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A not-so-secret history: prestige and elitism in academia

September 12 — an annual article is published by U.S. News & World Report: “Best National University Rankings.” There’s a buzz on Notre Dame’s campus.

“Can you believe it,” a student whispers to a friend, as they scroll on their phone down to the bottom of the T20. “Notre Dame is tied with Columbia.”

For the next couple of days, I would overhear conversations in the dining hall and classes, in which students discussed the scandal that surrounded Columbia University’s former misrepresentation of its statistics which were factored into its ranking decision. Columbia math professor Michael Thaddeus challenged the school’s data submission and claimed it was “dubious or highly misleading.” While Columbia was initially ranked No. 2 by U.S. News & World Report, it dropped to No. 18 after further investigation — landing a tie with the University of Notre Dame.

This isn’t the first time that inaccuracies in the ranking have occurred — both undiscovered and exposed inaccuracies. But given Columbia’s academic prestige among the Ivy League titans, as well as being on Notre Dame’s campus during this ranking publication, it seemed like this was a much larger deal than past whistleblowing and auditing of university reports.

I found myself disappointed by the general fervor of excitement that occurred after this incident. While not indicative of the entire Notre Dame campus, I did hear rhetoric that seemed to commend Notre Dame’s stature and declaration of equivalence to Columbia during the revision of the rankings this year.

We wear our tied ranking like a badge of honor, yet do we want to celebrate being considered the same caliber as an institute that got caught fudging the numbers? Columbia is not alone; it is just the canary in a coal mine; a buzz-worthy casualty that exposes the fault lines of higher education in the United States.

However, I would be lying if I completely denied that prestige and rankings were at least a part of my college decision process. They provided some tangible way for me to compare the offerings and opportunities at numerous different universities — many of which I did not get the chance to visit in person due to COVID-19.

As much as I want to cast aside these evaluations made by third parties and declare them to be a mere trifle, most candidates for admission at Notre Dame and other “top institutions” are often enticed to apply based on these very appraisals. The reality is many students rely on these ideals and reports — hoping that acceptance to an institution of high caliber will somehow reflect credibility and worthiness onto themselves.

Prestige and elitism within higher education are no strangers to the world of literature either. There’s an entire genre dedicated to this ever-increasing concept, mostly attributed to Donna Tartt’s novel “The Secret History.” Published in 1992, “The Secret History” follows an ensemble of college students at a renowned liberal arts college in New England whose intellectual pursuits get muddled with the hubris of adolescence and emulation of the classical world. This novel is claimed to beget the “dark academia” genre.

While dark academia is ill-defined, most describe the genre as novels that take place in private institutions and elite universities — many featuring liberal arts disciplines. In addition, there is usually a darker element at play, such as betrayal and even murder. The competitive strife that these characters experience, while exaggerated for dramatic effect, is still encouraged in the real world by the ranking and classification system of universities.

To suggest abolishing the ranking system is not my aim in identifying these issues or commenting on the way we perceive higher education. However, perhaps we should reframe our mindset to remind ourselves that the fickleness of such systems should reduce our reliance on them. Rankings are commonly used as a sounding board for our intrinsic principles and value. But when rankings can drastically change and are contingent upon the candor and validity of their unaudited reporters, why are we basing our sense of worth on these transient elements?

When I think of the allure of the dark academia genre, I think of the pull toward the aestheticism of higher education. Peacoats, spires and wire-rimmed glasses all make the cut for the visual imagery I conjure in this realm. However, to claim that aestheticism and the appeal of appearances don’t exist to the same degree in actuality is false. The rankings with which we concern ourselves, the crests we associate with certain elite institutions — these are all charms that divert our attention from the big picture.

What does it mean to think and to reason? How do the interpersonal connections and relationships we form in college influence the people we become? These are the things that can’t be addressed in a simple ranking or a statistical report.

