Have you ever noticed that when you meet someone who went to undergrad or law school or business school or medical school at Harvard University, and you ask that person where they went to school, the usual response is, “A place in Boston.”
Because this answer is so common, I’ve put some thought into it. At first blush, it seems to show a good deal of modesty. Folks at most other universities consider Harvard to be the pinnacle of education in the United States. Instead of announcing it to the world, these alumni show a bit of discretion.
On the other hand, perhaps it’s false modesty. “A place in Boston” certainly begs the question, “Which place in Boston?” Besides, it’s not even Boston. Harvard is in Cambridge, which, owing to the nominal connection to that renowned English university, might add an air of haughtiness. “Oh, a place in Cambridge.” Then again, “A place in Cambridge” could be MIT for that matter, but–sorry Louisa–we’re just not that impressed. So naming “Boston” rather than “Cambridge” or “Harvard” adds a sense of vagueness which could be argued to be dismissive.
In further support of my false modesty theory, I wonder what these people would say if they were talking to a known Stanford or Duke or Vanderbilt grad? Would they just go ahead and say “Harvard”? If so, does that mean they are simply shielding those of us who went to State U from encountering the devastating transcendence of belonging to such an alma mater? There’s nothing condescending about, “I went to Ohio State.” But, “Oh, a place in Boston”… Well, to that I say, “Sorry that I had no interest in majoring in gender studies, and–oh dear–I never signed up for the lacrosse club team, but really, it’s okay to tell me that you went to Harvard!”
On a different note, I recently read an article in The Economist about the financial strains of Oxford University. Most interesting was the bar graph which showed top university endowments from around the world. I wish I would take the effort to scan this, because the visual compilation of data is impressive. I’ll simply list the wealthiest universities and their respective estimated endowments (in British pounds, converted at $1.9 to 1 pound). Imagine the bar graph, if you will. Or plot it on a spreadsheet.
- Harvard 13+ billion
- Yale 8 billion
- Stanford 6+ billion
- University of Texas (!) 6 billion
- Princeton 5.9 billion
- MIT 3.5 billion
- Cambridge 3.3 billion
- Oxford 3 billion
- University of California 2.7 billion
- Columbia 2.7 billion
I was surprised that the University of Texas is so wealthy. Also surprised that the sum of the ancient giants’ endowments (Oxford and Cambridge) is barely more than Stanford’s or Princeton’s.
And one final thought; a corollary of sorts: Are all “Ivy Leaguers” created equal, or are there various levels of credibility to membership? In my mind, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton are the triumvirate of American university education. Then there are schools like Columbia and the University of Pennsylvania which, though venerable, just don’t quite have that zippy instant name recognition shared by the Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Jersey institutions. And finally, those other Ivy League schools everyone has trouble remembering. Let’s see, Brown, and…I’m going to have to think…Dartmouth! Oh yeah, Cornell. Is that it?
Well, enough said this evening. Enough toes stepped on. Good night, and study hard!