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Obama and the Crisis of Elite Education

Do the troubles of the Obama administration point to problems in the way America educates its rising leaders? Over at Real Clear Politics, Peter Berkowitz argues forcefully in the affirmative. After listing way after way the Obama administration has been ignorant of truths that it should have known, or has acted on an exaggerated sense of what it could achieve, Berkowitz looks for an explanation in the kind of education our elites receive today:

The president and the officials around him are the product of the same progressive version of higher education that simultaneously excises politics from the study of government and public policy while politicizing education. This higher education denigrates experience; exalts rational administration; reveres abstract moral reasoning; confidently counts on the mainstream press to play for the progressive political team; accords to words fabulous abilities to remake reality; and believes itself to speak for the people while haughtily despising their way of life. The education President Obama received at Columbia University and Harvard Law School — and delivered to others as a lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School — encourages the fantasy of a political world subject to almost limitless manipulation by clever and well-orchestrated images. This explains why the harsh exigencies and intractable forces of politics keep stunning the president, each new time as if it were the very first.

Berkowitz goes on to propose some ways schools could reform their curriculum to give rising leaders a better grasp of the skills they will need to govern well. Read the whole thing to get a sense of his proposals. Certainly the need for the kind of liberal education that is deeply rooted in history has never seemed greater than it seems now.

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  • Andrew Allison

    I’d like to offer a counter-argument, namely that the problem lies in the education of those who thoughtlessly elect, and continually re-elect, so-called “leaders” who have little-or-no real-world experience.

  • Anthony

    WRM, Peter Berkowitz’s argument is thoughtful but he cavalierly omits the overall selection process, a process imbued with cultural, political and class interests (facilitating the interests of the ‘selector’ to operate as censor). So at some level, output (elite graduates) reflects intention to maintain and reproduce itself (democracy and life subverts and interferes).

  • wigwag

    How about passing a constitutional amendment prohibiting alumni of Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Columbia from serving as President of the United States? We might lose a good president or two but it would be more than made up for by the cretins and morons who would be precluded from serving (George W. Bush and Barack Obama come to mind).

    There seems to be a misunderstanding that these institutions of higher education are American gems; they’re not. In the past two decades they’ve come to exemplify so much of what’s gone wrong with our country.

    While I’m not a Scott Walker fan, the Governor isn’t even a college graduate. Who knows, this could be his greatest strength.

  • Bruce

    Once again, VM seems to imply that the reason things are in such bad shape is because well meaning people have miscalculated and let the idealism they are taught in college interfere with governing realities. The truth is that when you have power hungry elitists in control, they don’t particularly care about the greater good. They care about their power. It’s not unreasonable to suspect that a higher percentage of these elitists than many imagine are psychopaths. As other commenters have mentioned, this leads back to the real problem and that is that the electorate puts these power grubbers in office.

  • Palinurus

    Decades ago, Lionel Trilling said much the same thing: that the weakness of what he called liberalism, and we would call progressive thought, was evident in liberals always being surprised. For Trilling, this was the sign of a failure of imagination; liberals divided the world into two camps and were certain theirs was the good camp. Their naive dualism blinded them to, among other things, the ways in which trying to do good can produce bad results via unintended consequences, unacknowledged ulterior motives, or fanatical zeal.

    Trilling prescribed the inculcation of a sort of moral realism through the careful study of literature. Such works, if given their due attention, could flesh out the consequences of abstract ideas and dissolve the easy formula of ideology; cultivate an awareness of the contradictions, paradoxes, and dangers of living a moral life; and, above all, provoke critical self-examination.

    Whether Berkowitz’s invocation of Trilling is conscious or not, there is much irony in it. The neo-con persuasion, of which Berkowitz is a proponent, was meant to remediate these very ills of liberalism. Indeed, Trilling thought that a vital, acute conservative political thought was essential to the well-being of liberalism; as J.S. Mill put it, even if conservative political thought were an absurdity – and, really, what else could it be in America – it was well calculated to drive out a hundred worse absurdities by putting liberals to the test.

    Given the current state of the neo-cons and conservatives generally, one cannot help but wonder if the fault for liberalism’s woes is not at least in part attributable to the follies of conservative political thought.

  • lukelea

    “Certainly the need for the kind of liberal education that is deeply rooted in history has never seemed greater than it seems now.”

    I’ll give three cheers to that!

  • Corlyss

    Berkowitz is doing the same thing that VM routinely does, i.e., politely ignore the glaringly obvious: it’s ideological obduracy and resulting willful blindness that accounts for what Obama and Val and ‘Chelle don’t know and don’t want to know. Why is this such a difficult hurdle to cross? What keeps them from conclusions they would rapidly make if they were dealing with a co-worker, a peer, or, apparently, just about anyone but Dear Leader? It’s as if they just couldn’t bring themselves to tell their sister that she has spinach in her teeth just before she goes out on an important date. We the people who do not have your experience and learning in matters of state depend on you for your honesty and candor. When you can’t bring yourself to drive to conclusions you are all thinking in the backs of your minds, why the heck should we look to you for guidance?

  • Fat_Man

    There is no portion of the American Educational system that is not messed up to a fare-the-well.

    The elite colleges are a part of the system. QED.

    A couple of suggestions aimed at that segment of the system, that could be easily implemented by Congress, that would improve the situation quite a bit.

    First, no applications for admission could be considered until the applicant has completed high school. SATs/ACTs would have to be taken after graduation as well. It would pretty much require kids to take at least a year off and get out in the world.

    Second, the Colleges should be required to accept applicants by a lottery. The lottery pool would consist of those students who meet the colleges minimum application requirements in objective terms, e.g. GPA, SAT?ACT scores, etc.

    The schools would set the minimum based on the previous batch of 4 year graduates. If most of them could get through with a high school 3.5, and 1200 SATs, then all the 3.5/1200s would be in the pool.

    It would allow bright kids who do not have the fancy private school backgrounds or $25,000 admissions coaches a reasonable shot at getting in.

    It would also incentivize the colleges to maintain their standards by increasing the rigor of their courses and the grading.

  • Boritz

    Various groups need educating or more educating but which group is most in need of education? Alas it is the people with multiple letters after their names.

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