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The High Cost of College Elitism

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

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Foul Ball

Although we keep abreast of the sporting scene, and even take a rooting interest in certain teams, we usually prefer to comment on matters of greater political or cultural significance. It is well worth noting, however, that no players will be inducted into baseball’s hall of fame this year.
At least two players whose statistical achievements would ordinarily earn them the honor were eligible, so the baseball writers who are charged with the responsibility of choosing the hall’s members apparently decided that mere numbers are not enough to confer sports immortality. Barry Bonds out-slugged every other batter of his era during a long career with the Pittsburgh Pirates and San Francisco Giants, and no one was more successful on the mound than Roger Clemens during his days with the Boston Red Sox, Toronto Blues Jays, Houston Astros, and New York Yankees, but both men achieved at least some of that success by using banned drugs, and both men lied about it under oath when their sport finally got around to dealing with its widespread problem of pharmaceutical cheating.
Baseball fans will long argue about the fairness of the slight, with some insisting that the cheating was so very widespread that it would be unrealistic to expect that such competitive personalities would accepted the handicap of fair play, but we were pleased with the stand taken by those writers who voted against Bonds and Clemens. An epidemic of cheating has spread far beyond the realm of sports, and it is good to see somebody expressing disapproval.
An astounding number of students now cheat on tests or plagiarize homework, and several recent scandals suggest the practice is also becoming common among their teachers. Many of the politicians who impose higher taxes on their fellow citizens routinely cheat on their own obligations, either through outright fraud or the kinds of clever manipulations of the tax code that they would surely condemn their political opponents for using, and such hypocrisy makes it all the harder to condemn the untold thousands of ordinary Americans who do the same. Much of the bankrupting cost of America’s entitlement programs is due to cheating. Corporations are often caught cheating in a variety of ways, and it is likely that more ingenious methods routinely go undetected. Countless automobile accidents are caused by motorists trying to cheat others out of a favorable spot on the road, and daily life is filled with similar examples of cheating on the unwritten rules of society. Cheating on spouses and significant others is rampant, and ever since the Clinton administration it is considered prudish to have any objection to it.
Our society has gradually developed a dangerous tolerance for all sorts of cheating, to a point that today’s sports talk radio shows will no doubt be filled with callers demanding that Bonds’ and Clemens’ cheating should be ignored, but the moral rot of this epidemic will continue to spread. Keeping these two talented men out of the hall of fame is only a small step toward solving the problem, but it’s a step in the right direction.

— Bud Norman