“Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn.”
Let’s talk about self-perpetuating cycles for a minute, they’re everywhere.
We revolve on a cyclical sphere around the sun and we have a moon that revolves around us. We see a cycle of seasons and tides; day and night. Then we get into humans and all the various cycles we put ourselves through. Cycles of power, of political influence, of violence, of what resources we use, of what clothes we wear; everything goes around and comes around in endless cycles. And it’s all because of our cyclical minds.
We can’t help but recycle and perpetuate.
Such is the way with our image of the Ivy League universities in America. There are some that argue that the influence of the Ivy League is waning, while others believe that the Ivy League is part of a shadowy, self-perpetuating circle of Elitist who will inevitably fall into positions of great power and influence over business, politics, science and philosophy.
But, regardless of where one falls on the scale of issues surrounding Ivy League universities, the very fact that names like Harvard, Yale and Brown mean something to everyone is enough to guarantee that we will always view those graduates of the Ivy League as the gifted thinkers of our society. The Ivy League will always remain the principle producers of the elite in America because we would not have it any other way. Seeing the name “Harvard” in a person’s credentials will inevitably perpetuate the notion that they are superior in some way, whether we want to admit it or not and despite reason telling us otherwise.
A name says too much.
A recent letter from a Princeton alumna got some attention last week. In her letter, Susan Patton, the mother of two Princetonians, urges women to find a husband before they leave Princeton. Her letter pushes the women of Princeton to find a man who is their intellectual equal before they leave university because the field of men of that caliber will only get smaller and smaller as time goes on. Needless to say, the letter was met with a great deal of criticism.
But, with all of the controversy surrounding the letter aside, we are left with an understood perception of the Ivy League; that is, the Ivy League universities breed and attract an elite group that gives way to the next generation of elitists.
The minds that come from such schools are not some Illuminati conspiracy. It is absurd to assert that Patton’s call to “elitist-intermarriage” is part of some ploy to dispel the rise of power at the grassroots. The elitist do not need to have “their wings clipped” as The American Interest words it. The Ivy League is what it is because we believe in the Ivy League and the elitist are who they are because we believe in where they came from.
As observers, researchers and digesters of the human experience, it is something to note the amount of faith we have when we read something by or hear something from someone who is a graduate of the Ivy League. Whether you say, “Oh, he went to Harvard?” or “Oh, he went to Ha-vahd” (heavy sarcasm and eye-rolling on that second one) both work to the same end in that Harvard is a school that we place on a pedestal. It is a place that produces notable minds. To know that a professor or scientist or politician studied at Yale or Princeton or Cornell predisposes us to view them intrinsically as an important individual, even if we outwardly reject their alma mater playing any sort of influence on who they are as a person. For instance, saying “I went to Yale”, for better or for worse, sticks, while saying “I went to Keene State College” somehow gets filtered out.
No matter who we are or what we believe, we hold these institutions as something notable or notorious and in turn, we come to view their graduates in the same way.
The attention placed on these Ivy League institutions and the creation of the elitists that come out of them is not the stuff of “Skull and Bones” or a shadow government. It is a fact that we, as people, reaffirm the importance of these institutions each time we put our trust in a scientist or politician or business person because they went there. When you hear about someone graduating from Harvard, it holds weight and even with a widely reported story about on-campus plagiarism, such was the case with Harvard earlier this year, the image of the university still reigns as the high-water mark of education in America.
Harvard is what it is because we keep Harvard alive as a household name and that is why it will always remain important. Even as our country faces waves of student debt coupled with high unemployment, I do not see the influence of the Ivy League brand disappearing. In a very well-written and personal piece for PolicyMic, Lilly O’Donnell illustrates the power of the Ivy League name. The power of a name like Columbia and the approval it gains from people who view it as a necessary investment (despite a guaranteed $60,000 debt in her case) continues to solidify the university’s stature. Columbia undeniably holds a place in our nation’s public dialogue about where great minds come from. The name Columbia alone carries an immense weight with it that is hard to erase from our collective image of how important the school is.
While it can be argued that Ivy League graduates are not more likely to find a job than graduates from any other school, the influence of the Ivy League brand is in no danger of diminishing. On a resume or when we read an article or hear a lecture the words Harvard, Brown and Yale coupled with a person's name will always carry with them a stigma of prestige.
It is like Don DeLillo’s “most photographed barn in America” concept. The barn is the most photographed barn in America, because people have read about it and saw a sign saying it was the most photographed barn in America so they want to go photograph the most photographed barn in America. People are there maintaining the status of the barn, not taking a picture of the barn.
We are taking a picture of a picture of what Harvard is. We are hearing the name Harvard without understanding it.
Deep inside, whether we want to admit it or not, we put faith in the names we have given so much credit to and we listen to the people those universities produce. Harvard, Yale, and Brown are important because we continue to believe they are. We continue to be impressed if someone went there and we continued to believe that the future of America, and the world, still lies inside those universities even if we don’t think we do. The fact that one notices the name Harvard ensures that its stature is not going anywhere.
“We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one.”