The very existence of Harvard University is transparently indefensible. The famous Harvard political philosopher John Rawls once worked out an elaborate theory for which social inequalities could be justified. He concluded that a given form of distributional inequality was tolerable only when it benefited the least well-off in society1 and that inequalities should not limit the opportunities that the worst-off have. Ironically, then, a university like Harvard, which allows an insular ruling class to reproduce itself and hoard opportunities, flagrantly violates the most well-known theory of justice to have been produced within the university. (If the contradiction ever troubled Rawls himself, it was not enough to make him pack up and pursue a teaching post at a community college.)
Would a fair society contain a Harvard? Plainly, it would not. Harvard’s endowment amounts to over $2 million for every enrolled student, meaning it has far more resources to lavish on its students than schools that educate poorer populations. Getting into Harvard is not only notoriously difficult, but notoriously unfair. A student with a connection to a donor is 9 times more likely to be admitted than a student without such a connection. Most Harvard students come from the upper and upper middle class, with over two-thirds coming from the top 20 percent of family income. Over 40 percent of white students are either “legacy, athletes, [or] related to donors or staff.”
Attending Harvard obviously confers lifelong advantages. Students are given access to immense resources for self-advancement. They are interviewed for plum jobs, and they can take classes from political leaders. They are granted access to an exclusive network that others cannot reach. If they suck up carefully, their professors will open doors for them. Because these privileges are, by and large, bestowed on those who already come from positions of considerable advantage, Harvard should be understood as an inequality-reproducing machine. While it may elevate a select few students from the working class to the ruling class, for the most part it is a club where social capital is passed down from generation to generation.
Within Harvard, this is widely known, but seldom discussed. Harvard’s faculty and students are overwhelmingly liberal. They are, like Rawls, concerned about inequality. The university’s own unfair accumulation of resources is an uncomfortable subject. Some don’t even seem to notice the tension between their concern about injustice and their choice to be part of an elitist institution. This magazine once interviewed a Harvard professor famous for studying inequality. When our interviewer asked him how he felt working at a place like Harvard, which plays a major role in gentrification in the Boston area, he replied that he was impressed by the rich diversity of Harvard’s researchers and student body. (We considered this a non-answer.)
Increasing diversity is one way that liberals in elite institutions reassure themselves that the institutions themselves are defensible. That becomes very obvious in a recent Atlantic article about the “secret societies” at Yale University. Secret societies have long been criticized for their elitism, and students sense that there is something troubling about them. But while the students who are in them know they’re exclusionary, instead of abolishing them, they try to achieve a representative demographic balance within the membership:
“The most common argument current and recent members give for preserving the societies is that, by opening them up to groups that have previously been excluded, they can help diversify the elite. Ale Canales recalls being tapped by a senior who wanted to “keep the Latino line going.” Once inside, Canales focused on a different diversity metric. “I chose three trans people,” Canales told me. “That was my specific goal.” … These institutions have become more diverse while retaining the trappings of extreme exclusivity. … Nearly all of the current and recent members I spoke with said it would be better if secret societies didn’t exist at all; but given that they do exist, they decided they might as well join and try to make them better.”
“Diversify the elite” could well be the slogan for a certain type of liberalism, and it captures well the differences between “liberalism” and “leftism.” Leftists are against the existence of an elite. We believe that power and wealth should be distributed equally. Liberals, on the other hand, preserve the existence of an elite, but believe there should be fair race and gender representation within it. Or, to put it differently: do you want Harvard to admit classes that contain statistically representative cross-sections of the American population? Or do you want to abolish Harvard altogether?
I’m in the “abolish Harvard altogether” camp. I felt that way before I’d ever set foot on campus. I felt it even more strongly after I’d gone there.
I’ve now spent a lot of time in Ivy League institutions (3 years at Yale Law School, 7 years in a Harvard PhD program). I never stopped feeling like an outsider in them. Growing up, I didn’t know people who had attended these places. Neither of my parents has an undergraduate degree. When I got to Yale, I remember being shocked when a classmate casually proposed a group trip to Cannes for spring break. He said we could all rent a yacht together. What shocked me was the casual assumption that everyone in the group could afford to rent a yacht. I think I made some remark about a yacht being out of my price range. My recollection is that he replied: It’s less expensive than you’d think. Yeah, right. I don’t know if they went to Cannes. I certainly didn’t.
