Harvard-trained murderer?

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.

12 thoughts on “Harvard-trained murderer?

  1. You must have your work cut out for you being a college counselor in this environment. It sounds like you’re pointing your students in the right direction. Thanks for writing this article and sharing your perspective.

  2. Thanks for your opinion piece today in the Inquirer. I found it enlightening on several fronts, and think that you could add an anti-elitist proclivity among those who would repeat the idea of a “Harvard-trained” murderer, as if to say that ‘those Harvard people’ fall prey to their baser instincts just like the rest of the less-educated populace.

    I write also to defend my alma mater against the implication that all Ivies do not live up to good standards of undergraduate teaching. Dartmouth College is the one Ivy that has consistently shown a real commitment to their undergrads despite (and in conjunction with) the excellence of their professional schools. We grads are incensed when a publication uses the term “Dartmouth University” when quoting the work done by academic researchers up in Hanover, because that is not our name, and because it might undermine the focus of the college…to produce well-rounded, well-taught undergrads.

    The college application process looms in the nearish future for us as parents and we hope to navigate it with an eye toward getting an excellent undergrad (though not necessarily Ivy) experience for our boys. Friends’ Central’s families are lucky to have you helping them keep their eyes on the true value of an undergrad education, besides the name printed on the diploma.

    Best regards, Beth Attig

    • You’re absolutely right about the variation among the ivies.
      I agree that Dartmouth does a much better job with it’s undergrads than some of the others.
      It has always seemed strange to me that they (those private research universities that don’t necessarily pay much attention to their undergrads) get away with charging the same price for the product.

  3. This column is all over the place, please take a journalism class.

    • The article may meander, but it touches on a hot topic – what exactly does it mean in the 21st century to get an Ivy or similar degree – status-wise, skills-wise, etc. and what does it take to get there? Most parents I know of 11th graders are really asking themselves this question, as they ponder retirement savings vs. college savings (do I burden my kid now or later?)… And most of those I know are dreading entering into what has become an overwhelming, random-feeling, pro-college/not pro-consumer admission gauntlet.

  4. Good column, Grant. Brings to mind the way almost every report of former NBA referee Tim Donaghy’s fall from grace mentioned that he was a graduate of Cardinal O’Hara High School. He also attended Villanova but that was not always reported. Are we to believe that these schools were in some way responsible for his gambling problem?

  5. I googled Amy Bishop and NOT one of the first ten headlines mentioned Harvard. Also, in real life you are know by the school of your highest degree. The “mother of four”, “breadwinner” and “understanding the pressures” you describe is millions of unemployed people, men and women, not many of which murder the co-wokers. This nitwit is a product of political correctness and affirmative action. Clearly 30 years ago she could not have ever been admitted to Harvard, she was a wacko and clearly over her head. I could only assume the patents she and her husband had were invented by him. I can’t wait for her execution, she is clearly guilty, not “allegedly” charged. She should have been put to death years ago after the murder of her brother, these last victims would still be alive.

    • Mr. Hassis –
      Thanks for the note.
      The mentions weren’t in the headlines, they were in the text of the articles.
      As far as being known by your highest degree goes, my experience is that it can go both ways. When a person speaks of his alma mater, it’s generally the undergraduate institution. And in this case my point was that Bishop’s graduate degree was mentioned only because it was from Harvard, not because it was her highest degree.
      I contend that had she earned her doctorate it at U. Texas (Austin), for example, which has a world class biology graduate program, the university would not have been mentioned.
      I don’t know that I would give her husband credit for much. He sounds as though he’s a bit unstable himself.

  6. I am a 1988 graduate of Friends’ Central, and your op-ed printed in Friday’s Inquirer really resonated with me.

    Back when I was going through the process of choosing a college, I wanted to stay in the Philadelphia area and therefore applied to most of the local schools. I was turned down by Penn, but accepted by Villanova, St. Joe’s and Drexel. I ultimately decided to attend St. Joe’s, literally right down the road from Friends’ Central, mainly because they offered me a partial scholarship.

    Although a number of my classmates, including one in particular who ended up attending Princeton, thought that I was “underestimating my potential,” St. Joe’s turned out to be the right choice for me. Class sizes were relatively small, so that even as a freshman, I was taught by committed faculty members who provided the type of individualized attention to which I had grown accustomed after having attended a Friends school for twelve years. Needless to say, that individualized attention would have been absent at one of the Ivy League schools, where many introductory courses are taught by teaching assistants. The Jesuit emphasis on critical thinking and social justice also built upon my FCS experience.

    I would definitely recommend that you counsel your students not to discount smaller colleges and universities. Coming from Friends, they may very well have a more rewarding educational experience than they would at a more prestigious school. After all, I liked St. Joe’s so much that I continue to work there to this day!

    Please say hello to Gary Nicolai for me. I remember his American history and Modern European history classes fondly.

    Bill Fanshel
    FCS Class of 1988

  7. I liked your article on the irrelevant status accorded to graduated of the Ivy League colleges.

    I was born and brought up in Britain, and the same mind-warp goes on there. If you don’t attend one of the “Oxbridge” universities, such as the Ox/Cambs, Aberdeen, and a few others, your alma mater is referred to disparagingly as a “redbrick.”

    I graduated from the University of Birmingham, which has prodced countless famous scientists and engineers. Among its notable achievements are the invention of the Magnetron oscillator, which put British radar a year ahead of the rest of the world, and mathematical calculations and other technology which were essential to the development of the atomic bomb. (A Magnetron was brought to the United States, and it, plus all of the atomic information were given freely to the United States, which reneged on a pledge to in return exchange nuclear weapon information after the war).

    For decades, Cambridge was a hotbed of communist sympathizers, and produced several people who later became double agents for the Soviets. Nevertheless, it remains a revered Oxbridge college and Birmingham a redbrick.

  8. Have you overlooked what we might call “the tragic impulse,” which caused audiences to pack theaters in Greece, Rome, and Elizabethan England, and still packs them in on Broadway? The great mass of humanity is fascinated when a highly placed person is brought low. We have no monarchs like Oedipus, Caesar or Macbeth, but we have characters like Willy Loman whose demise makes us question the security of middle-class lives, and we have celebrities brought low by the tabloids. You’re keenly aware of the eagerness with which young people aspire to the Ivy League, so you must also be familiar with the disappointment and resentment among those who fail to be accepted and thus go through life without the sheen that an Ivy degree confers upon a curriculum vitae. The use of ‘Harvard-trained’ in stories about Amy Bishop has its roots in 2500-year-old stories featuring depictions of flawed, formerly elevated persons involved in catastrophic events. It’s all about envy, and the ugly satisfaction some get from witnessing a fall from grace.

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