Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Why Do Super-Elite Universities Produce So Many Awful Politicians?

by Neil H. Buchanan

Last Friday, I offered some observations about the pro-insurrectionist Senator Ted Cruz, drawing lessons from the one major life experience that he and I have in common: competitive college-level parliamentary debating.  I will not expand here on what I wrote in that column, but I want to use my two writing slots this week (today and Friday) to pick up on some issues that were raised on the comment board for that column.  In a pointed -- but refreshingly trolling-free -- discussion, three of our readers raised a number of interesting points.  Here, I want to take a stab at answering one reader's provocative question:
"Whenever I think of a Cruz, a Hawley, a Franken, or some other Ivy alumni, I want to find someone to tell me just what those universities think their academic missions are. To create comedy writers? Hedge fund managers? Elected officials? Or just to reproduce more of themselves? Whatever the weaknesses of the noblesse oblige of an Elihu Root, or Franklin Roosevelt, or a Henry Stimson, it seems to me less bad than the naked ambition and relentlessness that seem now to be the primary qualifications for admission."
I concede in advance that I am not a scholar of higher education or of its most selective and elite variants.  It is possible for people who have never gone to an elite institution to offer deep insights and trenchant critiques, just as the late sportscaster Howard Cosell admitted that he "never played the game" but was a keen observer of the world of sport.  My role here, to extend the analogy, is like a jock who had some success playing the game and who has direct experience with a lot of the people and institutions involved, but ultimately mine are still subjective and not deeply researched observations.

Having so stipulated, I want to suggest that the reader's query in the quote above ultimately leads to another one of those "it's the worst, except for all of the alternatives" defenses.  That is, American elite educational institutions do a lot of damage and have a lot to answer for, but the way it is now is better than what came before.  There might be better options, but I will limit myself here to comparing the new status quo with what it replaced.

Broadly speaking, the change to which the reader points -- the move from the Harvard of FDR to the Princeton of Rafael Edward "Ted" Cruz -- is a post-WWII move toward meritocracy and away from the plutocratic American version of aristocracy.  When I first enrolled in the Ph.D. program at Harvard in the 1980's, I met a lot of undergraduates (mostly through the parliamentary debate team), and they emphasized with pride that Harvard was no longer a place where being the guy whose family name was on a building (a la Oliver Barrett IV in "Love Story") could slide in and earn gentleman's C's.  (Side note: I spent my undergraduate years at Vassar, which is relevant here in that it is an elite institution with many similarities to the Ivies; but I was new to Harvard as a graduate student.)

Of course, money still talks, and even though we had supposedly moved on from the world that allowed the first President Bush's sons to expect to go to Yale (although Jeb claims to have turned down Yale when he went to UT-Austin) and that allowed the second President Bush to get by in New Haven on frat-boy pranks and family connections (before somehow being admitted to the Harvard Business School), we still have people like Jared Kushner and his father's strategically timed donation to Harvard during admission season.  The difference is that, even if there is still some of that crap going on, it has at least been reduced to a significant degree, and places like Harvard will now bother to deny that it is happening (usually truthfully).

But our reader is not asking whether there was truly a change in the approach to admissions among the Ivies (by which I mean not only the Ancient Eight, but also places like Amherst, Duke, Stanford, and so on).  He takes as a given that things have changed, and he suggests that this was a bad thing.  He might have a point, but I am skeptical.

Looking at the power players in Republican circles, the list of those how attended one of the Ivies, either for undergrad or law school or both, includes not just Cruz and Hawley but Tom Cotton, Ron de Santis (governor of Florida), Steve Bannon, Elise Stefanik, Ben Sasse, Stephen Miller, and many others.  Meanwhile, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg is a Harvard grad (and Rhodes Scholar), and many other liberal politicians graduated from the top-tier places as well.

