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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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What Do the Simple Folk Do?

The news has been rather maudlin lately, and will likely remain so for a while, but at least we’ll have the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign to provide comic relief for the next year and a half. Every campaign’s attempts to make the candidate seem a regular down-home American are faintly ridiculous, but in Clinton’s case it is downright hilarious. The spectacle evokes the image of Bill and Hillary Clinton at leisure in one of their mansions, much like King Arthur and Guinevere in “Camelot,” wondering “What Do the Simple Folk Do?” and coming up with the most wildly inaccurate conjectures.
Just this week has seen Clinton scooting across Grant Wood’s Iowa in a vehicle that has been dubbed the “Scooby Doo van,” making her putatively routine visit to a Chipotle franchise, chatting amiably with plain old midwestern folks at some Frank Capra-esque watering hole, wandering the halls of some distinctly non-Ivy League campus, and grousing about the indue influence of rich people’s money on America’s once-pristine politics. All of it was so obviously contrived that even the press noticed, and actual regular down-home Americans were far less likely to be fooled by any of it.
Even the playful moniker for her upscale black van has managed to rile some fans of the old “Scooby Doo” cartoon series, who recall that Scooby and Shaggy and the rest of the show’s ghost-busting gang of wholesome teenage sleuths travelled in a psychedelically colorful vehicle called “The Mystery Machine.” We’re just young enough to have some familiarity with the show, and just old enough to have noticed how very awful it was even by herky-jerky animation standards of the Hannah-Barbera studio, but there’s a younger cohort of voters who take such details seriously and will note the inauthenticity of the allusion. The “Scooby Doo” characters didn’t have two accompanying black vans full of Secret Service agents, either, nor did any state Highway Patrols clear traffic for their madcap capers, and such details will not go unnoticed by all those “millennials” who take their childhood television favorites more seriously than politics. Clinton might yet get to say the familiar catchphrase of the cartoon’s villains during their inevitable bad end just before the last commercial break, “I would have gotten away with it if not for those meddling kids,” but otherwise any attempt to suck any good will out of that awful old cartoon series will run false for its fans.
That highly-publicized visit to Chipotle also struck a discordant note. We’d hate to sound more regular down-home American than thou, but we’ve never once set foot inside in a Chipotle because our regular down-home American town has seen such a wave of immigration from Mexico that the place is chockfull of Mexican eateries far more deliciously authentic and inexpensive than those franchised and suspiciously modern Chipotle places look to be. Our last visit to Iowa suggested that most of its towns have similarly benefited from the immigration wave, so Clinton would have been well advised to drop in one of the many seedier but tastier joints that her “Scooby Doo van” surely passed, even if that did entail the risk Sen. Marco Rubio or Sen. Ted Cruz or Gov. Estella Martinez or even Gov. Jeb Bush or any other other potential Republican contenders upstaging her by dropping in on the same joint and ordering in Spanish. Putting a buck in the tip jar might have been a nice touch, too, and spared her some sneering coverage from usually friend press.
Those regular down-home Americans that Clinton was photographed chatting with turned out to be Democrat operatives, of course, although it took Britain’s Fleet Street press to uncover that easily uncovered fact. The wandering through the hallways of that non-Ivy League necessitated locking the non-Democratic operative students in their classrooms, lest they come into unscripted contact with the regular down-home American candidate, and even the American press acknowledged that. All that blather about the undue influence of rich folks’ money was respectfully reported, although without any ironic reference to the stories running elsewhere about the $2.5 billion campaign fund that Clinton is raising from her friends in Hollywood and Silicon Valley and Wall Street and other environs of the rich folk.
This charade might impress the accompanying press corps, who at various stops have outnumbered the “everyday people,” in the condescending phraseology of the Clinton campaign’s announcement video, but that’s because the reporters who get such plum assignments aren’t regular down-home Americans. Out here in flyover country even the Democrats are bound to notice how very phony it is, and the Clinton campaign would be well advised to switch to the aristocratic hauteur and claims of Ivy League entitlement that somehow made “Camelot” such an appealing image for the Kennedy administration.

