for me to judge that particular matter from a personal perspective. I went to a university a couple of notches down, but it was in the High Sixties, in more than one sense of the word, a period when all bets were off in terms of what was happening inside and outside the classrooms. The Who's Tommy was of more import than most of my classes, alas.

Posted by: Fenster on September 9, 2004 07:57 AM

I think that Tom West's point about "making 'important' connections" is the crux of the matter.

Clearly the extraordinarily high percentage of Ivy League grads in the foreign affairs establishment (at State, the CIA and the Think Tanks that interact with them) attests to that.

It's also true that the most influential professors at prestigious Ivy League grad schools (especially graduate law schools) are themselves increasingly graduates of the Ivy League. Their writings have a tremendous influence on our whole law, or legal culture, which in turn drives much of the social agenda in the country.

Posted by: ricpic on September 9, 2004 08:27 AM


I think you're being too generous toward the Ivys generally and especially the big 3: Princeton, Harvard and Yale. Most of the research I've seen posits no (or even negative) financial benefits from attending such schools, once you hold academic prowess (as measured by SATs or IQ or whatever) constant.

While the "real world" (i.e., school of hard knocks) finds no benefit from an Ivy education, however, that's not necessarily true of various all-too-human organizations. Clearly, elite graduate schools find an Ivy undergraduate education quite dazzling; if you look at the most competitive graduate schools it is clear that graduates of the Big 3 are many times over-represented. Likewise, Wall Street and large corporate law firms seem to have a weak spot for Ivy graduates. So Michael's idea that what is being sold is a kind of elite brand seems quite accurate. Of course, as reasearch on racism and sexism in institutional contexts demonstrated 30 years ago, powerful, politically entrenched and wealthy institutions tend to indulge most in such irrational prejudices because they can afford to do so.

I've always thought that the ideal Ivy student would be the kind of person who uses school as a metaphor for life: to wit, when they are 40, they think of themselves as being in Grade 35, still working hard to gain the approbation of external authority figures, still seeing if they are in the top of their class.

To make an historical analogy: people today investing in an elite education are very, very similar to commoners in 18th century France buying a title or aristocrats buying a job as an administrator or a judge. Think of Ivy graduates today as our nobility of the robe, and you'll get a very accurate sense of what the whole process is about. Of course, it was the self-serving interests of the nobility of the robe that brought down the French monarchy, not that our Ivy graduates would ever do something that selfish.

Or would they?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on September 9, 2004 10:07 AM

Are Ivy league undergraduates all that sought for graduate programs? My impression (albeit two decades old, Canadian, and hard science biased) was that their undergraduates were not that special academically. However, because research funding was so concentrated in the US, their graduate students really did have the research money to do stuff that could not be done anywhere else.

Posted by: Tom West on September 9, 2004 11:47 AM

I do have a slight disagreement about the value of an ivy league school education. At least for one institution. My sister and her husband both attended MIT. I, my parents, and the rest of my siblings all attended various state universities.

I and others do note a difference in the education they received beyond merely a harder course load. A quote from an optician who just happened to have a number of MIT patients is "those people don't think like us." In the state schools if you were given a problem such as "how do you jump a ditch" a speed and angle of jumping would get you the correct answer. At MIT they want you thinking beyond that - answers dealing with issues such as do you want to keep running at the other side or come to a stop, is there anything overhead that you might hit when jumping, etc.

Although other schools may cover thinking beyond the problem as one part of the teaching, at MIT it appears to be constantly stressed throughout the entire education.

Posted by: Gene Horr on September 9, 2004 04:18 PM

Since when have Ivy schools been about anything but ego? THis side of Paraside anyone?

The connections are much more important then you realize. An aquaintice of mine OtherJen, once needed over 6,000$. She got it in a night by asking old college friends. and in her own words "If I wanted to be an investment banker tonight I could."

Never underestimate knowing someone on the inside who knows you.

Posted by: JLeavitt on September 9, 2004 07:19 PM


Your story is no doubt true, and sounds persuasive. But I do wonder if it isn't a bit of the anecdotal welfare queen business in reverse. If connections were all, or even a whole lot, then the work of the researchers I wrote about must be wrong. If outcomes adjusted by aptitude are similar, the role of Ivy connections cannot be that great. I do not make a claim on behalf of the researchers, mind you--just that I put somewhat more weight on a study than a story.

Gene Horr:

The MIT story is a good one, I must say. I do think it is possible for superior institutions to address learning in unique and idenfiable ways--stressing critical problem solving across the board, say, at MIT, as a broader approach than simple calculations. Even if that's true of MIT, though, it may not be true of Harvard, Princeton or Yale. I haven't heard that claim made with respect to the generic Ivies.


Your argument seems to be that, even if outcomes are the same at Ivies and non-Ivies, Ivy graduates may have a better shot at controlling the cultural dialogue by virtue of cornering the intelligensia market. That's a very interesting take. I wonder though--I seem to recall that when corporate and political leaders backgrounds are charted, key cultural and political decision makers are increasingly likely to come from Michigan State as opposed to Dartmouth. Do the Ivies really have a corner on the intelligensia? And even if they do, might it not atrophy over time if there's no real there there?


Would our academic nobility act so selfishly, or rather selflessly? Over at this address, in a review of a book review--

I wrote about how Kingman Brewster helped undermine his "own kind" at Yale, and beyond.

Posted by: Fenster on September 9, 2004 07:44 PM

Worst moment was when the Amistad Committee accused Yale of racism for naming its dorms after slave owners, and the whole institution had to apologize.

The Seven Sisters seem to dominate the publishing and magazine industries. But, when in need of a real, down-to-earth, utilitarian JOB, I have found my fancy education to work against me.

Posted by: winifer skattebol on September 11, 2004 11:52 AM

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