Underneath the Ivies

March 31, 2011

John Summers depicts an Ivy League education as a requirement for meaningful access to political power in the US ("Failure is not an option", 24 March). While many of Barack Obama's advisers are Ivy League graduates, many members of Congress were educated at non-Ivy League institutions. It is inaccurate to imply that without an Ivy degree the path to political power in the US is significantly blocked.

Summers depicts the Ivy League as a monolith. It is not. An education at Columbia University with its core curriculum of seminars in the humanities and social sciences and the philosophical "big questions" they examine is distinct from Brown University's lack of distribution requirements, which provides its students with tremendous scope for intellectual freedom and exploration.

The campus culture of each of the Ivies is distinct, from the intense involvement of Yale University students in public service and the arts to Princeton University's focus on its undergraduates and small seminars.

The accusation that higher education in the US puts "product development over moral and cultural development" is wildly overstated and at odds with my own experiences. The liberal-arts philosophy that the vast majority of American universities use places great emphasis on holistic education with civic, cultural and moral components. Unlike its dominant counterpart in the UK, which focuses on the pragmatic acquisition of knowledge and skills in one subject area, the liberal-arts system seeks to enable interdisciplinary thinking and research.

At many US institutions there are university-wide programmes dedicated to cultivating ethical reflection and civic involvement. Here are but a few examples: Princeton University's Center for Human Values; Stanford University's Center for Ethics in Society; and Tufts University's Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. Many college campuses have active centres for community service, too.

The likes of Yale are in fact set up to "help students ask the big questions". Courses I took such as Altruism and the Rescue of Persecuted Minorities, and Power, Resistance and Marginalisation asked challenging questions of social significance. Summers raises vital points about equity and access to higher education and the career choices of Ivy League graduates, but the impression of the Ivies he creates is reductionist and unnuanced.

Noam Schimmel, PhD candidate, Department of media and communication, London School of Economics, (Yale University, Class of 2002)

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