Andrew Ferguson's witty and wistful new memoir, Crazy U: One Dad's Crash Course in Getting His Kid into College, stands in obvious contrast to Amy Chua's bumptious bestseller Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Between them, the two books nicely illustrate the stately but steady decline of the white upper middle class, of which Ferguson is a sterling representative, in the face of Asian competition for the commanding heights of American society.
Ferguson's book could be called Wry Observations of the Deer Dad. The gentle satirist comes across as the anti-Chua as he describes what he learned from his family's 18-month struggle with college admissions mania. The fair-minded Ferguson seems observant, skittish, respectful of his son's individuality and preferences, slightly passive, and, in the multi-generational long run, dead meat for the tigers of this world.
Crazy U. is not really a how-to guide. Instead, the questions that interest Ferguson most have less to do with helping his son get ahead than with the Big Picture issues of why getting into college has become so frenzied and whether these changes are good for society.
Chua, on the other hand, just wants her progeny to win.
Granted, the likable Ferguson had plenty of resources with which to pull strings if he thought that was sporting. He's had a long career in Washington, including a stint as a speechwriter for George H.W. Bush. Crazy U. comes with blurbs from a Murderer's Row line-up of old white guy bestselling authors: Tom Wolfe, P.J. O'Rourke, Christopher Buckley, William Bennett, and Christopher Hitchens.
Ferguson is a "writer's writer", more admired by his peers in the magazine trade for his understated prose style (like that of an upscale Dave Barry) than recognized by the public. He's an unobtrusive soul happier observing his fellow man than promoting his own image. Although I've read scores of articles by Ferguson over the years, the line by him that I remember best is from the opening page of P.J. O'Rourke's 1991 book Parliament of Whores:
" 'How come,' I asked Andy, 'whenever something upsets the Left, you see immediate marches and parades and rallies with signs already printed and rhyming slogans already composed, whereas whenever something upsets the Right, you see two members of the Young Americans for Freedom waving a six-inch American flag?'
It's telling that Ferguson's most mordant line is in O'Rourke's book. In his own writing, Ferguson lacks the reductionist urge to boil a bad idea down to its absurd essence. He's a little too nice to be a great satirist and not quite cynical enough to be a great analyst.
Chua complains, with some justice:
"All these Western parents with the same party line about what's good for children and what's not … They're not questioning anything, either, which is what Westerners are supposed to be so good at doing."
Ferguson, however, does question the rules of the game. For example, why do parents obsess over how to get their child into a prestigious college but not over what their scion will (or won't) learn there? Colleges are ranked on the test scores their students earned in high school, not on how much they learn in college. Is college mostly now an expensive signaling device for IQ and work ethic? The answers Ferguson comes up with won't be terribly novel to readers of this column, but they're sensible.
Like Barry Obama, Ferguson got into Occidental College in Los Angeles in the 1970s. He's nostalgic for the less pressurized world in which he grew up. But he doesn't notice all the causes of today's crush of competition, such as:
The rise of Wall Street since 1982, which has made the economy, and thus college admissions, more winner-take-all.
Globalization / immigration bringing in vast numbers of smart Asian students.
However, Ferguson's lack of self-centeredness makes him ideal for describing the weird cult of today's college application's "Me Essay."
The spread of the web-based Common Application has made it easy for kids to apply to dozens of colleges. So colleges have tried to winnow out the looky-loos by demanding ever more supplementary essays specific to each college. That's sensible supply-and-demand thinking, but the essays' topics—or, to be accurate, topic— is always: Write about … Me! Once in college, you are graded on writing about what you've learned. But to get in, you must first expound in the approved manner on your innermost feelings, something difficult for teenagers with healthy levels of self-consciousness and self-respect. Ferguson asks:
"I'd interviewed a dozen admissions professionals who slagged the SAT, looked for ways to expel it from the process altogether, on the grounds that it couldn't accurately measure qualities that might make a kid a successful college student. But what qualities does the Me Essay measure?"
"Narcissism, exhibitionism, Uriah Heepish insincerity, and the unwholesome thrill that some people get from gyrating before strangers. Which of these traits, I wondered, predicted scholarly aptitude or academic success?"
Not surprisingly, the Me Essays encourages embroidery:
"If you're uncomfortable writing about your inner life, and if your outer life has been happy and free of character-forming catastrophe … then you've got one option: make it up. … You can bend your life into a dramatic arc that it's never had, in a voice that isn't yours."
Or, of course, you can just pay somebody to concoct your inner self for you. Last week, I heard from one tiger mom who attributed her daughter's success in getting accepted by famous colleges to the $1,500 she paid a consultant to more or less write her daughter's essay about the Real Me.
But, $1,500 is nothing compared to what I heard last spring from a Harvard man with some old money who wants his son to follow in his footsteps:
Him: I made some calls. I found out the Harvard Number.
Me: What's "the Harvard Number?"
Him: It's how much you have to donate to Harvard to get your kid off the waiting list and into Harvard.
Me: You can do that?
Him: Yeah, but it costs five million,
Me: Five million dollars? Who can pay five million?
