I have been at Harvard for almost three years, and, frankly, I don’t see what the fuss is about. Not to say that Harvard isn’t a wonderful school or that it doesn’t provide a quality education; in spite of its best efforts, it is and it does. But nothing justifies the iron stranglehold that Harvard, along with Yale, has on the levers of power in American society—to the exclusion even of comparably esteemed institutions like Princeton and Stanford.
Let’s take stock. Twelve presidents have gone to Harvard or Yale, including the last four. The next commonest alma mater is William and Mary, whose paltry three presidential alumni exceeds Princeton’s two and Stanford’s one.
In the current United States Cabinet, Harvard and Yale graduated six of 22 members, while Princeton and Stanford only produced one apiece. In fact, the highest ranking Princetonian in the executive—EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson—isn’t even a secretary, only a Cabinet-level officer. Her Stanford counterpart—U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice—is similarly lacking secretarial status.
The most patent manifestation of the Harvard-Yale bias, however, is the composition of the current Supreme Court, all nine of whose justices graduated from Harvard or Yale or both.
What distinguishes Harvard and Yale from Princeton and Stanford so dramatically as to legitimize this massive disparity? Princeton and Stanford are both younger than Harvard and Yale, so perhaps in the early days of the Republic, the ascendancy of the latter two was appropriate. But that hardly justifies the persisting preeminence of the Cambridge-New Haven axis into the modern day, whereas erstwhile rival William and Mary has long since abdicated its relevance. Superior academics is similarly unsatisfactory as an explanation. Princeton and Stanford’s undergraduate programs are consistently ranked alongside Harvard and Yale’s, and Stanford’s graduate programs perform likewise.
As tempting as it may be for us Harvardians to defend the Harvard-Yale duopoly as the inevitable culmination of American meritocracy, the evidence demonstrates otherwise. As trite as the derision of George W. Bush’s purported intellectual deficiency is and has always been, even his apologists could scarcely argue that his impeccable Ivy League credentials proved that he was a man of exceptional academic prowess.
Furthermore, the domination of the two schools is, at the presidential level, largely recent. While the last four commanders-in-chief passed through Cambridge and New Haven, there were only four others that did in the 20th century and only four in the 19th. The stacking of the High Court exclusively with Harvard and Yale graduates, likewise, is a trend, not a tradition. It was only the recent departure of Chicago and Northwestern Law grad John Paul Stevens that ended the presence of a non-Harvard or Yale perspective on the bench.
Now, this is not to say that we ought to emulate Bush’s unfortunate habit of elevating mediocrity by enlisting 150 graduates of Pat Robertson’s fourth-tier Regent University into the executive branch. None but the rankest populists would argue that the way to fix a compromised meritocracy is to abolish meritocracy altogether. But there is unmistakable peril in allowing such an incestuous method of selecting the nation’s leaders to persist.
The name of that peril is groupthink. In 1972, David L. Halberstam ’55 famously refashioned the phrase “the best and the brightest” to encapsulate the irony of how Presidents John F. Kennedy ’40 and Lyndon B. Johnson’s faith in well-credentialed, Ivy League theoreticians like Robert S. McNamara and McGeorge Bundy resulted in the catastrophic mismanagement of the Vietnam War. Today, too, we risk depending too heavily on “the best and brightest,” over-relying now not so much on an inexperienced intellectual elite as an inbred intellectual elite.
The lazy analogy between our time and Halberstam’s is Afghanistan and Vietnam, but this is comparison is imprecise, as the escalation of the former is the brainchild of the military brass, not of academics and intellectuals. The more interesting similarity is between Vietnam and the financial crisis. A salient critique of President Barack H. Obama’s management of the crisis and its aftermath was of his employment of a veritable rogue’s gallery of Rubinite deregulators, namely Harvard’s own Larry H. Summers. Upon his return to Cambridge, Summers was replaced as National Economic Council director by another ex-Clintonista, Yale’s Gene B. Sperling. Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner was a protégé of his predecessor, Harvardian Henry M. “Hank” Paulson, who graduated five years before his successor at Goldman Sachs, Lloyd C. Blankfein ’75.
There cannot be much intellectual diversity among America’s leaderly caste when so many of them went to one of two schools. Yes, universities encourage debate and inquiry, but there is something to be said for diversity of perspective. While racially and socioeconomically diverse, Harvard sorely lacks other forms of diversity, including ideological diversity, as the sorry state of Harvard conservatism demonstrates.
In the end, however, the most obviously problematic element of the Harvard-Yale duumvirate is its rank unfairness. With the unabashed inequity of the status quo privileging those who graduate from Harvard and Yale over those who don’t, it is hardly surprising that this kind of clubby exclusivity so rampant in the corridors of power breeds resentment among those on the outside looking in.
Dhruv K. Singhal, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is an English concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Fridays.