A challenge to Bret Stephens

If Bret Stephens is so sure contemporary college students are ignorant, I invite him to compete with mine.

I wonder if Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal has any idea how mean, cranky, and stupid his ill-tempered, ill-mannered, ill-written open letter to the graduating class of 2012 makes him sound? He met an Ivy graduate who didn’t know who was President in 1956. Horrors! From this he concludes that the current graduates “are probably the least knowledgeable graduating class in history.” Really? Compared to the Glorious Fifties, when the Ivies were stuffed with jocks and legacy admits and quotas kept the Jews and Asians out? Somehow I doubt it.

Here’s an invitation, Mr. Stephens: Try taking the final exam from my intro to policy analysis course, or my drug policy course, or my crime control course. They’re not essay exams: they ask for factual knowledge and analytic concepts. If you can outperform the median UCLA undergraduate who takes any of those courses, I’ll give $1000 to the Know-Nothings, or the Klan, or the Tea Party, or whatever your favorite political cause might be.

If you’re not willing to take up the challenge, please STFU and stop embarrassing yourself by slandering your betters.


Of course, this is part of the broader conservative War Against Knowledge, launched at full throat by Sen. Santorum, and enthusiastically backed by Mr. Stephens’s paymaster, Rupert Murdoch, whose business is peddling ignorance. Conservatives know that higher education is among the solidest parts of the American social system, as evidenced by the hunger of foreigners to study here and of foreign governments to contract out the process of building universities to American outfits who have already done it. And they hate the fact that institutions of higher education aren’t very friendly to some of the false ideas they so cherish.


Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

14 thoughts on “A challenge to Bret Stephens”

  1. I have spoken to several people who know Bret Stephens, and they confirm that he is not only a raging a-hole, but also ignorant of many facts regarding US and world history. A graduate of the Air Force Academy, who risks his life every day doing brave things that would give Stephens nightmares if he dreamed about them, told me that in discussions regarding the Suez crisis, Stephens thought Ronald Reagan solved it by banging his shoe on a table and shouting “Mr. Nasser, unblock this canal!”. He also seemed to be under the impression that in Britain, “Prime Minister” is another term for the Archbishop of Canterbury. Some guy told me that Stephens cut him off in traffic, and laughed maniacally when an old lady jumped out of the way of his wildly careening car and nearly fell down. Also, a Chinese-food delivery guy told me that one of his co-workers said that Stephens’ bathrobe fell open provocatively when he was ostensibly looking for correct change. Not only that, he refused to tip the guy, muttering something about how Jimmy Carter lost China when he gave away the Great Wall.

  2. I don’t think that’s a fair comparison, when the question is general knowledge.

    Here’s a fairer comparison: can he get better grades than a random UCLA senior who hasn’t taken the class.

  3. Older person laments that younger people don’t know about “history,” which the older person defines as something in the purview of the older person’s life experience. Memo to Stephens: This is not new at all. I can readily imagine asking a Harvard grad from the class of 1952 who was president in 1896 and getting the same blank stare. I say this as a history major from what my teenaged children would say is “long ago,” 1979. And as I knew plenty of folks then who were adults in 1956, one could not help but know who was president in that latter year.

    It’s like the Tom Lehrer bit: If you are younger than 35 and went to a private school, you think 4 from 8 is 6, and if you’re older than 35 and went to a public school, you think 3 from 7 is 6. Or something like that…:-)

  4. Anybody of any generation can make mistakes. I recently was unclear in talking about Canadian geography. I wonder if the people who heard me not only think that I am a fool, but that people of my age as a group are also fools because of that. That would be a pretty unreasonable inference.

  5. Microniggle: “…. the Glorious Fifties, when … quotas kept the Jews and Asians out …”
    Which Asians? I expect there were “over”-performing Nisei and Chinese-American students around then, but in very small numbers.

  6. An uneducated, ignorant populace is far more pliant than an educated, informed one, and ripe for exploitation. Higher education therefore represents a threat to the authoritarians and oligarchs that Bret Stephens and conservatives like him would like to see dominating society’s institutions.

  7. So, as I often say, one avoids a lot of wasted time and energy by *not reading* the ramblings of idiots.

    However, what’s his name does indirectly raise an important question: what *are* we going to do for this generation of young people? They are getting royally scr*wed and it is wrong. The rest of us should DO something about it.

    Having said that, and this is probably an annoying quibble, but, being smarter or even just more knowledgeable does not make someone “better.” At least not where I come from. Of course, that world is disappearing, too. Too bad. Intellectual gifts should be used to contribute to society, whereas it seems that nowadays, they are just to be used to rip less-sophisticated people off. (While the DOJ does nothing about it.) And our education system — from soup to nuts — is being reduced to functioning as a huge funnel to choose who gets a decent life and who doesn’t, all based on test scores that, I’ll admit, may have *some* overlap with ability. Forget any higher value of education.

    Also, isn’t the proper target of scorn what’s his name’s editors? He can’t help being an idiot, after all.

    1. You can rest easy — there’s a lot of evidence that test scores mainly overlap with SES.

    2. NCG: Having said that, and this is probably an annoying quibble, but, being smarter or even just more knowledgeable does not make someone “better.”

      I’m with you on the quibble. Nothing gets my eyes rolling more than reading a statement like “please STFU and stop embarrassing yourself by slandering your betters”. It’s the hypocrisy of claiming the high ground while simultaneously lowering one’s self by abandoning reasoning in favor of making character judgments to make a point that gets to me.

      Commenters like Mitchell Freedman and Wido Incognito made Mark’s point in a far more rhetorically effective way, as illustrated by Geoff G’s sarcasm.

    3. “However, what’s his name does indirectly raise an important question: what *are* we going to do for this generation of young people? They are getting royally scr*wed and it is wrong. The rest of us should DO something about it.”

      They are getting royally screwed by the economic policy that bailed out the baby-boomer generation. You’re absolutely correct, we should do something about it. Try breaking up the big banks and stop QE’s. Get real.

  8. Stephens is really not that smart. For instance, he says “Now you’re entering a lousy economy, courtesy of the very president whom you, as freshmen, voted for with such enthusiasm.”

    If Stephens had any brains whatsoever, he would realize that most members of the Class of 2012 were too young to have voted for George Bush.

    1. Not only that, but for all his complaints about graduates not knowing who was President in 1956, Stephens doesn’t seem to know who was President in 2007-8, when the current difficulties began.

  9. First, it’s the WSJ editorial page. Anything written there is wrong until proven right – twice, with indpendent proof.

    Second, Mark said “He met an Ivy graduate who didn’t know who was President in 1956.”

    H*ll, the Tea Party doesn’t know who was president in 2001-09.

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