Would the Public School Grad Please Stand Up

Obama’s fast-filling cabinet is teeming with Beltway Bandits with remarkably similar pedigrees.  It’s shaping up to be one of the most racially diverse but experientially homogenous administrations ever, as one well-heeled nominee after the next comes from America’s most select schools, principally those of the Ivy League.  For convenience sake alumni functions might even be held in the White House.

Consider the roster.  Eric Holder, Obama’s Attorney General-designate, got his undergraduate and law degrees from Columbia, his boss’ alma mater; Hillary Clinton, who is to become Secretary of State, went to Yale Law School; and Peter Orszag, nominated to be director of the Congressional Budget office, is a product of Princeton (as is Michelle Obama).  The list goes on.  The next Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, is a Dartmouth alum, and Larry Summers, nominated to head the National Economic Council, not only got his doctorate from Harvard but also taught there and later became its president. 

Those non-Ivy League nominees are mainly from the most Ivy of non-Ivy League schools.  Susan Rice, Obama’s choice for ambassador to the UN, is a product of Stanford and Oxford; Christina Romer, the incoming Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, has a doctorate from MIT, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates is a Georgetown man.  The numbers tell the story: as of last week, of Obama’s top 35 appointments, 22 have degrees from an Ivy League school, MIT, Stanford, the University of Chicago, or one of the top British universities. 

Academic success is, of course, laudable.  But there is a difference between intelligence and wisdom, a point New York Times columnist Frank Rich makes.  Rich compares the fledgling Obama Administration to that of John Kennedy, which was comprised, in David Halberstam’s words, of the “best and brightest.”  They included a cavalcade of Ivy League wunderkinds like McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow, and Robert McNamara—men of unquestioned brilliance who got the country mired in Vietnam.  The present administration once touted its version of Kennedy-like heavyweights.  The “Dream Team”—Powell, Rice, Rumsfeld, and Cheney—looked good on paper, but even benchwarmers could have done better. 

  The problem with precocity as defined by academic success at select institutions is that those schools recruit students with remarkably similar backgrounds and therefore tend to churn out men and women with similar worldviews.  A recent study found that three-quarters of the students at the nation’s top 146 colleges are from families in the richest socio-economic fourth, while just three percent are children from families in the poorest quartile.  You’re 25 times more likely to bump into a rich student than a poor one at one of these schools—an irony given the emphasis in academia on diversity.  The upshot is that an administration comprised of people with uniform academic credentials and, very possibly, worldviews, runs the risk of succumbing to a Best and Brightest-like groupthink.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with Ivy League or other highly-competitive schools, the selection into the cabinet with at least some self-made individuals from humble origins, who, by dint of their intellect and ambition, rose to prominence (including via prestigious universities), would be healthy, balancing the many academic all-stars from a small number of elite institutions that have been nominated to lead the country in these perilous times.  In other words, there ought to be more Obamas in an Obama Administration. 

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