While I was there, a group of students did a survey on the economic backgrounds of the student body. They found that only 4 percent of the students were “working class.” Astonishingly to me at the time, 54 percent of students had a parent with either a professional degree (JD, MD) or a PhD. The figure rose to 76 percent when master’s degrees were included. (Remember that only 35 percent of Americans have a bachelor’s degree, and only 13.7 percent have an advanced degree.)
I don’t know why I was so surprised. Of course those pursuing advanced degrees at an elite school have parents with advanced degrees (many from elite schools). But it completely shatters the idea that there is anything “meritocratic” about these places. Clearly, it’s much harder for a working-class student to get to Yale Law School than it is for a student with a lawyer as a parent. Even if both sets of parents love and nurture their children equally, those who have gone to an Ivy League professional school will just have more knowledge about how you get in to an Ivy League professional school.
And it’s all about getting in. Yale Law didn’t even have grades and was deeply averse to ranking its students in any way. Harvard is notorious for grade inflation (when I was a teaching fellow, it was made clear that we should virtually never give a C, and I’m not sure any student in the class got less than a B+, certainly not less than a B). Once you’re in the club, even if you drop out or get kicked out, the prestige will remain attached to you.
That’s not to say that there aren’t internal hierarchies. I found out at Yale that there was an inner circle within the inner circle—the students who would end up doing Supreme Court clerkships and going to the most respected law firms. The class-background survey reported that differences in class background quietly mattered quite a lot within the school:
“Many students expressed the belief that success at YLS and in the legal world depends in part on access to closed, informal networks of information. Class influences students’ ability to access these networks through professors, professionals, and other students. Students noted that some classmates may be able to take advantage of family connections to individuals at YLS and in the legal world, and that classmates with family members in legal or professional jobs may be advantageously prepared for YLS culture, the legal profession, and legal academia in general. Students also noted that classmates who attended elite undergraduate institutions may be advantageously prepared for YLS culture. … Students noted that class background and disposable income affect students’ ability to network with their classmates. Finally, students noted that both family and educational background affect their ability to form relationships with professors, including working relationships, and several students expressed that this concern extends to admission in permission of instructor courses.”
Since it’s obvious that family background is a crucial determinant of whether you’re likely to attend an elite school, it’s strange that so much prestige should attach to these places. One of my high school teachers, when teaching The Great Gatsby, went on a long monologue about how if you went to Harvard you would be A Harvard Man, whereas if you went to the University of Florida you would never be called A University Of Florida Man. I’m fairly sure he had no connection to the Ivies himself, but he bought into the idea that they gave off a magic glow, that the people who attended these schools were not just rich, they were special.
With due respect to those I attended school with, I didn’t find them particularly special. They were not noticeably different from those I’d been to undergrad with at Brandeis, or those I’d been with at my public high school in Florida, or anyone I’ve met anywhere in the world. Some of the most insightful people I know work the lowest-paying jobs and were never able to go to college. Not once in ten years did I see a demonstration of intelligence that made me think I was in a place of extraordinary, unparalleled distinction. When I was a teaching fellow, my students wrote above-average papers and had interesting things to say in the discussions. But I have seen nothing within the walls of these universities to suggest they’re deserving of their mythical status.
Certainly, there is nothing morally outstanding about the graduates of elite universities. My parents, seeing a Harvard PhD as a tremendous accomplishment given their own lack of formal credentials, are always encouraging me to be more proud of having attained my degree there. (I could always be like Henry Kissinger and go around having people call me “Dr.”, which might be fun until someone asks you to deal with a sudden medical emergency.) But getting a Harvard degree is like winning the Nobel Peace Prize: you can feel great about it until you remember who else has won the award. In the case of both Harvard PhDs and Nobel Peace Prizes, your honor is shared by Kissinger—and who can be proud of that? At Yale, my fellow law students included J.D. Vance and Vivek Ramaswamy. Do I respect their intelligence or integrity? No, I think they’re sociopathic bullshitters who are good at glib talking points but know very little about the world. Many of the worst people in the world have graduated from the finest educational institutions. (Trump, arguably the worst criminal in history, has an Ivy League diploma. George W. Bush had two.)
