Los Angeles Times

Suddenly, ‘I flunked’ is a ticket to success

High SATs and straight A’s increasing­ly signify privilege, not achievemen­t.


Jackie Goldberg, the president of the Los Angeles Unified School Board, said publicly last month that she was so turned off by high school that she nearly quit after 11th grade to take her GED, rather than stick around for a diploma.

Rich Leib, the chair 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 subject tests in math and English. That, along with his less-than-50th-percentile score on the general SAT, helped lead to his rejection by UC Berkeley, he said.

In January, Gov. Gavin Newsom described himself as an unhappy elementary school student: “I couldn’t read, and I was looking for any way to ditch classes. I’d fake stomachach­es and dizziness.”

Even President Biden has acknowledg­ed that he “did not do very well” in college, mustering only a 1.9 grade point average at the University of Delaware.

What’s with all these admissions by public officials about how awful school was and how badly they did? What happened to flaunting whatever educationa­l credential­s you have, and putting your best academic foot forward? Is Rep. George Santos (R-N.Y.) the only public figure left who bothers to lie about his educationa­l record?

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

And back in 1987, long before acknowledg­ing that he “did not do very well” in school, Joe Biden tried to claim exactly the opposite. He told reporters, among other exaggerati­ons, that he’d graduated in the top half of his law school class — only to backpedal madly when it turned out he’d graduated 76th out of 85 in his class. “My recollecti­on on this was inaccurate,” he confessed.

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

Something is 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 seeking to pass themselves off as relatable, ordinary Joes. I suspect there’s some of that with Newsom, who’s long been tagged as an affluent guy born with countless advantages. He’s been seeking recently to recast that narrative by showing that not everything came easily to him, including school.

In other cases, it is probably less cynically calculatin­g. I believe Jackie Goldberg and Rich Leib are honestly trying to find ways to connect with the students they serve, using their own background­s to make the point that kids facing obstacles in school can overcome them. That’s a valuable message.

But I’d argue that there’s something more at work here, a growing sense that the old markers of achievemen­t may not be as significan­t as we thought they were. Suddenly, academic prowess — such as graduating at the top of your class, doing well on standardiz­ed tests and going to an Ivy League college — are being viewed less as signs of accomplish­ment and more as indication­s of privilege.

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

But Americans are realizing that’s not always the case. The playing field just isn’t level.

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

In “The Tyranny of Merit,” Harvard political philosophy professor Michael Sandel argued that the myth of American meritocrac­y and what he terms “credential­ism” have been proved false, and that they’re unfair to boot.

Today, many Americans understand­ably believe that the system is rigged. That standardiz­ed tests are biased. That elite schools are — elitist. That public schools have too often been allowed to deteriorat­e and public colleges to be underfunde­d. That people with money can buy the credential­s they need, “Varsity Blues”-style.

It’s absolutely right to see structural racism in the fact that affirmativ­e action remains fiercely controvers­ial while wealthy students are admitted as “legacies” or because their parents shelled out donations.

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

It’s healthy if our leaders are honest about all their experience­s of school, and don’t merely recite their achievemen­ts. Expect to hear more in the years ahead about the difficulti­es and indignitie­s they faced.

But not from one notable abstainer, former President Trump, that self-described “very stable genius.” In 2015, according to his former lawyer Michael Cohen, Trump threatened legal action against his high school, college and the College Board if any of them released his grades or SAT scores.

Even in an era when academic struggle has become discussabl­e, he must feel he’s still got something to hide.

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