But for Yale?

Forget the whole pack of prestige-mongering schools. We need a future generation of young people who obtained a real education and can think outside of the narrow categories of the current ruling elite.

Yale's Old Campus at dusk, in 2013. (Namkota | Wikipedia)

Like many people, I am somewhat concerned by the stories of parents who spent outrageous sums of money to secure entrance for their children into prestigious universities. But let’s not talk about top universities’ wealthy donors right at the moment. That’s not a practice that’s going to stop anytime soon.

Cheating to Get In

What I am more worried about are the cases where parents cheated to get their children into schools like Yale, USC, and Stanford. (After all, donating 10 million dollars toward a new dorm to grease the skids for your kid to get into a college isn’t cheating, it’s just good business. The mistake these celebrity parents made was in thinking that they could get their kids into Yale for a mere 500,000 dollar bribe. Plebeians!) I am not concerned for the reasons most people seem to be, however. Most people seem concerned that these students got into Yale, USC, and Stanford unfairly. I am more worried about those children. As Sir Thomas More tells Richard Rich in A Man for All Seasons, “Why Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world … but for Wales?”

But for Yale? Heaven help us, what kind of education do you think those kids are going to get there? Granted it’s the natural follow-up to several years at Self-Righteous Dilettante Prep. But at Yale, they will likely lose any chance at a real liberal arts education of the sort that would shock them out of their comfortable complacency and encourage them — or allow them — to start questioning and thinking for themselves. It’s a tragic no win-no win. They spend mountains of money cheating to get in, and then they get cheated out of mountains of money on the education their children receive.

Prestige or Substance?

Oh, I know: it’s Yale and it’s Stanford. And they’re prestigious. So is a Rolls-Royce, but it’s still a lousy car that needs too many expensive repairs.

And what makes for prestige in an educational institution? Are the students really educated better? Do they have the kind of moral principles — have they developed the moral virtues — that will serve the nation well in the future? Are they able to think critically and creatively across disciplinary boundaries and in new ways? Are they hard-working? Are they “teachable?” Can they re-train themselves again and again as they economy and world situation changes? Do they understand people? Do they care about their fellow men and women? Can they become “servant leaders?” Isn’t an educational institution supposed to be about what it can do for the students, not about the prestige of the school?

This “cheating scandal” is the kind of thing you get in a celebrity culture that has lost its sense of what an education is for. These parents (and let’s be honest, they are far from the only ones) view education primarily as a credential. What happens in the classroom; what their children study, what they read, what kind of mentoring they get, what kind of spiritual, moral, and intellectual journey they engage in — all of this was simply beside the point. What happens in college is a black box. You pay mountains of money and at the end they give you a diploma, whether you can read, write, do mathematics, think analytically, show up on time for class, or not.

The Best and the Brightest: Sow’s Ears and Silk Purses

Even a very smart guy like Justice Scalia once told an American University law student that her chances of getting a Supreme Court clerkship were very low because, “By and large, 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 [well, maybe not all the time], 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?”

First, the saying is the reverse, “you can’t make a silk purse out of sow’s ear,” but no, it’s not okay. Because you don’t judge a school by what goes in one end of the pipe-line, but by what comes out the other end. Any school in the nation can take the best and brightest students and turn them into mediocre dilettantes (turning silk purses into sow’s ears), which is what many of the top schools do. What a great school does is take the hard-working middle and help them become great. Because it has always been the hard-working middle that has been the key to America’s survival and success.

To his credit, Justice Scalia acknowledged that Jeffrey Sutton, now a federal appeals judge on the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, who was first hired by Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., and later worked for Scalia, was “one of the very best law clerks I ever had.” But he also admitted “I wouldn’t have hired Jeff Sutton. For God’s sake, he went to Ohio State!” Ohio? Heaven help us! What’s next? Nebraska? Oklahoma? Texas? Could the republic possibly survive?

The Unprivileged Middle

I would have told him this story. I have a student, a Hispanic mother, who is tremendously bright, works hard in class, takes care of her husband and son, writes well, grasps concepts quickly, and is, in fact, one of the best students in my class. What she lacks is the kind of swagger and moxie one sees in many of the students at the top schools. But I like that. I admire her quiet competence more than the mouthy mediocrity with no substance I see too often. She doesn’t do much for the prestige of my university, since she’s married, with children, not a single “progressive” Hispanic woman headed for an elite position in Washington, D.C. or New York. But let’s be clear, the university exists for her and others like her.

