Remember Joan Acocella’s piece about “helicopter parents”? One of the writers she discussed “worried that the Stepford children produced by overparenting will make it, and turn the world into a rude, heartless, boring place.” Joseph Epstein takes this fear a step further: Not only will those children make it, he says, they’ll be running the whole damn show.
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. . . .
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?
I’m with Joe. I’ve long been suspicious of this sort of credential-worship, and, despite my vow to be more of an elitist, I still am. It’s not at all a matter of anti-intellectualism. My suspicion, which I am fairly sure that many, many people share, comes from prolonged (not to mention disgusted) contact with a particular type of student. You probably know the type I mean, but let’s just let Epstein do the talking:
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.
Read on here. There’s satisfaction to be had in hating this type, but when all is said and done, it’s not a trivial matter. Ambition and adaptability are not the same thing as leadership, but they are today rewarded in its stead. If only secondary education had the slightest interest in driving this point home, instead of doing its best to inculcate the very soullessness of which Epstein warns.