There’s been a great deal of attention paid to the Justice Department charging 50 people, including a couple of very famous actresses we’d not previously heard of, for breaking various laws in an attempt to get their children into a prestigious university. If the defendants are proved guilty as charged, it strikes us as an unusually dumb crime, as there’s nothing quite so overrated as a prestigious university.
There are indeed quite a few very smart people who come out of the Ivy League and other brand name schools, but in most cases they went in smart and would likely have come out of a typical land grant college just as smart. In many other cases, the elite schools turn out graduates who aren’t noticeably smart.
Way back in our school days we had a swell summer job working at the United States Supreme Court, where all the other summer employees were graduates of fancy prep schools headed off to fancy-schmantzy universities, and we were shocked to learn they were all so culturally illiterate that none of them had ever heard of Buck Owens and his Buckaroos. During our newspaper days we worked with a couple of Yale graduates who were nice enough guys but very mediocre journalists, and one of them a downright unreadable writer, and a Harvard Law School grad we used to run into at the Fabulous Tahitian Room wound up getting disbarred for dumb reasons. Both of the major party nominees in the past presidential election were graduates of Ivy League universities, and we wound up voting for an obscure independent candidate without bothering to find out where he’d gone to college.
A diploma from an elite university does make life a lot easier, which is why the rich and famous might well break the law to get their academically underperforming children into one, but it’s by no means the only path to success. President Ronald Reagan was the only alumnus of Eureka College we’ve ever heard of, President Harry Truman never attended college at all, and we prefer them to most of many the Ivy Leaguers who occupied the Oval Office. William Shakespeare and Mark Twain didn’t have higher formal education, but we like them better than any old creative writing graduate of an elite university. Bill Gates famously dropped out of Harvard to start Microsoft, which seems to have worked out pretty well for him. Andrew Carnegie dropped out of school at age 13 to work as an office boy, and wound up donating millions to build the sort of public libraries where he acquired his excellent education.
The elite schools have an undeniable snob appeal, and some people will always pay extra for that, but for most people the money would be better invested in a good mutual fund. An ivy-covered diploma might lead to a comfortable sinecure at some lesser university or a corporate law firm that likes to brag about its lawyer’s academic credentials, but we know at least three cow college graduate who are now full professors at elite universities, and the richest lawyers each year are graduates of no-name institutions who had to hustle and sue their way to big bucks. The easy life that comes with an elite school diploma often seems to induce a certain laziness, and the lack of curiosity that comes with the certitude one already knows it all.
America’s social and economic elite have always sent their offspring to the elite schools, which have retained their stellar reputations by turning out graduates who somehow became the social and economic elite, and the hoi polloi of America’s electorate long have always entrusted them with high offices in government and business, but we wish that would stop. We believe in a meritocratic society and economic system, and notice that credentials don’t necessarily confer merit. Once upon a time movie and extras and mailroom employees became movie stars and studio executives without college degrees or family connections. and the likes of Clarence Darrow and Abraham Lincoln could get a job as a law firm clerk and go on to legendary legal careers without the benefit of law school. We’re among the very last of the college drop-outs who went from copy boy to front page bylines at a metropolitan newspaper, and although we can’t claim to have so well as the countless legends from the golden newspaper age of fedora-wearing scribes shouting “get me rewrite!” into a candlestick phone, we do take a certain reverse-snobbish pride in that.
Computers have largely eliminated movie extras and mail rooms and office boys and copy boys and all the other traditional back doors into the white collar world, however, and robots are rapidly replacing a lot of the entry-level blue collar jobs that allowed smart and ambitious workers to keep learning what was needed to reach the next rung on the ladder to a comfortable retirement. We can well understand why parents might be willing to bend a rule or two to get their children into a better college than they deserve to be in, and although those 50 people haven’t been proved guilty we’re pretty sure that Fred Trump once did so to get our president into an Ivy League school, and we’re sure it happens all the time, but we wish they’d all stop.
— Bud Norman