The Deflation of the Academic Brand

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks at the Netroots Nation conference in New Orleans, La., August 4, 2018. (Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)
When self-professed experts are wrong over and over, for decades, what’s the value of a university degree?

Trumpism is sometimes derided as an updated know-nothingism that rejects expertise and the input of credentialed expertise. Supposedly, professionals who could now save us tragically have their talent untapped as they sit idle at the Council on Foreign Relations, the economics Department at Harvard, or in the offices of the Brookings Institution — even as Trump’s wheelers and dealers crash and burn, too proud, too smelly, or too ignorant to call in their betters to come in and save Trump from himself.

But do the degreed classes, at least outside math, the sciences, engineering, and medicine, merit such esteem anymore?

Anthony Scaramucci’s Harvard Law degree seemed no guarantee of the Mooch’s circumspection, sobriety, or good judgement.

Bruce Ohr’s similar degree did not ensure either common sense or simple ethics. Or, on the contrary, perhaps at Harvard he learned that progressive ends justify any means necessary to obtain them. In any case, Ohr thought there was nothing wrong in keeping quiet about his spouse’s work on the discredited Steele dossier, or indeed in aiding and abetting the seeding of it, while he was the fourth-ranking official at Trump’s Department of Justice.

The Mueller team — along with a group of now disgraced, reassigned, and retired officers at the top echelons of the FBI, the descent of ex-CIA head John Brennan and ex-DIA chief James Clapper into caricature, the shenanigans of unmaskings and leaking at the Obama National Security Council, the warping of the FISA courts, the disingenuous operatives at Fusion GPS, and the implantation of informants into the Trump campaign — recalls the arrogant self-righteousness of the degreed geniuses who took us into Vietnam.

But this time around, the “best and brightest” (remember the media’s hagiographic praise of Mueller’s “all-stars” and “dream team”) would save us from Trump — much as John F. Kennedy’s and Lyndon Johnson’s whiz kids would deliver us from the North Vietnamese.

The liberal Washington Post recently fact-checked some of the claims of the new socialist candidate for Congress in New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She has often boasted of her college erudition. (“How many other House Democrats have a degree in economics like I do?”) Indeed, Ocasio-Cortez has repeatedly noted that she graduated fourth in her class at Boston University, with a joint degree in economics and international relations. Yet most of her major statements that she has made since coming onto the national scene have proven either wrong or unhinged.

In an interview on the rebirthed Firing Line, the international-relations major was forced to admit that she knew relatively little about the facts on the ground in the Israeli–Palestinian dispute, other than boilerplate left-wing anti-Israeli talking points. She claimed that the unemployment rate is low because “everyone has two jobs” In truth, only one in 20 do, about 5 percent of the American workforce.

Crazier was her statement that the “upper middle class does not exist anymore.” In fact, its numbers are at a near all-time high, nearly encompassing one-third of adults.

A series of Ocasio-Cortez’s assertions about Medicare and Obamacare turn out to be equally fallacious. She claimed that ICE had a “bed quota” that had to be filled by unsuspecting immigrants. That too is a false statement. ICE keeps a minimum of 34,000 beds for surges of detainees, but it is absurd to suggest that the agency must keep them filled.

No doubt Ocasio-Cortez, at 28, is still young and inexperienced. But when she refers to her own supposedly stellar academic record, and then in a series of statements illustrates how poorly educated she is, one wonders, What exactly is the value of $300,000 Boston University degree?

We could ask the same about Sarah Jeong’s UC Berkeley B.A. and Harvard Law degrees. Years of Jeong’s racist tweets surfaced, creating a firestorm, shortly after the New York Times hired her as a writer and member of the editorial board. Responding to critics, the Times noted that it had reviewed Jeong’s social-media history before hiring her.

Given her lack of prior publications (other than The Internet of Garbage) and accomplishments, it is hard to ascertain what on her résumé earned her the New York Times billet other than her clearly anti-white, anti-male, and anti-nuclear-family prejudices. And like Ocasio-Cortez, Jeong combined her smugness with puerile ignorance.

Jeong thought her banal and shop-worn comparisons of Trump to Hitler were somehow proof of her own genius: “I was equating Trump to Hitler before it was cool.” She lauded herself: “How f***ing prescient was I on Trump = Hitler.” (She did not use asterisks.) Actually, not very at all — given, most recently, the near daily dreary brown shirt/Hitler/Mussolini slurs leveled at George W. Bush during the Iraq War.

Narcissism, superciliousness, and tragic buffoonery combined to produce another Jeong declaration: “White people have stopped breeding. You’ll all go extinct soon. This was my plan all along.” As a self-described Hitler expert, she might have known that others had predated her on matters of a “plan” for racial extinction. (In her doomsday predictions of a self-induced white holocaust, Jeong, a South Korean immigrant, seems unaware that the fertility rate for South Korean immigrants is among the lowest of all immigrant groups — and lower than that of native-born households.)

