Lecture Hopping: Resolved, that we should all cease to exist

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In which Bwog lecture hopper Pierce Stanley throws up his hands at the New Yorker Festival. 

nFor decades a bastion of intellectual arrogance, The New Yorker magazine reaches the pinnacle of sycophancy once a year during the first weekend of October when it hosts its Festival, during which journalists, artists, and intellectuals with deep or dubious ties alike to the magazine participate in a three-day festival of self-congratulation.  Despite the big names, it often falls far short of what it seeks to deliver, turning instead a predictable three day campaign of ego stroking. 

This year’s New Yorker Festival debate between two badasses of journalistic fame Malcolm Gladwell author of Blink and Tipping Point (and owner of the world’s most beloved Jewfro) and Charlie Rose regular Adam Gopnik (who still can’t decide whether he likes Paris or New York better) was no exception to this rule, as both attempted to live up to the wit that frequently graces the magazine’s pages but fell far short in substance as they tackled this year’s resolution for the annual parliamentary style debate, RESOLVED: The Ivy League Should Be Abolished.  To mediate this intellectual tussle at New York’s Society for Ethical Culture was none other than the
dfsembodiment of self-indulgence, Columbia’s once-in-a-blue-moon Art History professor Sir Simon Schama.  As speaker of the house and with a gavel in tow, Schama took no shame in prodding both debaters with peculiar inquiries, making side comments to the audience, and erupting with random outbursts of laughter throughout the evening.  It was clear from the beginning that the debate would be not serious, but a playful exercise in name-calling and joke telling by non-Ivy educated Canadians, and a slight disappointment to a bwogger expecting a little more meat.

Gladwell opened the forum by affirming the resolution with a speech that compared the Ivy League to the failed foreign policy of the Bush administration.  He isolated an “axis of evil” for the purposes of the debate, arguing that Harvard, Princeton, and Yale were Iraq, Iran, and Syria and should be abolished because they are “fetishized institutions of elitism that stifle social mobility and hurt the less fortunate.”  While Gopnik agreed with the need to “defetishize” elite institutions of higher learning, he quickly took issue with Gladwell’s interpretation of the Ivy League, questioning why Gladwell attempted to exclude the other five universities that make up a shitty athletic conference and are considered by most people to be the Ivy League.  He noted that if those three schools are abolished other colleges of similar prestige will immediately assume an elite role and the problem of elitism will not be solved.  “What are you going to do with the professors, break their glasses and move them?” he argued, “You might as well add Columbia to the axis of evil and nothing will really change.”  Therefore, Gopnik cautiously suggested institutional reform rather than outright abolition of the Ivy League.

sdfGopnik came out swinging in his opening constructive for the negative by arguing that Gladwell’s logic didn’t quite add up.  He noted that abolishing the best institutions of education in the US would be “like abolishing the NBA to fight obesity in the United States.”  To his credit, he had examples from personal experience, citing the leveling of admissions at the Sorbonne, previously one of France’s most elite educational institutions, as a disaster that opened admissions to unqualified candidates and alienated the best professors and students, making that university a joke.  He offered a compelling argument for his claim that the abolishment of the Ivy League would inevitably lead to more elitism by arguing that the leveling of the educational playing field in Europe has created hyper-elite universities that train an even smaller segment of the population than before, ensuring that Europe is run by a considerably smaller and even more powerful elite than before.  Gopnik urged Gladwell to think in terms of the real world, saying that Gladwell’s creation of an axis of evil schools to be abolished is “the pure unreal where imaginary enemies are assailed.”  Then it was on to the rebuttals where the debate devolved mostly into a pissing contest over who could tell a funnier joke.

While Gladwell pitied “Gopnik for not sharing the concern of those less fortunate,” he used the bulk of his rebuttal to argue that Ivies frustrate opportunity for social mobility by denying the poorest students a chance at a really good education.  He cited a study that points to the United States as the least flexible nation for social mobility in the world and noted that the Ivy League has a considerably smaller percentage of students who receive Pell grants compared to other institutions such as Berkeley and UCLA which have upwards of 39 percent of lower income students receiving grants.  Then he went on to cite a litany of admissions statistics and graduation rates.  While Gopnik appealed to the audience that Gladwell was just “randomly grabbing numbers from his ass,” the debate got hot when Gladwell began reading marginalia notes written by Harvard admissions deans on application essays as he forwarded the argument that selection based on “personal qualities” was petty.  One note said, “This is one of the most brilliant students I have seen but seems too shy.”  Another read simply “frothy.”  And Gladwell’s kicker was “short with big ears.”  Gladwell got the most laughs of the night when he said that by disbanding the Ivy League we are ensuring that schools with combined endowments of over 70 billion dollars do not bestow benefits on an aristocracy of people who have not earned their position, and we can in turn “create opportunities for the shy, the frothy and short with big ears.”

At the conclusion of the debate Gopnik appealed for a level of seriousness and asked that the audience reject Gladwell’s “strong, very Canadian vendetta against three universities” in favor of an acknowledgement that the Ivies are a community of “homogeneity and stimulation where great ideas take place,” although in need of a serious program of reform.  The debate boiled down to the question of class in the United States and whether it is necessary to abolish some of our nation’s most productive institutions in favor of social mobility.  While Gladwell argued that radical abolition is the only way to bring about social change in any system, Gopnik argued that the Ivies are product of a founding aristocracy and that aristocrats in this nation will get what they want by birthright regardless of whether they attend the Ivies or not.  In turn, he offered up the examples of two men from humble backgrounds, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, as evidence that anyone who attends an Ivy League institution, poor or rich, “will be able to create enough social capital to embark on programs of reform.”

Both debaters drew considerable applause for their defenses and the New Yorker Festival’s debate drew to a quick finish, with Schama almost having an aneurysm as he leapt to call order in the house and placed the resolution before the public.  To his surprise, the crowd overwhelmingly negated the resolution and another New Yorker debate was in the books.

Well Columbians…we survived this time.





  1. what  

    the hell do you have against The New Yorker? Isn't The B&W supposed to be a campus version of it?

    "For decades a bastion of intellectual arrogance..."

    That ^^^ could not be more untrue if it tried.

  2. there  

    I thought the debate was humerous, thought-provoking, and above all, pretentious, which is what I was looking for. And you forgot to mention they served free yellowtail wine at the beginning, which made the evening oh so much better.

  3. P.S.  


  4. also there  

    I enjoyed the debate, even if it was silly. Also, I spent pretty much the entire weekend going to the New Yorker Festival, and I totally disagree that it doesn't live up to expectations. I had a great time and was very impressed with everything from a fascinating panel on investigative journalism to the amazing Parkour New York (so cool!)

  5. Bwog

    If you had gone to David Byrne's multi-media, multi-person talk on bike-riding in New York city, you would have seen the opposite of all this: A genuine genius, humble, quiet, awkward, and self-effacing, and the results of his year-long labor of love, all to make the city he lives in better for him and his fellow New Yorkers. The people on that stage were all hard-working, mostly-vastly entertaining, and seemed to have a genuine love for what they were doing.

    Shoulda been THERE, Bwog.

  6. waaah  


  7. yeah, really  

    Gladwell's a hack. Gopnick is okay. They lack New York genius.

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