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.

The problem set for the good student, then, is to negotiate his way through this bramble of bad ideas. My son, who went to Stanford, told me at the time that a not uncommon opening session in some of his classes was for a professor to announce that he was going to teach his course from the Marxist (or feminist or new historicist or Foucauldian) point of view, but he wanted the students to know that everyone in class was entirely free to disagree with him, and indeed he encouraged strong disagreement. My son was the boy who, from the back of the room, could be heard faintly muttering, "Yeah, sure, for a B-."

I did my teaching at Northwestern University, where most of the students had what I came to regard as "the habits of achievement." They did the reading, most of them could write a respectable paper, many of them talked decently in response to my questions. They made it difficult for me to give them less than a B for the course. But the only students who genuinely interested me went beyond being good students to become passionate ones. Their minds, I could tell, were engaged upon more than merely getting another high grade. The number of such students was remarkably small; if I had to pin it down, I should say they comprised well under 3 percent, and not all of them received A's from me.

Meanwhile our good student, resembling no one so much as that Italian character in Catch-22 who claimed to have flourished under the fascists, then flourished under the Communists, and was confident he would also flourish under the Americans, treks on his merry way. From Yale to Harvard Law School, or Harvard to Yale Law School, or to one of the highly regarded (and content empty) business schools, he goes, as the Victorians had it, from strength to strength.

In recent years I have come to think that some of the worst people in the United States have gone to the Harvard or Yale Law Schools: Mr. and Mrs. Eliot Spitzer, Mr. and Mrs. William Clinton, and countless -others. And why not, since these institutions serve as the grandest receptacles in the land for our good students: those clever, sometimes brilliant, but rarely deep young men and women who, joining furious drive to burning if ultimately empty ambition, will do anything to get ahead.

Universities are of course the last bastion of snobbery in America. The problem is that the snobbery works. Nor is this snobbery likely to be seriously eroded in our lifetime. No parent whose child has the choice of going to Princeton or Arizona State is likely to advise the kid to become a Sun Devil. Go to one of the supposedly better schools and your chances for success in the great world increase, flat-out, no doubt about it. To have been accepted at one of the top schools means that a child has done what he was told, followed instructions, kept his eye on the prize, played the game, and won. But does it mean much more?

Harry S. Truman and Ronald Reagan were two of the greatest presidents of the twentieth century. Truman didn't go to college at all, and Reagan, one strains to remember, went to Eureka College in Eureka, Illinois. Each was his own man, each, in his different way, without the least trace of conformity or hostage to received opinion or conventional wisdom. Schooling, even what passes for the best schooling, would, one feels, have made either man less himself and thereby probably worse.

The presence and continued flourishing of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and the rest do perform a genuine service. They allow America to believe it has a meritocracy, even though there is no genuine known merit about it. Perhaps one has to have taught at or otherwise had a closer look at these institutions to realize how thin they are. I myself feel their thinness so keenly that, on more than one occasion, I have, by way of informing one friend or acquaintance about another, said, "He went to Princeton and then to the Harvard Law School, but, really, he is much better than that."

Joseph Epstein, a contributing editor to THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author most recently of Fred Astaire.