Talking with Jesse Kornbluth again, this time about whether Harvard grads get a free pass


Jesse Kornbluth was again good enough to visit my post commenting upon his article lauding Andrew Sullivan as a blogger amongst bloggers. If I was a guy, and he and I had met in person, I would have slapped up on the back with a cheery “Hey, Jesse man, great to see you again.” I’ve discovered that I disagree with Jesse on a whole lot of things, but I certainly appreciate his willingness to come back here and take his stand on the things in which he believes. So, welcome, Jesse, and let me get right to your points.

Because his is a short comment, I’ll first print it in its entirety here, and then take on what I believe to be its fundamental deficiencies. As always, my answer will be longer, because I tend to develop my ideas at greater length. I’ll assume that Jesse does not do so because he is being a polite guest at another’s forum, rather than because he lacks the energy, will or data.

One of your message board commenters has said you’ve heard the last of me. Not so. I was raised to write thank you notes, and I do want to thank you, Bookworm, for taking the time and thought to deal both with my piece and my defense of it.
And I also wish to encourage you. You say you were not among those who doubted Barack Obama’s citizenship, but you do want to investigate his alleged brilliance as a student. You write:
As for me, I’m much more interested in Obama’s college and law school grades. I’d be interested to see whether they support the narrative that he [is] an unusually brilliant man. Since I find his off-teleprompter speech limited, unmusical and ill-informed, I have my doubts.
I can only speak to this investigation as it refers to Harvard. Consider:
BARACK OBAMA
— He was the first African American president in the history of the Harvard Law Journal. [This is generally considered the highest honor you can get at Harvard Law School.]
ANDREW SULLIVAN
— Harkness Fellowship to the Kennedy School
— His Harvard doctoral thesis, “Intimations Pursued: The Voice of Practice in the Conversation of Michael Oakeshott,” won the government department’s Toppan Prize, for the best dissertation “upon a subject of Political Science.”
JESSE KORNBLUTH
summa cum laude thesis, “The Contradictions of Commitment in the Work of George Orwell”
magna cum laude Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature
Just on the record of those three Harvard guys, you should feel encouraged to persist in this effort.
All best.

One of the fundamental differences between Jesse and me is that he thinks Ivy League credentials cover a multitude of sins. I do not. Whether you went to Podunk Community College or Hah-vahd Law, if you’re a dishonorable man (that would be Sullivan) or man who fails to demonstrate a well-furnished mind or any analytical ability (that would be Obama), or perhaps a man who is too forgiving of or naive about those who share his alma mater (Jesse himself), my focus will be on the matter at issue, rather than some yellowing diploma.

Much has been written about Obama’s tenure at Harvard. Indeed, I’ve written on the subject myself, so my regular readers will pardon me for the repetition here.

I attended a premier public, not private, law school at roughly the same time Obama was gracing Harvard’s halls. I was a good student, and a sociable one, so I interacted with many lawyers who worked at huge, well-paying, reputable firms. Rather consistently, they told me that they hired Ivy League grads for the cachet, not because they were any good.

The lawyers’ complaints were always the same: the Ivy Leagues had done away with reliable grading, either because of massive grade inflation or because they’d switched to a pass/fail system. This meant that all the Ivy League (plus the Boalt) graduates they interviewed presented themselves as top-of-the-class brilliant people. For a large percentage of them, this was a lie. From the lawyers’ perspective, hiring one of these grads was like buying a pig in a poke. It was reasonable to assume that the grads were smart because they’d gotten into a cachet school in the first place, but it was fatal to assume that they had the knowledge, skills or attitude necessary to become a good lawyer. If you were lucky, you hired someone wonderful; if you weren’t, you could still boast that your firm was a draw to Ivy League lawyers.

Now that Obama’s past is no longer untouchable, people are revisiting his law school experience. As Ace shows, even absent actual grades, one can figure out a lot of things about Obama’s law school performance.

Using a variety of sources, Ace explains that, when Obama attended Harvard, neither grades nor Law Review were done anonymously. This was quite different from my own experience. At my law school, our tests didn’t have our names, just random numbers, so the professors graded based solely on the test’s quality, not the test taker’s relationship with the professor or the test taker’s skin color. Law Review admission was based upon those same blind grades or upon an essay that was submitted anonymously. Again, no favoritism based upon anything but the work’s quality.

At Harvard, however, grades were not anonymous, which left a lot of wiggle room for those professors committed to affirmative action. Also, when Obama was there, in the interests of that same affirmative action, the Law Review had an explicit set-aside of spaces for blacks. The obvious message to those blacks who made it to Harvard law was that, once there, they didn’t have to try very hard. The driven ones worked hard because it was their nature. As for the less driven ones, though, why bother? You’d still get the perks and honors. Obama’s failure to publish anything of note while on Law Review is so unusual that, in the absence of his academic records, it’s reasonable to assume that he was not one of the driven ones and that he got his august position for reasons other than academic merit.

The magna designation beside Obama’s degree leaves me equally cold. It turns out that about half the Harvard law class was magna. Garrison Keillor must have been thinking of Harvard when he spoke of a place in which “all of the children are above average.”

Because Obama has refused to release any of his academic information, because his off-teleprompter speeches reveal a surprisingly ill-informed man (his is the opposite of a well-furnished mind), because his work history is invisible or lacking in any achievement beyond getting a series of increasingly higher ranking jobs, and because racial preference was rampant in the grade-free environment that was Harvard law, I can’t pretend to be impressed by his diploma. The diploma is a mere piece of paper when compared to a man whose most significant accomplishment seems to be impressing gullible liberals.

Andrew Sullivan’s academic credentials don’t move me either. The world of academia is a hermetically sealed world in which having the right ideas (by which I really mean the Left ideas) regularly trumps the more important markers of decency, morality and common sense. As only a sort of aside, my uncle was reputed to be the most brilliant student ever to graduate from the Jewish Gymnasium in pre-war Berlin. He was also a miserable, angry Communist who ended his days, not in a haze of academic glory, but as a low-level civil servant pushing paper in a small government office in Denmark. His embittered, ugly personality were of much more importance in his life than either his brains or his education (an education far exceeding in quality anything Harvard has to offer).

Sullivan is too old to point to his sheepskin as a mark of intellectual quality. The true evidence of his intellectual and moral quality — or, as I argue, his striking deficiencies in both those categories — is his current work product. As I’ve demonstrated in other posts, so won’t belabor here, that work product is dishonest, disingenuous, lazy, mean-spirited, defamatory, obsessive and antisemitic. But other than that, he’s a great product of America’s finest school.

As for Jesse himself, as one of my readers commented, he graduated with high honors at a time before Harvard’s grading system was corrupted by the modern post-deconstructionist Marxist garbage that passes for education in this day and age (not to mention the fact that professors today are embarrassed to give bad grades to young people whose parents have coughed up $50,000 per year for them to hear the tripe that so often passes for knowledge at schools today). For that, I commend him. He’s clearly a bright man. But my focus has been narrow: I think Jesse betrayed his intelligence and education when he blithely praised Andrew Sullivan, a man with no moral compass and a vicious streak as wide as the Charles.

Back to you, Jesse. You know you’re always welcome here.

Cross-posted at Bookworm Room

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