Chapter One of “The Secret History” begins with Richard Papen’s retrospective reflection of his character’s downfall. It commences with the inquiry, “Does such a thing as “the fatal flaw,” that showy dark crack running down the middle of a life, exist outside literature? I used to think it didn’t. Now I think it does. And I think mine is this: a morbid longing for the picturesque at all costs.”

When I consider the Best National University Rankings, I think about the strive for the picturesque — an unrealistic ideal that we believe will transcend our current circumstances. But at what point does this become a “morbid longing?” At what cost will we listen to the rankings and prestige above our own necessities and judgments?

Elizabeth Prater is a Junior at Notre Dame double majoring in marketing and program of liberal studies (great books). She is interested in the cultural implications of analyzing classics & literature under a contemporary lens. When she isn’t writing, she loves playing the violin, hiking in the PNW, going to concerts with friends and offering unsolicited book recommendations. Elizabeth always appreciates hearing from readers, so feel free to reach out eprater@nd.edu or @elizabethlianap on Twitter

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What’s the cost? Banned Books and Free Little Libraries

This summer, I became fascinated with Free Little Libraries. For those unfamiliar, this is the official organization that encourages residential neighborhoods to create and install community libraries. They operate under the implicit regulation of taking a book and leaving one in return.

This fascination started as I decided to sort through my bookshelf and purge some books I realized I would never reread (I’m looking at you, young adult dystopian trilogies). My local library stopped taking donations, and I knew that the books weren’t worth much to sell them back to a second-hand, independent bookstore. Thus, I turned toward the Free Little Libraries which I have grown up driving past but hadn’t given much of a second thought.

I soon found out that Free Little Libraries has an app with geographic pinpoints of where to locate them in your local areas. Owners of these share the names of their libraries and occasionally the rationale for why they decided to build one. Some in my area were strategically placed near elementary schools, and the owners’ donations centered around children’s literature to foster literacy to young readers. Others included memorials which were named after a loved one who inspired their love for literature.

Some Free Little Libraries had “Alice in Wonderland” quotes inscribed in the sides, faux roof paneling and even benches installed so that neighbors could even enjoy the library’s offerings en plein air.

I took some time exploring neighborhoods while carrying around a box of my own books to share. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety of things people placed in the Free Little Libraries, and even found books that I would consider purchasing at a bookstore.

After this experience, I contemplated the importance and implications of Free Little Libraries. The concept of intellectual freedom, even in a literary sense, is not always a guarantee. The most compelling indication of this restriction is the presence of “Banned Books Week.”

Launched in 1982, Banned Books Week was created in response to the increasing number of challenges of books within libraries, schools and even bookstores. This year, the awareness week takes place from September 18-24 with the theme “Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides Us.”

There was a lull in book challenges during the pandemic, but in the past year, as schools have been reopening since Fall 2021 after closures due to COVID-19, volumes of objections have increased rapidly. The American Library Association, who tracks book bans and challenges, typically faces 300-350 complaints annually. However, just in 2021, they reached approximately 730 complaints against over 1500 books.

Books have been banned on many accounts, protests ranging from books said to include explicit language, sexual references, themes involving racism, gender identity, violence, etc. Some commonly banned books include many classics such as “Beloved” by Toni Morrison, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, and an increasing number of contemporary novels.

Even though many of these challenges toward books are meant to inhibit the dissemination of its contents, they often do the exact opposite. Publicity surrounding banned books often increases, and sales get an extra boost.

Many bookstores even hold displays and list challenges for commonly challenged books. Powell’s Bookstore, the “world’s largest independent bookstore,” hands out bookmarks year-round with reading recommendations with titles selected from the Banned Books list.

I spoke to Philip Schatz, the owner of South Bend’s “Erasmus Books,” over the phone to get the perspective of an independent bookstore in the South Bend area on Banned Books Week.

“There’s a hope on the part of some people that if they really structure a collection, like in a library, that they can protect people from unpleasant experiences and from growing up,” Philip shared. “And I think that’s a very natural desire. But a fatal one.” 

