How Divided is our Education? | Interview with Laurence Tribe

We met with Dr. Laurence Tribe to discuss widening educational disparities in America and around the world.

How Divided is our Education? | Interview with Laurence Tribe

Professor Laurence Tribe discusses the widening educational disparities of higher education. The increasingly competitive academic environment has led to a mind set that without a degree from a top university, you are “doomed.” Yet, Professor Tribe emphasizes that this is simply untrue because junior colleges and public universities can also provide incredible opportunities. Within the United States, Tribe feels the most effective way to address these growing disparities is to invest in elementary and preschool education, but beyond that, Tribe is disheartened by the lack of education for bright children around the world. Follow along as American legal scholar and co-founder of the American Constitution Society talks with Dr. Jed Macosko, academic director of AcademicInfluence.com and professor of physics at Wake Forest University.

It's that wasted talent that bothers me much more than the funneling of some people to fancier schools.” – Dr. Laurence Tribe

Interview with Legal Scholar, Dr. Laurence Tribe

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)

0:00:17.0Inequality between universities

Jed Macosko: Hi, I’m Dr. Jed Macosko at Wake Forest University and Academic Influence. And today we have Professor Larry Tribe coming to us from near Harvard, where he is still very active and busy, and Professor Tribe, it was really fun to hear about your life trajectory and how you ended up as a student, undergraduate student at Harvard at the only... Only at the age of 16. And the thing that I wanna ask you about is from back when you were a 16-year-old till now, universities have changed, and from my perspective, the rich have gotten richer and the poor universities have gotten poorer, and I’m not sure that that’s so good, like for example, in your interview, you mentioned that your friend asked you if you’re gonna go to Berkeley, you said, "Yeah, I think I’m going to Berkeley," and he said, "Well, what about Reed College or Harvard University" And back then, Reed and Harvard, were sort of, at least in that guy’s mind, equal, but now Harvard has become so much more well-known, and you see movies about Harvard and Good Will Hunting and all of this other stuff, but not Reed. So it’s just sort of not as a even playing field.

How do you feel about that?

…I think the rich have gotten richer, the elite have gotten more influential, and I think we're completely out of balance, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has gotten worse…” – …

Laurence Tribe: Well, not very good. For one thing, when my friend, he was a kid in my driver ED class, when he said, How about Reed and Harvard, I had never heard of either. I had grown up in a middle class community in San Francisco, I had literally never heard of Harvard University. And I said, "What’s Harvard?" And he said, "You have gotta be kidding." Now, you couldn’t find anybody under a rock who hadn’t heard of Harvard, and I think the rich have gotten richer, the elite have gotten more influential, and I think we’re completely out of balance, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has gotten worse, the country, the may be less abject poverty, but the middle class, as my friend and Senator Elizabeth Warren has eloquently pointed out, has been really hollowed out, people have a much harder time climbing the ladder of success, there are all sorts of obstacles, and I think we have to get back to a world in which we realize that, for one thing, there are a lot of great junior colleges and free public colleges, and the idea that if you don’t get a degree from one of these fancy universities, you’re somehow doomed is a big mistake.

It should also, however, be the case that anybody with the ability to do it should be able to go to whatever school they want to, there ought not to be huge financial obstacles and a lot needs to be done to make that, to make that a lot better. I think we need to put much more investment in elementary and secondary education and pre-school, people who have been deprived of the kind of support that a family where there are maybe a couple of parents who can help their kids learn, and where there are teachers who have decent salaries, kids who are deprived of that are really hobbled from the beginning and there’s almost no way for them to catch up, so we have a huge amount to do, and that’s why I think it really would be important for Biden’s two big initiatives, both the infrastructure plan and the kind of social investment plan to at least get some sort of headway in the current Congress. But instead of having representative government, we have obstructive government, government that doesn’t really seem to work a filibuster that can prevent one of the two Houses of Congress from getting anywhere. So we have so much work to do.

It’s people like your daughter, whose generation will have to improve the world that we have unfortunately left them.

Jed: Yes. Well, and that is so true, you’re talking a lot about some of the major problems of inequality within people, but what about inequality between universities and just speaking as an alum from one of the, probably, the greatest university in the United States and one who’s then been a professor there…

What should professors and alumni and university presidents and trustees be thinking about when they’re thinking about that inequality between a Harvard and a Reed or a Harvard and a state school. What should we be thinking about?

There's no guarantee that when you go to one of these good schools, you'll have any sense or any commitment to the common good.” – Dr. Laurence Tribe

Laurence: Well, for one thing, we shouldn’t exaggerate the differences in equality, there is inequality in resources, but we’ve turn turned out a bunch of horrible people too. Ted Cruz is a product of Harvard University and Harvard Law School. Josh Hawley is a product of Yale. There’s no guarantee that when you go to one of these good schools, you’ll have any sense or any commitment to the common good. I think that the universities themselves need to be more willing to share their resources, put more of their courses online, Harvard and MIT are doing much more of that, many of my colleagues are putting courses online that are then available free of charge to huge numbers of people tens of thousands at a time.

A lot of the parents who pay high tuitions sometimes complain, "What are we getting for our money, if people can get this stuff free." Well, you are getting something, you’re getting kind of the social interaction of your kids with other kids, very different backgrounds, although that during the COVID area when so much of education was just by Zoom and virtual, that’s somewhat leveled the playing field, interestingly enough, because the biggest differences between a Harvard and a Yale on the one hand, and a big state school, Wisconsin or Minnesota, Texas, really is not the quality of the professors. There are marvelous professors in junior colleges all over the country, the biggest difference really is in the opportunities you have to meet other really talented kids, and there are more of them in clusters in some of these schools than others, and during the period when people couldn’t really interact in person, and everybody was basically sitting at home in their shorts watching, watching something go on on the screen, that kind of leveled the playing field, and it reminded people that you can get a really, very good education at a lot of different places.

Jed: Yeah, I think that that is true. There’s something still very special about the top 30 in our country or the top 50, but... And I feel like it’s changed from when you went off to college when you didn’t even know what Harvard was, so...

Laurence: Well, I was unusual that way. I think most...

Jed: That was a little unusual, but still there were people...

Laurence: Most of the kids in my high school knew.

Jed: Yeah, I feel like back in your day, there were people who were just as smart as you, who were going to their local colleges, and now those people are being funneled to the top 30, and so, maybe it’s just a different environment. We have to be aware of that.

Laurence: And you know, Jed, what bothers me isn’t just that the people are funneled to the top 30, talk about people who are really smart all over the world, and just think about it. There are geniuses in Sub-Saharan Africa. There are brilliant little girls in Afghanistan. There are people with enormous potential and talent, people who could cure cancer, people who could make massive advances in computer science, people whose understanding of history and literature could open new vistas of human... Of the human spirit and they are people, those people are often denied even the ability to learn how to read, they’re punished for reading and writing in many places, girls, especially. It’s that wasted talent that bothers me much more than the funneling of some people to fancier schools.

0:08:42.9Sign off

Jed: Yeah, I can see what you’re saying. And that it is a good place for us to end this interview there, that there are so many bigger problems out there. So if a group wants to sue Harvard for its affirmative action stance or whatnot, maybe there are bigger problems out there that they can worry about or that we can worry about, I think that’s, that’s a really good point. Well, thank you so much, Professor Tribe for taking the time with us today. We really appreciate it.

Laurence: My pleasure. I enjoyed it.