To a certain degree (no pun intended), this is how a meritocracy should work.  The "best" schools look for the most promising students, who in turn want to go to those schools.  Being the best, those schools then give those already outstanding students a superior education, and the distance between them and everyone else grows.  Rather than being "born to lead," the idea is that these are the kids who can be turned into the most effective leaders.  Certainly compared to the pre-meritocracy years, the Ivies have accepted and groomed many more "talented kids" of non-plutocratic means, which is an improvement.

So much for the idealized version of the story.  What do the Ivies think they are doing?  To the extent that they have a hive mind (and to a large degree, I think they do), they honestly seem to believe their own hype.  The reality, however, is that they have become in far too many ways virtual Petri dishes for the worst kinds of careerism, such that these graduates are not the most effective leaders, as I described it above, but instead are merely the winners of the educational Hunger Games.  Metaphor mixed.  (Whatever else one might think about Buttigieg, and I am very conflicted about him, it is actually a bad sign that he won a Rhodes.)

What I remember most vividly from my years hanging around with, teaching, and advising Harvard undergraduates was that everything was a "comp," that is, a competition.  It was not enough that everyone had beaten the incredibly long odds of getting into Harvard College.  Everything during their college lives had to be a matter of winning a comp.  On the parliamentary debate team, students would sometimes claim that we should run a comp -- not because we had any reason to limit the number of students who could participate, but because it "looked lame" that they were in an activity that did not exclude anyone.  "Anyone" among the already-culled population of Harvard undergraduates, that is.  It even took Harvard years to eliminate the comp to get into the "best" residential houses, where having a hierarchy of coolness was yet another meaningless social divide.

The second-most-vivid feature of Harvard in my memory is the large numbers of precociously political students, late adolescents who had no idea what they truly cared about, but who knew that they wanted to be president.  One kid (and I say "kid" because he was a 19-year-old Sophomore at the time) became infamous for telling a young classmate that he would not date her -- or anyone -- because he could not afford to have anyone haunting him in his future political career with a sex scandal.  That was an extreme case, but I constantly encountered students -- both through debate and when teaching Economics courses, which drew students with political interests -- who were too young to drink but who already had mapped out their political ascents.

Most of these stories are dated, but on the other hand, the Ivy graduates who are now polluting the political scene are from exactly the era that I was in Cambridge.  Nothing that I have seen or heard since, at any of the elite institutions with which I have been affiliated, suggests that the atmosphere has changed very much.

To be clear, most of the students viewed the Buttigieg and Cotton types as "political tools."  Even in a toxically competitive environment, the majority of students were able to see that the Cruz approach to life was not for them.  The same Harvard class that graduated Jared Kushner also produced Natalie Portman, who has said in interviews that her classmates were, ahem, notably unimpressed with the real estate princeling (and not only because he is dim).  This is consistent with what I saw, where a clear majority of the students laughed at the political tools -- and not always behind their backs.

I do, however, want to return to our reader's ultimate concern: "Whatever the weaknesses of the noblesse oblige of an Elihu Root, or Franklin Roosevelt, or a Henry Stimson, it seems to me less bad than the naked ambition and relentlessness that seem now to be the primary qualifications for admission."  And as I suggested above, I find myself saying, "Yeah, I guess, but ... no."  For one thing, there are plenty of students in the meritocratic world who have a very real sense of noblesse oblige, that is, who know that they are lucky and believe that they should give back to the world.  FDR's family wealth allowed him great power, but even the less wealthy Ivy grads know that their credentials give them freedom to do things that they would not be able to do otherwise.  And if not immediately, then certainly they will have the luxury over the course of their lives to do good things.

In FDR's time, the Ivies were filled with plenty of the children of plutocrats who looked down on his side of the Roosevelt family, and they were the "malefactors of great wealth" who opposed FDR every step of the way.  No noblesse oblige there.  The Taft family (including the former president and chief justice) were more Yalie than the Bushes ever were, and they were not exactly championing the interests of the less fortunate.  JFK's "best and brightest" -- architects of the Vietnam mess -- were products of the old system, not the new.
Maybe the best way to think about this is that the Cruzes and Hawleys of the world are going to be awful no matter what.  Yes, they end up at the elite universities, and they bite and claw their way to the top, but they were going to do that no matter what, or somebody like them would have.  They are terrible people who attended elite universities, but correlation is not causation (in either direction).
It is true that the current system allows a (somewhat) wider socioeconomic group to become awful rightwing politicians, but it also benefits many kids who never would have been given a chance to get a very good education that opens a lot of doors.  The system could and should do more to expand that socieconomic range, so this is at most a very minimal defense of the current approach. 
Going back to a system where we must count on the children of the elite to learn the virtues of selfless public service, however, seems unlikely to achieve that goal, and at a very high cost.


