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Revisiting the Ivory Tower Myth



Authors as Published

Virtually anyone you might meet on any street in America would likely agree with the proposition that what we think about something will shape in some measure how we behave concerning it. That is, most citizens would concur that what we think affects our daily choices, activities and comportment. This may seem obvious until one reflects on how colleges and universities are often considered in the popular imagination. In fact, Americans commonly refer to these institutions as constituting an “Ivory Tower,” a remote and unworldly place in which by implication, what one considers and learns will bear no relationship to one’s later behavior, at least, and at minimum, in the professional workaday world.

This label is broadly offered and embraced despite the fact that millions of U.S. citizens have attended colleges and universities and have provided personal testimony thereafter of the “real world” character of their lives and of the value of what they considered and learned. And just as often, college graduates have shared these experiences with the very individuals (who have sometimes attended college themselves) who thereafter claim paradoxically that universities somehow exist in some ineffectual and feckless wonderland apart from their lives.

This contradictory contention—that universities undertake their responsibilities somehow separately from the society they inhabit—is also widely adopted in the face of recent studies that liberal arts and humanities graduates do as well as many in other disciplines and fields in their earnings during their professional careers. What is more, professors, students and staff members live in the same society as other Americans and experience identical cultural, economic and political forces and events. In short, the often-repeated cliché that colleges are citadels apart cannot be substantiated on any reasoned basis, including our culture’s increasing devotion to utilitarian calculations to gauge the value of virtually everything.

Nonetheless, the Ivory Tower descriptor is used constantly as a sort of public benchmark. I recently saw a television ad, for example, that argued that a local for-profit technical school offered course work “for the real world,” unlike, presumably those “other” two- and four-year colleges and universities. And this claim was adopted as an advertising strategy despite a recent congressional investigation that revealed the very high costs, dropout rates and extremely poor placement rates of institutions such as the one advertised. So much for “real world” value.

If you care about our culture venerating the pursuit of knowledge and our citizenry understanding the importance of education for democratic capacity, the question is: Where does this strange notion come from? I can offer several observations by way of reply, but I do not contend that even taken together they “explain” this odd phenomenon in which a substantial portion of our population heaps disdain on institutions that more reasoned citizens in more reflective moments have argued serve as a critical engine of our nation’s political, cultural and economic life.

First, perhaps Americans adopt this stance because so many in the academy possess rarified knowledge and expertise and that fact daunts and confuses those who do not share that accomplishment. Those holding Ph.D.’s constitute only approximately 1 percent of the aggregate population and a lack of familiarity with what interests these individuals and what they do on a daily basis allows many people to believe themselves apart from the possibilities such learning represents. In addition, it is not easy for citizens unversed in an area of knowledge to discern its relevance, especially those domains that might appear particularly arcane. In short, perhaps a share of the Ivory Tower myth arises from a perception of the elite character and seeming unfathomability of the professoriate and of the many types of erudition its members represent.

Second, college campuses are often places set apart geographically. They are frequently designed as largely self-contained communities and separated from the jurisdictions in which they are located. Likewise, much of what occurs within them is principally devoted to those who live and learn there. In this sense, while colleges may not have walls that divide them from their broader locations, citizens may see them as somehow discrete and “apart” from their daily lives. This physical alignment of universities on the landscape and its associated psychology of “otherness” may well contribute to the perpetuation of Ivory Tower lore.

Third, while many campuses are multi-generational in character, most colleges and universities, irrespective of their enrollment mix and physical character, often play vital roles in the maturation to adulthood of the students who attend them. A large percentage of those who complete collegiate curricula enter the workforce full-time for the first time thereafter. Meanwhile, most of those who have attended college have lived on their own and managed their daily lives alone for the first time while at university. The limited character of this demography may set campuses and college life apart in the public imagination.

Finally, in recent years it has suited legislators in many states to foster an image in the public of government-supported colleges and universities as sites of “otherness” as they have shifted more of the costs of higher education to those pursuing it. In so doing, many such government leaders have deliberately nurtured a perception in the citizenry that these higher education institutions provide only private benefits and are therefore underserving of continued strong public support. One mechanism to support this redefinition is to treat the public university as a rarefied world full of arcana and babble with little or insufficient relationship to the daily lives and fortunes of the citizens providing tax funds to support it.

Continuing to treat higher education as an “other” in public life has social consequences. I want here to stress three central ones. First, as I have just argued, if citizens become convinced that colleges and universities exist apart and do not provide value to the “real world,” it is far easier to withdraw public support for their maintenance and redefine post-secondary education as a private good only available to those who can find ways and means to pay amounts more closely approximating its full cost. Exactly that trend is unfolding nation-wide as states continue in real terms to reduce their aid for higher education institutions. This funding development has caused many unpublicized changes, including major shifts in public university faculty composition and roles and modifications in the character of incentives guiding professors’ behavior. Sharp reductions in state support have also resulted in a generally declining availability of higher education to the full spectrum of qualified students irrespective of their wealth or income.

Second, the public’s propensity to denigrate university-produced knowledge as rarefied and ethereal both reflects and reinforces the trend toward utilitarianism already afoot in our culture. Many public leaders now openly support the notion that only knowledge linked to a graduate’s first professional position should be considered relevant for college curricula and preparation.

Finally, this turn will surely result in dampened innovation in our economy as well as the further coarsening of our culture. At worst, this “othered” privatization of higher education could create workforce leaders in our society who are unprepared to cope with change and ill equipped to address the responsibilities of self-governance and the deliberation it implies. Overall, I conclude that what we think as a people or citizenry matters deeply and that our continued collective belief in the myth of the Ivory Tower can be expected only to produce additional pernicious consequences for public (and private) colleges and universities and for our society.

Publication Date

February 9, 2014