I spent the first five years of my teaching career at Cornell, and greatly appreciated both my colleagues and my students; if my personal situation had allowed it, I would almost certainly have remained for my career. If someday an Ivy League institution were to develop a philosophy department that could provide the sort of colleagues Rutgers now can, I might want to go there. But I am often surprised at what I hear from some educators at these institutions. For example, one comment I hear from acquaintances who teach at such institutions despite intellectually or personally more beneficial opportunities elsewhere is that they do so “because the undergraduates are better”. I find this comment, especially made by liberal arts professors, disturbing. It uncritically accepts a value system that it is our purpose as educators to challenge and critique. It also reflects a misunderstanding about how many educated youth think.
When I applied for college, I was spending my junior year in high school abroad in Germany. I had no idea how the application process worked, and simply quickly handwrote some essays on whatever forms I could get by mail. At the time, I was a rebellious 15 year old; though I had read (and not understood) a lot of Marx, I fancied myself an anarchist, and was particulary fond of Michail Bakunin. As I was an adolescent, my taste in literature was determined largely by what I thought revealed the most authenticity of experience. When I thought about it (which was rarely), it did not at all seem that attending an Ivy League University was a necessary step in crafting a virtuous life. All of my friends growing up had the same attitude. In the end, I was accepted at SUNY Binghamton. Many of my fellow students were just like me. I don’t recall a single conversation involving status anxiety. But I do recall many about ideas. As a result of the intellectual environment, when I discovered philosophy, I didn’t conceptualize it at as a career path, a way to achieve some abstract marker of success. Rather, the life of the mind seemed both authentic and meaningful.
The kind of student that ends up in an Ivy League Institution nowadays is perhaps not as often someone who rejects conventional definitions of success and achievement. But those who are drawn to books and ideas by their suspicion of conventional values and their desire to lead a life crafted by decisions of their own are no less compelling as students. The few students I have kept track of from my freshman year at Binghamton have gone on to careers that would be considered beneath the station of many Ivy League graduates; for example the one I spent the most time with went on to become a high school English teacher. Perhaps one difference between my fellow students at SUNY Binghamton and the students at Ivy League institutions is that the former for the most part did not grow up thinking of career success as a value in and of itself. Students passionate about career success no doubt will be better at achieving it; I’m sure there are few future high school English teachers at Harvard. But to claim that such students are better is doubly in error. First, it is a misunderstanding of the motivational structure of many talented individuals. Secondly it is tantamount to giving our endorsement to a value system we as educators should be trying to expose.
UPDATE: This post must have been a bit heavy handed, since it has generated my personal record number of anonymous furious comments (which I haven't published) and angry emails. I did not in any sense mean to demean Ivy League students; there are obviously a huge group of terrifically intelligent and morally engaged students at Ivy League schools. The reason I wrote the post is because too many academics act as if teaching at an Ivy League School is obviously a superior teaching experience. In countering this, I produced the absurd unintended implicature that that Ivy League students were in some sense deficient. My only point was that, given the structure of college admissions, some very interesting students do not pursue that life path.