April 11, 2011

The Poison Ivy League

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The problem with the Ivy League — and believe it or not, there are problems with it — is that graduating with a bachelor’s degree also comes with a smug sense of success. It makes us believe that gaining entrance into the Ivy League is an accomplishment unto itself.

From the first day of orientation until the last day of graduation, we are coddled with reassurances and showered with compliments from our friends, relatives and professors. Three years ago on the first day of orientation, Cornell’s Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences proudly boasted our school’s sinking acceptance rate, evidence that the Class of 2012 was the most gifted to enter these gates.

And our parents happily drank the Kool-Aid, believing that those plump acceptance packages were official affirmations of their exceptional parenting skills. “What great parents we are,” they must have thought, “Our child is in the Ivy League. The Ivy League!”

During our time here, our self-delusion continued to be fueled. Our professors and advisors tell us that our courses are the most rigorous, the textbooks most comprehensive and our work ethics unmatched.

And these empty adulations have taken hold: We thoroughly believe that we are the crème de la crème of our generation.

We shamelessly self-promote our fabricated elitism. To the benefit of our school store, sweatshirts and t-shirts boldly printed with our school’s name have become staples of our wardrobe. And it is impossible to walk through a campus parking lot without seeing a Cornell decal. The most egregious example comes from the motto of our dining services: “Towering Above the Rest.”

Our school may promote a philosophy of accepting any student, but once given admittance, he is no longer just “any student.”

And finally at our graduation, we are again told that once we are unleashed from our campuses, we will be the leaders of tomorrow. Usually, graduation speakers share words of wisdom to the senior class, deriving insight from their personal hardships that will help us overcome our own troubles later in our lives.

But not in the Ivy League. Nancy Pelosi, Cornell’s 2010 graduation speaker, took the opportunity to reassure the senior class at the young and naïve age of 22 that they are well-equipped to handle the problems of the world and will eventually become tomorrow’s movers and shakers.

Rest easy, Cornellians, Pelosi told us: The hard part is over. Now that we have this degree, things will come easy and we will be the source of our country’s future prosperity.

Now, an inflated self-confidence isn’t a bad thing. For better or worse, it can produce some our most notable figures — Gates, Napoleon, Zuckerberg, Kim Jong-Il.

The problem comes when this sense of entitlement gives rise to a false belief of superiority. And make no mistake: Ivy Leaguers do believe that we are superior in every sense of the term, as evidenced by The Harvard Crimson’s editorial Monday. What has happened is that the Ivy League has become a brand rather than an education. Even worse, it has become a brand that partially defines our identities.

A recent trend in the past few years has been the prominence of Ivy League social networks. Just recently, invitations to join IvyDate.com flooded our inboxes. The website claims to connect “exceptional singles” who value “intellectual curiosity, love of learning, creativity, drive and determination,” as to imply that Ivy Leaguers and our peers can only mingle, date — and ultimately procreate — within our exclusive social circles. To the creators of IvyDate, everyone else is incapable of satiating our supposedly sophisticated intellectual palates.

But surely, we do not really believe that the 24,000 extremely lucky applications selected out of some 242,000 were the only ones worthy of admission, that the methods used by a hodgepodge team of admission officers were foolproof in deciding which high school senior is “better” than his peers? And we don’t really believe that the poor blokes who weren’t as lucky — and indubitably luck has come to play a larger role — are destined for lives of mediocrity?

Sure, we exhaust ourselves studying for exams and spend an inordinate number of hours in the library, but so does every student who possesses ambition and discipline, regardless of whether he attends Yale or State U.

Here’s a startling fact: According to a study by economists Stacey Dale and Alan Krueger ’83, those students who were rejected by elite schools — whatever that means — and went on to attend state schools earned just as much as their peers. According to the data, success is based on inherent character, not a four-year degree.

But do realize that by simply graduating from college, we join an elite group that comprises only 28 percent of the population in the U.S. and only 6.7 percent of the world’s population. Why Ivy Leaguers still feels a need to elevate ourselves further is a mystery.

Steven Zhang is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. The Bigger Picture appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Steven Zhang