Lawrence Burns

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Oxford, Cambridge and Ivy League Universities are often revered above others. What do people make of this?

Oxford and other Ivy League universities have the reputation of being fine institutions that educate their students rigorously. They are viewed by many as being at the top of the pecking order and their degrees are viewed as a bench-mark for students. Competition for places is high so the Universities get their pick of the students as their degrees are so sought after. They are often seen as a key into the high end of professions such as law and banking. The academics are highly respected and viewed as an authority in their area of study.

I sat my undergraduate degree at Oxford University - the workload was considerably higher than on the corresponding courses at other Universities so it was a challenge in that sense. Beyond this and the ancient buildings though, I didn't find it particularly special. There is this aura about the place that it must be full of brilliant people and often people are amazed in my home town of Sheffield when I mention that I have studied there. There is still a huge class association with Oxford. I also find it worrying that people would look up to graduates and professors of these institutions like they are authorities. Naturally a lot of graduates and professors could be happy to agree with this! It's tempting to go along with the view that these institutions are simply the bees-knees, particularly after working so hard in them but I wonder if everybody thinks this. It sometimes saddens me when I hear people express regret that they didn't 'get in' to sit a course at Oxford as if this means that they must be less intelligent than somebody who did 'get in'. Some people never seem to let this go. My experience was that the students and professors are really just another mixed-bag - most are nothing special, some are pretty talented and a lot of them in my view can become quite arrogant and narrow-minded.

I wonder what people's perceptions of these universities are? Should they be so revered?

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    Nov 13 2011: Hi there

    My father obtained is PhD from Cambridge as a mature student (! was 9 when he started his 3 years at Cambridge). Both my parents were academics and I did what it a seems a number of academic children do and i rebelled at 16 against education and left school with very few qualifications. I went on to work and after being incredibly bored for 3 years in the public sector went back to education but into what would have been then polytechnics. I did not at 21 have any real understanding of the hierarchy of further and higher education, I just knew i wanted to have a life where i could earn money to live. 25 years later I am now an academic - how history repeats itself in a University which is certainly not ivy league and believes in inclusion and widening participation in being world class. Before i went to work there 4 years ago, I did have the opportunity to work with a number of higher education institutes and recognised that quality is quality whatever age an institution has. Quality is based upon the whole student experience, not just what goes on in the classroom.

    Now I loved living in Cambridge and I found the whole idea of gowns and ritual exciting as a child looking in but it wasnt what I wanted as a 21 year old. i wanted skills and experiences that would help me get a job and I really didnt see myself as an academic. I saw my father as one, someone who researched within a positivist paradigm and added to the research community. Did it give him a good life getting a PhD from Cambridge? yes it opened doors but his hard work made him the man he is.

    There is a hierarchy in all levels of education - we are now looking at free schools and academies and society will persuade us that we need to choose the best for our child. I agree but the best is not necessarily the Ivy League. the best is what you experience overall in making you the person that you are today which could be the local college, Open University or Oxbridge.
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      Nov 14 2011: Hello Christine.

      I found this comment of yours quite interesting ‘Now I loved living in Cambridge and I found the whole idea of gowns and ritual exciting as a child looking in but it wasn’t what I wanted as a 21 year old. I wanted skills and experiences that would help me get a job and I really didn’t see myself as an academic’
      I think the difference for you is that the persons closet to you i.e. your parents were academics and did wear the gown so for you it was not a great leap. I too was able to go into higher (arts) education, this was because my Father studied at Lincolns Inn and also graduated from Southbank Polytechnic. My late dear mother used to show me pictures of my father in his gowns, so obviously I could place myself there too. I grew up on a ‘sink’ council estate and went to a rough school in London East End, I always had ideas ‘above my station’ and did what I could to physically and mentally get out. Yes I have been called ‘full of it’ ‘pretentious’ and ‘up my own a…’ in the past but I was only falling back on heritage, valuing books and academia like dad! Although in no way I am saying that I have achieved great heights in my career, the difference is that I am determined that my son is given the support (by his parents) to do so.
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        Nov 14 2011: Hello and thanks for your comments. My parents also gave me support but I had to find the value of education for myself and I did and at the moment I am studying for my doctorate. Education is for all, that I am passionate about but societies belief in hierachies of establishments limit us in what education is for (in my personal opinion). I worked for 10 years for the Open University and still believe that their course content is some of the best globally and their concept of tutorial support for students is incredibly robust. If I was starting out now and could choose anywhere I could do my degree with the knowledge I have of the education system I am not sure that I would choose to go to Harvard or Cambridge to be honest. I certainly would choose by finding out much more however about the teaching staff who would support my learning and look to the wide range of support services on offer through the use of a wide range of technologies and also to see what work related opportunities were available. I will always be passionate about education but not about 'brands'.
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    Oct 28 2011: I find this particular belief sad in a way, but perhaps only due to the harm it can cause through its mental anguish. The underlying cause I find more interesting, since we all (at least everyone I talk to) have some illogical beliefs or mental hangups. As I understand it, these beliefs are ingrained in humans at a young age while the brain is still developing. We are pyschologically developing while the brain is creating its network and neural pathways during the myelination process. We grow up with these beliefs ingrained in us and they are very hard to get rid of. I can imagine the person or company that develops a way to destroy these beliefs without the use of drugs will be very wealthy.

