How the Ivy League Lost Sight of What Matters

Earlier this summer, I attended a two-week summer philosophy course that included many students from Ivy League universities. It didn’t take long for me to realize that although these students were brilliant, they seemed to be receiving an education that was harming them.

I learned that Ivy League schools have lost sight of what matters in education. Instead of focusing on truth, learning, and the higher things in life, our elite colleges have turned into pressure cookers designed to churn out the ideal professional. Instead of providing a challenging, rigorous education, our higher institutions of learning are content to indoctrinate their students before shipping them off to Silicon Valley or Wall Street, diploma in hand, to make their millions. That’s not what college is meant to be.

When our group of college seniors, which included students from Cornell and Stanford Universities, among other elite colleges, visited the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., this point was driven home. Viewing a particular piece of art, I made an offhand comment about Plato’s cave. The two students with me looked puzzled: “What’s Plato’s cave?”

Not everyone needs to know what Plato’s cave is, of course, but I was stunned that two elite students, hand-picked for a summer program that focused on philosophy, had never heard of one of the foundational ideas of Western civilization. My peers at Hillsdale College, a place not ranked among the nation’s elite colleges, read portions of Plato’s Republic during their freshman year, and even if they are not experts in philosophy, they can at least recognize an allusion to Plato. If “elite” students don’t understand history, philosophy, or literature, what are they learning?

Many of them are well-versed in the contemporary grievance industry and can speak fluently on politically correct subjects such as “intersectionality.” Of course this is not universally true, but in the absence of real core curricula at many elite colleges, much falls through the gaping cracks.

By contrast, at many non-Ivy League liberal arts colleges, communities of learning are intact. Students take small classes, work their way through a comprehensive core curriculum, and love learning and challenging ideas. But at the Ivies, I get the impression from my peers that accomplishments and skill and resumé-building often matter more than pursuing truth and risking failure in the process.

This constant striving and fear of failure is a serious issue. Mental health challenges are a serious problem on college campuses—last year Columbia University dealt with monthly suicides, and many of the Ivies have been dealing with similar problems. Universities cannot be blamed for suicides, of course, but as the parents of one dead teen asserted, their son went off to college having “never experienced failure.” College is meant to be a space for constant failure in the pursuit of something higher. When did failure not become an option at our elite schools?

Another student at my summer program shook my faith in the students of the Ivy League because of her weary cynicism about the future. When I asked how she liked Harvard, she replied, “It’s alright, I guess. It’s about the same as everywhere. It’s very career-focused. Everyone seems to just go through so they can go into consulting.” When I asked her what she was planning to do when she graduated, she replied, “Consulting.”

The facts bear her out. A few years ago, the New York Times reported the astonishing rates at which Ivy League students graduate into work in the finance or consulting sectors. In the year before the financial crash, a staggering seventy-three percent of Princeton graduates went into those two sectors, for example. That’s not normal.

Those rates have declined slightly since then, but they’re still high. Fifteen percent of Harvard grads go into consulting, but only 0.5 percent want to be there a decade later. Why are they working in fields they don’t even enjoy?

The fast-track to finance and consulting makes sense for Ivy Leaguers, regardless of their major. For many of them, their lives have been spent being groomed to pursue prestige (and wealth) with little risk. That makes the two-year terms at McKinsey Consulting and the like, with their eighty-hour work weeks and large salaries, pretty appealing. Never mind that they hate the field: it’s the next logical step, and elite colleges seem to punish thinking outside of the box.

Most of the top tier of our educational industry is just that—an industry. Instead of creating an environment for learning, the top eight schools in the nation have created a pipeline (largely filled with children from upper-middle-class and very wealthy families) from private high schools to Ivy League colleges and straight into powerful and well-paid positions. While many liberal arts schools around the country still focus on art, philosophy, languages, and the formation of good human beings, the Ivy Leagues seem mainly to be in the business of manufacturing cookie-cutter adults. The Ivy Leagues may be “changing the world,” as they like to claim, but given the evidence I saw this summer, it’s not in a good way.

Image: By Joseph Williams (originally posted to Flickr as Harvard) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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