Aaron Swartz Said Elite Schools Are Intellectually Dead: He's Wrong

A recent Quora comment thread has reignited a decades-old, navel-gazing question that understandably most interests a privileged few: Is intellectualism dying at Ivy League universities?

This heated debate ( … among 10 or so people) was spurred by an Aaron Swartz comment made in 2007: “I didn’t find [Stanford] a very intellectual atmosphere, since most of the other kids seemed profoundly unconcerned with their studies.” (Don’t get too mad, guys. In the same speech, he also complimented “some great professors” and admitted that he “certainly learned a bunch.”)

On the whole, Swartz’s fellow Stanford alums sound a bit miffed by his implication that Stanford lacks intellectual rigor. They argue that “people manifest their intellectual abilities in different ways” and that, if Stanford doesn’t have an “intellectual atmosphere,” who/what does?

I sympathize with these Stanford voices. No doubt these students, past and present, endured their fair share of probing dining hall round tables and caffeine-fueled term papers. And, like them, I feel that Swartz was using an overly-restrictive definition of the word “intellectualism,” confusing esoteric conversations about metaphysics and totemism with the word’s true definition, “a capacity for thinking and acquiring knowledge.”

In short, I understand the gist of Swartz’s argument. I just happen to think that a slightly more pragmatic education at Ivy League schools (most universities, actually) is a good thing.

I arrived at Harvard in the fall of 2006, a feisty, Midwestern kid from a rural, working-class town. Aside from my own cherished stash, there were five books in my childhood home (which was hardly a haven for “intellectualism,” by Swartz’s definition). I grew up in a single-parent family. My father is a K-12 public school educator who certainly values learning, not for learning’s sake per se, but as a means of inspiring social change. It wasn’t any kind of supreme intellectualism that brought me to Harvard; if anything, it was academic inertia.

As a product of an underfunded public high school, I was relieved to find my experiences were relevant and valued on Harvard’s campus. No, I hadn’t read the full canon of social theorists; but as a working-class, public school-educated, small-town female with indigenous roots, I could add a unique perspective to campus discussions. In my freshman year, I probably could not have gone toe-to-toe with Swartz in debates about the merits of “cultural relativism”; however, I gladly would have offered him alternative worldviews (much to his credit, Swartz recognized that his perspective was limited to that of a privileged “white, male, American”).

This isn’t to say that Swartz’s cries of “anti-intellectualism” were totally unfounded. I, too, was disappointed by the cadre of elite legacy students who slept (and drank) easier knowing that they had a banking and/or consulting gig lined up post-graduation. However, if anything, this kind of pretentious entitlement was a remnant of a centuries-old Ivy League tradition, not a recent departure from the norm.

Harvard is a phenomenal institution of higher learning. However, the bulk of my “education” came from the service experiences I engaged in, both on and off campus – as a prison tutor at a medium-security prison, an advocate for indigenous rights, an SAT tutor at a struggling high school, and a supervisor/director of a student-run homeless shelter. These experiences, paired with a strong foundation in traditional “intellectual” pursuits, made me a better employee, a better citizen, and, arguably, a better person than I would have been had I spent four years hiding under a pile of books.

Some may pine for the old Ivy days of Latin, philosophy, and three-martini lunches. And no doubt it was difficult for someone like Swartz — a man who invented the digital equivalent of the wheel at age 14 — to find a community of like-minded internet prodigies. I, however, relish the thought that future generations will be empowered to use their “capacity for thinking and acquiring knowledge” to better their world, not just their résumé.