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:
- Malcolm Gladwell: The author of Blink and The Tipping Point employed a strategy Gopnik best described as “grabbing numbers out of his ass.” Gladwell started by criticizing the criteria Harvard, Yale and Princeton (HYP) — importantly, he only discussed these three as they are “indicative” of the Ivy League he wants abolished — use in admissions, focusing particularly on the “personal qualities” category that admissions officers developed in the ’20s to keep out an excess of Jews. And, he asked, since the Ivy League “helps define what merit is,” are we comfortable with their assumptions, or “are we better if we start over?” He then challenged the notion of the Ivy League as an engine of social mobility by throwing out statistics on HYP that suggest they do relatively little in the way of recruiting lower-class students. In his closing argument, he argued that class mobility in the United States is shamefully rigid these days, and the Ivy League’s elitism embolizes how the country is “in the midst of building itself an aristocracy.” Thus, the kicker: “We would be a better nation without Harvard, Princeton or Yale.” Well, when you put it that way…
- Adam Gopnik: Stately, plump svelte Adam Gopnik leapt into the battlefield by noting how European countries do everything better than us except higher education. He then questioned the effectiveness of killing HYP as a panacea for America’s woes with this well rehearsed lulu: “Wanting to abolish the Ivy League to solve the problem of American inequality is like wanting to abolish the NBA to solve the problem of American obesity.” He repeatedly tried to score New York City approval points by comparing Gladwell’s bent on university-destruction to George W. Bush’s foreign policy, with HYP being the new “Axis of Evil” and a post-HYP world being, presumably, the academe’s Sadr City. He praises Ivy League schools for pooling intellectually curious minds together and noted that Gladwell is “committed to destroying excellence wherever it’s concentrated.” The Gop also gave props to the excellent tradition of private American research facilities. Basically, the guy said that reforming class-restrictive aspects of the Ivy League is a better plan than doing away with it altogether.
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!