Poor Standard Bearers

by Dave Schuler on May 12, 2014

In researching quite a different post I stumbled across an interesting little factoid. The last American president to attend public schools from kindergarten through college was Jimmy Carter.

Of post-war presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Johnson, Ford, and Carter attended exclusively public schools through college.

Nixon, Reagan, and Clinton attended public schools through high school and private schools for higher education.

George W. Bush attended a public grammar school and private educational institutions thereafter.

Kennedy, George H. W. Bush, and Obama all attended exclusively private schools.

In other words until George H. W. Bush public education was the norm for American presidents during the post-war period.

I don’t think that can be explained by a decline in the system of public education. I think the only viable explanation is that we’ve become increasingly elitist over the last 30 years.

Present Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has only attended private schools. He’s now our primary standard bearer for public education. Not precisely a shining exemplar. I think there’s something wrong with this picture.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

steve May 12, 2014 at 12:12 pm

It is how you get into the elite colleges. Going to public school and doing stuff like working part-time counts against you. Private schools and trips to Indonesia (or somewhere) get you into those top schools.


Guarneri May 12, 2014 at 12:52 pm

I attended a parent/counselor meeting at our daughter’s school last Thursday. The subject was college admissions. Main takeaways:

1) Arguing against themselves (Benet is private and with the second highest ACT scores of high schools in IL) they said the number one criterion is GPA. Period, full stop. When queried about a “Benet GPA” vs,, say, a District 204 (public, and widely believed to be easier) GPA they responded that the absolute number ruled for admissions. The “Benet advantage” is that they had to work their butts off to get it, and that this work ethic was the real magic down the road. Related: honors classes are fine, but better an “A” in regular than a “B” in honors.

2) Arguing against themselves, they produced graphs of GPA vs ACT score for various schools and their admits. The slope was very steep along ACT. That is, a wide range of ACT scores were admitted, but the position of the line for GPA was crucial and tight.

3) Since very difficult to get accepted schools had their pick of the litter, the peripherals (“hooks”) that created differentiation generally tended to be 1-2 real extracurriculars, especially if for 4 years and progression or leadership positions was/were shown/achieved. “Trips to Indonesia” were described as “trips of privilege” and actually counted about zero.

Work hard, make your grades, get an acceptable ACT and pick a school that fits.

Dave Schuler May 12, 2014 at 12:57 pm

It is how you get into the elite colleges.

That’s another way of saying the same thing. The notions that a) you can only get a good education at one of the elite universities or b) if you went to an elite university you got a good education or c) if you went to an elite university you have more potential than someone who didn’t are claptrap, plain and simple. What you get by going to an elite university is status, full stop.

... May 12, 2014 at 1:15 pm

What you get by going to an elite university is status, full stop.

Yeah, and? That’s what matters. Everything else is bullshit. Welcome to Twenty-first Century America.

Get in the right schools and you can be a character out of Evelyn Waugh novels: a total fuck-up who will not be allowed to fail. It explains the last two presidents and many of their key advisers. (Tim Geithner, I’m looking at you.)

... May 12, 2014 at 1:20 pm

I think there’s something wrong with this picture.

No, the picture is clear. The people running the country don’t want competition, so they’ve got no interest in public schools getting any better. None whatsoever, not competition for themselves, and certainly not for their children and grandchildren. So they continue to do the kinds of things that have failed in the past.

BUT! They do so by spending ever greater amounts of money on public education. This gives them more power concentrated in the governmental sector and shores up an important voting block for one of the factions in power. Plus, every damned pol can run on fixing education and their support for teachers and all the rest of it. A failing education system is pure gold for the people running the country.

Again, a medium-sized dose of cynicism explains things handily.

Guarneri May 12, 2014 at 1:57 pm

“What you get by going to an elite university is status, full stop.
Yeah, and? That’s what matters. Everything else is bullshit.”

I dono, guys. I went to Purdue Engineering. Doesn’t hold a candle to MIT’s rep, although my thesis prof was formerly an MIT prof.

In the real world we had two MIT grads working with us, and a Northwestern. Academic high achievers but industrial/practical clowns, and they went nowhere. Purdue, Lehigh, Mich State, Ga Tech, Navy, IL etc. Those folks went somewhere.

And this from a guy who ultimately went University of Chicago, which took me very far indeed.

Very situational.

jan May 12, 2014 at 2:04 pm

“I think the only viable explanation is that we’ve become increasingly elitist over the last 30 years.”

I agree. And, it is these “elitists” who run the country, making their decisions based on little of what most of the country is experiencing. Consequently, they support unionized public education for others, for the “good’ of the masses, while they send their own kids to either private or upper class neighborhood schools. There is virtually ‘no choice’ available for the vast majority of students out there. And, when charter or alternative types of education begin to challenge public education you get people like the current DOJ, the heavy-handed school unions in the fray, beating them down.

PD Shaw May 12, 2014 at 5:48 pm

If only Drew had gone to Eureka college; he would have made something of himself.

