Loose use of Ivy League labels is a strange and telling American habit.
a version of this article appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer – April 9, 2010
A couple of months ago Amy Bishop, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville allegedly opened fire on her colleagues and killed three of them in the middle of a department meeting. The event was reported extensively in the press. I recently happened upon a mention of the case and was surprised and disappointed to see her referred to, yet again, as a “Harvard-educated biologist.”
What exactly is the point of naming the institution from which she earned her graduate degree? Bishop spent her undergraduate years at Northeastern University, but one had to search a bit to find that out because – it’s not Harvard.
Apparently Bishop is also “a mother of four” and her family’s “breadwinner.” OK, at least these biographical details might have some relevance to understanding the pressures on Bishop, who had been recently turned down for tenure.
But why should we care so much that she was “Harvard-educated”? Does it add to the shock of the shootings? Are senseless acts of violence particularly rare among Harvard graduates?
A friend of mine earned his biology doctorate at Harvard and served as a teaching assistant during his first couple of years there. At the time, he remarked on the weakness of the university’s introductory biology course. The professors obviously knew the material, but their own research, the need to secure funding for it, and the expectation that they publish understandably made their teaching duties a low priority.
Despite the lack of attention paid to the freshmen, my friend discovered that they managed to make sense of the material. So, if by “Harvard-educated” we meant “good at figuring things out on your own with a little help from your peers,” we might be getting closer to a useful definition of the term. According to the same source an effort has been made in recent years to pay more attention to the teaching done at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. This is all to the good.
Still, Harvard – and other research universities with similarly competitive applicant pools – don’t create smart, hardworking, self-directed types; they admit them already well-formed. The universities no more deserve credit for producing these people than they deserve blame for tragic cases such as Bishop’s.
The so-called Ivies and a few other elite institutions have successfully established a kind of oligopoly. Over the past generation or so, they have energetically marketed themselves to the point that they attract top students from across the country and around the world. They receive huge numbers of applications – in some cases triple the levels of the 1960s and ’70s. And today’s average applicant has higher grades and standardized-test scores than her counterpart of a generation ago.
Despite all this, the size of these schools’ incoming classes has not increased significantly. The result: intense competition for a very small number of spots at a handful of private universities.
Usually, demand encourages greater supply, but these universities are not easily duplicated, so there is relatively little competitive incentive for them to improve their undergraduate programs. In fact, one can make a compelling case that most, not all, of the strongest four-year college programs, in terms of institutional focus on undergraduates, are offered by small liberal-arts colleges, rather than big research universities.
One often hears about the institutional affiliations of an expert being interviewed by the media. That makes sense. A seismologist from the University of California probably has something interesting and informed to say about the recent earthquake in Chile.
Unfortunately, Amy Bishop isn’t appearing in news stories as an expert; she is the story. In her case, I suspect the motive for describing an alleged killer as “Harvard-educated” verges on the lurid: “Did you hear? This crazed killer went to Harvard!” The suggestion is that membership in this club makes such an act even more unimaginable than it already is. Or perhaps the use of this identifier represents an element of the strong anti-intellectual streak that runs through our culture. Amy Bishop’s Harvard degree gets mentioned, but Presidential candidates with Ivy League credentials tend not to trot them out. In the past election was Barack Obama ever referred to as a “Harvard-educated Senator?” Not if he could help it.
How do we measure status and success? What messages does our casual use of these sorts of labels convey to the high school seniors I work with as they try to make thoughtful choices about the colleges they will attend next fall? We could do a much better job of helping our children negotiate this maze and, given the challenges that appear to lie ahead for their generation, we should try.