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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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.