— Bud Norman

Football Season and Its Discontents

The Wichita Wingnuts baseball team has concluded its season as champions of the American Association, our New York Yankees are unlikely to earn even one of those socialistic one-game playoff spots that we hate, and being normal red-blooded American males we now turn our sporting attention to football. There’s an appropriate chill in the air, evoking nostalgia for the heroic gridiron exploits we witnessed in our innocent youth and stoking our hunger for some more hard-hitting football, but so far all the stories seem to be about domestic battery and child abuse.
Such stories are by now a routine feature of football season. Nobody’s died, so far, which makes this a relatively placid season, but the bad news stories have been more than enough to take the fun out of spectating. One highly-regarded running back has become a YouTube sensation by cold-cocking his then-fiancee in an elevator, and although the same sordid video shows her throwing the first punches and some spits for good measure it still leaves one with an unfavorable impression of the fellow’s character. An even more highly-regarded running back has since been charged with beating his son, and although we’ll happily leave it to the criminal justice system to decide if he was acting within his legal rights as a parent to discipline a child or crossed over into criminal conduct we are disinclined to root for him in the meantime. The rest of the league seems populated largely by players eager to convey an equally thuggish public image, and there’s something suspicious about the ones who don’t, and we can’t help wondering what Walter Camp would have to say about it.
Only the most history-minded fans now know about Walter Camp, but without him there probably wouldn’t be any football fans at all. He was a star player for Yale University way back when that meant something, and later coached his alma mater to Ivy League championships when that still meant something, but his greatest contribution to the game was as a writer and journalist. Football had evolved from the “mob gangs” that ruffians played in the streets of the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada, and in the early days it suffered an unsavory reputation despite its association with the elite Ivy League, but Camp’s prose persuaded a nation that the game inculcated all the the masculine qualities of teamwork, discipline, and the clean living needed for the physical rigors of such a brutal game. Camp invented the All-American team, and named it with the idea that its players represented the best of America both on and off the field. This was utter nonsense even then, of course, but it was so widely agreed upon that football survived the numerous fatalities and countless other scandals of its early days to become a prominent feature of American culture.
Along the way football often has served the country well, at times even approaching that exemplary American manliness that Walter Camp described. America has been well suited to a rough world because it has played a rough game, and if the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton it is just as true that the battle on Omaha Beach was won by banged-up boys who had learned how to break through a line on some godforsaken rural football field. The game once produced mythically manly characters, and in our confused ’60s boyhood the stoic and fedora-topped Tom Landry and his Naval Academy quarterback just returned from Vietnam and the rest of “America’s Team” seemed to reassure that the best of American manhood could still find a place in an increasingly emasculated society to flex its muscles and excel at something rough and impolite and somehow beautiful. Even without such mythos there’s something to be said for that unknown fellow in the green helmet making such a gusty play and taking that vicious hit just to keep a drive alive.
Those disreputable mob game origins were there all along, though, and football’s history is mainly a tale of the mob getting bigger, stronger, faster, more injurious. The University of Oklahoma Sooners team that we’ve been weaned to root for now has an offensive front line averaging 321 pounds, according to the graphic that the television network imposed on Saturday after a big gain against a relatively puny University of Tennessee Volunteers’ line that averaged only 271 pounds, and anyone who wanders into the melee ensuing after a snap in an even heftier professional game must have a certain predilection for both inflicting and enduring pain. We are no longer surprised that many of the game’s most talented players are prone to violate the rules against violence that prevail in society after the game is played. Our favorite football movie, of many worthy choices, is the original version of “The Longest Yard,” a testosterone-drenched drive-in flick in washed-out color about a team of imprisoned criminals who prevail over their guards because their anti-social tendencies give them a natural advantage in football. it makes the occasional good guy seem all the more heroic, and makes us long for the days when hometown hero Barry Sanders would simply toss the ball to the referee after a touchdown rather than stage a minstrel show, but we have no delusions about that guy who just laid that vicious hit on the wide receiver.
The latest scandals have provided plenty of fodder for the commentators who still hope to eradicate the mob game, which is another drearily routine feature of football season. The meritocracy and manliness and Walter Camp Americana of the game are all offensive to a certain modern sensibility, and when you throw in allegations of domestic battery and child abuse and God only knows what goes on at those after-game parties the game is going to have a public relations problem when all those class-action concussion suits go to jury. Football represents all that is wrong with our violent and thuggish society, we will be told, and it won’t be hard to find twelve people willing in any jurisdiction to along with that.
We’ll be sad to see it go, though. Those soccer games where “everybody plays” and nobody keeps score aren’t likely to win any military victories, which will still be required in what remains a rough world, no matter how ardently those soccer moms might wish otherwise, and as phony-baloney as it always was that Walter Camp ideal of football was always something worth aspiring to and on certain Saturday and Sunday afternoon and even on Friday nights in those godforsaken rural football it was sometimes almost attained. That kind of football entails a code of chivalry and manliness and Americanism that football’s critics have long sought to extinguish along with the game, and their demise is not the fault of football.