Too many people, including Supreme Court justices, have indulged for far too long the idiotic notion that the future of America should be in the hands of the so-called “best and brightest” who graduate from places like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford. There are plenty of excellent graduates from those institutions, but plenty of lousy ones as well. It would be wrong to discriminate against those students just because they went to those schools, but it would be equally foolish to discriminate in their favor just because they went there. The consequence of doing the latter is that businesses, politicians, and Supreme Court justices (all of whom at present graduated from either Harvard or Yale Law School) are not searching out the amazing potential that exists throughout the nation in places where people have different backgrounds, different perspectives, and a different set of values. That kind of narrow-minded, prejudiced, prestige-mongering is killing us.

Forget Yale

O dear parents, Yale? You sold your soul for a chance to hang that symbol of dubious prestige around your neck? At least when Judas lost his soul, he got thirty pieces of silver. In modern top-ranked American universities, you lose your soul, and you give them the thirty pieces of silver. No one should say the devil isn’t ingenious. And he’s got too many of us by our greedy throats.

Forget Yale. Forget the whole pack of prestige-mongering schools. We need a future generation of young people who obtained a real education and can think outside of the narrow categories of the current ruling elite. More of us need to “just say no.” No to vanity and empty prestige. No to what the chic magazine covers are telling us. No to what the “elite” are thinking and doing. No to college education as an empty credential. But yes to an actual education reading the best works of the best minds in history. Yes to developing real skills of reading, writing, and clear thinking rather than merely gaining the knack for adding more empty verbiage to a media world overstuffed with it. Yes to a deeper appreciation for truth, justice, and beauty as it has been expressed in works that have passed the test of time and have shown themselves to be powerful guides to justice and ordered liberty.

Until Americans embrace again the notion that a real education of the sort Jefferson, Adams, Hamilton, and Washington had is both worthwhile and important, an education in the classic liberal arts tradition, whether one gets it in a university or not, and not a faux education for celebrity or prestige such as is too often being sold to the highest bidder on the market currently, I fear our sickness will only grow worse.

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About Dr. Randall B. Smith 44 Articles
Dr. Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, where he teaches courses on Moral Theology, History of Theology, Faith and Science, and Faith and Culture. His books include Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide (Emmaus), Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture of Medieval Paris (Cambridge), and From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body (Emmaus), due out in October 2022. He is also co-author of Why Believe? Volume 2: Answers to Life's Questions (Augustine Institute). Prof. Smith is the author of numerous articles in academic journals, but he also publishes a regular bi-weekly column for "The Catholic Thing."


    • But meritocracy should count for something; Is this country so old that meritocracy is meaningless due to it being a fixed game like Victorian England, Confucian China and Byzantium?

    • I’ve heard one criticism of the admissions scandal that is disprovable. It is being said that deceitful admission to an elite school does an injustice to the otherwise unqualified student who will be unable to succeed. But scandals like this have surely been going on for years, and unqualified students have been making it through without too much difficulty. So the notion that people who attend elite schools perform at a level that others can’t achieve is false. Also, Prof Smith apparently gave in to the elite temptation when he spent a year at Notre Dame.

      • Ah, Judy… you’re assuming there’s something elite about Notre Dame… the school who awarded Obama an honorary doctorate for his position favoring partial birth abortion. 🙂

  1. Professor Smith:

    Thank you for a revealing anecdote about the decision-making of Justice Scalia (a man who I greatly admire).

    The inescapable pattern of Justice Scalia’s “elite-think” is this:

    A – everyone with my Ivy Profile is assumed to be a silk purse; and
    B – everyone else is assumed to be a sow’s ear.

    And yet, we know that A is false. Professor Harvey Mansfield has exposed the grade inflation at Harvard, where the standard is to give 50% of the students A’s or A-minus’s. In response, Mansfield assigns a confidential grade to students, typically lower, disclosing to his students what they “truly and seriously deserved.”

    For the establishment universities…What a sham…and a shame…

    Bravo to Professor Smith, and his sterling student, the bright and industrious mother.

