NYT - judith warner
March 12, 2009, 9:00 pm
Better and Brighter
Over the course of the past week or so, while I was interviewing child psychiatrists about the exciting new field of developmental neuroscience, the phrase “the best and the brightest” came up twice.
As in “I hope the brightest and the best kids will be doing this” — instead of going to work on Wall Street.
The first time I heard it, I didn’t say anything. I was laboring too intensely to keep up with phrases like “single nucleotide polymorphism.” But the second time, I was able to pause in note taking long enough to grouse, “I never had the impression that the best and brightest people went to Wall Street.”
“Maybe not in your day,” came the reply. “But in recent years they have.”
Let’s leave aside for a moment the concept that I could be old enough to have a “day” dating back to sometime in prehistory. And return to that phrase “the best and the brightest,” which got a great deal of airing last month when the Obama administration made the shocking decision to place limits on the compensation packages of executives whose banks received federal bailout funds.
A nice triple usage by Forbes.com columnist Susan Lee, in a piece on the proposed $500,000 compensation cap for top management, was typical: “This produced outraged shrieks from Wall Street that any pay cut would cause the best and brightest to head for the exits,” she wrote. “… But the big flaw here is that the best and brightest have nowhere to go … unless the best and the brightest want jobs as home-care attendants or third-grade teachers, there’s no place to jump.”
When was it, exactly, that the titans of Wall Street, among their many other perks and privileges, got to be crowned with the title of “best and brightest”?
Certainly not in the early 19th century, when Percy Bysshe Shelley, in his love poem “The Invitation,” called, “Best and brightest, come away!” Nor in the early 20th century, when “The Education of Henry Adams” featured a sad, exalted tribute to the geologist Clarence King as the “best and brightest man of his generation.”
The ability to make big bucks wasn’t the chief characteristic of the “best and brightest,” “each new man more brilliant than the last,” whom David Halberstam described in the 1972 book that brought the phrase into our common parlance. His “best and brightest” were ultimately no better than ours; their “arrogance and hubris” led us into the debacle of Vietnam. But they did at least embody a different order of aspiration. They “wrote books and won prizes (even the president had won a Pulitzer prize), climbed mountains to clear their minds. Many of them read poetry and some were said to be able to quote it.”
And this image of best and brightness — however ironic, however laced with foreshadowing of deserved downfall — was, says Susan Jacoby, the author, most recently, of “The Age of American Unreason,” a best-selling account of contemporary anti-intellectualism, the sense that endured behind the phrase for decades. Until this last boom cycle — that irrational bubble-world of the late 1990s and beyond — stamped its values upon every aspect of our world, right down to the language we use to talk about it.
“The best and the brightest meant the people who were supposed to be the smartest, not who made the most money,” she told me this week. “This application in the last few years of the phrase to anyone who’s made a pile of money on Wall Street shows a real degradation of the culture. It’s part of the dumbing down of language as well as culture. It shows a real real dumbing down of everything.”
Even back in the 1980s (“my” day), when greed ostensibly was good, there was still a sense that the best and the brightest didn’t go to Wall Street. Lots of people did want to go, of course — there was a palpable thrill in the air when the investment banks came to recruit on campus — but I never had the impression that anyone was under the illusion that what was on offer was anything other than filthy lucre. You took it or you left it. But you didn’t go to Wall Street under cover of greatness. The whole culture hadn’t yet normalized the value system of men like the reptilian antihero Gordon Gekko. Tom Wolfe’s Masters of the Universe were hardly meant to be admired.
Now that we’ve reached what is almost universally being hailed as a necessary moment of reckoning, I wonder if it’s conceivable that -– along with the revolution in not-shopping that’s sweeping our nation -– we might see a much-needed rehabilitation of the very notion of the “best and the brightest.” Perhaps now, as the great questions begin on Where We Go Next — will our children save their tea bags? Will socialites re-wear their party dresses? — there will be room for a re-evaluation of what really goes into being “bright” and being “the best.”
Maybe it will be discovered that some of the best and the brightest are already teaching third grade and providing low-paying, low-glory health care services. Maybe the definition of the term will come to depend less on money and power, and more on service, ideals, even character. Perhaps there will be an honest accounting of what drives a life devoted to wealth-making.
And maybe — if things work out for this book-writing president and his coterie of brilliant advisers — people might even start to see intellectuals as good, and bright, without irony.