Of course, there are some excellent professors at these universities. Many do really important work. In the Harvard sociology department, I had immense respect for the late Devah Pager, who produced critically important scholarship showing the impact of race and a criminal record on one’s employment prospects. My advisers were people of integrity and insight. But Harvard is also home to Steven Pinker, who makes flimsy arguments that should flunk an Intro to Logic class. It also gave us Larry Summers and the educated imbeciles who plunged the U.S. into the horrific Vietnam War. If the U.S. ever starts World War III, it will probably be because some Harvard graduate had an elaborate, mathematically elegant theory for why it was rationally necessary to destroy all of humanity.
A lot of good scholarship is produced at Harvard. But a lot of vacuous brand-building is done, too. Last time I returned, I found that the bookstore had switched a lot of bookshelves to sell yet more Harvard-branded products (mugs, teddy bears, koozies, etc.) rather than books. (They’d also gotten rid of the newsstand, the first place ever to sell print copies of Current Affairs.)
Money, not the pursuit of “veritas,” rules at Harvard. Its public health school is not named after a great doctor, but a Hong Kong real estate entrepreneur whose children gave it a lot of money. The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences recently emailed its alumni to let us know that henceforth, it would be called the Kenneth C. Griffin Graduate School of Arts and Sciences (the “Griffin School” for short), because a right-wing hedge fund billionaire had bought the naming rights for $300 million. They could have named it after W.E.B. Du Bois, one of its most honorable and insightful graduates. But DuBois just produced pioneering works of scholarship. Griffin, on the other hand, has a lot of money.
In recent weeks, Harvard has been in the press a great deal. After the university’s president, Claudine Gay, angered supporters of Israel by with a noncommittal answer on how she would deal with cases of pro-genocide speech, right-wing activists exposed instances of plagiarism in her scholarly work, forcing her to resign. There are plenty of debates one can have about this incident (Did it show the pernicious influence of donors on university governance? To what degree was it racially motivated?), but my own reaction was that far too much oxygen was being spent discussing Harvard at a time when children in Gaza are having their limbs amputated daily. Harvard attracts excessive fascination from the media. We need to diminish its importance.
Jon Schwarz of the Intercept has it right: these elitist universities need to be abolished entirely. “Then, after Harvard has been razed, we must salt the earth, Carthage-style, so a new Harvard does not grow in its place. Next we have to destroy the rest of the Ivy League.” I don’t know that it needs to be razed altogether—some of the buildings are pretty, and it would be a shame to lose them. Instead, as Ben Burgis recommends, the university’s assets should be turned over to the public. In a just future, Harvard will become UMass-Cambridge, just as Yale will be the University of Connecticut’s New Haven campus. Besides, elite institutions like Harvard tend to have accumulated their money, prestige, and academic influence through wealth accumulation from slavery—another reason to redistribute funds to benefit the public at large.
Instead of having endless debates about how elitist universities should decide who to admit (futile, since every form of selective admission will be unfair and gamed by rich families), we shouldn’t have “elite” universities at all, just quality public universities that admit everyone.
Instead of giving money to rich universities that don’t need it, you can support vital independent journalism by giving to a 501c3 organization like, say, Current Affairs. You should also subscribe to our beautiful print magazine.
This can sound paradoxical. The sort of situation is: Imagine one society where everyone is paid the same. Imagine another where they are paid differently. Perhaps the productivity differences resulting from differences in pay mean that in the unequal society, the people at the bottom are actually better off than everyone in the society that doesn’t have a bottom or a top at all. I’m skeptical that there are, in practice, many of these kinds of “universally beneficial inequalities” outside hypotheticals in political philosophy seminars, but the point is to construct a theory for when inequalities would be acceptable. ↩