Karl Voelker said...

Your argument seems highly plausible overall, but I want to pick on one detail. You talk about meritocracy meaning that schools want the “best” students. But it seems to me that saying a student is the best is a lot like saying an economic policy is efficient. The word (efficient or best) can mean whatever you want it to mean in service of your underlying values.

Jason S. Marks said...

I think it ascribes too much power to the elite institutions to assume they as a collective churn out people of esteemed or degraded morality. I think the real fascinating question is what draws a teenager to the early conclusion that he or she is destined for politics and high office. Who really wants to be president? Seriously -- who would want that job? The path to get there is gruesome, and the responsibilities (if taken seriously, and even if not) are grave. Once upon a time we had statesmen who pursued office for a noble goal and the self-sacrifice of public service. That age left the station a long time ago. In the post-World War II era, we have seen men of serious ego driven to high office. The conceit it takes to convince oneself that you have what it takes to be the most powerful leader in the free world is enormous. I think that psychological profile seeks power, and some do so with wanting to help people and others with just acquiring power. Our elite universities like to be close to power and have been purposely from the beginning. If having the cachet or the connections that elite universities provide becomes the ticket to high office, that explains (in my view) why such disparate characters are all drawn to the same five law schools.

What is interesting is how a Barack Obama and John Roberts (as archetypes) can occupy the same law school space, how these personalities can interact on a personal level and discuss substantive politics and yet end up so far apart in the real world. Is it truly an issue of legitimate differences, or simply a game of ideology or power climbing? Laurence Tribe has had some of the most liberal and conservative politicians as students, so did he have some or no influence in that educational time?

I think we give too much credit or blame to elite institutions to think they create heroes and/or monsters. I think they undoubtedly influence their knowledge and development, but it is up to the individual person to decide how to process that influence. And of course the motive for influence in the first place is the piece on which I focus, the answer to the chicken and the egg issue.

Also, I think we risk painting with too broad a brush. Elite and less elite colleges produce people who go on to make incredible contributions to society. To the extent they do, it validates the mission of the university writ large. We should not damn all colleges for some of the most notorious alumni. We would not have the scientific and intellectual progress of today without the exponential growth of higher education, with all of its flaws.

I think the political parties have moved further away from the noblesse oblige sentiment, and that somewhere between Machiavelli and Sun Tzu demarcates the current political climate. We as a society need to reject the horse race media, the trolling social media, and demand more of ourselves and our representatives. If we do, people of nobler character will have better chances and more incentive to run and win and make real change.

Neil H. Buchanan said...

Many thanks to both commenters. There's a lot to think about in Jason S. Marks's comment, and I'm still processing it (although I think I agree with it in full). I suspect that I'll soon write a full column about some of the issues raised therein.

I do want to take a moment to say to Karl Voelker that, yes, you've nailed it. I deliberately left the definition of "best" open, and I definitely intended the scare quotes to be provocative/meaningful. Quality is impossible to measure scientifically, so it does ultimately mean whatever the people who run the world want it to mean.

Extra special thanks for analogizing to the emptiness of "efficiency." It almost makes me think that my writings are actually having an impact! Much appreciated.

Alexander Kurz said...

I am wondering how you would address the criticisms that Daniel Markovits raises, eg in this interview https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BLEvJUNfyBY .

In a nutshell, he says that because admission is merit based, parents nowadays have to spend so much on the education of their children that, in the end, admission is still (or, maybe, even more so than at FDR's times?) wealth based.