While many complaints are filed, sometimes the main decision-makers aren’t the librarians themselves, who are versed with the knowledge of their personal collections and offerings. Instead, much of the debate is fueled by parents and even legislators, who may be fueled by the implications of book bans in the two-party system.

“Let the librarians have their say, and really let them be the deciding factors about the books that are in their collection because it’s in their best interest to promote readership,” Philip said. “They’re doing it in ways that are more informed than legislators have time to do.”

There have been many punitive consequences for establishments that continue to support books that have received controversy. Some organizations have had their funding slashed, and librarians have even lost their jobs. Brooky Parks, a librarian at Erie Community Library in Colorado, was terminated because she selected book titles for the teen book club that discussed pressing issues involving race in America. The violation was filed by the library’s district and claimed that the meetings were an attempt to “persuade participants to a particular point of view” and that they were “intentionally inflammatory.”

While libraries are meant to be a place to engage in diverse experiences and engage in open dialogues, they are constantly being delimited by an abundance of regulations. Many of these restrictions are rooted in public outcry based on hot topics or unsettling realities, rather than actual concern for the reader’s development.

While there is no clear-cut solution to the censorship of literature, I am drawn to the Free Little Libraries I found myself perusing throughout the summer. I revisited some week after week to find that most of the titles were completely different and that they were always in constant use. With such a free and open resource, I expected a “tragedy of the commons” kind of situation. But what is otherwise a box with one or two shelves became a welcoming place of intellectual curiosity and freedom.

I was surprised at how much care these Free Little Libraries were treated with, as the books were always in great condition, and there seemed to be a buzz of excitement whenever a fellow neighbor would make a weekly visit. I only wish we could emulate this regard for openness and interest in our conversations surrounding the censorship of books.

Maybe Free Little Libraries aren’t the solution, but they offer some hope toward a future where friends and families can find hidden gems and books they might not otherwise have selected themselves. The world could benefit from listening to the differing opinions and voices of not only our neighbors but people we might not encounter in our daily lives.

I think I have always been drawn to libraries and second-hand bookstores because of the knowledge that so many people have physically held those same pages. It makes what is otherwise a solitary experience feel both collaborative and compassionate. Perhaps reading is the first part, but the dialogue which follows can feel just as powerful. This point of interconnectedness can only happen if one decides to turn the page.

Elizabeth Prater is a Junior at Notre Dame double majoring in marketing and program of liberal studies (great books). She is interested in the cultural implications of analyzing classics & literature under a contemporary lens. When she isn’t writing, she loves playing the violin, hiking in the PNW, going to concerts with friends, and offering unsolicited book recommendations. Elizabeth always appreciates hearing from readers, so feel free to reach out eprater@nd.edu or @elizabethlianap on Twitter

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Claiming an Education

The year 2022 marks 50 years of undergraduate women enrollment at Notre Dame (although female students such as religious sisters have earned degrees at the university before this time). While it’s something worth commemorating, at the same time, it’s an occurrence that warrants great reflection. On one hand, the inclusion of women in the Notre Dame curriculum made large strides in encouraging women’s right to education. But at the same time, 50 years wasn’t that long ago and have we truly made coed universities a place of equal opportunity?

The poet Adrienne Rich gave a speech at Douglass College in 1977 titled “Claiming an Education” which inspired the title and essence of this column. In the speech, she formulates a lot of her argument around an ethical and intellectual contract formed between student and teacher. Students cannot afford to think of receiving an education, but rather, claiming it as their own. A true student cannot take the leftovers or “predigested books and ideas,” but must challenge oneself and seek criticism, not avoiding conflict nor confrontation. 

The differentiation between claiming an education and merely receiving one is all the difference in Rich’s commencement address. The distinction is not semantic nor trivial but can be the difference between feeling at home in a university and being an imposter.

