Here we are, once again wringing our hands over the state of intellectual life in the Ivy League.
The latest blow-up concerns Yale, where a campus-wide email last month encouraged students to avoid racially offensive Halloween costumes, a follow-up email from a lecturer questioned whether colleges were now "places of censure and prohibition," student protests broke out, and a highly charged video of one confrontation went viral.
We could spend all day dissecting who is right or wrong here. But I want to ask a more fundamental question: Why do we care?
The official "Ivy League" constitutes eight schools boasting roughly 60,000 undergrad students and some number of graduate students. That's out of 20 million students currently enrolled in some form of higher education, which is out of 50 million or so people of college age, attending or not. We're talking about a handful of controversies at a small number of campuses amidst a very, very big population of people. Why is this a matter of broad public concern? Why do these dust-ups garner presidential commentary and oodles of hand-wringing think pieces about "the way we live now"?
The answer is that most Americans see Ivy League students as our society's future leaders. Which is arguably true. But that tells us nothing about why this is so, or whether it must be so.
Let's start with the notion that colleges in general and the Ivy League especially select and train the best and the brightest. This seems highly questionable: We know, for example, that the effects of poverty — lack of nutrition, pollution, lead, general psychological stress, and more — can have permanent and debilitating effects on cognitive abilities. We also know that because of their incomes and social capital, upper-class families can spend much more time and resources preparing their children for college admittance. So it's no surprise that class divisions in American society perpetuate themselves with ruthless and seemingly intractable efficiency.
Which is not to say that students who get into the top universities are not extremely smart. Their academic performance is their academic performance. It is to say that a large part of their academic performance is an inevitable result of the scads of resources our society throws at them from the get go. In a country with third-world levels of inequality and sky-high child poverty rates, a quest to find "the best and brightest" risks a certain farcical circularity.
Now consider how college degrees function in the job market. Inequality within groups of educational attainment is higher than between them; the wage premium has ceased growing for workers with bachelor's degrees, and now only grows for graduate degrees; and young, college-educated students are increasingly stuck with low-paid work. When you combine those trends with the fact that full employment has been absent for decades, that labor force participation is shrinking, and that even employment of prime-age workers is ratcheting down as a share of the population, a particular picture emerges: College degrees, and especially elite college degrees, serve as the socioeconomic equivalent of Harry Potter's Sorting Hat — deciding who gets to occupy the shrinking number of "slots" in the economy that actually deliver long-term financial security and a decent income.
Put it all together, and is it really surprising that colleges, with the Ivy League at their peak, have become a kind of cultural hothouse? Of course this rarified gaggle of schools is what everyone is desperate to get into; of course we all fixate on them as the unofficial young royalty of our society; and of course every last social faux pas and political correctness controversy perpetrated by their students seems to carry strange and ominous portents for American society at large.
Sitting behind all this, of course, is the long litany of American society's economic sins. Our welfare state is, and always has been, far too skimpy and ungenerous to ensure children the decent start they need in life. The spending choices made by Congress, and the monetary choices made by the Federal Reserve, have combined over the last few decades to shrink the availability of vibrant economic activity, leaving more and more Americans abandoned as useless by the job market. In recent decades, the government has engaged in a massive retreat from public investment in higher education. And the structure of K-12 funding effectively guarantees that recessions will gut education resources, while the communities most in need of help will be showered with the least of whatever resources remain.
In fact, it may well be that the modern price of higher education is simply the natural market rate for a highly coveted positional good in a society beset by rampant economic insecurity and high unemployment, and in which the "public option effect" of government investment in higher education has been effectively removed.
In a more egalitarian world that avoided America's economic sins, our entire social order would be much more horizontal — not to mention far less neurotic. The difference between elite colleges, regular colleges, or no college at all would not be nearly so great, nor the consequences of which category one fell into nearly so severe. It's no accident that it was in the mid-century period — when inequality was low, full employment was prevalent, and government investment in education was robust — that American colleges actually came closest to fulfilling their populist goal of introducing every citizen, high or low, into the cultural and intellectual fabric of American society.
So, to everyone worried about the intellectual fate of the modern college experience — or to anyone who (like me) thinks the intellectual situation isn't nearly so bad, but would just like to never have to care about what goes on at Yale — I say this: Join me in the fight for a radically more egalitarian economy!
You have nothing to lose but our culture's insufferable fixation on a small crew of insanely privileged teenagers and 20-somethings.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article overstated the number of Ivy League students. It has since been corrected. We regret the error.