An ivory tower is a metaphorical place—or an atmosphere—where people are happily cut off from the rest of the world in favor of their own pursuits, usually mental and esoteric ones. From the 19th century, it has been used to designate an environment of intellectual pursuit disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday life. Most contemporary uses of the term refer to academia or the college and university systems in many countries.
The term is referenced with a different meaning in the Biblical Song of Solomon (7:4) and was later used as an epithet for Mary. In the Christian tradition, the term ivory tower is used as a symbol for noble purity. It originates with the Song of Solomon (7:4) ("Your neck is like an ivory tower"; in the Hebrew Masoretic text, it is found in 7:5) and was included in the epithets for Mary in the sixteenth century Litany of the Blessed Virgin Mary ("tower of ivory", turris eburnea in Latin), though the title and image was in use long before that, since the 12th century Marian revival at least. It occasionally appears in art, especially in depictions of Mary in the hortus conclusus. Although the term is rarely used in the religious sense in modern times, it is credited by some with inspiring the modern meaning.
The first modern usage of "ivory tower" in the familiar sense of an unworldly dreamer can be found in a poem of 1837, "Pensées d'Août, à M. Villemain", by Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, a French literary critic and author, who used the term "tour d'ivoire" for the poetical attitude of Alfred de Vigny as contrasted with the more socially engaged Victor Hugo: "Et Vigny, plus secret, Comme en sa tour d'ivoire, avant midi rentrait". [And Vigny, the more secretive, like he was in his ivory tower, returning before midday].
Henry James' last novel, The Ivory Tower, was begun in 1914 and left unfinished at his death two years later. Paralleling James' own dismaying experience of the United States after twenty years away, it chronicles the effect on a high-minded returning upper-class American of the vulgar emptiness of the Gilded Age. "You seem all here so hideously rich," says his hero. Thus, there are two meanings mixed together: mockery of an absent-minded savant and admiration of someone who is able to devote his or her entire efforts to a noble cause (hence "ivory", a noble but impractical building material). The term has a rather negative flavor today, the implication being that specialists who are so deeply drawn into their fields of study often can't find a lingua franca with laymen outside their "ivory towers".
In Andrew Hodges' biography of the University of Cambridge scientist Alan Turing, he discusses Turing's 1936-38 stay at Princeton University and writes that "[t]he tower of the Graduate College was an exact replica of Magdalen College, and it was popularly called the Ivory Tower, because of that benefactor of Princeton, the Procter who manufactured Ivory soap." William Cooper Procter (Princeton class of 1883) was a significant supporter of the construction of the Graduate College, and the main dining hall bears the Procter name. The skylines of Oxford and Cambridge universities, along with many Ivy League universities, are dotted with turrets and spires which are often described as 'Ivory Towers'.
In Randall Jarrell's essay 'The End of the Line' (1942), Jarrell asserts that if modern poetry is to survive then poets must come down from the "Ivory Tower" of elitist composition. Jarrell's main thrust is that the rich poetry of the modernist period was over-dependent upon reference to other literary works. For Jarrell the Ivory Tower led modern poetry into obscurity.
An ivory tower may also be an entity of "reason, rationality and rigid structures [that] colonizes the world of lived experience," as explained by Kirsten J. Broadfoot in an article about the possibilities of postcolonial organizational communication. This imagined academic community creates an essence of exclusivity and superiority. Broadfoot explains this as a group that "functions like an exclusive club whose membership is tightly controlled by what might be called a 'dominant frame.'" In an academic sense, this leads to an "overwhelming and disproportionate dominance" of the United States and the Western world. The ivory tower can be dangerous, some believe, in its inherent privatization of knowledge and intellect. Academics who are seeking "legitimacy for their narratives from the heart end up echoing the sanitized tone of the Master Narrative." This becomes a cyclical process as intellects collectively defend the "imaginary ivory tower."
Writers for Philadelphia's other newspapers sarcastically referred to the former headquarters of the establishment Philadelphia Inquirer, a white art deco tower called the Elverson Building, as the "Ivory Tower of Truth."
The ivory tower is most often connected to the career and lifestyle of academics in university and college systems. They have often garnered reputations as elite institutions by joining or creating associations with other universities. In many countries, these institutions aligned themselves with a specific mission or athletic ties. Some have criticized the elitism associated with these groups. Others have also noted that these terms bear little resemblance to the actual best universities in a country.
In certain instances, these ivory-tower universities have received a disproportionate amount of regional and federal funding. They also produce a higher proportion of a country's publications and citations. Occasionally referred to as having a "status symbol", some have been referred to as a country's Ivy League, such as China's C9 League, the UK’s Russell Group or Germany's Excellence Initiative. They tend to be overrepresented in top university rankings, such as Academic Ranking of World Universities, QS World University Rankings, the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, and the U.S. News & World Report Best Global University Ranking.
- Shapin, Steven (2012). "The Ivory Tower: the history of a figure of speech and its cultural uses" (PDF). The British Journal for the History of Science. 45 (1): 1–27. doi:10.1017/S0007087412000118. ISSN 1474-001X.
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- Skowronek, Russell; Lewis, Kenneth (2010). Beneath the Ivory Tower: The Archaeology of Academia. University Press of Florida. ISBN 9780813034225.
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The origin is the Bible, specifically Chapter 7, Verse 4 of the Song of Solomon, in which Solomon is extolling the beauty of his beloved... Not quite the thing today [...] but it struck a chord with Charles-Augustin Saint-Beuve.
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- Ivory Tower at Wordorigins.org
- The Ivory Tower: the history of a figure of speech and its cultural uses. Steven Shapin. BJHS 45(1): 1–27, March 2012