The Ivy League is the problem

Spare us the elite psychodrama, please

A college student.
(Image credit: Illustrated | ClassicStock / Alamy Stock Photo, Tatomm_iStock)

In his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week, Brett Kavanaugh made many deeply implausible statements and told several all-but-undeniable lies. But probably the most flagrantly preposterous assertion was this: "I got into Yale Law School. That's the number one law school in the country. I had no connections there. I got there by busting my tail in college." This is a guy coming from Georgetown Prep, a feeder high school that has wormed its way so far into the elite that Kavanaugh wouldn't even be the first Supreme Court justice currently on the court who went there. What's more, Kavanaugh's grandfather went to Yale Law, thus making him a legacy.

The New York Times' Ross Douthat draws on his experience at Harvard to write about this peculiar combination of extreme privilege and status anxiety festering behind a meritocratic facade. Much of the (justified) opposition to Kavanaugh, he argues, is the seething resentment of the only somewhat less ultra-privileged Ivy Leaguers who saturate media and politics but haven't made it as far up the status ladder as Kavanaugh. "[P]art of what we're watching is one group of meritocrats returning to their undergraduate resentments and trying to pin on Georgetown Prep graduates the vices that define our entire depressing class," he writes.

Douthat doesn't suggest this, but a natural conclusion of his argument is this: The Ivy League is the problem.

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Since it's apparently a necessary part of this conversation, let me state that despite having been a critic of Kavanaugh and the corrupt aristocracy that surrounds him, I did not go to a prep school, nor did I attend an Ivy League college. I went to good old public school in remote rural Utah and Colorado (not least because that was the only kind of school around), and Portland's Reed College, a small liberal arts school where I studied chemistry.

Now, I did not grow up in poverty, but this is an important distinction. Perhaps because there are so many of them in politics, media, and business, Ivy Leaguers have a habit of assuming that everyone in political debates also went to an Ivy or at least shares their various weird neuroses. Reed is certainly an elite school in some ways, particularly for those who want to be professional scientists or academics. The education I received there (and in high school) was very good — and it certainly costs about as much as the Ivies (though on the other hand with need-based financial aid I paid considerably less than I would have for a state school). But more importantly, it simply does not have the connections to elite patronage networks that defines the Ivy League.

This raises the question of qualifications, which is supposedly the point of universities in the first place. As educational institutions, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton are not even slightly better than dozens of strong state universities (especially in California) and other private schools. Indeed, as Duncan Black points out, in some ways they are worse because in state schools students routinely flunk out for failing to perform — which is quite difficult in the Ivies, where grade inflation has been off the chain for decades.

What an Ivy League degree gives you is entrée into the American aristocracy. It is not guaranteed — accounting for a lot of the furious jostling for position that Douthat describes — but the networks are there, ready and waiting for those with enough skill at getting good grades, networking, brown-nosing, and backstabbing. That is why every single sitting Supreme Court justice went to either Harvard or Yale. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the quality of the education.

Indeed, "quality of education" is in some ways a canard. Obviously we want capable, intelligent people in positions of high influence. But just as important (and probably rarer) are decency, honesty, humility, integrity, and all the other virtues. In a country of 325 million people it is flatly impossible that the nine people on the Supreme Court will be the absolute "best" lawyers in the land, if such a thing could even be defined.

We should want people who do land on the court to recognize their inescapable colossal good fortune, and take it into account when making decisions. What we actually have is an aristocratic conspiracy of privilege masquerading as a talent search — with the side effect of producing elites who have invested vast effort into apple-polishing and networking.

There are two main ways this conspiracy perpetuates itself. First is Ivy Leaguers who got their jobs thanks to connections handing jobs to Ivy Leaguers coming up behind them — disguised somewhat behind a meritocratic veneer and including a few high-achieving children of working-class parents, like Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Second is the ridiculously inflated reputation of an Ivy League education, maintained through the inarguable success of the patronage networks, the schools using their vast resources to game college rankings, and the arrogance of the graduates. This applies especially within the Ivy League itself, where Princeton is regularly denigrated, even by Douthat. (You can't have winners without losers.)

So what can be done? Well, people can deliberately recruit outside the cramped Ivy League confines, especially Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Not only are there hundreds of thousands of other candidates out there who are every bit as intelligent and qualified to serve as journalists, CEOs, legislative assistants, chiefs of staff, and so forth, such people can bring fresh experiences and perspectives to the table. A huge fraction of the top slots in American institutions being filled by people from a tiny handful of objectively weird places means missed opportunities and blind spots.

Crack open the appalling American aristocracy, and maybe the rest of the country can be spared the maddening self-obsessed Ivy League psychodrama to boot.

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