Andrew Ferguson`s witty and wistful new
memoir, Crazy U:
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
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
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.
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
Ferguson is a
"writer`s writer", more admired by his peers in the
magazine trade for his understated prose style (like that of
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
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.
complains, with some justice:
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
the test scores their students earned in high school,
not on how much they
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
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:
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.
Ferguson`s lack of self-centeredness makes him ideal for
describing the weird cult of today`s college application`s
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
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
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
surprisingly, the Me Essays encourages embroidery:
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."
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.
$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:
I made some calls. I found out the Harvard Number.
"the Harvard Number?"
It`s how much you have to donate to Harvard to get your kid
off the waiting list and into Harvard.
You can do that?
Yeah, but it costs five million,
Five million dollars? Who can pay five million?
Hedge fund guys. They ruin things for everybody.
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
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:
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
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
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
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
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:
now some reviewers and critics insist that
My Father] is essentially a racial memoir. And it is, I guess, in the sense that
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
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.
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
admitting enough white male conservatives to eventually
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.
instance, last month announced a $200,000,000 donation from
an old shotputter whose parents were also USC grads.
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
are more conservative than those of the average
Perhaps we need a campaign to
raise awareness. Andy Ferguson, however, certainly isn`t
going to lead it.