Joseph Epstein has taught for too many years to believe that conspicuous success in today’s elite universities is commonly a testament to good character. Au contraire, Epstein argues: “Some of the worst people in the United States have gone to the Harvard or Yale Law Schools.”
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.” …
Read the whole thing.