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Sunday, March 15, 2015

Why Harvard And Yale Are Elite Universities–Learning, Self-Confidence, And Values

Melody Fields was worried that she wouldn’t get in to Harvard.  She had heard other parents telling their children that “there are many good schools out there” or “you’ll be happy wherever you go”; but she knew that Harvard was the best of the best. She pooh-poohed what her friends had told her about Ivy League elitism, lack of diversity, materialism, rape-permissive campus culture, and the Wall Street-ready narrowing of soft electives. Nonsense, she knew. Sour grapes. One only had to look at the resumes of both Bushes, Clinton, Obama, Kennedy, and the members of the Supreme Court, all of whom have Ivy League pedigrees to see through all the critical fol-de-rol.

Harvard logo

Her father had gone to Yale and her mother to Wellesley in the days when the Seven Sisters were the academic and social equivalents of the men’s Ivy League. They dismissed the clap-trap about inclusiveness, bare-knuckle competition, and slavish pursuit of money. “In our day, wealth was not an issue”, her mother said.  Both she and her husband winced when Inslee Clark opened the doors of the university and let in all comers; but they both had to admit that Yale was a richer, more intellectually demanding institution than it ever was.  Gone were the legacies, the preferences for students from St. Grottlesex and patrician New England families.

“It is a rather more….” Here Melody’s mother paused, choosing her words carefully. “A rather more determined place than when your father went there.”

She was referring to the culture of ‘The Gentleman’s C’. Being in the middle was no shame in the old days, for it meant that Yale students were well-rounded, fit for the athletic field and the salons of Fifth Avenue – complete Renaissance men who graduated with more than an education; men who left the university with a sense of privileged entitlement, supreme self-confidence, and character molded to fit easily into life on Wall street, the Vineyard, or on the slopes of Gstaad.  Its purpose, proudly heralded, was to educate the leaders of the country.

Yale fence

Melody’s father had studied the classics at Yale.  A place at the First National City Bank was being held for him thanks to the long tenure and reputation of his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather; and a seat on the New York Stock Exchange had been endowed by the Fields family in 1903 when it moved into its new and present home on Broad Street, so he could study whatever he chose. 

Because he was fascinated with the philosophers Lucretius, Eusebius, Iamblichus, and Plotinus; and the poets Catullus, Horace, Virgil, and Ovid, he did well far better than a Gentleman’s C.  He worked with a very American enthusiasm and shared little with most of his classmates who affected an English diffidence and faux sophistication.


In the course of his study he read the writings of Cato the Elder, a lesser-known Roman philosopher who had turned his attention to the education of the aristocratic future leaders of the Empire. Duty, honor, courage, respect, valor, compassion, discipline, honesty, and empathy were the principles of instruction as well as science, mathematics,and rhetoric.  Instruction at the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge was based on this classical model.  Young aristocrats graduating from these premier institutions were expected to lead.  Yale and Harvard, modeled after these English universities, were no different.  Along with the culture of aristocratic entitlement came a sense of noblesse oblige – the responsibility of the privileged to those less so.

Image result for images cato the elder

Lionel Fields was never shy about his elite education, for he knew that it was based on a foundation of moral, ethical, and civic values – values that were sorely lacking in the America of his daughter.

Times had changed, Fields understood well.  Men and women from Yale and Harvard were no longer being groomed for the rarified life of Victorian institutions but for success in a competitive, demanding, and enterprising society. He was aware that some of the moral and ethical moorings of his day were coming loose; and that many Yale graduates had indeed become more pinched and niggardly in social outlook.  However he hoped that while noblesse oblige might be a thing of the past, a sense of moral rectitude remained.

What replaced the culture of aristocratic values was one of supreme self-confidence. Students knew that they were la crème de la crème just for having gotten in to Yale; and felt such legitimate entitlement after four years of rigorous, demanding study.

The Harvard Red Book is published every five years for each graduating class at Harvard, and is a fascinating look into this very unique culture. Every student is asked to write a few paragraphs about life since graduation.  What strikes one most about the accounts is not the high-powered professions, businesses, or creative projects undertaken; but how easily students changed course. From law to architecture.  From medicine to theatre. From Wall Street to Greenpeace. Each account was one of absolute confidence, intellectual enterprise, and creative ambition.

Image result for images harvard red book

A young friend of Lionel’s who had graduated from one of Washington, DC’s elite private schools and then had gone on to Harvard told him about the best part of both schools. “Everyone’s smart”, he said.  Students enter Harvard already confident of themselves and their abilities; but when they have to hold their own against classmates at least as smart and self-assured as they, they become part of the culture of intellectual privilege and obligation. No one wastes time at Harvard.

“What if I don’t get in?”, Melody asked her father. “Then what will I do?” Settle for second-best, Lionel knew; and he would give his daughter all the moral support that a father could. He knew that he had taken a risk in so deliberately orienting his daughter’s education to Harvard and Yale. 

Despite her intelligence, maturity, intellectual curiosity, and talents, she might miss the cut.  Admissions is a very capricious process.  Yet, he had no doubt about Melody’s abilities; and knew that whatever happened, she was indeed worthy of Harvard, Yale, Oxford, or Cambridge.  Anyone with this background has an obligation to apply.  Talent must be used.

He only hoped that he had balanced his absolute belief in an elite education with the right evaluation of his daughter.  He had no doubts about her chances of getting into Yale.  He only wondered if, after such preparation, she was prepared for rejection.

Fields was surprised at the accommodating attitude most families had concerning college admissions. Asian American parents like Jewish families before them know that a respect and desire for learning must be taught.  Excellence is not a by-product of learning but a forged part of it. The precepts of Cato the Elder are not extra-curricular add-ons but fundamentally necessary. Dishonesty is a corruption of talent.   

Image result for image 19th century jews studying torah

For these parents and children education is not only a means to an end, but an end itself. How can an adult make sense of the world without understanding Plato, Cicero, Caesar, Augustine, Shakespeare, and Dostoevsky? Students entering Harvard have been trained to learn, to be excited about ideas, and to understand that the foundation for learning is moral principle.

He hoped that Yale and Harvard would never capitulate and compromise talent for ‘diversity’, nor retreat from their insistence on moral strength, leadership, and intellectual honesty.

Melody was over-qualified for Harvard because of her training.  “You would have made a good Roman emperor”, her father said as he helped her pack for her trip to Boston.

 Harvard Yard

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