The Magazine

Obama's Good Students

A dissent on the 'valedictocracy'.

Dec 8, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 12 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Last week the excellent David Brooks, in one of his columns in the New York Times, exulted over the high quality of people President-elect Barack Obama was enlisting in his new cabinet and onto his staff. The chief evidence for these people being so impressive, it turns out, is they all went to what the world--"that ignorant ninny," as Henry James called it--thinks superior schools. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, the London School of Economics; like dead flies on flypaper, the names of the schools Obama's new appointees attended dotted Brooks's column.

Here is the column's first paragraph:

Jan. 20, 2009, will be a historic day. Barack Obama (Columbia, Harvard Law) will take the oath of office as his wife, Michelle (Princeton, Harvard Law), looks on proudly. Nearby, his foreign policy advisers will stand beaming, including perhaps Hillary Clinton (Wellesley, Yale Law), Jim Steinberg (Harvard, Yale Law) and Susan Rice (Stanford, Oxford D. Phil.).

This administration will be, as Brooks writes, "a valedictocracy." The assumption here is that having all these good students--many of them possibly "toll-frees," as high-school students who get 800s on their SATs used to be known in admissions offices--running the country is obviously a pretty good thing. Brooks's one jokey line in the column has it that "if a foreign enemy attacks the United States during the Harvard-Yale game any time over the next four years, we're screwed." Since my appreciation of David Brooks is considerable, and since I agree with him on so many things, why don't I agree with him here?

The reason is that, after teaching at a university for 30 years, I have come to distrust the type I think of as "the good student"--that is, the student who sails through school and is easily admitted into the top colleges and professional schools. The good student is the kid who works hard in high school, piles up lots of activities, and scores high on his SATs, and for his efforts gets into one of the 20 or so schools in the country that ring the gong of success. While there he gets a preponderance of A's. This allows him to move on to the next good, or even slightly better, graduate, business, or professional school, where he will get more A's still, and move onward and ever upward. His perfect résumé in hand, he runs only one risk--that of catching cold from the draft created by all the doors opening for him wherever he goes, as he piles up scads of money, honors, and finally ends up being offered a job at a high level of government. He has, in a sense Spike Lee never intended, done the right thing.

What's wrong with this? Am I describing anything worse than effort and virtue richly rewarded? I believe I am. My sense of the good student is that, while in class, he really has only one pertinent question, which is, What does this guy, his professor at the moment, want? Whatever it is--a good dose of liberalism, libertarianism, feminism, conservatism--he gives it to him, in exchange for another A to slip into his backpack alongside all the others on his long trudge to the Harvard, Yale, Stanford law or business schools, and thence into the empyrean.

Murray Kempton once wrote that intellectual contentment in America consists in not giving a damn about Harvard. Harvard--and Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and the -others--has over the past three or four decades made this contentment easy to achieve. All these schools have done so by becoming, at least in their humanities and social sciences sides, more and more mired in the mediocre. The reason for this is the politicization of the subjects that these academics, who have only the blurriest notion of how academic freedom is supposed to work, have allowed to take over the universities.

Harvard, I remember hearing some years ago, is looking for a strong feminist. One should have thought it would be the other way round: feminism trying to establish a beachhead at Harvard. Not so. Like Gadarene swine, the putatively best of American colleges have rushed to take on the worst of intellectual freight. Behind the much-vaunted notion of diversity in contemporary universities is the attempt to make sure that no corpus of bad ideas isn't amply represented. In this attempt, the top universities have succeeded admirably.