Old Article, Interesting Point

Where Did Our Heroes and Heroines Go to College?
By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 7, 2002; 9:52 AM


Didn’t get into Princeton? Poor baby. Wait-listed at Stanford, Williams and Rice? Big deal.

Having shown the appropriate amount of sympathy for the tragic injustice of the selective admissions system, let me suggest a way for everybody to get over it. Think about this: where did our heroes go to college?

Let us assume, as many of us do, that we want our years on this planet to have meaning. We want to save lives, create new things, add value to our society. In other words, we want to be admired. That is hard to do. What college do you go to for that? Where did the people we look up to get their degrees?

Let’s examine the resumes of our business and government leaders. (Okay, they have their flaws, but we are just getting started.)

Flip through the 2002 Almanac of American Politics and note the alma maters of the people we have chosen to lead us. Here are the colleges attended by the first 25 governors listed: Alabama, Yale, Kansas, Ouachita Baptist, Stanford, Austin State, Villanova, no college (Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner is a high school dropout who got her GED), Texas, Georgia, Berkeley, Idaho, Ferris State, Indiana, Hamilton, Kansas Wesleyan, Kentucky, LSU, Dartmouth, Florida State, Trinity, Michigan State, North Hennepin Community College (you guessed it–the wrestler), Mississippi and Southwest Missouri State.

Try the senior U.S. senators of the other 25 states, starting in the back of the book and going forward: Wyoming, Wisconsin, Salem, Washington State, Washington & Lee, St. Michael’s, BYU, Georgia, Memphis State, South Dakota State, Clemson, West Point, Penn, Stanford, Oklahoma State, Miami of Ohio, Stanford, Wingate, Harvard, New Mexico, Rutgers, Lafayette, Utah State, Nebraska and Stanford.

Or how about the colleges of the chief executive officers of the top ten Fortune 500 companies? Here is what they were in the spring of 2001, starting at the top: Duke, Pittsburg (Kan.) State, Wisconsin, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, Cornell, Miami of Ohio, Institute of Chartered Accountants (Australia) and UC-Berkeley. Our most powerful journalists, the network news anchors, went to these institutions–Sam Houston State (Dan Rather), South Dakota (Tom Brokaw) and Peter Jennings, one of the most knowledgeable people in the business, went to . . . well, how intriguing—Jennings is a high school dropout.

Get the picture? There are not many Ivies in this bunch. As for U.S. presidents, the College of William and Mary likes to claim Thomas Jefferson and Harvard takes credit for the Adamses, but that was a different era–no SATs, no waiting lists, essentially open admission for anybody who could afford to sell a cow to pay the bill.

The last three presidents have been brand-name products, the Bushes of Yale and Georgetown grad Bill Clinton. In my lifetime we have also had two presidents from Harvard and one each from Michigan, West Point and Annapolis. But there have also been presidents from Southwest Texas State Teachers College, Whittier College, Eureka College and one, Harry Truman, who never got beyond high school. The list of governors and senators above suggests we will have more people in the Oval Office from schools you never heard of.

This exercise is more for parents than students. Whatever disappointment American adolescents feel at being stiffed by well-known colleges evaporates the minute they arrive at their new schools and find them throbbing with intellectual adventures, interesting parties and romance.

They too, like their parents, will eventually look back and realize the people who made the biggest impact on our lives were far more likely to go to a no-name school, or no school at all.

Whom do we admire? I start with my parents. They both went to two-year Long Beach (Calif.) City College. My mother later graduated from UCLA but my father, a deep reader of history and a great wit, did not get a four-year degree.

Among the famous, here are six people I admire: Martin Luther King, Jaime Escalante, Katharine M. Graham, Billie Jean King, William J. Bennett and Richard W. Riley. Nobel laureate King went to Morehouse, publisher Graham to Vassar and the University of Chicago and former Education Secretary Bennett to Williams, all brand-name schools. But Escalante, the calculus teacher, and King, the tennis star, made do with degrees from California State University-Los Angeles. (Escalante earlier graduated from Normal Superior in La Paz, but the credits did not count in the United States.) Riley, the former South Carolina governor and Education Secretary, graduated from Furman University.

That is just my list, a small, skewed sample. So I asked friends and relatives for their selections. Here are the names in alphabetical order, indicating perhaps a broader (to say the least) definition of heroism than I would subscribe to, but I promised not to censor them: Muhammad Ali, Karen Allen, Luis Alvarez, Warren Buffett, Ken Burns, Bill Cosby, Bob Costas, Emily Dickinson, Don DeLillo, Richard Feynman, Bill Gates, Rudy Giuliani, Lee Iacocca, Steve Jobs, Garrison Keillor, Sarah McLachlan, Bette Midler, Julia Morgan, Al Neuharth, Sarah Jessica Parker, Abe Pollin, Colin Powell, Anne Rice, Dot Richardson, Julian Simon, Ted Turner, Kevin Williamson, Oprah Winfrey, Henry Winkler and Tiger Woods. That’s 30 names. I would say 10 of them attended the sort of selective schools we are talking about: software magnate Gates (Harvard), golfer Woods (Stanford), poet Dickinson (Mount Holyoke), economist Simon (Harvard), physicist Feynman (MIT), softball star Richardson (UCLA), physicist Alvarez (U. of Chicago), computer magnate Jobs (Reed), architect Morgan (Berkeley) and media magnate Turner (Brown). But I find it interesting that so many of them either dropped out (Gates, Woods and Dickinson) or were kicked out (Turner–twice!).

Some, such as actor Parker, boxer Ali and singer McLachlan, did not attend college. The rest went to less celebrated schools: Fashion Institute of Technology (actor Allen), Nebraska-Lincoln (tycoon Buffett), Hampshire (filmmaker Burns), Temple (comedian Cosby), Syracuse (sportscaster Costas), Fordham (novelist DeLillo), Manhattan (former mayor Giuliani), Lehigh (carmaker Iacocca), Minnesota (humorist Keillor), Hawaii (singer Midler), South Dakota (newspaper publisher Neuharth), George Washington (Washington Wizards owner Pollin), CCNY (Secretary of State Powell), San Francisco State (novelist Rice), East Carolina (screenwriter/producer Williamson), Tennessee State (talk show host Winfrey) and Emerson (actor Winkler).

No one is quite sure where greatness comes from. But I think we can agree that it does not have much to do with the name of the college on top of the person’s diploma. See for yourself. Go to google.com, type in your hero’s name plus the world “biography”, hit enter and the collegiate portion of the person’s past will be revealed.

I like the way Nicholas Lemann handles this issue in his book, “The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy.” He calls people who go to the best-known schools the American Mandarins. They have their place in our society, mostly as technicians and consultants and skilled professionals. They are very good at discerning the rules and carrying out their assignments. The people who make a difference, who create new companies or change minds or establish trends, Lemann calls the Talents. They don’t need a high SAT score, really good extracurricular activities and a dynamite application essay to make their mark.

So relax. Be happy at your chance to spend four years at any college, soaking up the wisdom of the world and deciding what kind of life you want. A few of you are destined to be heroes, and the qualities that will make you so are already in your possession.

I realize that I have failed, as some friends have noted, to explore the obvious corollary to heroes in school, that is, identifying the many loathsome people who have attended some of our best colleges.

It is a tempting suggestion. I take a quick stab at it in our attached quiz. But I think I will leave a more detailed list for another day, at least until after I talk to our lawyers.

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