Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Elena Kagan and the American aristocracy

My late father was right about so many things, but in this one area he was simply wrong. And naive.

"Where you go to school is really unimportant," he said, "at least after you've been out a couple of years. At that point, no one cares where you went, only what you can do and how well you can do it."

A concise summary of a core American value, wouldn't you agree? And, maybe, it was even true for awhile in my father's time, in the heady days after World War II, when the need for college-educated professionals exploded and beneficiaries of the GI Bill rushed forward to fill the need. It must have been a frontier situation. (It always comes back to Frederick Jackson Turner, doesn't it?)

But if this was once true, it is true no longer.

The nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court of the United States provides another illustration of this point: Elite positions are reserved for members of the elite alone.

Our American aristocracy has no dukes or marquesses to help one sort out who is above whom. And, importantly, one need not be born into it to become a member of our American aristocracy.

The old Romans used to refresh the ranks of their aristocracy by adopting (co-opting) promising individuals. In America we do it by college degrees. At least since the 1960s we've opened up the ranks of our American aristocracy so that it "looks like America" by reaching into the masses and plucking a few of the best and brightest of our youth. Thus Bill Clinton climbs up from Arkansas, first to Georgetown -- and then, after winning a Rhodes Scholarship, to Yale Law School. Michelle Robinson (now Michelle Obama) gets recruited from Chicago to Princeton and thence to Harvard Law School. Barack Obama started college at Occidental College in Los Angeles -- a very good liberal arts school -- but where would his career have gone if he hadn't transferred to Columbia University? (From there he cemented his status in the elite by going to Harvard Law School.)

But the principle of inclusion only goes so far. One cannot ascend the to summit of the Ivies and then concede that a graduate of Cornell College, the Iowa liberal arts school, can be the equal of a graduate of Cornell University of Ithaca, New York.

And who would be more jealous of the prerogatives of the elite than those newly admitted? You don't need a conspiracy theory or secret cabal to keep the elite marching in lockstep. Common interest will be more than sufficient.

Humans are instinctively tribal and -- like a lot of primates -- hierarchical. If (at least grudgingly) we acknowledge that we have betters it is because, in such a system, there's always someone who is our inferior, too.

There are valid distinctions among people -- some are smarter, some are better looking, some sing better, some are stronger. But full expression and fulfillment of our talents is available only when humans are thinly distributed on the ground. When we get more bunched together, as in modern urban settings, artificial distinctions must be added to satisfy our need for minute stratification.

My grandmother used to tell the story about how, when people arrived in Chicago from County Mayo (God help us) at the turn of the century, they tended to settle on the near Southwest Side. And no one had anything then; they were all equally poor. Equality is great in theory -- and impossible in practice. Distinctions had to be found... or imagined. A person newly arrived would scout out the parish church and look to see if anyone in the congregation was from his or her home village. If not, then he or she could gain status over the neighbors by asserting a more exalted (and imaginary) family pedigree. County Cork had farms with actual dirt in those days, as opposed to County Mayo where there were only big stones and littler ones. So the people of Cork were generally more prosperous. Anyone with relatives there, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, must surely be better of than everyone else. (My grandmother's people, she told me, were from County Mayo -- but my grandfather -- who died years before I was born -- his people, my grandmother said, were from Cork.)

A person's Harvard degree is no guarantee that he or she is smarter than the next person, who went to the University of Illinois; they may be equally smart, in fact, with the edge going to the fellow from Champaign even, but if there are only limited elite opportunities around, the Harvard man will usually get the edge. Aristocracy. Multi-ethnic now, even multi-racial, but no less exclusive for all that.

In other words, you will never, ever see a DePaul Law School graduate on the Supreme Court of the United States. Of the current bunch, only John Paul Stevens didn't take an Ivy League degree -- but, then, he's a WWII vet who came from Northwestern.

Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia, Kennedy and Breyer went to Harvard Law School -- Ms. Kagan's law school alma mater.

Justices Thomas, Alito, and Sotomayor went to Yale Law School.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg didn't graduate from either Harvard or Yale. But she's all Ivy: She went to Cornell University and Columbia Law School. (And Justice Ginsburg started law school at Harvard -- transferring to Columbia, according to her Wikipedia biography, when her husband took a job in New York City.)

With the frontier gone, in an increasingly crowded nation, our American aristocracy will gain an increasingly firm hold on all elite offices and positions. Ours may be the most inclusive, diverse and porous elite in the history of mankind. But don't kid yourself: It's still an aristocracy.

And we are still peasants.

At least until the next frontier opens up opportunities again.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am of the opinion that the Supreme Court is setting itself up for a legal challenge, as to whether or not 1) their opinions are in fact biased due to their common Ivy League education, and 2) they are engaging in discrimination, by limiting the Court to Ivy League Graduates.

The following applies to Kagan, just as it did to Sotomajor.

This editorial was created by 160 Associated Press readers under a Creative Commons Share-Alike Attribution License 3.0 using MixedInk's collaborative writing tool. For more about how it was created, see here. It can be republished only if accompanied by this note.

Obamas Appointment of Sotomayor Fails to Offer Educational Diversity to Court.

Sotomayor does not offer true diversity to our Supreme Court. The potential power of Sotomayor's diversity as a Latina Woman, from a disadvantaged background, loses its strength because her Yale Law degree does not offer educational diversity to the current mix of sitting Judges. Once she walked through the Gates of Princeton and then Yale Law School she became educated by the same Professors that have educated the majority of our current Supreme Court Justices, and our Presidents.

Diversity in education is extremely important. We need to look for diversity in our ideas, and if our leaders are from the same educational background, they lose the original power of their ethnic and gender diversity. The ethnic and gender diversity many of our current leaders possess no longer brings a plethora of new ideas, only the same perspective they learned from their common Ivy League education. One example of the common education problem is that Yale has been heavily influenced by a former lecturer at Yale, Judge Frank, who developed the philosophy of Legal Realism. Frank argued that Judges should not only look at the original intent of the Constitution, but they should also bring in outside influences, including their own experiences in order to determine the law. This negative interpretation has influenced both Conservatives and Liberals graduating from Yale. It has been said that Legal Realism has infested Yale Law School and turned lawyers into political activists.

A generation of appointees with either a Harvard or Yale background, has the potential to distort the proper interpretation of our Constitution. America needs to decentralize the power structure away from the Ivy League educated individual and gain from the knowledgeable and diverse perspectives that people from other institutions can provide. We should appoint Supreme Court Justices educated from amongst a wider group of Americas Universities.

Harvard -

Chief Justice John Roberts
Anthony Kennedy
Antonin Scalia
Stephen Breyer
Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Harvard, Columbia)


Samuel Alito - Yale JD 1975
David Souter
Clarence Thomas - Yale JD 1974
Sonia Sotomayor - Yale JD 1979

Northwestern Law School.

Justice John Paul Stevens

The Presidents we have elected for the last twenty years, have themselves been Harvard or Yale educated. This has the potential to create an even more closed minded interpretation of our laws.

Yale - Bush Sr. - 4 years
Yale Law - Clinton - 8 years
Yale - Bush, Jr. - 8 Years
Harvard Law - Obama - 4 - 8 years

When we consider that our Nation has potentially twenty - eight years of Presidential influece from these two Universities, as Americans, we should look long and hard at the influence Yale and Harvard have exerted on our nation's policies. Barack Obama promised America Change, but he has continued the same discriminatory policy by appointing a Yale graduate over many qualified candidates that graduated from other top Colleges and Universities in America.