I’m not sure all private and public schools can be readily characterized as of the same type. A quick search of Presidents that went to Ivy League Schools, shows:

John Adams (Harvard), James Madison (Princeton), John Quincy Adams (Harvard), Rutherford Hayes (Harvard), Theodore Roosevelt (Harvard), William Howard Taft (Yale), Woodrow Wilson (Princeton), Franklin Roosevelt (Harvard), John Kennedy (Harvard), Gerald Ford (Yale), George H.W. Bush (Yale), Bill Clinton (Yale), George Bush (Yale/Harvard), and Barack Obama (Harvard).

And so I think we’re largely just talking about Yale, Harvard and Princeton here, a pattern that emerged in the early 20th century. PRobably too many lawyers, and also decreasing military background.

Dave Schuler May 12, 2014 at 5:55 pm


The point is the change in the post-war pattern. For most of the 19th century it was pretty much assumed that presidents would be children of the aristocracy. There were exceptions (Jackson, Lincoln) but that’s what they were—exceptions. It’s not terribly surprising that few presidents attended public schools prior to 1900. There wasn’t much in the way of a public school system.

But after 1900 there was and after the war it really looked as though things had changed—Kennedy was the exception at that point. Now it looks as though things have changed back.

BTW I think that not distinguishing between undergraduate and post-graduate education confuses things. Obama matriculated from Columbia. Gerald Ford was one of the best linebackers that Michigan ever had. Bill Clinton matriculated from Georgetown, a Catholic university.

One little curiosity: Herbert Hoover was part of the first class to graduate from Stanford.

Jimbino May 12, 2014 at 6:31 pm

Jimmy Carter was also the first President to have been circumcised, seeing that none were either Jews or Muslims, and Jimmy was the first to have been born in a hospital.

Ane the sexual mutilation of atheist babies continues apace.

... May 12, 2014 at 6:40 pm

Drew, from the timeyou set out on that path until now the world has changed, and changed again. And while you’ve done well, you aren’t a big time player.

Meanwhile, Chelsea Clinton managed to walk into a firm taking on the job of sifting out bargains in distressed securities. Check her educational background and tell me she was qualified.

Some do manage to work their way in (someone with whom I went to grad school is now a VEEP at Goldman-Sachs), it’s much better to start with connections. Chelsea will be allowed to be completely underwhelming at everything she does before getting elected Senator. At the worst she will get to be a Lt. Governor and ambassador.

Connections matter more everyday, ability and accomplishments less every day.

steve May 12, 2014 at 8:09 pm

It is not just status, it is also connections, with fellow students and with profs. Note that the elite school does not guarantee success, but it does guarantee that you get in the door. Be honest Drew. Do you get into PE where you did if you went to the U of Montana?

I would also dispute that where you get educated does not matter. I certainly see it in the quality of docs where I work. You could certainly see it when I was a resident in the performance of where people went to med school. At the undergrad level, I think you see the difference in the average student. I suspect that the top performer at a good 2nd tier school is probably going to match up well with one from a top tier school. (Note that all of Drew’s guys who did well are from good 2nd, almost first tier schools.) I doubt very much that students from lower tier schools will match up well at all.

Just FTR, there is no evidence that charter schools improve outcomes. Babble about choice all you want, all it does is change the populations in schools and the same kids perform just as badly.


PD Shaw May 13, 2014 at 9:04 am

@Dave, I don’t know that I disagree with your premise, I just don’t think that the private/public university distinction shows an accurate picture. I cannot see Reagan as having an elite education; he went to a small private college on a football scholarship.

But of the fourteen Harvard/Yale/Princeton graduates, seven were President before FDR. Starting with FDR, over half of the Presidents graduated from one of these three schools. It would also probably be worthwhile to look at the runners-up, like Dukakis, Gore, Kerry, and Romney. (But then you add people like Dole and McCain).

PD Shaw May 13, 2014 at 9:14 am

I still think the drop in military background has a relationship to the rise in educational elitism. From William Henry Harrison to Theodore Roosevelt, every POTUS had some military background except Grover Cleveland. This was also a period of lower college attainment.

Guarneri May 13, 2014 at 1:06 pm


You presume that being a “big time player” was a goal. “Big Time” hedge fund managers is a different world. One I’m not suited to nor aspire to. You can make more money, but you do less good, in my humble opinion. We are the “Bain of the Lower Middle Market.” I’m quite comfortable in the world I chose, and the results.

“Be honest Drew. Do you get into PE where you did if you went to the U of Montana?”

I got into PE because I set my jaw. One of my favorite throw-away lines when sitting in front of a business owner in, oh, Newton, IA as we do the “tell me about yourself” stuff and they look at me quizzically (sometimes incredulously) is “don’t all Purdue metallurgists end up into private equity after working in a steel mill?” Hardy-har-har.

You just need a toe-hold. Be it Montana, Lehigh, IU etc. The undergrad institutions in our firm include(d) Purdue, Indiana, Allegheny, Villanova, Virginia, Stanford, SUNY, Rensselaer, Boston U and SHK. After that, its on you: Subsequent job sequence, further education (we have Harvard, Columbia x 3, Chicago, NYU….) work ethic, risk tolerance, realizing your true talent. Not 1 in a thousand realize that. Easier to grouse about not being a member of the Lucky Sperm Club.

... May 13, 2014 at 1:35 pm

And there it is, another Republican stating that the reason the economy sucks is because of lazy unemployed people.

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