Him: Hedge fund guys. They ruin things for everybody.
But if American colleges reward shamelessness, who is to say they are wrong? They certainly haven't been shown to be going down the wrong path, at least not in the terms that matter most to these institutions: the perpetuation and exaltation of their own power and prestige.
Getting into college may have evolved since the 1970s from a fairly low-key contest of individual academic merit into an absurd test of parents' desperation to do whatever it takes. But, hey, that seems to be working well out for the colleges.
Ferguson attributes the self-absorption of the essay prompts—"Tell us about a moment in your life when you refused to be embarrassed"—to the perkiness of the kind of person who goes into college recruiting: "Admissions people tend to be chipper folk, serotonin-soaked, and caffeinated from birth, and they assume that every high school senior should be too."
There's something to this. Midcentury humorist Richard Armour once joked that the Admissions Office is in charge of admitting the college's mistakes. Ironically, Admissions departments tend to be staffed by their own errors: young alumni whose main accomplishment in life has turned out to be getting into the college they now work for. Recruiting pays poorly relative to the travel required, so the job tends to be filled by the college's grads who couldn't get better jobs elsewhere.
Admissions staffers are compensated in part with their power to pick applicants who remind them of themselves. Thus, the recent finding that applicants who have showed leadership accomplishments in socially or politically conservative extracurricular organizations—especially ones that aren't likely to lead to highly paid careers, such JROTC or FFA—are often discriminated against.
Yet, there are, at least occasionally, some brains behind admissions. After all, somebody must be doing something smart. One possibility is that demanding verbal braggadocio gives a leg up to blacks (and, for that matter, to whites) over the Asian tiger cubs. Perhaps the tigers don't donate much?
Ferguson is reticent to the point of tedium on the topic of "diversity"—which, of course, obsesses admissions officers. There's plenty of opportunity for comedy there, but Ferguson will only handle race gingerly. Indeed, judging from the names in his Acknowledgments of the other parents he obsessed over college admissions with, he doesn't appear to socialize much with Tiger Parents—who are more likely to be frank than are nice white people. High-end journalism is overwhelmingly a white business, with a few Asians and Indians, so it is increasingly out of touch with what's going on in America.
I don't think it's just the career self-preservation gene, though. Ferguson is always dull on race. For example, Ferguson's 2007 review of the literary oeuvre of Barack Obama in the Weekly Standard climaxed with the complaint that:
"Even now some reviewers and critics insist that Dreams [from My Father] is essentially a racial memoir. And it is, I guess, in the sense that Anna Karenina is a meditation on the power of locomotives in czarist Russia." [The Literary Obama, February 12, 2007]
Obviously, a book subtitled A Story of Race and Inheritance isn't really a story of race and inheritance.
Contrast how much brilliant fun Tom Wolfe has had with race going back four decades to Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers versus how little Ferguson has had more recently. Differences in family background suggest themselves as causes.
Wolfe is an unapologetic son of the South, while Ferguson is from the Land of Lincoln, as he entitled his 2007 book about the Great Emancipator. Indeed, Ferguson's father was a lawyer with the suburban Chicago firm of Isham, Lincoln & Beale, founded by Robert Todd Lincoln, the President's son.
When it comes to race, Ferguson is an old-fashioned liberal Republican, high-minded to the point of obliviousness. For instance, in the March 28, 2011 issue of the Weekly Standard, Ferguson writes in The Quotas Everyone Ignores: Why Universities Are Quietly Favoring White Males Once Again:
"Anyone who clings to a belief in the inevitability of human progress might want to contemplate the latest trend in college admissions. After a half-century of battles over racial and gender preferences for URMs (admissions-speak for 'underrepresented minorities,' a term that has traditionally comprised nearly anyone who isn't a white male), colleges and universities have boldly embarked on a policy of affirmative action preferences for... white males. It's like old times."
Ferguson is puzzled why almost nobody objects to this trend. Ironically, although he likes to think of himself as urbane and world-weary, he really doesn't get why liberal colleges would do such a thing. That's because he only vaguely recognizes how financially dependent universities, those juggernauts of liberalism, are upon admitting enough white male conservatives to eventually become wealthy alumni donors.
Unpublished statistical analyses by colleges have revealed that their most generous graduates tend to be competitive white males with team spirit and loyalty—in short, nature's conservatives. From an admissions standpoint, the most likely future donors are smart white legacy jocks.
USC, for instance, last month announced a $200,000,000 donation from an old shotputter whose parents were also USC grads. David Dornsife, Class of '65, majored in business while on the national champion USC track & field team, then made a fortune in the steel fabrication business in Fresno. I don't know anything about Mr. Dornsife's political or social views, but I'll bet that they are more conservative than those of the average USC professor.
Perhaps we need a campaign to raise awareness. Andy Ferguson, however, certainly isn't going to lead it.
[Steve Sailer (email him) is movie critic for The American Conservative. His website www.iSteve.blogspot.com features his daily blog. His new book, AMERICA'S HALF-BLOOD PRINCE: BARACK OBAMA'S "STORY OF RACE AND INHERITANCE", is available here.]