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Ingber '15: The myth of Brunonian decline

The U.S. News and World Report college rankings, which place Brown at number 15, are bound to shock students. It is not that we care so much about the actual number - it's just that we just know that we are better than number 15. Why do we always have to justify to outsiders that having an open curriculum actually enhances our education? That a lack of a core set of classes allows us to explore more disciplines than anyone could fathom? I cannot tell you how many times I have had to tell others that yes, we do receive grades at Brown.

The astute political scholar Robert Kagan wrote an article for the New Republic in which he discussed what he coined "the myth of American decline." Kagan proposed that America's influence and success has not spiraled downward, but rather that people of the world create a historical American fantasy that allows them to believe the U.S. was much stronger in past decades. According to the magazine Foreign Policy, the article is a favorite of President Obama. 

In this column I will attempt to take Kagan's eloquent idea and apply it to Brown's place in higher education. Despite the constant fun poked at Brown, the numerous pop-culture references that undermine its credibility as a serious academic institution and the misunderstanding of its academic philosophy, Brown and its alums achieve great success in all sectors of public and private life.

While working at a think tank in London over the summer, I received mixed reactions about the fact that I study at Brown. Some were amazed and asked how I received admission to such a selective school - I could not really provide an adequate answer - but most asked me if I'd had the opportunity to meet Emma Watson. Others inquired if every class was pass/fail, and a few asked if there was as much pot as the rumors suggested. I began to step back and ask myself - why do people perceive Brown this way? Why don't people react this way when they hear the names of other Ivy League institutions?

Maybe Brown was always viewed like this. Maybe, as Kagan suggests many around the world are doing with America, we as Brown students believe in some fantasy in which Brown was perceived very differently than it is today. Maybe I have idealized Brown's reputation a few decades ago as significantly more academically serious. 

Fortunately, the students and alums of this great University have benefited from the education and culture it offers - even if it has been criticized. Brown graduates are prepared to think unconventionally and tackle questions in creative ways. Some great individuals come to mind - esteemed diplomat Richard Holbrooke '62, Gov. Lincoln Chafee'75 P'14 P'16, Alexander Meiklejohn 1893, Bank of America Chief Executive Officer Brian Moynihan '81 P'14, author Randy Pausch '82 and actor John Krasinski '01 top the list. But the average - and I say that with a smirk - Brown graduate is doing great things as well. Last April, The Herald published an article with statistics about the plans of graduating seniors ("Looking ahead from inside the Ivy gates," April 27). CareerLAB data indicated that an astonishing 31 seniors last year were going on to Teach for America, and 85 were working in the field of technology, with 21 at Google alone. Organizations like Bain and Company and top investment banks recruit heavily at Brown and hire many of their first-year associates from College Hill.

The Brown Alumni Magazine published an illustration with various Brown alumni working in Washington D.C. The piece talked to alums such as Kori Schulman '08, who serves as the deputy director of digital content in the White House, and Dana Singiser '92, who acts as special assistant to the president for legislative affairs. And let us not forget that Roberta Jacobson '82 is the newly appointed assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs and is a part of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's inner circle.

I do not have to remind Brown students that there are brilliant Brown alums - just last week, The Herald published an article about the Brown professor who worked on the team that achieved the Higgs boson breakthrough. I simply want to remind Brunonians who love Brown as much as I do that we are not in decline. We have always embraced our informality and our laid-back atmosphere. Let us use that as a strength and not feel defensive when we encounter those who think that the old university in Cambridge, Mass., is the paradigm for a university structure. And to U.S. News and World Report, I say this - everyone knows we are not tied with Cornell.


Zachary Ingber '15 is content with being number 15 if that means he does not have to take a science class. He can be reached at



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