‘I Got Into Yale’ Isn’t a Moral Defense

When Brett Kavanaugh found his conduct in question on Thursday, he twice responded by referring to his Ivy League degrees.


On Thursday, as he testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh responded to more questions about beer than he probably would have liked.

At one point, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse pursued a line of questioning about the “Beach Week Ralph Club,” a phrase that appeared in Kavanaugh’s yearbook next to his senior photo. Kavanaugh told Whitehouse that “Ralph” probably referred to vomiting, something that Kavanaugh attributed to his “weak stomach, whether it’s with beer or with spicy food or anything.” Whitehouse asked if the “Ralph Club” reference had to do specifically with alcohol, and Kavanaugh responded:

Senator, I was at the top of my class academically, busted my butt in school. Captain of the varsity basketball team. Got in Yale College. When I got into Yale College, got into Yale Law School. Worked my tail off.

It was a deflection, but the particular shield he raised was telling. His response seems to suggest a belief that a prestigious education stands as evidence of moral rightness.

He offered the same defense when Senator Mazie Hirono brought up the fact that Kavanaugh’s freshman-year roommate recently remembered him as “a notably heavy drinker, even by the standards of the time.” First, Kavanaugh questioned his former roommate’s motives for saying such a thing. But then he said, “Senator, you were asking about college. I got into Yale Law School. That’s the number-one law school in the country. I had no connections there. I got there by busting my tail in college.”

In those two exchanges, Kavanaugh treated his education as a magic wand, something that could be waved to dispel questions of his conduct. Indeed, Americans have a particular fondness for meritocratic narratives, frequently conflating achievements and hard work with human worth. And as deserving as they tend to think the wealthy and accomplished are of their money and success, it’s likely that luck gets underrated as a cause of them, as the economist Robert Frank has argued. (The word meritocracy was actually coined satirically, in an attempt to show how cruel the world would be if the intelligent and accomplished received preferable treatment.)

It should go without saying, but there are all sorts of bad actors who have attended prestigious universities. The convicted insider trader Raj Rajaratnam, the former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling, and the convicted killer Lyle Menendez were all admitted to Ivy League institutions. The Unabomber, who killed three and injured 23 with letter bombs in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, went to Harvard. That doesn’t mean that Kavanaugh is among them, but it is a reminder that attending a prestigious school isn’t in and of itself revealing of anyone’s moral character in any direction. It is telling, however, that Kavanaugh pointed to his credentials when trying to prove his own.