However, claiming an education requires activation energy on behalf of all female students. It doesn’t mean accepting what’s provided, swallowing empty platitudes and pretending that merely an acceptance into university is enough to placate one’s dreams and ambitions. Rich specifically states that it means “rejecting attitudes of ‘take-it-easy,’ ‘why-be-so-serious,’ ‘why-worry-you’ll-probably-get-married-anyway.’”

In addition, claiming an education isn’t a singular act conducted on a woman’s behalf. Instead, the contract is a pledge of “mutual seriousness about women, about language, ideas, methods and values,” which extends to all people. Today, children and women are continuously denied access to education, whether it be coercion into marriage, a lack of investment in the minds of women through gender bias, poverty, and many other pervasive issues. While Notre Dame celebrates our 50 years of women, worldwide, 129 million girls are out of school.

Mutual seriousness for women’s education is a growing battle. Even women who have access to education may not be treated with the same pardons and considerations as their counterparts. As I read Chanel Miller’s powerful memoir “Know My Name” this summer, I was moved by the author’s trials in keeping her head above water. Through external pressures, she attempted to maintain an air of normality and safety, while she treaded harsh calamity beneath the surface. She was forced to defend her choice of clothing attire, dance moves and her relationship with her boyfriend before the defendant, a member of the Stanford swim team, was forced to deal with the consequences of his actions to commit sexual assault. 

The cover of one of the editions of her memoir is representative of Kintsugi, a Japanese art of repairing broken pottery by gluing the fragments and filling the faulty parts with gold. The goal is to not merely hide the defects of the pottery, but rather, to show that even in its brokenness, it is beautiful. In fact, it is in its highlight of its brokenness that makes it more unique, stronger and more whole. 

When I was contemplating what to write about in commemoration of the celebration of 50 years of coeducation at Notre Dame, I didn’t want to focus on the negative aspects of the continual journey to equal education. I truly love Notre Dame and the amount of progress that has been made globally to encourage equal access to education.

However, I was mesmerized by the art of Kintsugi, and the notion that by restructuring brokenness, something stronger and more beautiful is created. By encouraging transparency and dialogue about the past, I believe we create space for more women and students in the future to claim an education. 

When I consider the commemoration of 50 years of coeducation at Notre Dame, I think not only the victories, but the fortitude of those — present and past — who continuously provide all students the environment to grow their intellectual curiosities and capabilities. The only way celebrate growth is to recognize the trials and the starting pieces of upward movement. It is when these pieces come together, each fragment strengthening one another, in which unification and progress can truly occur.

Elizabeth Prater is a Junior at Notre Dame double majoring in marketing and program of liberal studies (great books). She is interested in the cultural implications of analyzing classics & literature under a contemporary lens. When she isn’t writing, she loves playing the fiddle, hiking in the PNW, going to concerts with friends and offering unsolicited book recommendations. Elizabeth always appreciates hearing from readers, so feel free to reach out eprater@nd.edu or @elizabethlianap on Twitter.

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An apology for majoring in both business and liberal studies

This past summer, my friends and I made a joint goal to finish reading the colossus that is “Anna Karenina.” At over 800 pages, this piece of Russian literature is one Leo Tolstoy’s most famous works, second only to “War and Peace.” My friend group and I all started this book at different points of our lives but failed to finish the work. This time, our joint mission and incentive was to watch the film version (directed by Joe Wright, featuring Keira Knightley and Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Anna and Count Vronsky respectively).  

 It took me nearly a month to complete the text, and I couldn’t help but feel like “Anna Karenina” followed me everywhere. I was consumed by the work and found it popping up in my daily life (more specifically, my summer course that I was taking — managerial economics). To accommodate my study abroad schedule in junior spring, I decided to get ahead and take a class required for all business majors in Mendoza. I supposed with the extra time summer brought, I would focus better on the partial derivatives and game theory necessary for a successful completion of the course. 

