Can We Please Shut Up About Ivy League Bullshit
Yesterday, Harvard President Claudine Gay resigned after twin plagiarism and anti-Semitism scandals, leaving her as the shortest tenured president in Harvard’s history. This was major, international news. It graced the front page of the New York Times and the Washington Post. The terms Harvard, President Gay, Claudine Gay and ‘plagiarism’ all trended globally on Twitter. Everyone was talking about it, everyone had a hot take, and that’s a huge problem.
Americans1 have an obsession with Ivy League universities, and I’m mad about it. This Claudine Gay story has been shoved in my face so many times that I have essentially been forced, against my will, to formulate an opinion on it.
It would be fine if we heard about the Ivy League rarely, or even just occasionally. But that’s not the case. We hear about them constantly. Claudine Gay is just the most recent instance - these stories do not stop. Our top newspapers are filled with breathless reporting about bureaucratic minutia from these institutions with an avalanche of commentary from national pundits. On social media, these stories frequently go viral. They dominate the discourse in a way that frankly doesn’t make sense.
Less than a third of one percent of all undergraduate students in America are at Ivy League universities. People who have never and will never step foot on an Ivy campus have strong opinions about Ivy League bullshit. A story might cover some niche issue that could not possibly affect their lives in any way whatsoever, but people will care anyways.
We need to stop. Stop caring what Columbia’s administration thinks about diversity. Stop caring what some 19-year old Yale sociology major said in the student newspaper. Stop thinking about Harvard. Stop it. You should not care so damn much what happens at the Ivy League.
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Whenever I say this, I hear a variety of common objections from people who want nothing more than to keep obsessing about the latest scandal du jour.
You’re right in general, but actually this is a special case! In this case it makes sense to care!
No. You do not get an exception. I am the exception police and I reject your claim. There will always be some justification for why this particular piece of nonsense should make the news. There’s always a hook. Don’t give in. Ignore the Yalies. Disregard their stupid drama. You don’t need to care and you shouldn’t care.
I’m a special case! I’m a student at a near-Ivy or a west coast Ivy or an elite liberal arts college! Maybe not everyone should care, but I should!
First - nice humble brag. You’re sneakily working your university into an unrelated conversation, you’ve got that Ivy League mentality already. And the chain of logic does have some validity. If something happens at Harvard and Yale, Swarthmore might be next.
The issue here is that there are a lot of kids at Swarthmore who legitimately have stronger opinions about what’s happening on Harvard’s campus than about what’s happening on their own campus. Unless you can show me all the actual work you’re doing at your own school, I don’t want to see you obsessing over someone else’s school. It’s stupid and pointless.
The Ivy League are the future leaders of America. Of course it makes sense to care about what happens there, they shape our leadership and culture. Almost every Supreme Court justice is from there!
This is probably the strongest objection, but it still doesn’t really work. This is a case for caring somewhat about the Ivy League, but not a case for obsessing about it in the insane, overbearing way we do.2
This objection also doesn’t really address what Ivy discourse is usually about. These conversations are almost never about “Should we make all Harvard students take a certain class to instill some values we care about?” - they’re much dumber than that. These are not thoughtful debates about how to influence the next generation of leaders. They’re culture war slapfights.
Right now, we’re mostly fighting about whether the President of Harvard did plagiarism or not. I would love for someone to explain to me how fighting over Claudine Gay’s decades-old research papers is going to impact the future leaders of America.
It’s important to ask ourselves why these debates centered around our most elite universities keep happening. It’s not because of thoughtful, deliberately reasoned principles.
The Ivy League is, on some level, America’s version of the British Royal Family. It’s glitzy and elite, above the rest of us. It’s a sort of abstract representation of cultural power, and has connections to real power. But mostly, it’s a prestigious group of institutions that keep doing silly things that we can follow like it’s reality TV.
Last week I wrote that the culture war swallows everything:
My thesis here is that the culture war swallows everything. No exceptions. There is nothing that won’t turn into the culture war - there are only things where it hasn’t happened yet. Video games? Long time culture war. Bird watching? Racist! Quilting? You better believe it. There is no past-time innocent enough, no part of everyday life banal enough to escape this. You may have thought nobody could possibly make “how do you train a dog to fetch” about the wokes vs the anti-wokes. But they can make anything about wokes vs anti-wokes.
That’s really what’s going on with the Claudine Gay controversy. The Ivy League is just another way to prosecute the culture war.
The whole fiasco started because GOP congresswoman Elise Stefanik pulled a dumb stunt in a congressional hearing and Gay fell for it, failing to unequivocally denounce anti-Semitism. It continued because right wing provocateur Chris Rufo identified Gay as a culture war target, went digging for dirt on her, and found a bunch of instances of plagiarism. This was a partisan fight from the beginning.
This is no longer a story about anti-semitism or plagiarism. Not really. It’s a story about the Red Tribe and the Blue Tribe. The Red Tribe sees Ivy League universities as bastions of progressive elitism, ivory-tower wokeness, cultural marxism and all the other things they hate. They see taking down Ivy League presidents as collecting a scalp from an enemy. The Blue Tribe reflexively defends Gay - not because of any actual argument, but because she’s a symbol. A black progressive woman being taken down by a white conservative man who hates what she stands for. If they can harass and stalk her out of a job, they can do it to you!
That’s what is really going on. Got strong opinions about the Israel/Palestine conflict? Here’s a ready made controversy for you to get angry about! A college president gave a single awkward answer in five hours of Congressional testimony! Let’s be furious about it for months! Got an opinion about DEI programs and wokeness? Boy are you going to like fighting about this one. Claudine Gay is an avatar representing other controversies, the mediocre leftovers of our culture war being re-heated on the social media stovetop.
Almost nobody fighting this fight is impacted by Claudine Gay’s plagiarism. They don’t really care about that. Almost nobody really believes one stupid answer (which she apologized for the next day) makes her a raging anti-Semite. But this is a high-profile way to keep fighting the culture war, so we jump in anyways.
You don’t have to care. You shouldn’t care. Unless you are a current faculty or student at Harvard, what happens to Claudine Gay does not matter to you.3 It will not impact your life in any way.
On some level, this is a self-reinforcing cycle. We talk about it because it’s front page news. But newspapers write about it because they know it gets clicks. We care because we see other people caring. What counts as ‘news’ is socially constructed, and we have the choice to simply stop caring about the Ivy League. We can ignore them and they’ll start to go away!
The next time you see a story about a controversy happening at one of these elite colleges, stop and take stock whether you really care or not. Does this actually impact you or does it just activate the culture war center of your brain, compelling you to have a dumb take on something that doesn’t actually matter? Realize that in almost every case it’s the second one. Make the choice to walk away, not comment. You don’t have to care about Ivy League bullshit.
And often the rest of the world, but primarily Americans
This is actually a much better argument for caring specifically about Harvard and Yale Law. Yale Law in particular only accepts about 200 students per year but boasts roughly half the current Supreme Court justices. THAT is a concentration of power.
And frankly, even for current Harvard students I’m not sure how your life changes if Claudine Gay is replaced as president. How does that impact your actual life of trying to finish a history paper?