News & Politics  
comments_image Comments

The Best and the Brightest Have Led America Off a Cliff

Don't expect the so-called experts to fix it either. They can't. They are loyal to the decaying political and financial systems that empowered them.

Continued from previous page

 
 
Share
 
 
 

I was sent to boarding school on a scholarship at the age of 10. By the time I had finished eight years in New England prep schools and another eight at Colgate and Harvard, I had a pretty good understanding of the game. I have also taught at Columbia, New York University and Princeton. These institutions, no matter how mediocre you are, feed students with the comforting self-delusion that they are there because they are not only the best but they deserve the best. You can see this attitude on display in every word uttered by George W. Bush. Here is a man with severely limited intellectual capacity and no moral core. He, along with Lewis "Scooter" Libby, who attended my boarding school and went on to Yale, is an example of the legions of self-centered mediocrities churned out by places like Andover, Yale and Harvard. Bush was, like the rest of his caste, propelled forward by his money and his connections. That is the real purpose of these well-endowed schools -- to perpetuate their own. 

"There’s a certain kind of student at these schools who falls in love with the mystique and prestige of his own education," said Elyse Graham, whom I taught at Princeton and who is now doing graduate work at Yale. "This is the guy who treats his time at Princeton as a scavenger hunt for Princetoniana and Princeton nostalgia: How many famous professors can I collect? And so on. And he comes away not only with all these props for his sense of being elect, but also with the smoothness that seems to indicate wide learning; college socializes you, so you learn to present even trite ideas well."

These institutions cater to their students like high-end resorts. My prep school -- remember this is a high school -- recently built a $26 million gym. Not that it didn’t have a gym; it had a fine one, with an Olympic pool. But it needed to upgrade its facilities to compete for the elite boys and girls being wooed by other schools. While public schools crumble, while public universities are slashed and degraded, while these elite institutions become unaffordable even for the middle class, the privileged retreat further into their opulent, gated communities. Harvard lost $8 billion of its endowment over the past four months, which raises the question of how smart these people are, but it still has $30 billion. Schools like Yale, Stanford and Princeton are not far behind. Those on the inside are told they are there because they are better than others. Most believe it. 

The people I loved most, my working-class family in Maine, did not go to college. They were plumbers, post office clerks and mill workers. Most of the men were military veterans. They lived frugal and hard lives. They were indulgent of my incessant book reading and incompetence with tools, even my distaste for deer hunting, and they were a steady reminder that just because I had been blessed with an opportunity that was denied to them, I was not better or more intelligent. If you are poor, you have to work after high school or, in the case of my grandfather, before you are able to finish high school. College is not an option. No one takes care of you. You have to do that for yourself. This is the most important difference between them and the elites.

The elite schools, which trumpet their diversity, base this diversity on race and ethnicity, rarely on class. The admissions process, as well as the staggering tuition costs, precludes most of the poor and working class. When my son got his SAT scores back last year, we were surprised to find that his critical reading score was lower than his math score. He dislikes math. He is an avid and perceptive reader. And so we did what many educated, middle-class families do. We hired an expensive tutor from the Princeton Review, who taught him the tricks and techniques of taking standardized tests. The tutor told him things like "stop thinking about whether the passage is true. You are wasting test time thinking about the ideas. Just spit back what they tell you." His reading score went up 130 points. Was he smarter? Was he a better reader? Did he become more intelligent? Is reading and answering multiple-choice questions while someone holds a stopwatch over you even an effective measure of intelligence? What about those families that do not have a few thousand dollars to hire a tutor? What chance do they have?