 However, I was surprised at how much I connected managerial economics with “Anna Karenina.” For example, I was looking at my assigned reading and, in the article, “Competition Is for Losers” by Peter Thiel, he ends the piece by doing a spin-off of Tolstoy’s famous opening, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Instead, Thiel offers that business is the opposite, and that “All failed companies are the same: They failed to escape competition.” It is the monopolies (happy families) who solve unique problems and differentiate themselves who are successful. 

 To provide some context about the text, “Anna Karenina” follows the scandalizing story of the eponymous character’s affair with Count Vronksy, and the social dilemmas that surround the circumstance. This is a very condensed one-sentence summary that doesn’t nearly begin to cover the layers and intricacies of the book. However, when one of my friends and I discussed our thoughts on it, we were both struck with the question “Why was it named ‘Anna Karenina’?”

 For most of the text, other characters besides Anna Karenina were the subject of Tolstoy’s prose. For almost 100 pages, we read about Levin’s accordance with the plight of the peasants, as he takes to the field with his scythe. We read about political hearings and listen to Kitty’s qualms. But we very rarely get much time with Anna Karenina herself. As I considered this question more and more, I realized that perhaps that was the beauty of the text, and that it could be answered using the concept I revisited in managerial economics that summer.

 According to the law of diminishing marginal utility, when the quantity of something increases, its marginal utility decreases and vice versa. This inverse relationship put in layman’s terms shows that the less of something we have (the presence of scarcity), the more valuable it becomes, and the more it is revered. In the same way, I considered Tolstoy’s careful placement of Anna Karenina in the text. Whenever I started to get wrapped up in her storyline, wanting to read on and on about her dissent into dejection and frustration, Tolstoy would simply switch the storyline to another character, and I was left wanting more. Anna Karenina throughout the text is very much unavailable to the other characters; she has an air of elusiveness that makes her all-the-more attractive and alluring. In the same way, as readers, we feel the intangibility of her character, and it is almost as Tolstoy transports her illusory but captivating presence to his audience. I only began to articulate this thought one night as I was in the middle of a practice set for managerial econ.

 A lot of people question my choice to study both business (marketing) and the program of liberal studies (great books). Many see them as antithetical to one another. While this claim is based on very valid concerns and points, I argue that the two majors can be interdisciplinary. The term interdisciplinary may seem like a lazy term to describe things that one can’t neatly wrap with a bow, but I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. I’ve learned about the nature of storytelling in unique ways, through my experience in marketing classes, to reading Aristotle’s “Poetics” in my second great books seminar. I’ve discussed Hannah Arendt in my business ethics class and my political theory tutorial. I believe in a lot of ways, business and the program of liberal studies (and liberal arts in general) can supplement one another, build on one another, and create a foundation for a lifetime of discovery and learning.

 While undergraduate school is typically only four years, I feel as though I’ve lived an extra lifetime in my two majors. I have done coding and research in the Mendoza basement, presented with Student International Business Council and have gotten beverages thrown in my vicinity in Ackerman’s finance class. But I also have read poetry, participated in symposiums and have fallen in love with philosophy and political theory in the best student lounge on campus. The duality of my two majors has been the highlight of my Notre Dame experience thus far. Although I may have complained incessantly throughout my two accounting courses, or lamented a difficult oral exam, I hold both Mendoza and Arts and Letters in high regard. I wouldn’t be the student — or person — I am today without my two majors. Perhaps people would think of business and liberal studies as representing “War and Peace,” but I think “Anna Karenina” has shown me that they are much more compatible than most think.

Elizabeth Prater

Elizabeth Prater is a junior at Notre Dame double majoring in marketing and program of liberal studies (great books). She is interested in the cultural implications of analyzing classics & literature under a contemporary lens. When she isn’t writing, she loves playing the fiddle, hiking in the PNW, going to concerts with friends, and offering unsolicited book recommendations. Elizabeth always appreciates hearing from readers, so feel free to reach out eprater@nd.edu or @elizabethlianap on Twitter.