In his commencement address https://law.yale.edu/sites/default/files/area/department/studentaffairs/document/markovitscommencementrev.pdf he supports this thesis with the following claims:

- At Harvard College and here, at Yale Law School as many students come from households in the top one percent as from the entire bottom half of the income distribution.

- The excess educational investment (over and above what middle class
families can provide) that children born into a typical one percenter
household receive is equivalent, economically, to a traditional
inheritance of between 5 and 10 million dollars per child.

I am wondering whether that could provide a new angle to answer the article's original question.

Jim15032 said...

Having posed the "provocative question," I'm still looking for the answer to it: what is the academic mission? Prof. Buchanan says meritocratic admissions allow some kids who otherwise would not have "to get a very good education that opens a lot of doors." But my question remains, what exactly is this "very good education?" I already know what "opens a lot of doors" means.

Ted Cruz famously said he wouldn't join a study group with someone from a "minor Ivy." The late Justice Scalia once said, “I wouldn’t have hired Jeff Sutton,” Scalia said. “For God’s sake, he went Ohio State! ..."(sic https://www.abajournal.com/news/article/justice_scalia_tells_law_student_why_she_wont_be_his_law_clerk) In the same article, Nino is quoted as having said, “I’m going to be picking from the law schools that basically are the hardest to get into. They admit the best and the brightest, and they may not teach very well, but you can’t make a sow’s ear out of a silk purse. If they come in the best and the brightest, they’re probably going to leave the best and the brightest, OK?” (emphasis added)

To my mind, the routine practitioner (in almost any field) is one who learns and applies what usually works in the ordinary situation; the extraordinary one actually understands why and how what s/he does works. And the elite schools are those which cultivate that understanding. Are they still, even if they do not always succeed?

Michael A Livingston said...

I think it is usually better to avoid personalizing political issues, although Ted Cruz may be the exception that proves the rule. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, one can resist anything except temptation.

egarber said...

So many different dimensions to this.

One depressing component is that even elite institutions are not immune from the current factual reality split in our wider society.

It’s easy to say that QAnon types, science deniers and “Big Lie” advocates are simply uneducated morons. But as we’ve seen, such believers also emanate from higher - indeed, elite - institutions. How can that be, when the whole point of true education is critical thinking?

Is something foundationally broken? Or is it more that many people are stubbornly pre-wired, so the specific path to demagoguery (elite school, base populism) is beside the point?

kotodama said...

I think Jim15032's question was in fact answered to some extent, albeit only in the last 3 paragraphs or so. As I understand it, he asked in part what role, if any, do elite institutions have in inculcating students with some conception of virtue. (That concept of course is highly controverted, but I think you can still pose and answer the question in a meaningful way.) The answer that I derive from those 3 paragraphs seems to be: "not very much."

Another interesting aspect of his question is what is the point for people like say Dubya. In that case, he wouldn't even seem to need the credential—let alone the underlying education—to attain what he did in his career. I don't think anyone really cares whether you have an Ivy League degree if all you're going to do is work for Daddy's businesses and then run for elected office. The only thing that seems to be in it for the Dubya's of the world is the ability to keep hobnobbing with people in your social circle and to build additional connections. And just generally keeping up appearances and maintaining a family tradition. So basically a glorified social club.

John Legend also comes to mind on this subject. Certainly, a big distinction from Dubya is that Legend is quite intelligent and was no doubt highly qualified. But a similar question still arises: is going to an Ivy League school all that necessary to be a successful pop musician? I'm not at all well versed in the industry, but my suspicion would be a strong no. Of course in his case, he still needed to hold onto a day job in consulting before getting his break. So there's that for sure. And if you take the pure meritocracy view—to say nothing of diversity/AA—then since he unquestionably had the qualifications, that's the end of the story. I think you can also make the argument about learning for learning's sake and being "well rounded" so to speak. Legend is an entertainer so this all ties back to Jim's point about Franken as well—although Franken had a later career change (maybe Legend will too!).