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On Killing the Ivy League: An IvyGate Recap and Exclusive Interview
Posted By Jim Newell On October 10, 2007 @ 10:07 am In Uncategorized | 42 Comments
As we’ve mentioned a couple of times, this past weekend’s New Yorker Festival played host to a debate between staff writers Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik, entitled “Resolved: The Ivy League Should Be Abolished.” Gladwell, arguing the pro to Gopnik’s con, apparently had more input in the naming process.
The two — Gladwell, the frisky Skeletor, and Gopnik, the gentle francophile — dedicated an hour or so Saturday evening to this delightful repartee. They neared blows a few times, most notably when Gladwell suggested that the Ivy League wouldn’t accept Gopnik for being “short with big ears.” Hot-shit Columbia professor/raving British lunatic Simon Schama chaired the debate, however, and a few unhinged slams of his gavel usually kept the debaters at bay.
A brief recap of each participant’s main points:
At the end of the debate, Schama took a break from shouting inaudible British babble and held a quick audience poll to determine the winner. Gopnik won, according to Schama’s rough hand count. It looked pretty even to me; then again, I was sitting in an upper right balcony corner after showing up 15 minutes late, like any responsible “reporter.”
BUT NOW THE FUN PART! IvyGate was granted an exclusive post-game interview with Gladwell and Gopnik in the venue’s green room, the transcript of which comes after the jump. Read up — there’s a good chance we came to fisticuffs!
IvyGate: Are either of you familiar with our blog, IvyGate?
Malcolm Gladwell & Adam Gopnik: Yes, yes. [Yay! - Ed.]
AG: You have to remember, though, that neither of us are Ivy Leaguers.
IG: You [Gladwell] mentioned during the debate that Harvard, Yale and Princeton are indicative of the Ivy League. How much do those schools depend on the “Ivy League” title to actually be Harvard, Yale or Princeton? Say you got rid of the Ivy League, or the Ivy League never existed, would that make any difference to Harvard, Princeton or Yale?
AG: Well, we were having fun with it, but the point Malcolm was making, and it’s a good one — I see it all too clearly in my children’s school — is that those three institutions have not simply excellence but an aura that defines the obnoxious side of the Ivy League.
IG: So schools like Penn, Dartmouth, et cetera, is a lot of their excellence or reputation defined by being in the Ivy League?
MG: I do think so. I think that it gets back to having a brand, it’s really branding. It’s a way of setting them apart from other schools vying for that same elite posiiton. So I think they all, particularly the so-called smaller, “less elite” Ivies get branding with it.
IG: One thing that I didn’t hear a lot of during the debate is the actual quality of education at the Ivies now. Do you think that, on the whole, at Harvard, Yale or Princeton you are getting as good of an education as their names would suggest?
AG: Malcolm’s making the argument that you can get as good of an education at 25 other places, and I think that’s probably true. My own kids, I constantly try to defetishize it for them. There are thousands of wonderful schools in the United States, is the reality. Education depends more on your collision with a particular teacher than it does on some curriculum you follow. You know, I ended up (insanely) in Art History because I had a great Art History professor…. But the other point I was trying to make, which I did mean seriously, is that universities are in some ways only secondarily where undergraduates get educated. There are places where research gets done, where new ideas are made, and in that way I think that Harvard, Yale, Princeton actually have a pretty terrific record.
IG: You [Gladwell] were arguing the point that if you do get rid of those three [HYP], there would be more egalitarianism among higher institutions. Do you think there would be any fallout though?
AG: I think the reality is that we were having fun tonight, and I think Malcolm knew it’s a debating maneuver; focusing on those three schools would waken the latent animus in all the people in the audience who had never been there, and who resented it very much. And if you broaden it out to include relatively pathetic places, like Penn, where my parents are alumni–
IG: Yeah, that’s where I’m an alum too. It’s one of the lesser Ivies.
AG: Well, pathetic is used with irony…. Then it would be harder to really stir up the audience into a state of Jacobin rage against the elite.
IG: That gets to the deeper question of how serious this debate was to begin with. How ardent are you [Gladwell] about abolishing the Ivy League?
AG: To be honest, tomorrow we could switch places and make each other’s case; we were doing this as much for the joy of the intellectual exercise as because we feel passionately about either one of these sides. But, having said that, I do believe what I said tonight in that with all of their faults, America’s elite research universities have played a terrific role in broadening opportunity in the country. And I think they are one of the things that we can be relatively proud of.
MG: We were playing with this idea, but I wasn’t being… there was more than a little authenticity in my arguments. I don’t think the world is a worse place if those schools [HYP] cease to exist, I could even make a case that we’d be better off. I’d much prefer a kind of Canadian notion of higher education where there is much less stratification among all of the universties.
AG: But you know…. We both went to universities, Malcolm in the ’80s, and I went in the ’70s to McGill, Malcolm to University of Toronto, and those were kind of ideal situations. They were very good schools, but with none of the [stuff] that’s associated with kind of an “elite education” here. It was no big deal getting in, it was no big deal that you had gone there. It was just where you went if you had kind of an academic bent in Canada, and that was kind of ideal. I am told that that is changing, that McGill and U of T are becoming much more Ivy-ized, and that you [Gladwell] and I benefitted from something that no longer exists.
MG: That may be true. And if it is true, that saddens me a little bit, but maybe it’s an inevitable function of the world we live in. It is getting just increasingly stratified on every level. Colleges are getting caught up in it, but that’s a sad thing.
AG: I passionately agree with Malcolm about that — the problem of inequality in America is horrific. To the degree that all of our institutions reflect that, that reflects something ugly about us.
Special thanks to Malcolm Gladwell, Adam Gopnik and Conde Nast publicity, as well as StarTraks for these photos.
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