29 Nov 2008

Obama’s Valedictocracy

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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.

3 Feedbacks on "Obama’s Valedictocracy"


Epstein is likely envious of those who were able to attend the best schools. Of course there are bad people everywhere, but they are generally not as bright as those who compete to attend and are admitted to the best schools. Further, it is the individual’s own responsibility for his character. Those who are able to manouveur through a Foucauldian professor’s course and maintain their own values intact have been tested. Finally, there is something of great value spending four years honing one’s mind with other good minds that is not available at the mediocre colleges and public universities. He is evidently embarrassed by his education or lack thereof, that his biography on Wikipedia fails to cite any education. He has made his living lately deriding those who have been successful. See, e.g., Snobbery, a collection of essays. So, fooey on Epstein.


Envious? Embarrassed?

That is one interpretation, of course. And apparently a rather self serving one, David.

While I think Epstein paints with too broad a brush, there is some substance to his point of view. The “best and brightest” are very happy to keep voting themselves that label, without any real oversight or independent appraisal.

What determines the “best” school? Reputation? Then it is a lagging metric at best. Quality of undergraduate education? Arguably not found in many Ivy League schools, because the emphasis isn’t on undergraduate education, but on research or publishing. And how many brilliant professors are good teachers? And the Ivy Leagues have shown themselves to be remarkably susceptible to political correctness, for which any independent institute of higher education should be mightily embarrassed.

And besides, David seems to have misread the article. Epstein didn’t say they were “bad people”, nor did he say anything about their brightness. What he did say that people who succeed in these environments are not necessarily exhibiting the best attributes. Straight A’s at Harvard may mean you’re smart, but it may also mean you only know how to regurgitate what the professor wants to hear. That isn’t always a positive skill. Sycophants won’t help solve most tough problems, no matter how bright.

There are far more qualified applicants to the Ivy Leagues than there is room to accept them. Where do you suppose those people go? And since what the university provides is at best a fraction of what determines individual outcomes, many of those wait-listed folks go on to exceed the abilities of those who got accepted and matriculate. Individual motivation coounts for much, and for some folks, NOT getting in to an Ivy is a powerful motivator, just as getting in causes many to rest on their laurals.

Bad people? No.
Snobs. Yes.


I would suppose that the “best” schools are the schools that attract the best students and best professors, like the NFL. The best students compete for the best schools, and the professors do so as well. Ask the professors where they would like to teach. We know where the best students would like to go. No matter where you go to school, you are most likely required to regurgitate what the professor teaches to get the grade. I hardly think that is limited to the “best” schools. At the best schools, at least you have a top quality mind to fence with in trying to get your grade. If you are afraid that the student will be brainwashed by the professor, that will happen no matter what school you go to. I think you are more likely to develop a critical mind trying to satisfy the professor at the best school. Epstein distrusts the “good” student. The “good” student who gets into the best schools is likely the brightest as well. If Epstein doesn’t trust the brightest, he can have mediocre minds like Sarah Palin rule the world if he can get enough voters to join him. At least with grads of these top schools we know they had top minds and likely had to work hard to get where they are. George Bush is obviously an exception to this, and to the extent legacies may skew the results, a legacy like Bush will not make it through the admissions program any more.


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