What's Wrong With an Ivy League Justice?

The backlash against Elena Kagan's attendance at two of the nation's top schools

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Elena Kagan was an undergraduate at Princeton and attended Harvard Law, where she later served as dean. Before Kagan's nomination was announced, however, some pundits had hoped Obama would nominate someone who had attended non-Ivy League schools. It hasn't taken long, then, for this group to express their displeasure with the pick.

The anti-Ivy camp got a boost from David Brooks, whose column this week argued Kagan was too much of an "Organization Kid"--the type of cautious overachiever he thinks dominates the nation's elite institutions. But there's much more to this view than "organization kids" or the traditional "Ivy Leaguers can't understand us" beef. Here's what's being said about Kagan's educational background:

  • Ivy Overdose  David Bernstein at The Volokh Conspiracy acknowledges that "Harvard and Yale attract a disproportionate percentage of America's talented youth." But looking at the record, he still wonders if this "isn't ... a bit much":
The president went to Harvard, and barely defeated a primary opponent who went to Yale. His predecessor went to Yale and Harvard, and defeated opponents who went to Yale and Harvard, and Harvard, respectively. The previous two presidents also went to Yale, with Bush I defeating another Harvard grad for the presidency. And once Elena Kagan gets confirmed, every Supreme Court Justice will have attended Harvard or Yale law schools.
  • Ivy League Brand = Protection in Confirmation Fight, Glenn Reynolds, himself a law professor at the University of Tennessee, reminds readers at the New York Post. It's similar, he says to how " in the old days corporate purchasing agents used to say that nobody got fired for buying IBM." Bernstein may rail against Ivy League prominence on the court, but that's exactly what makes "Ivy League hires ... easier to defend," says Reynolds. 
  • Ivy League Students Not Humble, Not Us ... But Maybe Objective?  "So much for public education, and boohoo for those of us who were rejected from, say, Columbia or, um, didn't even bother to apply to an Ivy because we have low self-esteem," write Washington Post staff writers Sarah Kaufman and Dan Zak. They report the argument that "an Ivy League diploma ... has become shorthand for: This person is objective and scientific, and will come to the single best decision unswayed by personal bias." But they also quote a sociology professor on the disadvantage of the Ivy League diploma: "'Harvard and Yale are, by any standard, great educational institutions, but it is not one of their strengths to instill in their students a sense of humility,' says Jerome Karabel."
  • Is It Meritocracy If It All Gets Decided in Your Twenties?  Politics Daily's Walter Shapiro raises an interesting point in between cheap shots about Ivy Leaguers' "country club dues":
This is one of those moments when you sense that American democracy is more of a rigged game than they taught you back in high school civics classes. Few object to a meritocracy in which people, regardless of family backgrounds, are judged by what they have accomplished in life. But should that binding decision have been made by the admissions committees at two law schools when the applicants were still in their early 20s?
  • 'Elite (n.)'  FireDogLake writer Jim Moss pulls the definition of the word from Merriam Webster: "1. the choice part; cream 2. the best of a class 3. the socially superior part of society." He says that concern about the Ivy League being overrepresented on the Supreme Court is "actually valid," though the "elitist spin against Kagan mines a much deeper psychology." Simply put, Democrats tend to focus on the first two definitions of the word "elite," believing that political leaders "should be the best and the brightest and the cream of the crop." Republicans, though, have hit on political gold: they've "discovered the third part of the definition of 'elite', the one that touches a nerve with the people who occupy the bottom half of the socio-economic ladder." Democrats are doubtless guilty of "infantiliz[ing]" this bottom half, but Moss makes it clear: the Republican courting of this bottom half is a strategy--"these are the people who needed health care reform the most, but who screamed the loudest against it." Democrats need to figure out a way "to derail the elitist spin machine."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.