    That brings us to the subject of Philosophy. If we were to change all those erroneous, harmful, or just unwanted thoughts who would we be as a person? Would our personality change and to what extent? Although those questions may be better suited for another thread.
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    Oct 27 2011: I see some of this as conditioning from a young age. Years ago these school earned their reputations, or perhaps manufactured it, and that reputation spread out into the world. At young ages our minds learned a lot of things that may not be backed by evidence but were ingrained in such a way as to cause us logical and emotional distress. Actions and thoughts such as: Do not walk under ladders, Sex is evil, don't step on cracks, and Oxford or Harvard is the best. These beliefs carry out into the world enough that if you were to walk under a ladder as an adult (or perform some other odd act that was drilled into our heads) you would feel guilty or wary. Funny how that is, especially when we can logically refute it as adults.

    I imagine that the ivy leagues have that belief structure on their side. I am also aware that there are other aspects to these schools reputation, such as having a more logical basis for belief than stepping on a crack. In regards to your friend’s regret that they did not get in the graduates arrogance about graduating, I can see these emotional responses as two sides to the same coin rooted in the belief about these schools.

    But hey, if we can find a logical way to abolish these beliefs I would be happy to hear. In my case I never went to college and instead spent my time and money learning practical knowledge and being self-employed. While today my wife and I are both successful and our college friends are worried during this economy we both still have that splinter in our minds eye about getting that darn degree. It certainly has not hurt us by not having it, but that belief about going to college is a bit of a nag. Kind of like a demon we just cannot shake.

    If anyone knows of mental techniques to shake those erroneous beliefs then please share.
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      Oct 28 2011: Hey Leo - you really nail the point that I'm thinking about. You say that you still have a mental splinter about not attending a university even though you have become successful - there is no reason that this should be the case and yet it is with many people. Some people who attended University have a splinter that they didn't attend one of the internationally prestigous ones - it seems sad.
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      Oct 28 2011: Thanks Leo for your post.
      To me it seems that- many of us read great books, watch great movies, listen great songs, attend great lectures etc (which collectively referred to as "education") but we hardly learn anything from those. As a person we remain the same; same corrupt, same dishonest, same hypocrite, follow the same sycophancy.

      "Education" no longer grooms people to become a better, civilized human being. It only teaches us the art and knowledge to serve our master (employer), gather degrees (to distinguish ourselves from others) and most importantly, accumulate money by whatever means deemed necessary. It enables us to survive with a degree of personal comfort, but hardly prepares us to dream of a better world. The confusion may be little clear if you see the "elite" universities or even the formal education, as a whole, in that light.
  • Oct 27 2011: I think the key is "Networking." These universities have well-knitted and strong networks that assures its graduates are easily settled into the system.
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      Oct 28 2011: Yes many call it "networking" but many other consider that as corruption, which is not expected from such high-profile educational and research institutions.
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    Oct 26 2011: For many these institutions are the ‘gold standard’ which can set you up nicely for a future of prosperity, privilege and solid networks. Funny enough most of the Oxbridge graduates and ‘Ivy League’ grads I have met have been outwardly anything but arrogant because they don’t need to be.
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    Oct 26 2011: Hi Lawrence.
    I can not say much about British universities per se (although I got PhD admission in Cambridge but ultimately did not join there). I have/had few friends and colleagues from those universities and also visited many of those institutions in UK. I can safely say that same "elitism" is there in many other countries, including USA. Here ivy league universities are more like exclusive, select club of privileged people ("around 80% of the students in such institutions are from rich and powerful people in US and around the world") who are not necessarily the best or the brightest. An "education" from such "clubs" (rather than universities) allow students to earn and establish the most valuable asset (more important than talent and hard-work), i.e networking, for anyone to succeed in current situation (probably all over the world). That's how the exceedingly high tuition fees are justified (to the students and their parents). Many such ivy league universities resemble more like big corporate houses who do business with "education". If we see it that way, a lot of confusions will be clear.

    For more detail one can read two excellent books on the subject- 1) "Heraclitean Fire: Sketches from a Life Before Nature" by famous biologist, Erwin Chargaff. Here is an brief excerpt from one chapter in that book- .
    2) "The Price of Admission" by Pulitzer prize winning journalist Daniel Golden, where he showed, "how America's ruling class buys its way into elite colleges and universities – and who gets left outside the gates".