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Column: Suddenly, ‘I flunked algebra’ is a ticket to success


Jackie Goldberg, the president of the Los Angeles Unified School Board, said publicly last month that she disapproved of high school so much that she almost dropped out after 11th grade to get her GED, instead of sticking around for a diploma.

Rich Leib, the chairman of the UC Board of Regents, recently told a reporter that when he was in high school, he scored in the bottom 2% on his SAT subjects for math and English. That, along with his less than 50th percentile score on the overall SAT, helped lead to his rejection from UC Berkeley, he said.

In January, Governor Gavin Newsom described himself like an unhappy elementary school student: “I couldn’t read and I was looking for a way to get rid of the lessons. I pretended to have a stomach ache and dizziness.”

Even President Biden has acknowledged that he “didn’t do very wellin college, with only a 1.9 grade point average at the University of Delaware.

Opinion columnist

Nicholas Goldberg

Nicholas Goldberg served as editor of the editorial page for 11 years and is a former editor of the Op-Ed page and Sunday Opinion section.

What’s with all the admissions from government officials about how horrible school was and how bad they did? What happened to showing off your educational credentials and putting your best academic foot forward? Is Rep. George Santos (RN.Y.) the only remaining public figure who bothers to lie about his education level?

This willingness to embrace underachievement is relatively recent. Just 20 years ago, when George W. Bush was running for president, it was still embarrassing that he had graduated from Yale with a C grade. a common question during the 2000 campaign, “Is George Bush smart enough to be president?”

And in 1987, long before he acknowledged that he “didn’t do very well” in school, Joe Biden tried to argue the exact opposite. He told reporters, among other exaggerations, that he graduated in the top half of his law school class — only to backwards like crazy when it turned out that he had graduated 76th out of 85 in his class. “My recollection of this was inaccurate,” he confessed.

Today he would have “76th out of 85” at the top of his resume.

There’s something going on in the way we look at merit and achievement, the way we measure success. Being a top student is no longer necessarily a better story to tell than having struggled through school.

In some cases, it may just be pandering by politicians who want to pass themselves off as recognizable, regular Joes. I suspect there is something about Newsom, who has long been labeled as a wealthy man born with countless advantages. He recently tried to reframe that story by showing that not everything came easy for him, including school.

In other cases it is probably less cynically calculating. I believe that Jackie Goldberg and Rich Leib genuinely try to find ways to connect with the students they serve, using their own backgrounds to make it clear that children who face obstacles in school can overcome them. That is a valuable message.

But I’d say there’s more to this, a growing sense that the old indicators of performance may not be as important as we thought they were. Suddenly, academic ability — such as graduating at the top of your class, doing well on standardized tests, and getting into an Ivy League college — are no longer seen as a sign of achievement and more as an indication of privilege.

The United States should be a meritocracy. The story goes that if you work hard and stick to the rules, especially regarding education, you can compete, rise and succeed here. That upward mobility is both possible and admirable.

But Americans realize that’s not always the case. The playing field is just not level.

In the 2020s”The Merit Myth: How Our Colleges Favor the Rich and Divide America,” three education experts argued that America’s top colleges and universities primarily sustain the nation’s elite and benefit students of the top 1% at the expense of the rest.

In “The tyranny of meritMichael Sandel, a professor of political philosophy at Harvard University, argued that the myth of American meritocracy and what he calls “credentialism” has been proven false, as well as unfair.

Today, many Americans understandably believe the system is rigged. That standardized tests are biased. That elite schools – are elitist. That public schools have all too often fallen into disrepair and that public colleges are underfunded. That people with money can buy the credentials they need, “Varsity Blues” style.

It is absolutely correct to see structural racism in the fact that affirmative action remains hotly controversial, while wealthy students are admitted as ‘legacies’ or because their parents have made donations.

All in all, it is good that the country is rethinking what success is, how it is measured, who the gatekeepers are and whether it is really available to all of us. We should rethink the dominance of Ivy League schools, the role of testing, the value of a college education, and the obstacles some students face.

It is healthy for our leaders to be honest about all their school experiences and not just list their achievements. Expect to hear more about the difficulties and humiliations they faced in the years to come.

But not from one notable abstainer, former President Trump, who described himself as a “highly stable genius.” In 2015, according to his former attorney Michael Cohen, Trump threatened legal action against his high school, university and the College Board if any of them released his grades or SAT scores.

Even in an era when academic struggles have become negotiable, he must feel he still has something to hide.


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