The Myth of the Ivy League

By Art Carey

As historians begin sifting through the ruins of the presidency of Donald Trump, I hope they pay proper attention to the conduct of so many graduates of so-called elite schools, specifically the Ivy League, whose dishonorable behavior makes one wonder what kind of education these institutions are providing and what it means to attend such places today.

The leaders of the effort to challenge the presidential election in Congress with unfounded claims of fraud–Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz–have platinum resumes. Hawley attended Stanford and Yale Law; Cruz, Princeton and Harvard Law. In the House, Elise Stefanik, a Harvard graduate, was vocal in supporting Trump and perpetuating the lie that he won.

Many members of the former Trump administration, including the president himself, have degrees from similar top-rank schools: Steven Mnuchin (Yale), Wilbur Cross (Yale, Harvard Business), Ben Carson (Yale); Alex Azar (Dartmouth, Yale Law), Stephen Miller (Duke), Jared Kushner (Harvard), and Ivanka, Donald Jr. and Donald Trump (University of Pennsylvania).

So what? Why does it matter?

Because it calls into question whether these storied schools are fulfilling their putative purpose and mission. Do they exist to create more enlightened, more humane citizens? Or are they just highfalutin credential mills, glorified ivy-covered vo-tech schools churning out “social-climbing weasels” (in the words of a Princeton senior who just wrote a book about his experience), whose main goal is to snare big-bucks jobs in investment banking, consulting, and tech.

Trump transferred to Penn from Fordham and majored in business at Wharton. His grades are unavailable, and contemporaries report that he was rarely seen on campus. I wonder how many classes he actually attended and how many books he actually read. I wonder how many liberal arts courses he took, and whether he studied any history, literature, philosophy, sociology, psychology, and religion, areas of intellectual inquiry that might have broadened and deepened his outlook and imparted the perspective and understanding that is supposed to be the fruit of scholarly endeavor. The evidence of his tweets and public pronouncements is not reassuring.

A major benefit of attending a fancy big-name school is that you encounter vivid proof that even our most revered universities graduate many an idiot and scoundrel. Consequently, you’re less surprised when you discover that academic success doesn’t always translate into success in life, that higher education doesn’t always mean higher character, that being smart doesn’t necessarily mean being or doing good. Smart can also be evil, malicious, neurotic and destructive. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin were smart. So was the Unabomber, a Harvard alum.

Assuming that the “best” schools, ipso facto, make the best people, or even better people, is naïve, I realize. Smart people are still people, which means they are human and flawed, prone to fail and make mistakes, even commit crimes. Aaron Burr, a U.S. senator and Thomas Jefferson’s vice president, shot and killed his rival Alexander Hamilton in an illegal duel, and later was charged with treason. He was a notorious womanizer (sound familiar?) whose life was stained by scandal. He had studied theology at Princeton.

David Halberstam’s ironically titled The Best and the Brightest chronicles how Harvard-educated John Kennedy and his Ivy-pedigreed “whiz kids” and brilliant intellectuals botched the Vietnam War. Bill Clinton, who dallied with a White House intern and lied about it, studied at Georgetown, Yale Law and Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. George W. Bush, who led the nation into a draining, never-ending war under false pretenses, went to Yale and Harvard Business School.

Some may argue that colleges and universities aren’t responsible for the behavior of their graduates (though they are quick to take credit for those who are “successful”), that they merely reflect the times and the culture. Their job is to mint computer scientists and financial engineers, to give people the tools to make a living, not to provide moral instruction and character formation.

If so, then why is higher education so esteemed? Why is it exalted as a path to self-knowledge and virtue? Why are college campuses regarded as sacred sanctuaries, “ivory towers” for the acquisition of wisdom?

Profiles of people in the news admiringly note that so-and-so is “Harvard-educated” or “Yale-educated,” or “Princeton-educated” or has “Ivy League credentials.” What does that mean, besides the fact that the person was lucky enough to get in and is skillful at studying, taking tests, and getting good grades? Does it signify anything more?

The motto of Harvard is Veritas–truth. The motto of Yale is Lux et veritas-light and truth. The motto of Columbia is In lumine Tuo videbimus lumen–In Thy light shall we see light. The motto of the University of Pennsylvania is Leges sine moribus vanae — laws without morals are useless. Such slogans imply bedrock values, the celebration and propagation of moral principles.

Maybe colleges and universities have become too large, diverse, and impersonal to engage in, as one academic I know puts it, “the morality business.” Maybe it’s romantic and foolish to expect more. Maybe all the high-sounding phrases, the semi-sacerdotal pomp and circumstance, are just about image, branding, and marketing, and the Ivy League, like so much else in modern life, is just big business, another commercial enterprise, an elaborate illusion and scam.

Art Carey is 1972 graduate of Princeton University.

is a former Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer, editor and columnist and the author of “In Defense of Marriage” and “The United States of Incompetence.”