Jeong, the Harvard Law graduate and veteran of gender-studies advocacies, seems obsessed with comic-book-style theories of race: “Are white people genetically predisposed to burn faster in the sun, thus logically being only fit to live underground like groveling goblins.”

Jeong seems to be channeling either the crackpot melanin theories of former professor Leonard Jeffries (Ph.D., Columbia, 1971) who postulated an inferior “ice people” of cruel and brutal whites, set against a superior “sun people” of compassionate and calm blacks. Or perhaps she is echoing H. G. Wells’s dystopian notion of light-sensitive, white, flaxen-haired — and cannibalistic — Morlocks in The Time Machine, who dwell deep and goblin-like in the earth.

The subtexts of the statements of Ocasio-Cortez and Jeong are that our top schools are obsessed with race, class, and gender but apparently not rigorous in cross-examining the fables and pop fads of their students. Had either Ocasio-Cortez or Jeong been required to take an exit test to receive a B.A., they might not have been stamped with any certification of education.

It is growing harder and harder to equate elite university branding with proof of knowledge. Barack Obama, another Harvard Law graduate, proved this depressing fact a number of times when he asserted that the Maldives were the Falklands, “corpsmen” was pronounced with a hard p, Austrians spoke a language called Austrian, there were 57 states, and Hawaii was in Asia.

Joe Biden, another law-school graduate, once stated that George W. Bush should have addressed the nation on television the way FDR did after the stock crash: “When the stock market crashed, Franklin Roosevelt got on the television . . .”  Biden apparently forgot that FDR was not president in 1929 and that TVs weren’t introduced to the public until 1939.

The point is not to cite egregious anecdotes but rather to reflect on why Americans have pretty much lost faith in their degreed elite. On most of the major issues of the last 40 years, what we were told by economists, foreign-policy experts, pundits, and the media has proven wrong — and doubly wrong given the emphases placed on such assertions by the supposedly better-educated professional classes.

On matters of non-proliferation, almost no one foresaw the sudden emergence of a nuclear Pakistan or North Korea. Post–Saddam Hussein’s Iraq turned out to be largely incapable of sustaining a Western-style democracy. Bombing Libya into an urban desert was insane given the alternative of Qaddafi’s recent efforts at recalibration. Free-market economics and tolerance for Chinese violations of trade and commercial protocols did not result in either the liberalization or the democratization of China. Over the past two decades, we have been told that the Japanese, the European Union, and the Chinese successively would eclipse America with their respective superior paradigms.

Because so often liberal ideology is deeply embedded within higher education, bias is a force multiplier of ignorance, as if being politically correct can excuse being flat-out wrong.

Few foresaw the 2008 economic meltdown, much less the prior disastrous effect of ensuring government-backed sub-prime-rate mortgage loans to people utterly unable to meet their payments. The subsequent slowest recovery in modern times, after the 2008 meltdown, reminded us that no expert in the Obama administration knew much about “shovel-ready jobs,” or why near-zero interest rates, huge stimuli and debt, more regulations, and Obamacare had ossified the economy. The experts who assured us of the supposedly money-saving Affordable Care Act or the wisdom of the Iran deal expressed contempt for the public but delivered little to justify their smugness.

Because so often liberal ideology is deeply embedded within higher education, bias is a force multiplier of ignorance, as if being politically correct can excuse being flat-out wrong. Paul Krugman’s prediction of a permanent stock-market crash after Trump’s victory or Larry Summers’s dismissal of 3 percent growth in the Trump years as a “fantasy” did not reveal deep learning or years of high-priced expertise.

Most of the brightest and best-credentialed of our pollsters and pundits squabbled in the closing days of 2016 over how little chance Donald Trump had to get elected. The New York Times on the eve of the voting reported that the most reputable polling firms could not agree on whether Trump had a 15 percent, 8 percent, 2 percent, or less than 1 percent of winning the election. Such pseudo-scientific precision could not cloak the ignorance and political bias of our polling experts.

In truth, elite education has become a cattle brand. It signifies lots of things other than knowledge: for some, politically correct certification; for others, good test scores and grades that got them in; for a few, later entry into the alumni ranks of high business, law, academia, government, and the media.

Old-boy networks, alumni giving, affirmative action, sports, and diversity have pretty much put an end to classical meritocratic admissions. That decline of standards in admissions is perversely ironic, because at about the same time, a new campus ethos of grade inflation was predicated on the self-important notion that if you were smart enough to get into Princeton or Harvard, then Harvard and Princeton would make the necessary adjustments and concessions to make sure you graduated.

The result of self-congratulation is that a Stanford graduate now usually knows less history than his Hillsdale counterpart. A successful self-made businessman can know a lot more about the economy than does a Harvard M.B.A., and a state-college graduate is likely to have better ethical bearings that the Clintons with their Yale Law degrees.

The Trump revolution is often attributed to the angry pushback of the deplorables and irredeemables and all those who lacked the knack for getting with the global agenda. Perhaps. But it was also a popular consensus that our experts in government, the university, and the media were not very expert, and the résumés and letters behind their names increasingly denoted nothing much at all.

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