I am absorbing all of this in a way that Michelle Obama, savvy political spouse that she is, should appreciate. This moment in political history reinforces my lifelong pride in being an American. By pushing Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John McCain through an elaborate exercise in nonelite bona fides, the American electorate has been expressing three beliefs about elite education that are as deeply true as they are intensely felt:
Elite education isn't really meritocratic. Expressions of noblesse oblige by the educational elite speak less eloquently than elite institutions' actions and policies. Look at the way they admit students and price tuition: a talented student from a lower-income family has no greater chance of being admitted to an elite college, let alone affording it, than a mediocre student from a wealthier family.
Elite education teaches its wards some fairly goofy things. World enough and time wouldn't accommodate a full discussion of this topic. Let's just focus on what elite institutions' leaders often forget — not in spite of but rather because of the socially rarified settings in which they have spent their lives: Students go to school in order to better themselves economically, and the schools in turn must be accountable to their students and their graduates in material terms. These are insights that come along as a natural incident of a working-class upbringing, but today's elite institutions neither seek nor yield classes — let alone faculties — that reflect that source of cultural wealth.
Elite education doesn't do that much for you anyway, relative to less elite and more affordable alternatives.Who needs the Ivy League? Or, for that matter, public schools that have forsaken their land-grant missions in quixotic quests for impressionistic prestige, schools that have abandoned Das Volk in favor of a Drang nach Hochmütigkeit? Having been spared the task of retiring debt incurred to take classes from professors who are overrated almost precisely to the degree that they are overpaid may be the best thing that ever happens to graduates of nonelite institutions.
In the end, as with Lux et Veritas, these are the things that matter: The signaling function of education, elite or otherwise, falls far short of things that the best students learn for themselves and teach each other, no matter where they go to school. Neither elite credentials nor even native talent counts as much as hard work, persistence, and fundamental decency. The candidate who best reflects these values will be getting my vote in November, and with any luck a large number of other voters — at the real ballot box and in the sham poll called the U.S. News & World Report survey — will choose in like fashion.