— Bud Norman

The Second Time as Farce

Dartmouth University rarely attracts our attention, as its sports teams never make the news and the other departments are almost as easily ignored, but we couldn’t help noticing that a group of students there are currently occupying its president’s office. The story brought on a feeling of nostalgia for our boyhood days in the ‘60s, when such student activism was commonplace, but on closer reading it seems the times they are indeed a-changin’.
Back in what the old baby boomer folks call “the day,” the youngsters used to seize campus buildings to protest the Vietnam War and racism and various other things that were said to be unhealthy for children and other living things. These were regarded as serious subjects even by the old fogies who thought that camping in a campus building was a damned fool way of making a point, and it was mostly respectable middle class hippie freaks who were breaking the law, so the practice attracted widespread attention and enjoyed a certain a respectability. The current action, on the other hand, seems simply ridiculous.
The 30 or so occupiers, who call themselves “Concerned Asian, Latino, Native, Undocumented, Queer, and Differently-Abled Students,” are calling for the implementation of what they call a “Freedom Budget.” The phrase sounds slightly right-wing, “freedom” and “budget” both being words often invoked by conservatives, but it is actually a laundry list of loony-left demands even by Ivy League standards. Among other things, the CALNUQD-AS insist that: Every department incorporate “at least one queer studies class”; many millions of dollars be committed to increase “faculty and staff of color” and create a “professor of color” lecture series; require professors to be trained in “cultural competency” and “the importance of social justice in their day to day work”; require professors to use “preferred gender pronouns”; provide “gender-neutral” housing and restroom facilities; and free legal assistance and financial aid to undocumented students.
Oh, and they’re also demanding that “all male-female checkboxes should be replaced with write-inboxes to make forms, surveys, and applications more inclusive for trans, two-spirit, agender, gender-noncomforming and genderqueer folks campus wide,” and that every Dartmouth student be taught he (or she, or it, we suppose) is residing on Abenaki homeland. They insist this is necessary because “The burden should not lie with systematically oppressed students (affected by racism, classism, imperialism, nativism, sexism, heterosexism, cis-sexism, and ableism) to ensure our own well-being, safety, and continued existence at Dartmouth.” Lest you think that the continued existence of CALNUQD-AS at Dartmouth seems assured and probably quite comfortable, they add that “our lived experiences at Dartmouth have been so violent that we were driven to write a plan for such assurance — The Freedom Budget.”
This sounds so outlandish that we must apologize for the computer problems that prevent us from providing the links that would prove we’re not making it all at some exaggerated parody, but we invite you to look it up for yourself. We had to look up “cis-sexism” ourselves, as it’s the only one of the listed isms that we haven’t yet been accused of, and it apparently means a prejudice against transgendered or transsexual people, so if that includes a slight level of discomfort we’re also guilty of that.
Maybe we’re just being racist, classist, imperialist, nativist, sexist, heterosexist, cis-sexist, and ableist, but it all sounds like these poor kids need a war or some actual racism to protest. We feel sorry for the poor Dartmouth mathematician who has to come up with a queer math course. We resent the implication in “professor of color” that white people are colorless, as our own off-salmon pink is indeed a color. We’ll refer to people by whatever gender seems appropriate, and cringe at the linguistic contortions that are required to respect some people’s feelings. We prefer gender-specific restrooms, too. You can check off whatever box you want on Dartmouth’s forms, as far as we’re concerned, but we’re not even going to bother to look up whatever what the hell Abenaki land is.
Back in the ‘60s the campus building-occupying hippies at least got a good orgy out of it, but these CALNUQD-AS probably won’t fare as well. They might get every demand they make, given the state of academia, but before the achieve utopia they’ll probably bore themselves to death.

— Bud Norman