Harvard, Yale and the Making of American Presidents

Everywhere I look now there seems to be discussion about the nature of elite universities and their role in – using the words of Nicolas Lemann (The New Yorker, May 28, 2012, p. 24) – “controlling access to life membership in the elite”.

Lemann also reminds us of the high degree of alignment between the top universities and national political leadership in the USA:

Now that we know that either Obama or Romney will be President next year, we also know that, from 1989 through at least 2017, every President of the United States will have had a degree from either Harvard or Yale, or in the case of George W. Bush, both  That could be a three-decade accident, or it may be a sign of something lasting – the educational version of the inequality surge, elevating the “one per cent” institutions far above the rest.

This phenomenon has been clear for a while.  Bob Greene (CNN) wrote about it in April 2012 and the Harvard Gazette noted it back in November 2008.  For the record, the following eight Presidents all graduated Harvard, the institution which has produced the most people to hold the nation’s top office:

–          Barack Obama (J.D., 1991)

–          George W. Bush (M.B.A. 1975)

–          John F. Kennedy (S.B. 1940)

–          Franklin D. Roosevelt (A.B. 1903)

–          Theodore Roosevelt (A.B. 1880)

–          Rutherford B. Hayes (LLB. 1845)

–          John Quincy Adams A.B. 1787, A.M. 1790

–          John Adams (A.B. 1755, A.M. 1758)

And Yale clocks in with the following five Presidents:

–          George W. Bush (B.A. 1968)

–          Bill Clinton (Law 1973)

–          George H. W. Bush  (B.A. 1948)

–          Gerald Ford (Law 1941)

–          William H. Taft (B.A. 1878)

And finally, here is the list of other universities which have produced more than one President:

–          William and Mary (3): George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Tyler

–          Princeton (2): James Madison, Woodrow Wilson

–          West Point (2): Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight Eisenhower

–          Columbia (2): Barack Obama (undergrad), Franklin D. Roosevelt (post-grad)

I write with some knowledge about elite American universities, having attended two Ivy League colleges – Dartmouth and Cornell – and receiving my Bachelors degree from the latter.  Again, for the record, here is my brief potted history of American colleges:  I applied to eight colleges out of high school – five “Ivies” – Dartmouth, Brown, Yale, Princeton and University of Pennsylvania, and to three others – Union, Middlebury and Rutgers.  I was accepted at Dartmouth, Middlebury, Union and Rutgers and enrolled at Dartmouth because (a) a close friend was there and (b) it was the most prestigious place to accept me.  I left Dartmouth after one year and somewhat later (after more than a few life adventures) applied to and was accepted by Cornell (College of Arts and Sciences), where I graduated with my B.A. (or A.B., as they called it there, in the great Ivy tradition).

The year after I graduated Cornell, I lived in Boston and took an “extension” course at Harvard University in city and regional planning taught by Professor Lawrence Mann.  When I applied for Masters degree programs in city planning, I was accepted by Harvard, UCLA and the University of California at Berkeley (but rejected, I hasten to add, by Massachusetts Institute of Technology).  I consulted Mann about my choice, and he had three words of advice:  “Go to Berkeley.”  So I did and received my Masters degree from there.  But, I can say, I ALMOST went to Harvard for grad school.  To complete the circle, in April of this year, I received my PhD from Macquarie University here in Sydney, having originally started a PhD at Flinders University in Adelaide many years before and yet a prior PhD at Macquarie as well.

Thus I write with some experience about the American college system.  And I can tell you that the nature of American elite colleges is not a new phenomenon:  my own choices (five Ivy League applications) indicate that.  And Dartmouth at the time?  I still hold the “Freshman book” (the Dartmouth precursor of what turned into “Facebook”), with some 800 fresh faces.  At least one third attended elite private prep schools in the northeast.  About fifty percent were first team football players and I think a staggering 10 percent (yes, some 80 students) were captains of their football teams (I was not).

Elite is not new. Mitt Romney, George W. Bush and Barack Obama are the inheritors of a tradition of “Harvard men” that extends back to the second American President – yes to John Adams.  Now, that’s history, and in this case elite tertiary education easily trumps racial differences.  Would Obama have become President if he had attended Howard University or Spelman College, both historically “black” institutions?  I suspect not.  Which may lead us to conclude that while racism may be fading (but by no means gone, more on that another time), elite education – as a concept, theme and necessity to enter the “power elite” – lives on stronger than ever.

Postscript:  For this reason, it may not be odd that I have just finished a rather unique and highly engaging novel about American college admissions:  appropriately called Admission, by Jean Hanff Korelitz, the book’s main character is an admissions officer at Princeton University (which Korelitz once was) and holds a bachelors degree from Dartmouth (Korelitz again).  I am not certain what form of Ivy League coincidence is taking place, but the previous novel I finished this year was The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides.  All of the major characters of that book attended Brown University.

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