As schools struggle, Ivy League students deserve empathy

by Daniel Blomquist / Assistant Opinion Editor • April 9, 2015

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The Ivy League is proof that even the highest levels of society are not above stereotyping. Often cast as soulless tryhards who only focus on their studies, Ivy League students can find it difficult to find sympathy from those who attend less prestigious schools. The institutions themselves—Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale—are in the same boat, often seen by the general public as “old-school” and resistant to social change.

Their perceived snobbery is discussed at length on the Ivy League Wikipedia page, citing examples from pop culture and summarizing the position with this 1988 quote from New York Times columnist Russell Baker: “Voters inclined to loathe and fear elite Ivy League schools rarely make fine distinctions between Yale and Harvard. All they know is that both are full of rich, fancy, stuck-up and possibly dangerous intellectuals who never sit down to supper in their undershirt no matter how hot the weather gets.”

What makes it worse is that when most people hear about an Ivy Leaguer’s problems, their reactions are usually along the lines of, “Who cares, you still go to an Ivy; you’ll be fine, no matter what.” I witnessed this firsthand while staying in a Yale dorm last weekend. Trying to elicit sympathy for those in power is always a challenge, particularly when contrasted against the suffering of those less powerful.

But suffering is suffering, regardless of who is feeling it. It’s easy to forget that those with privilege are also people who can be sad and angry and jealous and petty, just like us. Brandon Stanton, the creator of the popular photo blog Humans of New York—where Stanton photographs New York pedestrians captioned with revealing or personal quotes from their conversation—recently visited Harvard University and showed the school through his humanizing camera lens. In January, for a series of about poor middle school students visiting Harvard, he also photographed and interviewed Rakesh Khurana, Harvard’s dean. Khurana told Stanton, “For an organization to remain relevant, there has to be a certain sense of restlessness. For us, that means continuing to grow the circle of ‘who we are.’ … If we want to stay relevant and real, we’ve got to continue to grow that circle.” If Khurana’s words are any indication, it’s clear that not all Ivy League administrators are averse to change.

Harvard and other Ivy League schools aren’t seen as old-fashioned boy’s clubs without cause. It’s partly due to the fact that many institutions as old as these schools were, at one time, openly racist and sexist. While we can’t blame them for going along with what was such an overwhelming cultural norm, they did come to power during a time in which women and minorities were not fully considered people. Their discriminatory tendencies consistently matched those of the country, occasionally even lagging behind the American standard. According to the Department of Education’s website, the majority of Ivy League schools didn’t accept women until the late 1960s, with Columbia being the last to admit women in 1983. Cornell is the exception, as it has admitted women since its founding in 1865. However, according to an article in The Cornell Daily Sun, the university’s student newspaper, residency requirements and biased academic standards served to constrain the number of female admittants until the 1970s. 

It’s abundantly clear that Ivy League institutions suffer from the same problems as the rest of the nation’s colleges. Yet whenever an Ivy League college stumbles, the media swarms it, and the nation’s keyboard warriors call for the downfall of the institution. For example, it’s safe to assume that most colleges have student drug dealers and that some of these drug dealers get caught. But when it happens at Columbia, it becomes a headline on Capital New York’s website.

The people who attend Ivy League schools have ostensibly proven that they are extremely talented and accomplished in at least some aspects, otherwise they wouldn’t have been admitted. But the key word there is “some.” These students are no more emotionally intelligent or socially capable than you and I. They’re stuck with the same hormone-filled teenage bodies as we are, and have the same proportions of diversity and ignorance in their worldviews. It makes sense to hold their work to a high standard because of their resources and track records, but not their personalities.

Just as American government and society is slowly but surely shedding its racially and sexually oppressive tendencies, so is the Ivy League. According to the schools’ admissions information, most Ivy League schools now have as many female students as they do male. While the Ivy League still faces the same diversity problems as many other schools do, it is no longer actively resisting social change. It’s no longer fair to assume that Ivy Leaguers are out of touch traditionalists. Our society is only becoming more connected, and it would be wise to count society’s best educated among our allies.