An Ivy League Backlash?

Statue of Charles Sumner, Cambridge, MA (my photo, available under cc license)

Statue of Charles Sumner, Cambridge, MA (my photo, available under cc license)

David Brooks’ latest column contains an aside about how “There’s about to be a backlash against the Ivy League lock on the court.”

I sort of doubt it. But obviously at any given time there’s a certain level of anti-Ivy League sentiment about. My experience with this, however, is that it’s a bit self-deluded. The people you hear participating in this backlash are almost invariably graduates of excellent non-Ivy colleges featuring highly competitive admissions—Michigan, University of California, Texas, Brooks’ own University of Chicago, etc. And obviously there’s nothing wrong with a little good-natured rivalry among alumni of different institutions. But the tendency is for this lumpenelite to treat the battle between famous, high-quality, highly competitive non-Ivy schools and famous, high-quality, highly competitive Ivies as some kind of yawning class divide in which the non-Ivies are the populists.

Realistically, this is just a particularly silly instantiation of Michael Kinsley’s reverse snobbery. The fact of the matter is that over seventy percent of Americans don’t have bachelor’s degrees at all. That’s a substantial class divide that tracks onto some very real gaps in social and economic status and has real political and cultural meaning, including lots of potential for backlash, though I doubt we’ll see a backlash against the idea that judges should have gone to law school. What’s more, even among the minority of Americans who have bachelor’s degrees, most of those people go to relatively uncompetitive schools (e.g.).

At any rate, as far as Elena Kagan’s concerned its not a big deal. But many graduates of fancy, hard-to-get-into colleges suffer from serious misperceptions about the state of higher education in the United States. This kind of view whereby Ivy League vs non-Ivy is a salient divide is a big part of that. The main splits are college/no-college and competitive/non-competitive admissions, not Chicago versus Penn.