I sometimes confuse “ivory tower” and “ivy tower.” It’s only a matter of or. In my mind the halls of academe are frequently covered with ivy, but the usual term for a rarified higher education is actually “ivory tower.” A pristine, white edifice unstained by the concerns of day-to-day life. It never occurred to me that the phrase might be biblical. According to tradition, King Solomon quoth, “Thy neck is as a tower of ivory” to his beloved (Song of Songs 7.4a). How the term moved from an obscure reference in a love poem to higher education involves the nature of the latter. Higher education was an enterprise of the church. These days we tend to think of religion as opposed to learning, but in fact, universities were natural outgrowths of cathedral schools where future clergy were trained. There was also a guild-consciousness about the Middle Ages that also played into this, but primarily what we think of as universities today were developed to educate clergy. Many of the Ivy League (again with the ivy!) had their origins as seminaries.
Ivory towers, however, are still remote from this. Eventually, probably due to the difficulty of interpreting the Song of Songs, ivory tower came to be an epithet of the Virgin Mary. Indeed, some interpreted Song as the love between Mary and the church. Rather than the erotic intent of Song, which quickly became an embarrassment to the chaste church, the ivory tower came to symbolize the purity of the Virgin. Untouchable, sparkling white. From the pre-Reformation church, universities sprang. Devotion to Mary ran high.
Although the origin of ivory towers as a metonym for universities is uncertain, it appears in literature by the nineteenth century. Possibly it reflects nothing more than the dignified life of the mind as opposed to the sullying of hands. Or perhaps it reflects a deeply buried knowledge that the university, as secular as it has grown, is a scion of the church with its devotion to a virgin who somehow commandeered the language of a love poem from antiquity. Today ivy is less common on campuses than it used to be. Our higher education is much too modern and chaste for that. The towers of ivory, however, remain. Now they refer almost exclusively to dreamers who’ve lost touch with the everyday world. And, as often as not, with the Bible that gave them their start.