Karl Rove should be forgiven for countering assumptions about Sonia Sotomayor's intelligence by claiming to know "lots of stupid people who went to Ivy League schools." When Rove entered college in the late 1960's, stupidity was not necessarily a bar to an Ivy League diploma. Admission was, in no small part, a function of social class, and schools maintained stringent exclusionary quotes for women and déclassé minorities, along with exceedingly generous affirmative action programs for white males, especially the children of alumni.
Lots of people who graduated from the Ivy League in Rove's day (and mine) would probably not be admitted today. I don't know if students who gain admission and garner honors in elite schools these days are smarter than their counterparts 30 years ago, but I'm pretty sure they're more accomplished. So much more is required of them.
Still, academic achievement only measures academic ability - not judgment, fairness, or honesty, obviously. People who excel in highly competitive academic environments are not likely to be "stupid," at least not in the ordinary sense of the word, but they may be foolish, self-serving, arrogant, abusive, and utterly untrustworthy. The complicity of so many presumptively smart, well-educated people in wrecking the financial system should surely make us wary of credentialism.
But it seems to have lost none of its power, especially in the legal profession or the Obama administration. Would the president choose a Supreme Court nominee who graduated from an obscure, third tier law school? Not likely. Graduates from lower ranked schools probably need not apply for prestigious clerkships either, as New York Times legal reporter Adam Liptak recently observed, quoting Justice Scalia: "By and large, I'm going to be picking from the law schools that basically are the hardest to get into. They admit the best and the brightest, and they may not teach very well, but you can't make a sow's ear out of a silk purse. If they come in the best and the brightest, they're probably going to leave the best and the brightest, O.K.?"
The best and the brightest? Scalia is old enough to remember that the late David Halberstam used that phrase ironically to describe the presumptively brilliant Ivy Leaguers of the Kennedy Administration responsible for the disastrous Vietnam War. But he's not alone in his naiveté. As Frank Rich observed months ago, people who should have known better repeatedly praised Obama's advisers and cabinet members as the best and the brightest, with no sense of history, much less skepticism.
Not that you need familiarity with 20th century history to appreciate the dangerous deceptiveness of the halo effect conferred by prestigious degrees and reputations. You need only consider the Madoff debacle and apparent, gross failures of due diligence by supposedly savvy, sophisticated investors, like Walter Noel, whose Fairfield Greenwich Group was Madoff's largest feeder. Describe Noel's strengths, Frontline recently asked a former FGG sales assistant: "He had a degree from Vanderbilt University [in Nashville], and then he got his J.D. from Harvard ...His strengths are that he was very presentable..." Ezra Merkin, who reportedly fed $2.4 billion to Madoff, for nearly $500 million in fees, is a Columbia College and Harvard Law School graduate. Of course, Merkin and Noel may have assiduously avoided exercising diligence (their failures may well have been ethical, not intellectual) but whether victims or accomplices, their ability to attract the money they channeled to Madoff can only have been enhanced by their credentials. Sometimes an Ivy League degree is just a pretty face, and sometimes there's a portrait in the attic.