Who’s Holding Up the Ivory Tower?

Who’s Holding Up the Ivory Tower?


Claudine Gay herself best stated the issue of her brief presidency of Harvard. When her appointment was announced, she declared that “the idea of the Ivory Tower, that is the past, not the future, of academia.” We must be a “part” of society, not outside it. What is the difference she invokes?

The Ivory Tower is often used to dismiss academia, and the metaphor is rarely examined for its virtue. Ivory is a natural substance that is rare, precious and pure. It’s also fragile: An ivory tower probably wouldn’t stand without a mix of steel and concrete. It signifies a university that is indeed in society but towers above it because it seeks to find truth out of what society takes for granted. A university doesn’t possess truth as much as it honors it. Society’s interest above all is justice—the Declaration of Independence states “self-evident” truths that serve justice—and society surely wants its justice to be true, but it doesn’t honor truth as Harvard does by having “Veritas”as its motto.

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