  2. For some kids being goal-oriented is an overriding personal factor, even more so than education or how much money they can make, (Unless it is a goal in itself). Getting into a top 20 university became my son’s personal challenge because he found out it was a challenge, and the Lord gave my son the ability to ace tests but also a servants heart. He is the top student in his high school, got a perfect ACT, got a 1580 out of 1600 on the SAT, has gotten perfect scores on all the AP tests he has taken, does community service, is the captain of his high school academic competition Team, was the #19 top state cross-country runner in Texas, was the top regional track runner in the 2,000, was the National Geographic Bee Texas state champion, is an Eagle Scout, has been an alter server since he qualified, has been an aide at our parish Summer Vacation Camp for all the years available, volunteers at the convent of the sisters of the Incarnate Word, is a National Merit Scholar, a Daughters of the American Revolution Scholar, Elks Club Scholarship semi-finalist, and Top 1% instant admission to all Texas public universities scholar…but he is also Eurasian and a faithful Catholic. We put out multiple applications to many schools including 10 top 20 schools but the only top 20 university that he was accepted to and was willing to give him a full scholarship was the University of Notre Dame – ironically his Top Choice last August! So thank you Lord, and thank you for your prayers from heaven Holy Mother, St. Augustine, St. Francis of Assisi, JPII, Dad, Grandma G., Grandma A. and all of our living relatives and friends who those who prayed for him. May the Holy Spirit continue to guide him and of course…Go Irish!

    • The diploma he’ll get from ND will be the key into a lot of places, but don’t count on his getting at CATHOLIC education there – those days are long gone.

      • We have been blessed to able to send him to 13 years of Catholic Parochial school for Catholic Education. I guess the real challenge will be Catholic Application.

    • Another parent sucked in to the Notre Dame lustre. It’s hard to resist, but be wary. I sense a little pridefulness in your comment. Notre Dame, with certain faculty and the administration, can be a devil in sheep’s clothing. I wish more parents would invest in colleges that are providing a faithfully Catholic education and environment. Wouldn’t it be amazing to see Franciscan, Ave Maria, University of Dallas, Christendom, receive an influx of high achieving students who aren’t looking for the shiny object? Good luck!

      • He was looking into UDallas as a possibility but is interested in studying epidemiology/immunology and linguistics. Unfortunarely not too many colleges offer these subjects outside of the so called top 50. Ironically my super liberal sister balked at the idea of sending my son to ND as well as our very conservative Catholic friends but like the rest of the church today we believe we can change the direction of Catholicism more towards Christ with works and deeds from within the body with the virus of Love (To use the language of my son, hopefully future viriologist!).

      • Judy, my wife and I are a middle-income family with middle-management jobs and we spend most of our money on our kids, especially Catholic School and whatever extra curricular activities they happen to be interested in. We are proud of all 3 of our sons as the Lord has given them unique talents. It just so happens that my oldest son is goal-oriented and a gifted student but also claims to be a neo-communist and idolizes Lenin; My middle-son at 14 is the wittiest kid you ever met and immensely popular with other students and teachers but wants to join the military so he can shoot automatic weapons legally at terrorists and drug smugglers; And my youngest son is a gifted young engineer and musician but plays in a punk band named “Dead Dog on Fire”, (He is only 12!). But yes I am proud of my Boys – thank you Lord for both the Gifts and the challenges!

  3. The one thing that puzzles me about this scandal is USC. If you have to cheat to get in there you probably should think about going to a state college.

  4. I went to Yale myself. I would say that Yale students and faculty have a great deal of esoteric knowledge, but not much basic knowledge. They know a lot about Andy Warhol, Glenn Gould, Arnold Schonberg, and Franz Kafka. But they know very little about economics or history. Most of what they believe about modern events like the Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, WWII, and the Great Depression is not true. What is more, nearly all of America’s elite universities have very poor departments of economics. Most of what is taught in economics classes at our elite universities is crackpot economics.

  5. Scalia reversed the purse saying because he was saying that someone who is the best and brightest, a silk purse, won’t in those circumstances become otherwise, the sow’s ear. All I intend to do here is explain why it was reversed.

  6. Just a word to the person who says that a student can’t get a Catholic education at Notre Dame: not true. I live in South Bend and have been closely associated with the university for 13 years. There are all kinds of people there, but the Catholic identity is palpable! The Right-to-Life club is the largest student club, every dorm has a chapel, there are campus wide Stations of the Cross during Holy Week and masses daily at many times during the day. Center for Ethics and Culture, Center for Church Life… and so many dedicated professors and staff who truly live their faith even when it is counter-cultural. The votive candles at the Grotto dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes are always going and the rosary is said there daily. The majority of students participate in volunteering through the Center for Social Concerns. Just a few points of reference…

  7. “Like many people, I am somewhat concerned by the stories of parents who spent outrageous sums of money to secure entrance for their children into prestigious universities. ”
    Including $15K per child per year catholic in name only private high schools?

  8. Having also attended Yale as a graduate student, my experience of the faculty, quality of education and students at the graduate and undergraduate level was somewhat different from what Dr. Smith portrays and Mr. Condon writes. I sincerely wish that Mr. Condon’s experience was more positive like my own.

