When I began law school, I learned that the consensus in the student body was that the most important criteria for success in finding desirable and lucrative employment upon graduation was, not necessarily absolute GPA, but class rank. Soon after the first semester grades and class rank were posted, there were those students who consoled themselves with the aphorism that “A students become law professors, B students become judges, and C students become rich.” Or, the student who graduates last in his class is called a lawyer. I later discovered that, while it is true that ranking at or near the top is helpful for new lawyers’ prospects for their first job, or if they ever happen to be nominated for a Federal judgeship (where the nominating President wants to choose as small a target as possible for the opposing party Senators to pick at), actual performance and good old marketing techniques are the principal tickets to success. There is also the occasional lightning strike – Jose Baez is one of the more recent examples – where one has greatness, or at least notoriety, thrust upon him.
The United States Military Academy has made a long tradition of “honoring” the cadet who graduates last in his class. He, and now she (though to my knowledge all so far have been billys), is dubbed the “Goat” and receives one dollar from each classmate, as well as other accolades of a sort. A recent article concerning West Point’s Goat Tradition can be found at this link.
One famous Goat was George Armstrong Custer, who was one of the youngest generals ever in the U. S. Army, later became immortal by being inconveniently killed in battle. Many other well known West Pointers who distinguished themselves both in military and civilian endeavors, however, never reached the top of their class. The top graduates worthy of note were Douglas MacArthur and Robert E. Lee. The jury is still out, perhaps literally given recent events, on David Petreus.
One wonders, however, what the purpose of even humorously celebrating the status of being last in a class. Is it a celebration of mediocrity? Or is it a feel good exercise by those not near the top to show they are better that at least one other? Or is it merely a joke that became a tradition?
All life is a series of successes and stumbles. “Failure” is not used here because I believe that failure only occurs when one quits trying. That belief is one that comes through observation and experience. Here in Texas, an oilfield wildcatter whose initials were D. H., was nicknamed “Dry Hole” because of the number of wells he drilled that produced no oil. He is known today because of the philanthropy enabled by the vast wealth brought to him by his wells that finally did. Using experience in the law practice as an illustration, I have observed that a lawyer who can say he won all of his cases is not Perry Mason, but a newbie who hasn’t tried many. Then there is the saying that success is nothing more than being right more often than you are wrong. And so forth.
The level of one’s success in school, generally attained at an early age and in relative comfort, is a rather silly way to continue to judge his competence and ability throughout life. Some of the most useful, as well as unforgettable lessons are learned from missteps at the College of Hard Knocks and Screw U. Sometimes these lessons are not learned until well into adulthood. There one gets to see how things really work.
France has an interesting system of selecting its leaders in business, government, and military. Author Polly Platt (French or Foe (3rd Ed. 2004)), who has observed the French system first hand, relates that success in that country depends upon whether one gets into one of the premier schools, called Grand Ecoles, and graduates among the top ten percent. The grandest of the Grand is the Ecole Polytechnique, founded by Napoleon Bonaparte and is kind of an MIT and West Point rolled into one. Known in that country simply as “X” its graduates have it made from day one. A degree from it, as well as other ecoles, is a long range missile, unless a mishap, carries one through to retirement (est une fusee longue portee qui, sauf accident, vous propulse jusqu’a la retraite), says Platt, quoting one Alain Peyrefitte, a French academic. Nearly any shortcoming, or faux pas less than a debacle, is trumped by that status. When a Frenchman asks about another “What has he done?” He’s not asking what jobs he has had or what he has accomplished in his career, he is asking about his Ecole and class standing, Platt relates. She opines this part of the culture is a lingering by-product of the French Revolution. “Despite all the signing and banner waving about élgalité the revolutionaries recognized that while you could give the vote to everyone (everyone being males), some people are going to be more equal that others. So they aimed at a different basis for inequality than birth. But based on what? Money? Property? Horrors. Physical appearance? Worse? What’s left? Intelligence.” Or at least testable cognitive facility. Of course, the top ten percent of X, or all of the Grand Ecoles together, probably translates into far fewer than one percent of the country’s population. If high academic standing ipso facto gives access to power, then high income and wealth surely follow. Thus, the neo-aristocracy. I can see tears running down Marianne’s bare breasts.
Platt relates an encounter she had with an expatriate Frenchman who was top graduate of the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussees, prestigious, but not quite at the level of X. When she asked what he was doing working in the U.S. rather than running his native country, he explained that he didn’t get into X, so he had no chance of rising to the top of a significant firm or government ministry in France. He “decided that a country with this absurd system of deciding a man’s whole future on the basis of an exam he takes at the age of 21 was not a country [he] wanted to live in.” An American, at least for now anyway, can hardly fail to see his point. Furthermore, I have it on good authority that in France, the possibility of starting a business from scratch at a young age, build it to the point of being able to sell it, and then comfortably retire on the proceeds, is regarded as impossible. For the time being anyway, that happens every day here, and at various levels.
Will that kind of opportunity continue? The assumption that those who have the cognitive ability to solve esoteric mathematical problems should run a nation, or anything other than their own business has troubled some thinkers. Charles Murray, who wrote The Bell Curve, for which the left in American academia (which is most of them) would have burned him at the stake or at least tarred and feathered had they half the chance, sees a trend in the U.S. toward that mindset. No doubt that brainpower is a significant resource. Even more valuable resources. However, are persistence, tolerance for risk taking, and that recently discovered quality called emotional intelligence. It’s great to have a bright fellow who can multiply two five-figure numbers in his head rapidly (I once read somewhere that Adolf Hitler could do that), but persistence wins out. Albert Einstein came up with the theoretical basis for nuclear weapons, but never made one, while Thomas Edison probably received more patents and any other individual for useful products we still use (with refinements, of course) today as a result of his genius which he called 2% inspiration and 98% perspiration. Back to the military example, West Point middle of his class Ulysses Grant defeated top graduate Robert E. Lee, and George Washington didn’t win our independence by brilliant analysis, but by persistence and never admitting defeat. Middle of the class Ike defeated Hitler. Douglas MacArthur, who had a respectable career, ultimately succumbed to the disease that fells so many brilliant minds, including the founder of X – hubris.
Getting back to goats, I have always heard that they are hardy, nimble, and sure-footed creatures. They are able to navigate rough and unfamiliar terrain, and are good pack animals. Seems like they are rather useful fellows to have around.
So let’s not worry about equality, of the lack of it. There can be no such thing, except as before the law and government. The best thing we have going for us is a constitutional system that permits individuals to succeed or fail, spectacularly or just fair to middling, but gives no special favors or status by virtue of the circumstances of one’s birth – or the results of an examination they took at age 21.