The original justification for elite higher education in the United States was to train the future leaders of American democracy. As Charles W Eliot, who became president of Harvard in 1869, noted, Harvard existed to inculcate the ideals of “service and stewardship”.
Since then, Harvard has produced eight US presidents; Yale, five. (Stanford can boast Herbert Hoover, if it feels compelled to do so.)
Elite universities have also produced a disproportionate number of senators and representatives from both parties. In fact, Republicans elected to the Senate over the last decade are more likely than their Democratic counterparts to have attended Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Stanford.
So how to explain Elise Stefanik, Harvard class of 2006, now the third-ranking House Republican, who recently called the January 6 hearings a “partisan witch-hunt”, voted to invalidate the 2020 election, and has repeated Trump’s big lie of election fraud?
Or Josh Hawley, Stanford class of 2002 and Yale law class of 2006, now senator from Missouri, who in December 2020 became the first US senator to announce plans to object to the certification of Joe Biden’s victory, then led Senate efforts to overturn the electoral college vote count, and fist-bumped the rioters on January 6?
Or Ted Cruz, Princeton class of 1992 and Harvard law class of 1995, now senator from Texas, who in late 2020 joined in John Eastman’s and Trump’s plot to object to the election results in six swing states and delay accepting the electoral college results on January 6, potentially enabling Republican state legislatures to overturn them?
And how to explain a new crop of Republican Senate candidates?
JD Vance, Yale Law class of 2013, now Republican candidate for the Senate from Ohio, has claimed that there “were certainly people voting illegally on a large-scale basis” in the 2020 election. When asked earlier this year if he thought the 2020 election was “stolen”, he said, “Yeah, I do.”
Blake Masters, Stanford class of 2008 and Stanford law class of 2012, now the Republican candidate for the Senate from Arizona, has declared in campaign ads that “Trump won”. He promotes rightwing “replacement theory” – that Democrats favor illegal immigration “so that someday they can ‘amnesty’ these people and make them voters who they expect to vote Democrat”.
These alumni of America’s finest institutions of higher education haven’t adhered to their alma maters’ ideals of service and stewardship of American democracy. In fact, they’re actively wrecking American democracy.
Nor can these elite graduates claim they don’t know any better. Most third-graders can distinguish a lie from the truth.
No, these scions of the most prestigious halls of American academe are knowingly and intentionally abetting the most dangerous attack on American democracy since the civil war.
Whatever did they learn from their rarefied education? Obviously, zilch.
The core of a good liberal arts education is ethics. The central question is the meaning of a good society. This has been the case since the 18th century, when most of America’s prestigious institutions of higher education were founded.
Adam Smith, the progenitor of modern economics, didn’t call his field economics. He called it “moral philosophy”, and thought his book The Theory of Moral Sentiments more important than his The Wealth of Nations.
Edmund Burke – Irish statesman and philosopher, and godfather of modern conservatism – didn’t advise that people in public life seek power above all else. He argued that they owe the public their “judgment and conscience”.
There is no single answer to the meaning of a good society, of course. It is the pursuit of it that draws on one’s judgment and conscience. This is why higher education has advanced the role of reason in human affairs and stood for the Enlightenment values of democracy and the rule of law.
But this new crop of Republican pretenders hasn’t learned anything of the kind. They are practitioners of a much earlier and more cynical set of ideas: that might makes right, that the purpose of human endeavor is to gain power, and that ambition and treachery trump (excuse the verb) all other values.
I can’t help wondering: what do they see when they look in the mirror each morning? And what do they tell themselves after a day of deceit?
Any of them who tries to justify the despicable means they are employing by telling themselves they can do more good by gaining or keeping power is under a dangerous illusion. As the great civil rights leader Bayard Rustin once said, “If we desire a society that is democratic, then democracy must become a means as well as an end.”
These products of the best education America has to offer are betraying the core values of America.
They deserve only shame.
Robert Reich, a former US secretary of labor, is professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and the author of Saving Capitalism: For the Many, Not the Few and The Common Good. His new book, The System: Who Rigged It, How We Fix It, is out now. He is a Guardian US columnist. His newsletter is at robertreich.substack.com