    I was privileged to attend lectures by Robert Shiller, Nobel laureate, and certainly one of the most foundational authorities on asset pricing. My professors at the IFC were all of the highest caliber and well grounded in very real economics.

    At the graduate level, where most students at Yale were paying their own way, or on scholarship, there was a level of seriousness and dedication that was pronounced. This did not seem to differ across most of the graduate schools from what I observed. Further, many of the graduate students came from the likes of Ohio State, where I assume they were equally dedicated and excelled at their studies.

    I was also a fellow at one of the undergraduate colleges within the University, which effectively meant that I was there to mentor and to provide guidance to the undergraduate students. I also acted as a teaching assistant for an undergraduate class. Again, my experience was that a great many of the undergraduates were on scholarships, were highly dedicated, conscientious, hard working and teachable and wanted to change the world for the better. As to the realness of the liberal arts education that they received, they could readily quote Spinoza of Shakespeare, but more importantly, the import of these thinkers was clearly filtering down into their consciousnesses and starting to affect their decision making.

    Perhaps ironically, after my experience as an undergraduate at a Catholic university, I found Yale to be much more genuinely Catholic in a very profound way. It forced students to decide what they truly believed and certainly provided every opportunity to deepen one’s faith on a serious way and not to rely on a lazy faith or the veneer of Catholicism that often coats everything at Catholic universities without really penetrating. The students a faculty at Yale forced one to be honest with oneself and to either walk the walk or cut bait.

    The University endowed chaplaincies for most faiths. This allowed the Catholic chapel to provide dinner after Sunday evening mass and to usually host a phenomenal speaker who would give one something meaningful to consider about the faith. Perhaps the best example was a nun who was a PhD and on the ethics committee of the University hospital. She was wrestling with life and death issues through the faith. Truly a remarkable woman.

    I left Yale a far more serious, thoughtful and faithful person and Catholic than when I arrived and I credit the people I was blessed to meet and from whom I learned there as the instruments for making me a better individual.

    I can’t speak for other universities or their cultures, but my understanding of the bribery incident at Yale that has been highlighted was through a coach, who I believe, took the money for his personal inurement. To my knowledge, it is not a systematic or cultural issue at Yale, which is one of several universities to not only take a need-blind view of admissions, but also to give no weight to legacies, so it doesn’t matter if your grandaddy went there. Albeit, this is a relatively recent development as former President Bush’s admission likely demonstrates.

    Yes, a degree from Yale, or any other top university, is a powerful credential and there are many people who will do anything for their children to attain one. Regardless of their parents’ actions, those same children may or may not appreciate or understand the opportunity to learn that they have been given, availing themselves, or not, of that chance to develop and to grow, but this is the same of any student.

    Yale, Ohio State, Notre Dame, CUNY, or any other university can produce amazing or horrible people. I am sure that all of them have the ability to provide an excellent liberal arts education. My belief is that they don’t have the ability to fix what ails the human heart, society or to change one’s character. That is a matter that is the result of individual choice and God’s help. All good universities provide opportunities for growth and development, it is up to the individual student to grasp them. In this respect, I assume that I agree with Dr. Smith in that everyone deserves a fair shake and the degree that one holds in no guarantor of character or real intelligence.

    But on the whole, the students that I encountered at Yale, and I am sure Mr. Conlon would prove the rule, were there because of hard work. They were very intelligent, dedicated and wanted to learn. The will likely receive a better education than someone at another university if they avail themselves of the opportunity. This is the reality of attending a top tier school. The chances are good that they will be better educated, more intelligent and more productive than graduates from other universities, but Dr. Smith is absolutely right, this is not always the case. The great majority of the world’s luminaries didn’t go to Yale, Harvard or Stanford and a lot of people who changed the world like Dr. Salk went to the likes of CCNY.

    We don’t live in a meritocratic world and systems are gamed for avaricious advantage all the time. University admissions are no different. Degrees from prestigious universities are only as good as the people who hold and who stand behind them.

    It seems that Dr. Smith’s complaint is more with the un-meritocratic nature of our society where names and certificates mean more than the people who hold them, regardless of how they were attained, or what they truly certify about a person. The genius from Ohio State should have preference over the dullard from Yale, or the genius should have been admitted to Yale, Harvard or Stanford in the first place. Regardless, I would agree that we need a more truly meritocratic system in the U.S. I would only write that I don’t believe that Yale is the problem. My experience was that it was worth every penny and I hope that I have availed myself of the opportunities that it afforded me.

  9. Like Washington had? A few years with a private tutor plus practical training in surveying. (Typical of the Virginia gentry of those days, but it isn’t adequate today.)

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