The scandal of the Ivy League mind

I spent last week at a conference exploring the state of the evangelical mind. I’ll post more about that later in the week. As I was getting ready to leave I came across an article by Sarah Ruden that reveals the scandal of the Ivy League mind. You can read it in full here. I was unfamiliar with Ruden before this article, but she is a Harvard-trained philologist with an award-winning translation of Augustine’s Confessions to her credit.

In short, her thesis is that undergraduates from influential families exercise an disproportionate influence on the grades they receive. She writes,

Undergraduates emerged more powerful the more obnoxiously they behaved; they felt they owned the system — how else could they induce it to give them high grades certifying their excellence when their work was mediocre or nonexistent? — and so they would be likely to support it all their lives with large alumni donations. This, of course, levied high costs on everyone else and on what a university claims, in public, as its core purpose: intellectual achievement. Over and over, administrators decreed that the costs would be paid; in particular, pressure from above would be allowed, whenever convenient, to turn teachers into pushovers and lackeys. 

Of course problem students have been a reality of education since its beginning. One need go no farther than Confessions to demonstrate that. However, what Ruden is describing is something that is inherently anti-intellectual. Something where intellectual rigor is arguably reserved for those outside of the system–the impostors–who enter the institution lacking an elite pedigree.

This is something more problematic than obnoxious students, it is a system rigged to favor institutional survival over against that institution’s founding vision, that of veritas:

In fact, genuine rigor — which would, of course, challenge the prerogatives and sift the career options of privileged students — isn’t what Harvard wanted. Such teaching would hamper the real institutional mission: instilling in the elite a conviction of innate superiority and a corresponding contempt for people with technical knowledge, culture, talent or professional experience.

As a first-generation college graduate, the sting of the reality Ruden critiques is familiar. The older I get and the longer I am around higher education, the more I realize that my assumptions about the purpose of college vary from the vast majority of others.

Somehow, and I’m not really sure where it came from, in my first year in college I fell in love with learning. I majored in philosophy and religion because these subjects were entirely more enjoyable to me than the prospect of learning accounting. And things haven’t changed much since I left college. I hope they never do.