Trading One Elite for Another: Why We Need More Than Ivy Leaguers on the Supreme Court (and Elsewhere)

Someone has finally put forth the case that only Ivy Leaguers should really be on the Supreme Court:

The gatekeeper power of such institutions is why it was so important to desegregate them (using affirmative action, among other tools) and why virtually all leaders of great universities talk about diversity and access.

For about 40 years now, all the top law schools have tried to pick students who are not just brilliant but who have the potential to be outstanding leaders from and for all of America’s communities. Today, “elite” doesn’t carry the old-boy, classist, midcentury sense.

In fact, law schools strive for an elitism that is quite democratic in comparison with many other fields. As at Yale and Harvard, we at Berkeley seek to build a campus community that is as exciting and diverse as our nation. That means a New Jersey physics major who models underwear. A single-parent firefighter medievalist from Denver. A former Navy Seal, a software designer, a late-blooming high school dropout, a dancer with published poetry. And when they are here, they teach each other, they learn to understand each other, and then they remember each other.

I write this just hours after our law school graduation ceremony. Elite? You bet. These graduates are exactly what our toughest problems demand. But beyond the paper credentials and the academic pedigree, they are more diverse in aspirations and passions than can be imagined.

We should prefer institutions that are elite in terms of excellence, while more democratic in terms of access. Even Harvard, Yale and their ilk are more open than they were a generation ago. This is for a lot of reasons, among them the rise of standardized testing, however imperfect, intended to reduce cronyism, the civil rights and women’s rights movements, and the modern system of need-based financial aid.

What Edley–himself a Harvard graduate and Clinton administration veteran–misses is the following.

The first is that those who end up in the Ivy League may be more ethnically and socio-economically diverse than they used to be, but to virtually require passing through such institutions to get past provincial ignominy guarantees that intellectual diversity is sacrificed.  Moreover, it’s easy to fancy ourselves as “diverse” when all we have to do to get ahead is to interact with those we went to school with.  Having that situation makes being important in America a decidedly “closed circle,” which explains much of the pseudosophistication we see in our leadership.

The second is that it ends the whole American construct of a nation as one of a “second chance.”  Now, if you’re not headed to Cambridge or New Haven by the time you’re 20, that’s it.  That challenges, in a way, whether the American experiment is worth it any more, but that’s a subject for another post.

Edley also reminds me that, in 1988, we had two Ivy Leaguers running for President.  We’ve not had a non-Ivy Leaguer since then in the White House.

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