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Elena Kagan, Organization Child?

Is Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan the perfect product of what is today’s parenting standard? David Brooks, writing in today’s New York Times, argues the answer is yes. And he is not happy.

David Brooks is, when he is not penning ridiculous odes to our current financial establishment, one of the more surprising critics of current middle class parenting practices out there. His piece for The Atlantic earlier in the decade, The Organization Kid, flagged the rise of the perfect child, the one who from infanthood on is schooled in the achievement culture, progressing from infant class, to perfect and agreeable student with just the right mix of extracurricular activities, seemingly bred for acceptance to the Ivy League, followed by just the right job on Wall Street or in the Washington establishment.

Unfortunately, this child comes with nasty side trait. “If they had any flaw,” Brooks writes today about the students in his original piece, “They often had a professional and strategic attitude toward life.  They were not intellectual risk-takers. They regarded professors as bosses to be pleased rather than authorities to be challenged.”

They are, in short, conformists, people who like to standout from the pack for their work ethic, student smarts and diligence, not their creativity, unconventional opinions or quirky insights.

There is much being made right now by Obama administration opponents of the fact that if Kagan is confirmed, which seems likely, all nine Supreme Court justices will have graduated from Ivy League law schools. While I suspect many of them are seizing on this to continue their never-ending battle with the administration, I confess this does not sit well with me either. It seems to suggest that only a certain sort of person succeeds in life: One is either an Ivy League star or, well, one is not.  This is not the sort of message I care to convey to my children, though, perhaps, it is an accurate one.

In the United States, we like to pride ourselves on our social mobility. That’s a myth. Our own social and economic standing is highly correlated with our family’s status when we were children, much more so than in supposedly hidebound Europe. While selecting a graduate of, say, the University of Texas law school to sit on the court might not have done much to change this fact, it could have sent a message that life is determined by more than where you went to school, and how well you did there.

As for Elena Kagan herself, I have no opinion. Of course, as Brooks points out, how on earth could I? That’s the entire point.

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