Humanist Perspectives: issue 208: Debunking the Ivy League Mythology

Debunking the Ivy League Mythology
by Barry Mayhew

Enlightenment
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A

n adage one frequently hears, both within and outside academia, is as follows: “You can always tell a Harvard man but you can’t tell him very much.” Harvard graduates, and graduates from the other so-called “Ivy League” universities (Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Pennsylvania, Princeton and Yale) also enjoy a level of status that is considerably above that associated with most other North American institutions of higher learning. Harvard has the added distinction of being the first university established in North America (1636).

[T]hese schools can, and do, offer the incentives that attract Nobel Laureates and other top-rated scholars to join their faculties.

A question one might raise is: “Why is this?” and, equally significant, “Does this enviable reputation have any validity?” Part of this reputation can be attributable to longevity. The original four Ivy League schools (Harvard, Yale, Pennsylvania, Princeton) have been established for more than two centuries.

Another factor is their location, mostly in the northeastern part of the nation and, in many cases, the New England region, which was that part of North America first settled by Europeans and where the beneficiaries of the great fortunes amassed during the industrial revolution made their homes. The members of these illustrious families usually sent their sons to these highly reputable schools, where they would be in contact with the sons of other members of the American “aristocracy.” Upon graduation, these young men would have the “connections” that would give them access to employment opportunities in the well-established financial and manufacturing industries. Once established in prestigious, high-paying jobs, these young men were often generous in helping create the multi-milliondollar endowments held by today’s Ivy League universities.

Yet another factor that can help explain the status enjoyed by Ivy League universities is the magnitude of their endowments. With hundreds of millions of dollars to draw upon, these schools can, and do, offer the incentives that attract Nobel Laureates and other top-rated scholars to join their faculties. University administrators are well aware of the prestige attached to having these “academic heavyweights” as members of their faculties. This prestige factor also attracts high-caliber students and those whose families can afford the high tuition required. In their quest to attract top-rated scholars, these universities offer not only high salaries but – often more attractive to many scholars – research grants, lab facilities and minimal or even no teaching responsibilities. The irony is Barry Mayhew [T]hese schools can, and do, offer the incentives that attract Nobel Laureates and other top-rated scholars to join their faculties. that it is highly unlikely that any students, except perhaps for a few postgraduate degree candidates, will ever have the benefit of exposure to instruction from one of these eminent scholars. That being the case, there may be no direct relationship between a faculty comprising internationally recognized scholars and the quality of that institution’s graduates.

The irony is that it is highly unlikely that any students [...] will ever have the benefit of exposure to instruction from one of these eminent scholars.

While the element of status associated with an Ivy League degree is undeniable, a salient question is whether or not an Ivy League graduate is any better equipped to perform in his/her chosen discipline than someone with a similar degree from UCLA, Penn State, Cal-Berkeley or any other accredited North American or western European university. I am of the view that success is far more dependent on the student’s attitude and intellect than the institution from which they graduated.

When Albert Einstein decided to leave his native Germany for the United States, I suspect most American universities would have welcomed him with open arms and would likely have met any of his requests. Presumably, Princeton made Professor Einstein the most attractive offer. Whether any Princeton undergraduates benefited from Dr. Einstein’s presence on campus is highly questionable.

There are likely some Ivy League graduates who will label me an iconoclast. To my detractors, I plead guilty.

As an aside, but somewhat related, is the question of how the expression Ivy League came about. One explanation centres on the age of the campus buildings, many of which are largely covered with vines of ivy. Another version has it that a young sports reporter was instructed by his boss to cover a football game between Harvard and Yale. Disenchanted by the prospect, he supposedly complained that the assignment would be about as exciting as watching ivy grow. One historian claims the name was coined by Caswell Adams, a sportswriter with the New York Herald Tribune. Yet another explanation relates to the fact that the first four Ivy League universities established would be referred to with Roman numerals as the first IV. It seems unlikely, however, that we will ever have a definitive answer to this riddle.

Barry Mayhew PhD, is an urban geographer by academic training but spent most of his professional life as a corporate executive and latterly as a management consultant. He has more than 20 publications in an eclectic array of magazines and professional journals. He is retired and lives in Victoria, British Columbia.

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