I Hate the Ivy League: Riffs and Rants About Elite Education
Published in July 2022.
Malcolm Gladwell has some tough things to say about elite higher education. We should listen.
If Malcolm or any of the smart people working at Pushkin are listening (I know they’re smart because we chatted after reviewing Miracle and Wonder), here is what I propose.
Pushkin Industries, the audio production company Gladwell co-founded and is its president, should do two things.
First, Gladwell and the Pushkin team should develop a discussion guide for the audiobook. A set of questions that students, faculty, and staff can discuss together. I would be happy to help you with this guide.
Second, Pushkin should find a way to provide the audiobook for free to anyone with an EDU email address. This task shouldn’t be too difficult, as the audiobook mostly repackages higher education-themed podcast episodes from Gladwell’s Revisionist History. There are no other book formats to worry about, and the only way to read the book is to download a digital file and listen.
In exchange for the effort and expense of Gladwell’s company to obtain free versions of I hate the Ivy League in the hands of students, faculty, and staff – we (higher education insiders) will do everything we can to organize conversations about the book on campus.
Here I call Gladwell’s bet. If he thinks that the ideas explored in I hate the Ivy League are worth discussing within higher education (and I agree they are!), it should take the necessary steps to enable this discussion.
Now I want to be clear. By suggesting that we talk about the ideas explored in I hate the Ivy League, I am not saying that I agree with these ideas. Listening to the book, I found some compelling ideas (about standardized testing, rankings, and funding for post-secondary education) and some stupid ones (Gladwell’s rant against investing in quality campus amenities, like food).
To show a bit where I think Gladwell is wrong when it comes to higher education, he seems to view the post-secondary system as a closed cake. A dollar spent here is not available for anything else. In reality, this is not how higher education works. A dollar spent on a priority like quality housing or food can generate many more dollars in the form of increased demand for the settlement. An excellent catering service can be the most efficient and effective strategy for generating dollars that can be invested in the education of students from low- to middle-income families.
If I were to debate Gladwell’s views on elite higher education – something I really hope to do with students, faculty and staff – I would try to argue that the correlation is not causality. It can be easy to identify easily visible data points, such as endowment size and student debt levels, and connect the two.
But if you really care about issues such as access, affordability, opportunity, completion, debt, and quality of higher education, then focusing your energies on the shortcomings of elite universities runs the risk of to be unproductive. (Although amusing indeed).
I hate the Ivy League contains too little analysis of the political, demographic and structural forces that have led to the systemic underfunding of the public post-secondary system. Specifically, the book says too little about community colleges and the failure of all levels of government to adequately fund these most important post-secondary institutions.
To Gladwell’s defense, the leaders of elite educational institutions have also done far too little to advocate for public higher education.
Why would students, faculty, and staff who study, teach, and work at elite colleges and universities want to discuss a book with the subtitle: Riffs and Rants on elite education?
First, we already spend a lot of time critically examining our institutions and the role our colleges and universities play in the broader post-secondary ecosystem. We study, teach, and work in mission-driven institutions dedicated to creating opportunity and knowledge. We share Gladwell’s values around access, quality and cost – though we may not agree on how to achieve these goals.
Second, I think I hate the Ivy League can be a book that students, faculty, and staff could successfully read and discuss. It’s hard to get a lot of people to read a book. Even less get together and talk about it. This book is short, 5 hours and 11 minutes, and very enjoyable.
You may disagree with much of what Gladwell has to say about higher education – I know I do – but you can’t pretend that Gladwell isn’t a fantastic writer. He also has a wonderful voice and a very conversational delivery style. Shared campus books rarely work to generate the conversations envisioned. This book might be the exception.
Finally, the opportunity to exchange I hate the Ivy League will provide some teachable moments. Of course, students, faculty, and staff who listen to the book will learn something about higher education. They might learn the wrong things, but that will be up for debate and discussion. What they will learn is that our university culture believes in the value of debating ideas (even difficult and uncomfortable ones).
Readers will also learn the difference between what academics do, which involves a careful statement of hypotheses to be tested with data, and what authors like Gladwell do. Ideally, participants in on-campus conversations I hate the Ivy League will come away with an appreciation of how we need both approaches, academic and journalistic, to make sense of our world.
So, Malcolm and his team, what do you think?
Will we find a way to make the great American I hate the Ivy League is the conversation on campus happening?
You know where to reach me.
What are you reading?